Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

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Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

YouTube Preview ImageLet’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

NPR’s All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.

If that’s all you’re looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday.”

As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I’m with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it’s because I had too-high expectations. I’m Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week’s hymn in our house is “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It’s the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week’s was “To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” by Martin Luther, who hasn’t been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.

If you bill your story as “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday,” I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OUR GOD”)

MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger…

FARMER: Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing – yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.

Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we’re told that we’re more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these “charts” that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn’t track these things and I wasn’t terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.

It’s quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana’s piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana’s approach.

Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here’s one perspective:

KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.

FARMER: There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

GETTY: And I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.

Later we’re told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty’s work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:

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