After I covered the empty sweetness of some contemporary Christian music, I got a mix of excellent responses, from specific song recommendations to response essays. Here are three I particularly enjoyed:
In short, all the major hymnbooks of the Churches of Christ tradition have used shape-notes. No matter what Church of Christ you visited, even if you were pulling a different hymnbook from the pew, you were always singing with shape-notes.
To be raised in the Churches of Christ meant a capella singing, and growing up shape-note.
“Thanks to God for My Redeemer”
If you only know this hymn slightly, you probably know it for its rather baroque pairs. We’re to be thankful for prayers answered and requests denied, for pain and for pleasure, for roses and for their thorns. It’s hymnody as chiaroscuro.
For that reason, there are quite a few people for whom this is not a favorite hymn — or, at least, not an easy one to sing with much conviction. Those with a vacant seat at the Thanksgiving table, for example, might resent [A.L.] Storm and [Carl] Backstrom’s sentiments — particularly as they’re carried along [J.A.] Bultman’s rather bouncy melody. So I worry that — relatively easy as my life has been to this point — whatever I say here will sound trite to those in the midst of suffering.
But what I think the hymn actually teaches us here is that the shape of our thanks is not determined by our circumstances, or by our response to them. Thanks are given to the One who — for all people in all situations — is our strength, our rock, our fortress, and (yes) our redeemer: the one who is “worthy to be praised” (Ps 18:1-3).
The best Christian songs are songs of this journey, songs that acknowledge the exilic nature of the Church in the world. Here we have no lasting home, so our hymns can have the timbre of exile—the grief, the anger, the wrestling with God, the joy that is fierce and defiant rather than safe and smiley. Since becoming Catholic, I have had a special affection for the prayer “Hail Holy Queen,” in which we say: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” A touching summary of salvation history that shows us for what we are, children of Eve and soldiers of Christ, living as a people ahead of time in a world of entropy.
One of the biggest gifts a friend of mine has given me is inviting me to her house for a hymn sing. Sarah and Cole traded off turns on the piano while we all sang through hymns one or all of us particularly loved. It’s something I’d like to do again, and I’d definitely recommend to others.
If, like me, you can’t sightread well enough to play accompaniments, just make a spotify or youtube playlist of requested hymns and sing together over the vocals. It’s lovely to be able to pray together this way and to have new hymns to offer back to a friend during times of rejoicing or times of mourning.