Faithful readers of “To Breathe Your Free Air” (hi, Mom!) know that Christian hymns hold a special place here. Hymns connect us who live in the present with those faithful believers in Christ who preceded us in times past. When we sing, for example, the Christmas hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” we are singing a hymn that has been enjoyed by the people of God since it was written in the 5th century by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (d. ~413). It has been sung in English since it was translated by the great hymnographer John Mason Neale in 1854. (One of my favorite hymns translated by Neale is from the 8th century–“Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid.” As a children’s hymn, it is simple, reassuring, and tender–a delight to sing and to ponder.)
Christians are not the only religious people to sing, to be sure. But Christians have always been a singing people. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, taught us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5.18-19). And in singing the great hymns of the faith, we are empowered to fulfill the verse in Hebrews 12.1–“since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Martin Luther, who of course is known as a great reformer and theologian, was also a great musician. He was a prolific hymnographer, his most famous hymn being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Kurt J. Eggert wrote that “Luther thought of music as a truly wonderful, mysterious and powerful gift of God’s creative hand.” He cited a letter Luther wrote to Ludwig Senfl, a Catholic composer, in which he said,
There are, without doubt, in the human heart many seed-grains of virtue which are stirred up by music. All those with whom this is not the case I regard as blockheads and senseless stones. For we know that to the devils music is something altogether hateful and unbearable. I am not ashamed to confess publicly that next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music. For it alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man, which is clear evidence that the devil, the originator of depressing worries and troubled thoughts, flees from the voice of music just as he flees from the words of theology. For this very reason the prophets cultivated no art so much as music in that they attached their theology not to geometry, nor to arithmetic, nor to astronomy, but to music, speaking the truth through psalms and hymns.
My favorite Luther hymn is “From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee,” which is based on Psalm 130. So wonderful and profound.
Of course, not every hymn is faithful or beautiful. Several come to mind. One example of a bad hymn is “Softly and Tenderly.” This hymn is bad because it does not represent Jesus accurately. I know I am treading on thin ice here with some of you. But the hymn presents Jesus as pining for lost sinners and wayward children. While Jesus certainly loves everyone and came to seek and save that which was lost, this is very different from pining for the one who got away, like a spurned lover. Jesus isn’t a loser, holding out his arms weeping for those who will not come. As the Apostle John tells us in John 6.66-67, “many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?'” Contrary to the belief of some, Jesus can definitely live without us.
Worthy hymns are faithful to historic Christian theology. They exalt all three Persons of the Godhead. A good hymn is didactic–it teaches biblical and theological truths. We should learn something about God when we sing a hymn. And a good hymn, while appealing to human emotion, is not driven by emotion. Unfortunately, this is another problem with “Softly and Tenderly,” and it is a problem with a great many hymns of the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, influenced as many of them were by Romanticism and liberal Protestant theology. It is also a nagging problem with so much of what passes as Christian music that has been produced since the 1950s in America.
Well, I could go on and on. Let me close this out by pointing you to an 1846 hymn by Horatius Bonar, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” The lyrics are:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise,
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk,
Till trav’ling days are done.
Here is a video recording of Anthony Way singing. Watch and enjoy.
I’m not old enough to remember rock from the mid-70s (OK, late 70s, yes). But I did love the Styx when I was a teenager in the 80s. “Suite Madame Blue” was one of my favorites. When I was a student at Furman University, I took a course on the US in the 1960s and 70s with Dr. Marian Strobel, a specialist on the period. While studying Watergate and the Vietnam War, “Suite Madame Blue” suddenly became meaningful. I understood what the song was about.
“Suite Madame Blue” is a metaphor for the United States. If you listen to the lyrics, especially at the end, you can hear the poignancy in the song, the nostalgia for an innocence that has been lost. The song reflects a particular introspection, a self-examination, that can be traced back to the Puritan colonists. The song seems to be attempting to say, “Something’s not right here. We’ve betrayed our identity. We need to recover ourselves as a nation.”
National self-examination and self-critique are unique traits of Americans. Americans have long been unsatisfied with their experiment in self government, justice, and faithfulness to the ideals upon which they established their nation. Because America’s founding is on ideas, it has a national conscience, and the voice of that conscience has been heard through spokesmen like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham. I dare say, it can also be heard in the voice of a righteous band from the 70s.
The theology of the Reformation was central to J. S. Bach’s (1685–1750) compositions. Bach was a careful student of Scripture, who at his death owned an ample library made up exclusively of theological books. The music produced by Bach was an expression of his own Christian faith. He made a regular practice, for example, of inscribing his scores of sacred and secular music with the letters J. J. (Jesu Juva, meaning “Jesus, help”), S. D. G. (Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to God alone the glory”), and I. N. J. (In Nomine Jesu, meaning “in the name of Jesus”). The theology of the Reformation was so much a part of Bach’s music that the two are truly inseparable.
His influence upon Western music cannot be overstated, and the influence of the Reformation, particularly the Lutheran Reformation, is equally important in Bach’s work. To illustrate Bach’s place in musical history, consider one of his Catholic predecessors, the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594). Palestrina is the composer of the Catholic Counter-Reformation known as “the Prince of Music.” Prior to Bach, Palestrina held more fame as a composer than any other. Palestrina’s music was marked by a professional choir made up of polyphonic voices sung a cappella. Neither key consciousness nor measured time was part of Palestrina’s compositions. Each vocal piece was sung in Latin, the simple lyrics often being repeated throughout. Palestrina’s music is certainly beautiful, and it inspires the awe of a person being transported to a heavenly world.
[This is part of a more extensive article I wrote entitled “The Impact of the Reformation on the Fine Arts with Emphasis Upon Selected Works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Rembrandt van Rijn.” Faith and Mission23 (Spring 2006): 31–54.]