Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Hymns and Hymn Books" by J. W. McGarvey (II)

In a previous post I set the context of John W. McGarvey's 1864 article about the revision of the Christian Hymn Book. This post will discuss what he said specifically, and what it might help us understand about church music in the Restoration Movement, both then and now.

Using a Common Hymnal: Past and Present

McGarvey was strongly of the opinion that the churches of the Restoration Movement should continue to use a common hymnal:
The circulation and use of several different hymn books would not imply a schism among the churches; for use of the same hymn book is not made an element of church unity by the word of God. Still, the inconvenience of such an arrangement would be very great, and the tendency of it would be towards evil.
The concept of an "official hymnal" is of course foreign to the nature of the case; the Churches of Christ are united, as McGarvey rightly points out, around those things that are presented as marks of unity in the Scriptures. There is no room in the margin for adding to Ephesians 4:5-6, "and one hymnal." I have never known anyone to attempt to do so with the hymnal; we may all have our preferences, but I dare not make something so obviously a matter of judgment into a test of fellowship.

Having grown up without any official hymnal, then, I am anxious to see whether the dire consequences of which McGarvey warns actually developed. He groups these in the following points:

1. "It would be inconvenient to preachers in passing from one church to another, and still more so to assemblages of brethren from churches where different books were in use."

There is a cultural difference here to keep in mind: it was not the universal practice at the time, as it is today, for hymnals to be kept at the meeting house for the use of all comers. That practice probably developed as mass production techniques in the printing industry lowered the per-copy cost during the late part of the 19th century. In the earlier era, families bought their own hymnals, sang from them at home, read from them in private devotions, and brought them to worship on Sunday. Under these circumstances, a gathering of different congregations could bring in a variety of hymnals.

But how inconvenient is it in practice? Since we are now in an era when congregations either provide the hymnals or project the hymns on a screen, there is no particular difficulty in singing together even if we know somewhat different versions of the words or music. The song leader who has grown up under these circumstances knows, if he is leading at another congregation and must use a different hymnal, that he should check his hymns ahead of time to be sure that he is aware of any differences. (Experience will teach him which ones to watch out for!)

A particularly painful example of this problem occurred in Howard Publishing's Songs of the Church. In the version copyrighted 1977, the editors replaced a few dozen songs from the older version, with no edition statement to distinguish this change. I know of at least one congregation that used the older edition and bought a few boxes of the new 1977 books as replacements for their more worn-out copies. Whenever the song leader called one of the hymn numbers that had been changed, about a quarter of the congregation had a different hymn from the rest!

2. "It would also be likely to engender strife in some of the churches, parties being formed in favor of the different books."

Sadly, this has probably happened. The list of things over which congregations have divided includes matters of far less significance. But it should not be so; it is really hard to imagine a situation in which the selection of a hymnal would reflect anything worse than simple poor judgment.

If there are objections that a hymnal contains many hymns that are doctrinally questionable, that is a serious matter that should be examined, but you are unlikely to find a hymnal that is completely free of such problems. If the selection of a hymnal (or system of projected music) seems to reflect a shift from one style of church music toward another, against the wishes of some in the congregation, that should be discussed and dealt with in a fair and diplomatic manner, but is no legitimate cause for division. I have heard some brethren object to buying hymnals from a particular publisher, because they object to other publications from that source; but we often buy Bibles, concordances, and other materials from publishers that are run by denominations with which we have significant doctrinal disagreements. There was even a time when some Churches of Christ could be found singing from the old Broadman Hymnal, a Southern Baptist publication.

This is not to say that those things are not important; obviously I believe in employing hymnals that are as free as possible from hymns that contradict the doctrines I believe; I would refrain from making a hymnal choice that forced a change of musical style, when there are good alternatives; and I would prefer to give my patronage to publishers whose overall aims I support. But none of these things should be allowed to create serious strife in a congregation.

Above all, I strongly counsel anyone who is involved in such decisions to practice transparency and inclusiveness. If a decision is a matter of opinion, but will have a significant and long-lasting effect on the worshiping life of the congregation, be as open as possible about the fact that the decision is being considered; get all the relevant information necessary to the decision, and make that information available; and make every effort to seek the "advice and consent" of the congregation, with particular attention to those who are knowledgeable in the subject. The selection of a hymnal should be not be made on the superficial impressions of one or two people, any more than the selection of Bible class curriculum or a translation of the Bible.

I know of one congregation that had differences of opinion about the selection of a new hymnal, and arrived at a solution unique in my experience. They had used Great Songs of the Church, no. 2 for many years, and some preferred to stay with it, but many wanted to get Songs of the Church when it appeared in the 1970s. They bought the new books, but kept the old ones as well; the hymnal racks contained one of each. The song leaders would identify "red book" or "blue book" as necessary at the beginning of the service, or might even switch between them!

3. "[It is] likely to engender an unpleasant rivalry, if not downright jealousy, among the different publishers and proprietors."

I have no inside information on this, but I believe this has happened only fairly infrequently in the Churches of Christ. Our hymnals (at least here in the United States) have been published either by the major religious journals, or by single individuals. Gospel Advocate in Tennessee had the very influential Christian Hymns series (no. 1, 1935; no. 2, 1948; no. 3, 1966), and Firm Foundation in Texas had the Majestic Hymnal and others. More recently, Praise for the Lord appeared from Praise Press, a publishing company owned by Mark McInteer of 21st-Century Christian in Nashville.

Among the individual publishers, Jorgenson was by far the most influential with Great Songs of the Church, followed by Alton Howard, whose Songs of the Church and Songs of Faith and Praise have had a large impact in the South, and Ellis Crum, whose Sacred Selections is also widely used in that region. Tillit S. Teddlie, one of the most influential of our songwriters, also published hymnals, but I do not believe they received widespread adoption. It is naturally very difficult for a new hymnal to break into the market; but I believe Hymns for Worship, edited by Dane K. Shepard and R. J. Stevens, has reached that critical mass necessary to stay in use. W. D. Jeffcoat's Sacred Songs of the Church and Robert Taylor's Songs for Worship and Praise are two new hymnals from the last few years.

But I am not aware of any bad blood between these individuals or institutions over the sale of hymnals. If anything, I think I could argue that the existence of a single hymnal expected to be used by all the congregations, yet produced by a private company, would create a more tempting target for mercantile avarice. (This was in fact a charge leveled during the regrettable dispute between Isaac Errett and David Lipscomb.) In contrast to this, in fact, is the collaborative competition (as I would call it) between the publishers of the Paperless Hymnal and Taylor Publications, both of which are providing an excellent variety of PowerPoint resources suited to the Churches of Christ in this country.

I cannot see, then, that any of those problems that McGarvey anticipated have actually come about to a great degree. Perhaps the greatest area of negative impact was one that McGarvey did not anticipate: the loss of a common hymnal meant that regional preferences, changing musical fashions, and simple market forces would determine the success of hymnals at least as much, if not more, than thoughtful editorship. Many of the editors of the hymnals mentioned above came from fairly one-sided gospel music backgrounds, with little knowledge of the greater heritage of English hymnody, and their work reflected it. The success of Jorgenson in Great Songs of the Church has surely proven that the churches will sing many of the classical hymns, and would be much the poorer without them.

Of course, the technology now exists to dispense with hymnals altogether, projecting lyrics and music on a large screen, and selected from a large database of hymns. This is perhaps the final, furthest step away from a common hymnal. No longer, for example, will the number "728b" have the significance it did to a generation of the Churches of Christ in the southern United States ("Our God, He is alive" in Howard Publishing's Songs of the Church). But more than this, it allows each congregation to have its own customized collection of hymns. As the technology has become more accessible, it is now possible for any enterprising songwriter to produce PowerPoint presentations of original hymns. The possibilities are really quite exciting; if there is a great old hymn from the public domain era that you would like to sing, just put it in a PowerPoint and do it! I have even done custom edits of problem lyrics.

But is this ultimate fragmentation good? I do not believe it actually changes the situation as much as it might appear. I remember attending the services of an Assembly of God congregation with a friend, and I was (predictably) thumbing through the unfamiliar hymnal. I commented on the number of fine classical hymns in the first of the topical sections, "God the Father." My friend looked at them and said cheerily, "Oh, we don't ever sing those. We usually just sing the ones from the back of the book." My experience of the worship service confirmed that you cannot judge a congregation by its hymnal! In this sense, all non-liturgical congregations have their own hymnals, because their usage of the material provided is unique.

The Qualities of a Good Hymnal

The meat of McGarvey's article is devoted to a comparison of Alexander Campbell's hymnal, which was widely used in the American churches of the Restoration Movement, to contemporary publications from the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. His framework was an interesting set of criteria, still well worth consideration.

1. "The first and most essential of these rules is this: A hymn book should be entirely free from unscriptural sentiments and phraseology."

McGarvey supports this assertion on two particulars: the hymnal is part of the universal language of the church, and its words have the added power of music to impress them on the mind and heart. On the first point, it is well to consider the place that singing has in our worship. Next to the Bible, there is no other book we use so much. Sunday school books come and go, prayers are uttered differently (presumably, though not always) from occasion to occasion, but a song is there from week to week, often from year to year, perhaps even throughout our lives. Elders know they should pay close attention to the words spoken from the pulpit, but there are messages in the hymnal as well, repeated through the years more often than any sermon, coming from the lips of the members themselves.

On the second point, music most definitely has a power over the mind and heart that words alone do not usually possess. I do not mean anything mystical here; I am shockingly unromantic about this issue. Answer this question, and you have the heart of the matter: why do so many of us need to sing a certain little song to remember the order of the books of the New Testament? Music engages a different portion of the brain from that of speech, and when both are engaged together, the memory is deepened in some fashion. Music also engages the emotions in a way different from that of speech; taken by itself, its meanings are less specific, and more open to our individual interpretations and associations.

Put these two together and you have a powerful vehicle for the verbal message, for good or bad. Dr. Jack Boyd of Abilene Christian University said in an article many years ago (which I regret I cannot find) that though we often have to take notes to remember the points of a sermon, most Christians who have been in the church for very many years could sing page after page of hymn lyrics. My niece, a registered nurse in an intensive care ward, has often been able to calm disoriented patients with a familiar hymn. I have seen this phenomenon myself when we have hymn singings at nursing homes; sometimes a resident who appears to be completely unaware of her surroundings, who would seem to be beyond the reach of human contact, will begin to mouth the words of a familiar hymn.

Basil of Caesarea, writing in the fourth century, summed up the relationship of music to words in Christian singing in one of the best statements I have ever read on the subject:
When, indeed the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or, even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul.(Basil, 152)
So this is a subject agreed upon almost universally, yet how seriously is it taken? McGarvey continues, "Better sacrifice taste and poetry and convenience and everything, than sacrifice truth and fidelity to the word of God." It was this ethic that guided the frequent editorial changes introduced by Ellis J. Crum in Sacred Selections, and though I do not always agree with his objections, or even necessarily understand them, I deeply respect his thorough-going care to make his hymnal true to the words of Scripture. I know of a congregation that has gone through its hymnals and marked objectionable hymns with the red-circle-and-slash of the universal "no" symbol, and though I doubtless would disagree with many of their decisions, I have to admit that I have done the same thing, mentally, with some hymns that trouble me.

2. "The second rule, in rank of importance, requires that the hymns possess the highest attainable degree of poetic excellence. No other hymns can remain permanently popular, or make a lasting impression on the soul."

Though a man of the frontier, the step-son of a small-town shopkeeper, McGarvey knew his classics; he had received a sound primary education from a college-educated teacher,(Autobiography, 5ff.) and graduated at the top of his class at Alexander Campbell's Bethany College. He was active in the college's literary society, and for the occasion of his graduation he delivered the customary Greek oration expected of the top student.(Autobiography, 14) His pursuit of poetic excellence in the hymnal, then, was coming from the perspective of a common man with uncommon talents. His admiration of literary quality was coupled with a deliberately common touch in his own writings; his sermons, far from the Victorian eloquence of the great orators of the age, are almost folksy in tenor. If there is a desire here to "elevate the public taste," as Lowell Mason once (in)famously said, it is not because McGarvey knows better than the unwashed masses, but because he knows the masses deserve better.

This stands in sharp contrast to the philosophy of Jessie Pounds, whose essay "Concerning hymns" I examined in an earlier post. Jessie, who unlike McGarvey was a fine hymnwriter herself, spoke of the "limitation of form which the hymn imposes."(Pounds, 84) She explains that the mode of communication in a hymn,
. . . is gained by stress and recurrence rather than by cumulative thought. The form of verse must be simple, there must be but three or four stanzas, and the thought must lend itself to the repetition of the strain [i.e. the refrain] in each successive stanza.(Pounds, 85)
If there is something about this that strikes you as a bit condescending, you may be right. She says further,
Beyond the limitation of form, however, is the much more confining limitation of thought. The great poet speaks for himself and for a small circle of cultured minds. He does not expect the multitude to go with him. He is therefore free to express the high poetic mood, to speak that which comparatively few can understand. Not so the hymn-writer. He speaks for the great body of Christian worshippers. He must seek to lift them up to their highest spiritual possibilities, while never for a moment forgetting the intellectual limitations of the least among them all.
There is obvious truth in the second part of that statement. The hymn writer (and the person selecting songs for worship, for that matter) is beholden to the purposes of congregational worship in song, not to the artistic judgment of literary critics. In my working definition as a songleader, the "best hymns" are those with which the members of the congregation can and will teach and admonish one another, and give praise and thanksgiving to God. The style and sophistication of the lyrics and music that meet these purposes may vary from one congregation to the next, for a variety of reasons.

But Pounds's first point is really at the heart of the question at hand--is great poetry really just for the cultured few? McGarvey takes a very different line of argument:
Many persons imagine that the highest order of lyric poetry is adapted only to cultivated taste; but this involves a misconception of the nature of poetry. It is the peculiar glory of true poetry that it speaks with like effect to all ages, classes, and conditions of men. It speaks to the heart of man as man, and therefore overleaps all geographical lines, all national distinctions, and even the lapse of ages.
Does McGarvey mean that all people love great poetry, if only they have the opportunity to experience it? I'm not sure if he's right, but I love his optimism. Do we dare suggest, as does Pounds, that some people are simply not of the intellectual caliber to appreciate great hymns? I am often surprised at the number of young people--not a torrent of them, but at least a steady trickle--who express to me their appreciation of the old classical hymns. Some are actually rebels against contemporary church music, and want the challenging multi-stanza hymns of earlier generations.

It may be, however, that McGarvey means something a little broader. When he says "true poetry," does he necessarily mean poetry that the critics recognize as high art, or does he mean poetry that is meaningful and effective, regardless of the sophistication of its delivery? Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was not considered the crowning glory of 19th-century oratory, by contemporary standards; in fact, some thought it shockingly short and plain. But later generations have found it otherwise! Perhaps a hymn that is not particularly sophisticated in style, yet free from grievous poetic faults, can rise above itself through the quality of the message it communicates.

This interpretation of McGarvey's statements is borne out, I believe, through the examples he offers of great hymns that have found wide acceptance. He calls these "the very highest order of lyric poetry," though they are in fact not exceptional from a poetical standpoint, and are the works of authors scarce to be found in an anthology of English poetry. He singles out "O Thou Fount of every blessing," "Am I a soldier of the cross," and "Since I can read my title clear."

I cannot think of a hymn I love better than "O Thou Fount of every blessing." Its lyrics may not be the pinnacle of English verse, but each line is worthy of meditation, and a very good sermon outline could be constructed from its stanzas. McGarvey points out the special excellence of the third stanza:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind me closer still to Thee.

Our former condition of debt and bondage to sin is replaced with an everlasting debt and bondage to Christ, but one that we freely embrace and desire to experience more fully. It is full of the language of Romans chapter 6:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience [leading] to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.(v.16-18)
The second of his picks, "Am I a soldier of the cross," is another great old hymn, and has some of the same quality of the former. At least part of the definition of a great hymn is that it gives you something that sticks with you, something to think about, and this hymn offers one such example in a particularly pithy stanza:

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must not I stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

When I am tempted to get comfortable in this world, to go along to get along, I hope I will always remember this message. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him."(1 John 2:15) We love the people of the world, because they are fellow children of God, but we dare not forget that the greater part of them are fallen in sin and do not even seek to be free from it, revelling in it and expecting us to do likewise. This "world," in the sense of the culture of selfishness and sin, is no friend of ours and is certainly not going to help us in our efforts to please God.

The third of McGarvey's examples, however, gives me pause. I am aware that "When I can read my title clear" was a very popular hymn in his day, but I am struck by the fact that I cannot recall having sung it in worship even once. I checked McGarvey's three hymns in, and found about what I expected. Though all three were enormously popular in earlier generations, they have fared differently in the modern hymnals. "O Thou Fount" ("Come Thou Fount," if you prefer) is present in most of them, "Am I a soldier of the cross" appears about half as often, and "When I can read my title clear" occurred in only one of the modern hymnals indexed by this database.

To some extent this just shows the gradual winnowing process of time. Jessie Pounds did not fare any better when she said, "Those who come after us will sing, 'My Jesus, I Love Thee,' and 'O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,' and 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus.'" But this leads me to consider McGarvey's earlier assertion that, "true poetry . . . overleaps all geographical lines, all national distinctions, and even the lapse of ages." If this is true, it is odd that people are so often proven wrong in identifying those hymns that will last. In fact, I think it is easier to prove it false; I know many fine old hymns that have fallen out of use, and I see many mediocre ones that remain inexplicably popular. The key to McGarvey's assertion is that he is assuming time and sound judgment are the only factors. Perhaps if all the great heritage of hymnody were given a fair hearing, and all the people gave it their best considered judgment, a really fine repertoire of congregational hymnody--"treasures old and new"--would result. These ideal conditions are not how things actually happen; but don't people deserve the chance to reject the old hymns for themselves, instead of being denied the opportunity to hear them?

3. "In the third place, to answer well its purpose a hymn book must embody a great variety of topics. This is necessary in order that the singing of a congregation may be adapted to every different occasion, and to all the Scriptural subjects discussed in the pulpit."

The coverage of topics in our hymnals is difficult to assess, because it is hard to establish a standard by which to judge. I tend to notice the holes; it is rather embarrassing, for example, that many hymnals used by the Churches of Christ have topical headings for "God the Father" and for "Jesus Christ," but none for "Holy Spirit." This is perhaps the most obvious omission, but hardly the only one. I look in despair for a good variety of songs of a confessional nature, or on the subject of humility. Songs on the Christian family, or of our duties to the poor, are sorely lacking.

It seems that each generation of hymnwriters has had its strengths and weaknesses. The hymns of Watts, a Calvinist, are very strong on the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of humanity. Wesley's hymns are, predictably, full of the theme of grace and stories of personal experience. The gospel songs of the 19th century reflect the evangelistic fervor of the campmeetings and the great urban revivals; the Southern gospel style coming into the early 20th century reflected the poverty of the times and the hope for a better life hereafter. The contemporary worship music, I believe, began as a desire to move away from this reflection on our earthly lives to a more outward-directed, praise-focused worship, though it also can fall into the "me-centered" trap.

These are generalizations (which, as I often reminded my students, means "a necessary half-truth"), but hopefully are illustrative of the varying tendencies of the different styles of church music we have inherited. It is far easier to find a gospel song about our anticipation of heaven than one that is directly addressing God in praise; it is equally difficult to find an evangelistic or "Christian worker" song in the contemporary style, as opposed to finding a song describing the majesty of God. (This is a good argument for "blended worship," in which the best aspects of the music of every generation are shared for the benefit of all.)

A key to improving this area of our church music is to expand the routes by which new songs come into use by a congregation. Songleaders can make a study of learning new songs, and expanding their own knowledge, paying particular attention to songs that fill needs in specific areas. Buy other hymnals, listen to recordings, and read books on the subject; a songleader is a kind of teacher in the church, and a teacher must first of all be a student.

McGarvey's observation about the size of the hymnal required is interesting. A friend once told me that he could not justify recommending his congregation buying a new hymnal when they would just continue using the same old eight or nine songs they always sang! I was rather amazed when I first looked through a hymnal and counted all the songs I had never sung in worship. (This was probably when I was a little boy, and should have been listening to Dad's sermon instead.) I was sure that at least half the songs were never used.

Looking at some data a friend collected over the period of about two years at another congregation, I find that this congregation (which has an excellent songleader who tries to be inclusive of different styles) had sung 601 out of the 990 hymns in its hymnal. A closer look, however, reveals that 446 of these songs had been sung only once or twice in the period recorded. A core of 155 songs made up the majority of the singing of the congregation.

This sounds as though it would mean a lot of repetition, but in practice it is not unreasonable. In the traditional style of worship services among the Churches of Christ in the U.S., a congregation will sing about 15 hymns every week. Over a year's time this means a congregation will sing around 700-750 hymns. A repertoire of only 200 songs could more than supply this need, with hymns repeated only once per quarter; and many good hymns will bear repeating more often than that! The technology now exists to easily produce a small print-on-demand hymnal made to order; I also wonder if the providers of PowerPoint hymns will someday sell their product on a per-song basis as popular music is now sold. Either could prove to be a less costly alternative for small or cash-strapped congregations.

4. "Our fourth rule has reference to the arrangement of the hymns. It requires, in addition to the index of first lines, such an arrangement as will readily point out every hymn by its subject-matter."

There are two methods commonly used to achieve subject access in a hymnal: topical arrangement and a subject index. For whatever reason, most hymnals among the American Churches of Christ have not used topical arrangement; the only ones with which I am familiar are Great Songs of the Church, Revised from Abilene Christian University, and Songs of Faith and Praise and Songs of the Church, 21st-Century Edition from Howard Publishing. The great advantage of a topical arrangement is the ability to browse in detail a number of songs on the same topic.

Jorgenson's original Great Songs of the Church was arranged alphabetically, which would have been quite convenient except for his insistence on separate sections for "Gospel Songs" and "Hymns," each alphabetized separately. (This does however make for an interesting guessing game as one tries to anticipate the category in which Jorgenson placed a given song.) Praise for the Lord is almost, but not quite, alphabetical, the occasional departures apparently made for convenience of page layouts.

Topical indexes have been present in all of the major hymnals used among the Churches of Christ, but the quality has varied widely. The advantage of a topical index, as McGarvey points out, is that a hymn can be classified under several different applicable headings. I am sure this has not been done as thoroughly as it might have been. I usually find myself leafing through the entire hymnal when selecting songs for a worship service, just to be sure I haven't overlooked the perfect song.

A better solution might be to produce electronic databases in which a more thorough topical indexing is carried out. This is easy enough to start, and far easier to update and improve; but the real problem to be solved is establishing a thesaurus of topical terms to be applied as descriptors. I do not know of a standard thesaurus for describing hymn topics, and this would be a good collaborative project; a good start would be a compilation of topical terms from the existing topical indexes of a number of different hymnals.

Another excellent tool is a concordance of hymn lyrics, which allows the songleader to find hymns that use specific key words associated with a theme. This has been available for Howard Publishing's Songs of Faith and Praise for several years, in the form of SOFTPraise, a software suite of songleading tools. Given the number of resources online for finding hymn lyrics, however, it would be easy enough to construct a searchable database of lyrics for any hymnal.

5. "The fifth and last rule which we will prescribe is that a hymn book should be adapted to proper variety of taste, age, and usage."

McGarvey refers here to the actual physical format of a hymnal, including its durability, readability, and convenience. The durability (or lack thereof) of some hymnals is notorious, and if a congregation is investing in something that will be used for several years, it is worth paying a little more for one of the better-constructed hymnals. On the subject of readability, we are thankfully getting past the era of printing from plates, which sometimes gave us cheap hymnals that assaulted the eyes with three or more different styles of type and musical notation in the same book. The newer digitally-reproduced reprints of Howard Publishing's Songs of the Church are vastly improved over the original, simply by being set up in a consistent, readable type.

You have probably seen the new Clearview font on the Interstate highway signage, which is a direct result of an aging population; hymnals need to be designed with the same consideration. Readability is a common complaint with Praise for the Lord as well, and is my only significant complaint about what I consider the best hymnal in use among Churches of Christ today. The narrow sans serif font is just a little hard to read--and this was my opinion well before I reached the bifocals stage. Most of our hymnals are available in large print versions, and it is considerate for a congregation to purchase a few of these for those who need them most. I have also been impressed with the readability of the Paperless Hymnal PowerPoint product; in fact, I have heard some older Christians express their preference for reading from the screen instead of from print, simply because they found it easier on their eyes.

Excursus: A Point of Concern

One point that McGarvey introduces here gives me pause, and makes me wistful for an earlier era--he mentions the need for a "pocket edition" of the hymnal. One of my prized possessions, a gift from my wife, is an edition of Watts's psalms and hymns published in Boston in 1815. It is 12 cm tall, just the right size to fit in a pocket, and carries the name Mary Ann F. Stephenson, who probably carried it in her purse. This is not a particularly rare or expensive item, because (as it seems) it was a time when every person who could read had a copy of the King James Version Bible and of Watts's hymns. They were brought to church, but they were also used in family devotionals at home, and read in private meditation whether at home or on travels.

We didn't do as much of this in the later 20th century, perhaps because other things took up more of our free time, but it was still possible. I learned to sing bass at home, singing from the hymnal with my mother and sisters, where my mother was able to guide me onto the right pitches when I needed prompting. In my college years I improved my questionable piano skills by sight-reading unfamiliar hymns from Great Songs of the Church during my practice times. As an adult I have always had a hymnal at home, one at the office, and usually one in the car.

But the maturation of PowerPoint technology as a replacement for hymnals is bringing about a change, and it is one that I regret: no longer will there be a book in front of us, for perusal at our leisure, that holds much of the best of our heritage of English hymnody. We are losing the serendipity of discovering that great hymn just across the page, the hymn that may become a source of strength and comfort throughout our lives. Talented and curious youngsters will not know the thrill of exploring these treasures during long Sunday evenings when their attention to the sermon falters. In my experience of congregations singing from PowerPoint--and I will be glad to be corrected--the full repertoire of available songs is accessible only to a handful of leaders. This may just be my native Oklahoman populism talking, but that seems to be literally taking the music out of the hands of the congregation and reserving it to the few. I know this may not make much difference to the majority; but those people in the congregation who look at the hymnal on their own, who make comments, ask questions, and request songs, have been invaluable to me over the years.

I don't mean to come across as opposed to the use of projected hymns; I have used them myself and found them to have many positives. They allow easy supplementation to the existing repertoire, since with a little practice it is fairly easy to produce one's own presentations from a desktop music publishing program. They also have a tremendous potential, therefore, to encourage the writing of new hymns, because once the projection system is purchased they bypass the cost and inconvenience of making paper copies of a new song. But I strongly recommend keeping a good hymnal as well. (Maybe it is possible, or will be possible, to make the PowerPoint collection available to members of the congregation for viewing on their own computers. Will we all be singing from iPads and Kindles?)

To my thinking, the Wingate Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee has handled the use of PowerPoint almost ideally. The presentations are professional-looking but low-key, with title slides before each song giving the title and the number in the hymnal for those who may prefer to use it. Occasionally the songleader will use a song that is in the hymnal, but not in the PowerPoint collection, and occasionally he will use a song that is on PowerPoint but not in the hymnal. These ratios vary depending on the songleader, but most in the congregation seem happy with the compromise.

Part of the reason this went smoothly was that the introduction of PowerPoint was not accompanied by a drastic change in musical styles; the contemporary songs that were made available by the new technology are simply another layer added to the congregation's repertoire. As long as it is done thoughtfully, openly, and with respect to the differences between generations and cultures, there is no reason moving to the use of PowerPoint has to be any more traumatic than the purchasing of a new hymnal. But if a faction within the church is willing to force its own way (whatever side that faction may be!), the medium of print or projection will make little difference.


The remainder of McGarvey's article is spent in a comparison of the Campbell hymnal that was about to be revised, to contemporary hymnals from the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. His findings are thoughtful, and often amusing, but are more particular to individual hymns than to the general trends I want to discuss in this post. I am resisting the temptation to submit several of the hymnals in recent use by the Churches of Christ to the same kind of comparative scrutiny; it would be interesting but extremely time-consuming.

It is worth noting in passing, however, that he finds a great deal of Isaac Watts in the Presbyterian hymnal, and in Watts he finds a great deal of Calvinism--not surprising on either count. In the Methodist hymnal he finds a great deal of Charles Wesley, and in Wesley a great deal of faith-only salvation and confidence in personal spiritual experiences--also not surprising. Could the distinctive teachings of the Churches of Christ be observed from our hymnals in this fashion? It is a question worth pursuing.

McGarvey stands in a different relationship to the question of singing in worship than does Jessie Pounds. Pounds, an accomplished author, views the subject from the vantage point of the entire field of church music and sacred potry; McGarvey approaches it from the practical, local level on which he worked as a preacher, elder, and teacher. The tension that sometimes arises between the artistic elements of music and poetry, on the one side, and their spiritual application in worship, on the other, is to be expected. Both need to be heeded to an extent; but in the end, we must submit all our wisdom to the will of the God we seek to please in our songs.

References: Basil of Caesarea. Exegetic Homilies. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1963.

McGarvey, John W. Autobiography of J. W. McGarvey, ed. Dwight E. Stevenson from MSS notes ca. 1905. Lexington, Ky.: College of the Bible, 1960.

Pounds, Jessie Brown Hunter. "Concerning hymns." Memorial Selections. Chicago: Disciples Publication Society, 1921, pp. 84-90.

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