Postmodern Hymnody?

This question was posed to our class at Luther Seminary: What does it mean to sing hymns in a post-modern age?

I wrote this in response – January 20th, 2011

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Nothing………and everything…

As an extreme post-modern myself, I am the first to say that singing hymns in church carries little meaning…for me. But that is kind of the point of the post-modern perspective…isn’t it?

Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary has the best description of the mind-set of a post-modern world. In his book “Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Post-Modern World” he likens the postmodern perspective to the little child in the story the “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. If you recall, the story ends with the Emperor parading around with his ‘new clothes’. All of his subjects are cheering, telling him, yelling to him how beautiful his clothes are. Then, out of nowhere, speaks a child saying, “He isn’t wearing any clothes!!!”

Of course, the Emperor is not wearing clothes. Either no one else could see that reality or they were terrified of what it meant to actually point out the blatantly obvious. The actions of the child are akin to the actions and perspective of the postmodern. It isn’t that postmoderns are somehow more brave than everyone around them, willing to point out the things in life that are dangerous to question. It isn’t that at all. It is that postmoderns…well, they don’t care. For them (for us), it is far more important to point out the blatantly obvious than to continue perpetuating a status quo that simply makes no sense.

Therein, lies the issue with what is perceived to be ‘worship wars’ revolving around music, specifically the battle between hymnody (traditional worship) and contemporary praise music. The war appears to be about style of music or approach to worship, but it really isn’t. The tension, I believe, stems from the child that yells out, “The Emperor has no clothes!” The postmodern world yells to the church, “It doesn’t matter what style of music is sung, played, performed or lifted up in worship. It just doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is that the people, the body congregated to worship God does just that – WORSHIP GOD. The reality is that everyone worships differently. This isn’t an issue of individualism, consumerism, or division as some claim. It is an issue of culture, not generational culture, but a culture of the Spirit.

Some people genuinely worship God through traditional Christian hymnody, chanting, albs, processions, liturgy, and a well-played organ. That is the preference of some. That is their style. That is their culture. That is how the Spirit has and does work in them. There are people, such as myself, who for whatever reason, do not experience God in that particular style of music and approach worship. Maybe it is because I didn’t grow up with it. Maybe it is because through my music education, that particular style of music has lost its magic due to years of dissection and study. In any case, it just doesn’t matter. The point isn’t the music. The point is the connection with God. The point is worship.

Similar to the Evangelical Revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, people are experiencing church differently. Or maybe better said, people hunger to experience God differently, maybe even for the first time.

Hymnody is a powerful witness of the Christian community throughout the ages. Of that, there is no doubt. But that does not in any way mean the people of today or of the future will witness in the same way. Hymnody, although a major part of Christian heritage and tradition, is a small slice of culture and music. I have found in my very limited experience of life and faith that God can and does work in and through all cultures and styles of music.

The ‘truth’ that the child points out when it comes to hymnody in a postmodern culture is that style does not matter. Tradition does not matter. Heritage does not matter. Singing hymns, as the title asks, intrinsically means nothing unless one is able to worship God in the process. If you are one who worships God in this way, then it means everything.

The postmodern has absolutely no problem with tradition, heritage, or, in this case, hymns…no problem at all. As long as the child is allowed to point out the blatantly obvious, that it isn’t the hymns themselves that matter. In fact, many postmoderns are returning to the traditions, the heritage and even the very ancient, but this is happening only because the question is being asked, because the child in the story is allowed to speak.

The danger is of course is to treat tradition and heritage (and therefore historical hymnody) as the only potential expression of God’s people, of people of faith, the only song of the people of God.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it is that the Spirit works outside of the box. In Acts 10, Peter is shown that God shows no favoritism, that God works outside of even the law itself. Things change, even our perceptions of how God works. The reality is that God works through all things. Even in things outside of traditional hymnody.

From The Lord of the Rings,

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it…”

The world has changed, but the blatantly obvious reality that the child speaks out to the Emperor is that it has always been changing. It never stops. There is no such thing as ‘the way it has always been’. The only reality that is ever-present is not tradition, not heritage, not hymnody, but God.

Hymnody in a post-modern world means nothing…and it means everything…

2 thoughts on “Postmodern Hymnody?

  1. Hymnody does matter in the sense that it presents a theological perspective. I don’t care very much about musical style — organ music or praise bands. Whatever floats your boat. However, I do care about the content of the music we sing– the message contained in the lyrics.

    At Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, the “contemporary” services have used a lot of music from “Christian radio.” This is often music performed by bands which do not seem very well suited for congregational singing. Often the verses are relatively non-melodic, a kind of monotone with a slur at the end of each verse, followed by an upbeat chorus. I notice that the praise choirs often struggle with the melodies and slurs, and the congregation seems often lost as well. However, what really disturbs me is the conservative theology of the lyrics. Because this is “Christian pop,” the lyrics seem slapped together with easy rhymes but not much theological thought. In most cases, the music is about telling God how wonderful God is.

    This of course reflects a conservative evangelical perspective. At Hope, we are a somewhat progressive congregation and the theological content of our sermons seems to be in conflict with the theology of our praise singing. I think our congregation is sending two contrasting messages.

    I don’t know if there is an upbeat form of hymnody that deals more with the “way” of Jesus — pursuing peace and justice — than praising God, but I hope that something like that is a possible option.

    Paul seems to say that how we live is the worship we offer God. Praise singing is focused on only our words. Blah-blah-blah, you are an awesome God.

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  2. Hymnody is an important element in transmitting a message and a theological perspective. I find we are often caught between a traditional hymnody that focuses on the blood atonement of Jesus and an afterlife in heaven on the one hand, and praise songs that simply glorify God on the other.

    The emerging postmodern church will be more about following Jesus that believing things about Jesus. It will be more about worshipping God through a way of life than by songs of praise. It will be more about experiencing God than about singing with upraised hands.

    The difficulty is finding well-written and singable music that places an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus and his call to lives of compassion, peace, and justice. There are a handful of these hymns in newer hymnals, but very little of this emphasis can be found in praise singing that derives mainly from Christian radio.

    The style of worship music can be a variety from gospel to Taize to classical melodies to folk rock. Whatever floats your boat. But the content of the lyrics is extremely important. At Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, the progressive theology of our sermons is often countered by the conservative theology of our hymnody. We need congruence between our spoken words and our sung words.

    This is a significant challenge for the postmodern church.

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