Can Hymns Be Saved from Extinction?

Katie Moum on Unsplash

We live in a day of heightened fear about the extinction of plant and animal species. The world is losing as many as 200 species every day. A different kind of extinction is happening in our churches. In our generation, we could lose the great hymns of the Christian tradition.

The expulsion of hymns from a church can occur either imperceptibly over time or instantaneously, but in many churches they are fading away or already gone. In this context, I propose a way for those who love the hymns of the faith to preserve them. We can save our beloved hymns by reading and pondering them as devotional poems.

This suggestion isn’t revolutionary. During my research for a forthcoming anthology of hymns presented as devotional poems, I encountered The Hymnal: A Reading History (read my TGC review). This book demonstrates that until the 1870s, the customary format for a hymnbook was a portable, five-by-three-inch anthology of poems without music.

These poetry anthologies weren’t used primarily for singing in church on Sundays but in everyday life during the week. They were used in private and family devotions. They were carried from home to offices, schools, fields, and markets. They played a major role in children’s education and literacy instruction. Children memorized from them and received them as gift books. Their parents used them to record family memories and carry everything from railroad tickets to business letters.

Whether as a supplement to the singing of classic hymns or as a replacement in churches where they have been removed, reading and assimilating hymns as devotional poems is a project whose time has come.

Hymns Are Poems

A good starting point is to acknowledge that a hymn is a poem before it is a hymn. Even when writers compose with a view toward eventual singing, they compose a poem first. When we encounter these poems only as hymns to be sung, we come up against limitations that prevent us from fully enjoying their poetic qualities. One limitation is that the music diverts our attention away from the verbal text without our knowing it. Additionally, when we sing a hymn, we are hurried along. There’s no time to pause or slow down to ponder the images and metaphors and nuances of language.

An additional limitation to singing hymns is that when the verses of the text are printed under the preceding ones and enclosed within lines of musical notes, every new stanza returns us to the same starting point. The result is a strongly cyclical arrangement in which the linear unfolding of the text is largely lost and our dominant impression is that of covering the same territory over and over. By contrast, a poem is structured on the linear principle of beginning-middle-end, not a repeated cycle.

To fully experience hymns as poems, we need to change our approach.

Reading Hymns as Poems

We begin by applying the usual rules of reading poetry. It’s a truism that poets speak a language all their own. A popular book about poetry when I was in graduate school half a century ago was aptly titled The Language Poets Use. I use the label poetic idiom to designate the special resources of language that poets use. In brief, poets think in images and figures of speech such as metaphor and simile.

What obligations does this poetic idiom place on readers?

First, it requires a “slow read” in place of the speed reading that characterizes our daily lives and that also occurs when we’re hurried along by the ongoing music when we sing hymns. This slow reading entails unpacking the multiple meanings of images and figuring out how A is like B in metaphors and similes. It also means pausing on the verbal beauty of words and phrases, drinking in the effect and admiring the skill of the poet.

A second major element of poetry is the careful structuring of thought in a linear manner. As I produced my explications of hymnic poems in my anthology, the biggest discovery I made was the importance of sequential progression in our great hymns. This discovery is made possible primarily by printing the hymns as successive stanzas, the way all poems are printed.

Several things immediately stand out when we see hymns printed in this way. One is the care with which the great hymn writers package their content by stanzas. Usually each stanza has its own “duty” to perform in the overall flow of thought, and not infrequently each stanza has its own imagery and word patterns. Once we experience a stanza as its own small world, we can see how the next stanza advances the line of thought or feeling into a related one. At the end of the poem, we can look back over the stanzas as a coherent sequence, seeing at a glance how the stanzas relate both to each other and also to the unifying theme of the entire poem.

A third element of poetry is genre. Our hymnbooks have the effect of consigning all hymns to a single genre, namely, hymn. But if we come to a collection of hymnic poems as we do to an anthology of English literature, multiplicity begins to emerge. We start thinking in terms of familiar literary and biblical genres. Then the genres start to explode—poem of personal testimony, song of victory, enthronement hymn, poem of self-address, occasional poem (a poem arising from a specific occasion in a poet’s life or times), Christ hymn.

Placing hymns into the category of familiar poetry also pays dividends when we come to the poetic texture (the images and figures of speech). To cite a particularly important example, our familiar hymns contain so many allusions to the Bible that again and again I use the formula “a mosaic of biblical references” as I compose explications of hymnic poems. But it is only when we take time to analyze these poems that we see how carefully the poets have worked out their network of biblical allusions.

Benefiting from Hymnic Poems

I trust that it’s becoming apparent that even if our great hymns weren’t in danger of becoming extinct, it would be an excellent idea to read and assimilate them as devotional poems. When we do so, we find a whole new dimension to hymns, which are an important ingredient of Christian culture (works of literature and other arts that express the Christian faith).

My own venture of approaching my favorite hymns as devotional poems has been an unfolding journey of discoveries. It has been like unlocking a treasury of literary and devotional triumphs. I’ve repeatedly felt that I’ve been introduced to the hymns that no one knows.

How can this newfound treasure trove be turned into currency in our individual and corporate Christian lives? In much the same way devotional poetry can. We can incorporate hymnic poems into our church bulletins and websites. Ministers and Bible study leaders can incorporate them into sermons and studies. We don’t need to abandon hymns simply because they’re no longer sung. If congregations hear hymnic poems referenced in the forms I have suggested, perhaps they will insist on singing them. These corporate uses can be supplemented by individual ones.

I’m reminded of a television commercial for a cereal where the slogan is, “Try it—you’ll like it.” I challenge my readers to give what I have proposed a try. I predict that they will like it.

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