There are some absolutely wonderful hymns in the heritage of the Christian church. I’ve shared about quite a few of them… and I have more waiting in the wings. One of my favorite things is to explore the background of the hymns we know and love, that we’ve grown up singing, that we could practically sing by heart.
But every hymn isn’t a winner. More specifically, not every hymn is appropriate for use in worship, even if it’s one that you personally enjoy and connect with. Occasionally, one of these never-going-to-be-a-classic hymns is included and published in a hymnal for all of posterity to cringe at- which should remind us that just because something’s in a hymnal, doesn’t mean we should use it in a worship service.
Sometimes the cringing comes from dated lyrics or ideas. This is definitely the case of a substantial number of hymns and songs found in the Methodist The Faith We Sing and the Presbyterian Sing the Faith; there were a lot of great songs that came out of the 80s contemporary Christian music scene, but most of them now are just very, well, 80s. As amazing as it is, I could go my whole life without needing to hear the song “Our God is an Awesome God” one more time 🙂
Even before the 80s, dated ideas in the music of the church were a problem. There were many hymns written around WWI and WWII that have rather graphic descriptions of battlefields, and that discuss Christian engagement with a world that God loves in entirety, in the midst of the devastating world wars. These were incredibly important tools for the church at that time, helping them come to terms with the ravages of war and yet hold on to a forgiving Christian faith. These hymns are included yet in many of our hymnals, but some of the violence in the imagery is no longer appropriate or relatable for today’s church.
Other times, the issue with a hymn is a difficult, unsingable melody; there are a number of these in our hymnals, because when many of these tunes were written, we had nationwide choral education beginning in grade school and continuing throughout adulthood– our country used to be a singing country. We largely aren’t anymore, so we need to choose hymns based on the musical abilities of our singing congregations. Which tunes are singable and which aren’t really depends on the congregation these days. Some congregations know how to sing German chorales but aren’t comfortable singing songs that come from the American Revival or the contemporary Christian movement; others can’t engage with chorales but love the Revival hymns. Some congregations have a higher number of trained musicians, or they follow well the lead of the choir, and with other churches you have to be sensitive to the musical abilities of the congregation and choir and choose music more carefully.
And there are some rare instances when a hymn is just icky or awkward. Sometimes you’ll flip through and find a hymn that just makes you uncomfortable when you read or sing it. And sometimes you’ll find yourself arguing with the theology in the text as the congregation sings (or maybe that’s just me…)
One such hymn that I’d like to look at today is from the 2011 United Methodist supplemental hymnal Worship and Song, #3174: “Christ, We Are Blest”.
This communion text was written by a United Methodist pastor in 2009, so one would hope that such a contemporary hymn would speak effectively to the needs of the contemporary church. The author paired the text to the very singable tune SLANE, known to just about everyone as the melody to the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”.
Read through this text carefully and see if you can identify some of the theological ideas in this hymn.
1. Christ, we are blest as we gather to dine,
strengthened for love by the bread and the wine.
This is your body, now entering ours,
strong with your loving miraculous powers.
2. You laid your life down like sowing a seed;
once dead and buried, from death you are freed,
rising like wheat in the warmth of the sun!
Christ, you are risen! New life has begun!
3. Christ, you are risen, but not far above:
you live among us in each act of love,
in every deed of compassion you rise,
living in flesh we can see with our eyes.
4. Jesus, you feed us, then bid us to leave,
sharing with others the love we receive.
We are your body, sent by your command,
making love real as the bread in our hands.
Let’s talk about this hymn one stanza at a time, beginning with the very first line: “Christ, we are blest as we gather to dine…” Well, this sounds like we’re just informing Christ that we’re blest– does He have anything to do with it? I believe that our blessings come from our faith and relationship with Christ, but this line makes me wonder if He was even involved whatsoever in the blessing situation, or are we just telling him, “Just fyi, Jesus, we’re blest. In case you were wondering.”
My second issue with the first stanza is the final two lines, which have strong implications of transubstantiation. It states that “the bread and the wine… [are] your body, now entering ours, strong with your loving miraculous powers.” Those who don’t ascribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation believe that the communion elements are representational of Christ’s body and blood, not literal; in general, the United Methodist Church doesn’t believe in transubstantiation (I’m not sure if that’s specifically part of our doctrine, but I think it is.) But even if you’re cool with transubstantiation, the imagery of “this is your body, now entering ours,” is kiiiindof awkward. I know what he’s trying to say, but he’s saying it in the most uncomfortable way possible.
The metaphor of the second stanza takes a far too passive approach to the resurrection for my theological taste. Comparing the crucifixion to the simple act of “sowing a seed” does a serious injustice to the sacrifice of Christ’s death and His decision to bear agony and suffering on our behalf. When the metaphor is continued in the third line, it just becomes confusing. In what way, exactly, was the resurrection similar to the “rising [of] wheat in the warmth of the sun”? If you plant a wheat seed and water it, no one is surprised to end up with wheat after a few weeks. But when Christ was killed, the resurrection was not a logical, expected outcome. On the contrary, Christ’s resurrection after 3 days came as a shock to everyone, even those who would have expected it had they listened to/believed/understood when Jesus spoke about the temple being raised in 3 days. Wheat is an excellent metaphorical tool for many different aspects of Christian faith, but I’m not sure the resurrection is one of them.
I do like the third stanza. It’s very Methodist– finding Christ’s presence “in each act of love” and “in every deed of compassion”. It’s good theology, mission-minded, and reminding us to be Christ’s hands and feet, meeting the world with His love.
The fourth stanza continues with this mission-minded focus, which is great: “we are your body, sent by your command…” preach!
Aaaaannnd then it gets awkward again with the final line, “making love real as the bread in our hands.” I’m not sure what that means… well, just like before, I’m pretty sure I know what he meant, but the phrasing of it is just weird.
There are indeed several great ideas found in this hymn, mostly the third stanza and the beginning of the fourth. It’s an excellent presentation of the mission-focused Wesleyan theology in practical language that fits the melody very well. But I’m not sure if those lines redeem the rest of the hymn.
It’s such an important thing for the health of the contemporary church for hymns to continue to be written. Contemporary hymns address issues of the contemporary church, and they can help congregations work through conflict, better understand theology as it relates to contemporary cultural issues, and engage with the Holy Spirit on a more profound level.
But all throughout history, awkward hymns have been written, and usually they have blessedly been relegated to the annals of forgotten, unprinted hymns. Sometimes hymns that used to be popular are no longer appropriate; sometimes hymns have simply never been particularly engaging for the church. And that’s okay– we have to sift through many hymns before we find beloved ones like “Come, Thou Fount” or “Be Thou My Vision”.
It’s part of the responsibility of a pastoral musician to think critically about the hymns that we sing and the texts that we find in our hymnals, so that we can determine the hymns that speak to us personally, hymns that engage with our congregation, and hymns that are relevant to the contemporary church. This is the only way to discern the hymns that fundamentally speak to our congregations, and which will stand the test of time.