As longtime readers know, I love Christian hymnody, especially that of my own tradition, Scandinavian Pietism. So I was happy for the excuse to revisit those songs as I kicked off a new Anxious Bench series today: on looking beyond books to other types of Christian writing.
It’s a kind of belated response to the top 25 Christian writings list that Christian History magazine curated last fall. While I had some immediate objections at the time, what’s really stuck with me is how book-ish the list was. Whether theological treatises, collections of sermons, or spiritual memoirs, it seemed the Christian writings that did most to “[change] the church and the world” were books. And while there’s obviously something to that assumption, it also reflects the preferences of the people surveyed by CH — scholars who, like me, spend much of their time reading and writing books and may be prone to overlooking other modes of writing.
I’m starting my response with hymns, since that’s the non-book writing that CH acknowledged most directly, via a top 25 list from my Bethel Seminary colleague James Smith. For assistance, I quoted from Steve Guthrie’s entry on music and arts in Zondervan’s Dictionary of Christian Spirituality:
…the notion that hymns, like dance, drama, and visual art, can embed and incarnate belief is hugely important. Guthrie concludes this section with Richard Mouw observing “that the poetic imagery of a hymn text ‘impresses [a] theological point on your consciousness as no scholarly treatise can do.’ Through melody and verbal imagery the theological truth ‘becomes graphic.’”
Moreover, I observed, “hymns constitute that rarest form of modern Western writing: one that’s almost always read with other people…. [They] incarnate belief not just in my individual body, but in the collected, diverse Body of Christ. And they embed belief not just in a mind whose attention is focused on a book, but in the lived experience of a community that worships, grieves, rejoices, and prays together.”