Pietism in a (Musical) Nutshell

“What’s Pietism?” It’s one of the most common questions I’m asked, and I still don’t have a concise answer cued up and ready to go.

I’ll try to do better on that count before our book comes out this fall. But at least in some respects, I just want to sing yesterday’s pulpit hymn at Salem Covenant.

Thomas TroegerWritten by Thomas H. Troeger in 1984, “As a Chalice Cast of Gold(and yes, it shares a tune with “As with Gladness Men of Old”) starts by asking God to prepare the singer for worship through “the cleansing of my heart.” Then in verse two, the hymn comes to what might pass as a nutshell definition of Pietism:

Save me from the soothing sin
Of the empty cultic deed
And the pious, babbling din
Of the claimed but unlived creed.
Let my actions, Lord, express
What my tongues and lips profess.

As it begins, that verse evokes two of the original Pietist concerns. First, that institutional religion can sap the power of word and sacrament and turn altar, font, pulpit, and lectern into “dumb idols.” (Tellingly, the titular chalice is not a beautiful, inanimate object, but a flawed human being.) Second, that right belief can become “dead orthodoxy” rather than “lived faith.” Then it ends in what might be a crib of Philipp Spener’s pivotal third “pious wish” for the renewal of the church: “It is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.”

Now, I don’t mean that the author is a Pietist, nor that Pietists are the only Christians concerned about a “claimed but unlived creed.” Recently retired from Yale Divinity School, where he primarily taught preaching, Troeger is ordained in the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And the entire text is inspired by Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Mark 7.

The Covenant Hymnal (blue)But at least to my ears, it sums up some of the central religious concerns and instincts of Pietism. And given Pietism’s own strong tradition of hymnody, it seems entirely appropriate to convey its ideas in that ways. As Troeger said at his retirement in 2015, “Hymns are a way to do theology. I think hymns work that way for most people. If you ask people what they’re most likely to remember—a Bible passage, a sermon, or a hymn—which do you think it would be? Surely a hymn!

I was just amazed that I’d never heard “As the Chalice” before yesterday morning. But then, Hymnary reports that it’s only included in eight hymnals. (It had to be printed in our bulletin yesterday, since it’s not in The Covenant Hymnal. I can’t even find a decent YouTube clip of a choir singing it.) That ranks fifth of the 82 Troeger hymns in that index, the most popular of which can be found in just 14 hymnals — including ours.


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