Friday, September 26, 2014

Singing Mouth Open--Mind (partially) Closed


In the course of my research and writing and teaching about hymns over the last couple of decades I have learned many wonderful things about hymns, hymn writers, and hymnody—and every time I open the hymnal (usually the Trinity) I learn something new! I love singing hymns. I love the very best of our hymn lyrics from the last seventeen hundred years or so, and I have come more and more to love them not only as heartfelt passionate expressions of praise to God but as the best of English poetry. It was American poet John Greenleaf Whittier who said, "The highest use of poetry is the hymn."  In addition, I love many of the timeless musical settings of great classic hymn poetry, and I appreciate a growing number of the new hymns that are being written by thoughtful Christian poets and musicians. Because I love hymns and singing so much, I totally agree with what John Calvin observed about music, "Music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.”

As I have been incorporating the study and imitation of the best hymns as poetry worthy to be studied as such in my high school English classes, however, I have discovered some significant obstacles to understanding and appreciating hymns for this generation of Christian young people. Nowhere is this more obvious than when students attempt to write about hymns as poetry. I teach my students to explore the meaning of poetry by writing poetry explications, essays written specifically about poetry, wherein they observe and evaluate the effectiveness of the various poetic conventions used and the depth and richness of the meaning. I often have them compare poets with the poetry of hymns written at the same time or in similar circumstances. For example, I include Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkhart’s great lyric, Now Thank We All Our God, written while the Thirty-Years War was raging through Germany, in my course on World War I poets. Rinkhart’s 17th century hymn was sung August 1, 1914 on the streets of Berlin when the Kaiser announced the mobilization of German troops to invade Belgium. It makes a dramatic counterpoint to the despair and anger of many of the WW I poets.


Here is where I discovered the problem for my students. When I give them a poem of Wordsworth or Cowper or Shakespeare to analyze and evaluate, they know what to do. It looks like and reads like poetry. It is in the format in which the poet originally penned the words. They can observe the basic unit of poetry, the line, with its hard left margins and capitalized first lines (center lining poetry is a Hallmark card reduction of meaning and content to visual form and is unlike the format the poet wrote the poetry in). They can find the parallel ideas, the progression of thought, the figures of speech, the allusions, the meter, the rhyme scheme, the poet’s use of various sound devices, the use of inclusio, and other subtleties of the poetic art. But when I give them a hymn from the Trinity Hymnal (I consider the Trinity to be the very best of American hymnals and use it daily), they are frustrated and confused. When I give them a hymn with the poetry imbedded in and subordinated to the musical score, as it appears in almost all American hymnals since the mid-19th century, they panic.

Poetic form lost to and subsumed in the musical notation
At first I didn’t get this. I grew up singing hymns in church; I read music; I love music. At first, I concluded it was part of the decline of culture, the loss of the ability to read music and sing hymns. But as I traveled to various other countries around the world, I discovered something very interesting. Maybe its American exceptionalism again. But I’m not so sure. We Americans seem to be the only ones who hand hymnals to our congregations that have the poetry of the hymns in a subordinate role to the music so it does not look like or read like its genre--poetry. Every other country I have visited (UK, New Zealand, Tonga, Europe, Japan, Peru, etc.) the hymnals have the lyric of the poetry visible as poetry, in lines and stanzas the way the poet wrote it. I have  talked to missionaries and Christians from other countries I had not visited. I discovered that we Americans are pretty much the only ones that do this.


So I did some more research. As near as I can find, we began doing this as a direct result of the shift in priorities in 19th century revivalism. We began replacing many of the Psalm versifications from the Reformation, and many of the classic hymns with revival songs that in general were sentimental, repetitive, lacking in theological depth, and addressed largely to the sinner rather than as expressions of worship and adoration to God. This reduction of the content and the quality of lyric went hand in hand with the crafting of new music, designed to attract the lost into the camp meeting tent. The new popular musical sound (the worst of it somewhere between merry-go-round ditty, the frontier cowboy song, and barbershop quartet sound) became more important because it was the hook to draw in the lost. Music was no longer accompaniment as an aid in taking the meaning of the poetry on the lips and in the heart and mind.

In Protestant Christian worship, music has always been in a subordinate role to aid the worshiper in taking to heart and mind the meaning and richness of the poetic lyric. Though Calvin knew and appreciated the incredible power of music to move hearts, he cautioned against getting music and the objective meaning of the words flipped around, "We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.” But in Revivalism that’s precisely what happened, the words became less important. The new format of the hymnal reflects this shifting priority of revivalism. Charles Finney’s New Measures and Pelagian theology, flipped things around. The new format of the American hymnal, reducing the central importance of the poetry, was born. I would argue that this format does exactly what Calvin cautioned us against, our eye and ear “more intent on the music” (that’s the first thing we see in Revivalism-influenced hymnal format, musical score not poetic lines) “than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.”

Ask English students to write a timed essay under exam conditions about hymn poetry or offer them hymn poetry in its original poetic format, poetry stripped and dissected to fit the musical format, and they will choose every time to have it in poetic form. But we might object and say that when we are singing in church we are not writing an essay; they are two entirely different activities. Though that is true, both activities require the ones reading and singing the poetry to understand the meaning of what they are reading and singing. Christians rightly place a high premium on the engagement of the mind and of the imagination in worship. I would argue that singing hymns from a hymnal inadvertently formatted to make it more difficult to observe the subtleties of the poetry being sung is actually working against its own purpose.


Maybe it’s time to take on a remaining reductionist influence of Revivalism on our hymnal and thus on our worship. Why not consider a cross page format, the poetry in lines and stanzas on the left and facing the poetry the musical score with poetry imbedded? For shorter hymns the poetry could appear on the top of the page and the musical score at the bottom. To reduce the obvious increase in page numbers,
My newest release on hymnody
more hymns that are not used could be retired. I realize the difficulties and potential added expense, but I don’t think any of us believe that cost should keep us from confronting an obstacle to the engagement of mind and heart in our sung worship as significant as this one is.

In this proposed format reconfiguration (not a new configuration, but a return to one that is consistent with how Reformed Christians have sung in worship since the Reformation itself—poetry and meaning first, music second) it will send a clear message to the worshiper that the meaning of the words, taken on the lips, in the heart, and understood in the mind, is of first importance in our worship. I guarantee that the majority of worshipers (especially our young children) will sing from the poetry (some studies indicate that only about 25-30% read music when singing in church anyway). They certainly will pray and meditate from the hymnal from the poetry where the progression of thought and rich poetic conventions are uninterrupted by the musical notation. I conclude with Calvin’s caution: "We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.” I urge publishers of hymnals to consider rescuing hymn poetry from the influence of Revivalism so that our hymnal format reflects biblical priority in sung worship.

Douglas Bond is author of a number of books for young people and adults, including his Mr Pipes series on Hymn writers, Augustus Toplady (EP, 2012), and The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (RT, 2013). Bond also writes hymns which you can read and sing at

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death of a Generation--Modernism and the Carnage of World War I

Bonds with poppies near the spot where CS Lewis was wounded

It was November 29, 1917, Jack’s nineteenth birthday. It was also his first day of trench warfare. Some birthday party! Later he wrote about that day. “The first bullet I heard ‘whined’ like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear… a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.’” 

One day he had been a fresh young college student; now he was a soldier. After a hasty few months of training he was dubbed a Second Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry and shipped off to France. Near Arras he heard that first of many bullets. When not dodging those bullets, he wrote down reflections on his experience.

The war—the frights, the cold, the smell, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet… I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead… I came to know, and pity, and reverence the ordinary man.

April 15, 1918 at Mont-Bernenchon, near Arras, France, an artillery shell whistled louder and closer than the rest. Then it hit. Erupting in a deafening explosion, the shrapnel instantly killed Jack’s friend, who had been a father figure to him. And it hit Jack. He wrote, “The moment just after I had been hit… I found that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death.” Perhaps at the field hospital at Etaples, perhaps at a convalescent camp back in England on the Salisbury Plain, embittered by his experience, Jack began writing a poem:

Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.

Laugh then and slay. Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth—
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.

Jack was his nickname. His real name was Clive Staples Lewis. The lines above appeared in his first book, Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems Lewis wrote while a young atheist and that he described to a friend as “mainly strung around the idea that nature is diabolical and malevolent and that God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangements.”

Perhaps after suffering the horrors of WWI, his bitterness and cynicism is more understandable. There were horrors aplenty. On the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 young men’s lives were cut short, many of them so mangled by artillery shells, by the tramping feet of advancing and retreating soldiers, the debris, mud, and carnage that in the five-month battle more than 72,000 soldiers’ bodies were so obliterated that they have no known graves. Between 1914 and 1918, an average of 5,600 young men died each day of those four-plus years, more than 18 million lives in total. No wonder Lewis penned the cynical lines “laugh then and slay.” [the above is adapted from Bond's book STAND FAST In The Way of Truth]

Wars and rumors of wars: it is the history of the world. Greed and ambition of the powerful few results in another generation sacrificing its 18-25 year olds in the field of battle. So it has been and persists in being in a badly broken world, regardless of the creative and sophisticated ways we try to tell ourselves to just be nice to one another and it will all go away.  History tells a different tale.

I'm reflecting on this now in August, the month it all came to a head in 1914, and I'm thinking back on our time earlier this summer in the somber valley of the Somme in northern France. One of our major objectives of this centenary visit was to go to Mont-Bernenchon where C. S. Lewis tells us he was wounded in The Great War 100 years ago. It was a tiny little place, and not even the museum curators I questioned about it knew of its connection to Lewis; we had to find it on our own. The cluster of houses that make up the village are new-medieval, rebuilt to look like the Old World dwellings they used to be before The Great War flattened them all. Only the 18th century church survived. And not a single person in the village that I spoke to had even heard of Lewis, forgivable since he was English and they are all French.

"The war to end all wars" was a Great War, if greatness can be measured by body count and futility: opening day of the battle resulted in a horrific 60,000 casualties, with average daily body counts in excess of the Bubonic Plague. A Great War, the grand achievement of irreligious modernism, but a war that did not remotely end all wars. 

The scope of destruction and devastation is hard to fathom. One day while in France we explored the twelve mile limestone network of tunnels at Wellington Quarry, dug by New Zealand troops. 24,000 men were hidden in these tunnels, who then broke out on July 1, 1916, to the astonishment of unsuspecting German troops a few yards from the break out point. Initial victory was followed by a well-supplied reinforced German army; eventually only 800 of the original 24,000 men survived the conflict.

We paused at the St Vaast war cemetery where 44,800 Germans are buried. Then we stopped and gazed at the sea of stone markers at the Cabernet Rouge cemetery where nearly 8,000 allied soldiers are buried, more than half, "Known only to God." That is one of the unique and deeply troubling dimensions of this war, so many men were just obliterated, either their bodies never found in the mud and rubble and chaos of battle or there was no possible way of identifying the mangled human remains. 

After exploring the trenches and more underground passages at Vimy Ridge where Canadian troops took heavy losses valiantly driving back the Hun, we paused to survey the 42,000 crosses marking the final earthly resting place of fallen French soldiers at Notre Dame de Lorette, national necropolis of France. We rounded out that day by an evening visit to Thiepval, where JRR Tolkien was wounded, and where the British commemorate the over 72,000 men whose bodies were so scattered and obliterated by the grinding machinery of war that no remains were ever recovered--not even a tooth.

I feel numb. The scale of devastation is too much to take fully in. All this in a war that snuffed out the life of 18 million average age 20 year old young men. When I attempt to envision how many crosses or gravestones that would be my imagination is exhausted. I simply cannot or don't want to get an accurate picture of the loss in my mind. 

Then I am struck by the virulence of the irony. We war and hate, kill and destroy, why? Because we are intractable rebels against the God of love, life, and justice who created us. We think we're far better off on our own and resent his will and way. We think we can handle things better on our own. And then when we are forced to stare at the resulting destruction our devotion to secularism has caused, we cast about for someone else to blame; and so we turn around and point the finger at God and religion. We're certain that if people would just stop being so certain about their beliefs there'd be no more wars like this one--truly we're absolutely certain, beyond a doubt, about it all being God's fault and those who believe in him. 

The grand Amiens Cathedral survived WW I
Such absolutist conclusions are ironic on many levels, not the least of which is that it was our devout devotion to Modernism that set the stage for this war to end all wars. Modernism said that we human beings could solve our problem by our economic strength, by our technology and scientific knowledge, by education, and by our military might. Its champions declared that "Success is the only measure of a just war." 

Modernism was a ticking time bomb that exploded in our face 100 years ago, August 1914. And nobody paid for the enormous miscalculation more than the young people of that generation--the millions of young men who died before they could marry and have children, and the millions of young women for whom there were simply no young men to marry. Following our will and way produces barrenness, a wasteland; self-worship always has and always will. Cursing God, as then-atheist Lewis did in 1918, won't fix the problem. Cursing our neighbor and pitching our hope in national and military superiority in war won't fix it either. There is only one hope for a bludgeoned, broken, and barren world. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God." Jesus himself, the Son of God, was the ultimate peacemaker, the "Prince of Peace." Sacrificing 18 million sons on the alter of national pride and ambition did not produce anything close to peace. But peace did require a sacrifice, a far costlier one even than those 18 million sons. God the Father made peace by sacrificing his only Son Jesus on the cross for hopeless sinners. In this benighted, war-torn world, it is only the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will restore all things to love, beauty, and peace. Jesus alone has accomplished what is needed to turn this God-forsaken wasteland into the God-glorifying eternal garden of heaven; he alone turns swords into plowshares. Come Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace!

Douglas Bond is a conference speaker, church history tour leader, and author of many books for adults and young people. Learn about his latest book GRACE WORKS! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) (P&R, 2014) at

Giles took this video of me at the British cemetery just on the outskirts of Mont-Bernenchon where Lewis, had he been killed instead of wounded, would most likely have been buried.

Giles (11) tells us about what happened at Thiepval, France near where JRR Tolkien was wounded in WW I and where, had Tolkien been killed instead of wounded, he would likely have been buried.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

KNOX 500 Scotland Tour--the grand virtual tour!

What a wonderful time together in Scotland! It was such a pleasure meeting many of you for the first time and getting reacquainted with others of you on our adventures together in Scotland and England on the Knox 500 Tour. As promised, I am posting this with lots of pictures and reminders of the places we visited and why they were important. Hope you enjoy them--and do keep in touch!
Glasgow Kirk (used to be cathedral) on our very first day together
Fenwick Kirk, 1643, William Guthrie Covenanter first pastor here, Second Reformation in generation after Knox
St John the Baptist Kirk tower, Ayr, where Knox's son-in-law John Welsh ministered and where his daughter Elizabeth is buried. Gavin Beers shared with us so ably here
Westkirk disruption church, built 1845. With the growing apostacy in the Church of Scotland, Thomas Chalmers led the founding of the Free Church in 1843. Westkirk sadly is now a pub where we ate lunch
Aston Hotel Dumfries, Knox installed young pastors in Dumfries
Hadrian's Wall, AD 122-128 (yes, Giles and I did manage to finish all 84 miles of the route, a great time together, especially with our support crew making it happen)
Durham Cathedral (Church of England) where Knox was called to answer charges by the bishop in 1550; where Bede, Cuthbert, and Oswald are buried. Modern error corrupting the gospel is marked here as NT Wright was bishop of Durham for a time
Lindisfarne Priory (Hand of Vengeance, 8th century Anglo-Saxon yarn of mine) center of Celtic Christianity 6th c and beyond
Norham Castle where Knox ministered as chaplain to the garrison while pastoring at nearby Berwick-upon-Tweed and where one of his first converts, Marjory Bowes, was brought to living faith in Christ (and would become his future wife)
St Mary's Collegial Church across the river from where he was born in Haddington, where Knox was likely baptized, where he was ordained, and where he later preached, installed a pastor and suggested they wall off the un needed portion of the large parish church building.

St Giles High Kirk Edinburgh where Knox preached, Grassmarket Covenanter monument, Knox House Museum, The Netherbow Tolbooth Prison now pub where we ate lunch, Magdalen Chapel where went to church, Edinburgh Castle and Grassmarket, our hotel on the Royal Mile: 

St Andrews sites: Where Patrick Hamilton was martyrd, where Rutherford taught and died, St Andrews Cathedral ruins, St Andrews Castle where Knox was taken prisoner by French
Leuchars where Alexander Henderson preached
St Peter's Dundee at M'Cheyne's grave with living pastor David Robertson
St John's Kirk, Perth where Knox preached and iconoclasm commenced
Loch Leven Castle where Mary Queen of Scots was held after she was forced to abdicate
Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling; Knox crowned James VI here and preached; James Guthrie pastored here
Stirling Castle where Mary Queen Regent orchestrated persecution of Knox and Reformation
Bannochburn (1314-2014) Robert the Bruce crushes English army of Edward II
Dunblane Cathedral (Knox ordained by Bishop of Dunblane)
Sir Richard, Knight of Nottingham