Thursday, November 17, 2016

BEWARE--DANGER! What happens when we subsume lyric to music in worship

More intent on the words than on the music
"We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.” John Calvin


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 incorporated the study and imitation of the best poetry worthy to be studied in high school English classes, however, I discovered some significant obstacles to understanding and appreciating hymns as poetry for this generation of Christian young people. Nowhere is this more obvious than when students attempt to write about hymns as poetry. I have taught 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 secular (so called) 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; the poetic medium is, in some real measure, the message. Hence, 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 embedded 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. I chalked it up, at first, to 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. Though 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
Father of English Hymnody
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, supporting and aiding 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. Imagine doing this with a prose paragraph, each line cut away from the next, with musical notation inserted and separating the flow of idea; the result would be confusion not comprehension, and the paragraph's meaning would be difficult to impossible to understand.

But some 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 embedded? 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
Format the hymnal to reflect the priority of lyric
page numbers, 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). As a hymn writer, Bond collaborates with several composers, including Greg Wilbur; watch for the forthcoming New Reformation Hymns/Parish Psalms album, coming in 2017. Learn more at

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Image-Bearers and the Imagination--INKBLOTS

Blustery evening on the Red House Farm for InkBlots tonight, rain pattering against the windows, wind gusting in the trees, cattle restless and lowing. Snoqualmie red blend, only four of us braving it tonight; the others are missed.

Never package truth in dullness
I shared from Spurgeon's morning devotions, with his vintage use of imaginative comparisons to awaken the reader: "There is no mortgage on his estate; no suits can be raised by opposing claimants, the price was paid in open court, and the Church is the Lord's freehold forever." and a few lines later, "What a battle he had in us before we would be won! How long he laid siege to our hearts! How often he sent us terms of capitulation! but we barred our gates, and fenced our walls against him. Do we not remember that glorious hour when he carried our hearts by storm? When he placed his cross against the wall, and scaled our ramparts, planting on our strongholds the blood-red flag of his omnipotent mercy?" Victorian Spurgeon, unlike so many of his contemporary authors, knew how to be concise, how to use words with utility, each word, phrase, image, tight, evocative, and genuine. Don't write like Spurgeon. He's Spurgeon. But glean everything you can from his rich use of words. Still more, take his message deeply into your soul.

Awaken your readers' imaginations. We discussed journalism, of all things. And writing with integrity, ahem. Speaking of writing with integrity, Bob is dropping his Soap Lake yarn, to our consternation. What! We were loving it. He was not sure where it was going. We told him not to shred it. Then he started telling us what was going to happen, sordid tale of con and murder and general shysterism. Patrick likes it and urges Bob to focus on the satire of the name-it-and-claim-it dude, with new-age crystals not Bibles. Surprised twist, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, what he did was write a book that was a critique of European colonialism, but knew it wouldn't sell so he wrote the book using all the tropes of an adventure story, hooking the audience, then coming through the backdoor with his anti-colonialism theme. So Patrick's point is use one genre as set up then hit the reader with the expose on shysters. Which makes me think this could also be a political thriller, what with all the shysters, or an expose on journalists who think they are high priests of what ought to have happened and why it ought to have, but blithely charging forward ignoring what actually happened (the facts. The what?).  

Patrick nearing the end of the Ceribravore Tales, audience, speculative fiction, young adults to twenties, mostly males, 1000 years in the future. Rereading the same chapters after revision from our last hearing. This is a good thing to do. This story is a picture of redemption. Employing his switching of genre, per earlier discussion. Patrick had gotten some push-back about it being too narrative driven, too much beginning exposition, too much background set up, without action and character development. Our hero, you are addressing the reader, as our story begins. This is the oral storyteller point of view, somewhat like Lewis in Chronicles. I like the revision, the characters and action make it come alive, but I realized that I wasn't fully connecting, and was trying to figure out why. I think it is because you are using they, plural pronouns for your characters, not one dominant individual. It is harder for readers to connect with they than with him or her, a single individual character, yes, who had friends with him, but we can get into one head far more easily than into two or three or a dozen. How to include Gabe's brother, who appears later. How to introduce this? Bob commented that Patrick does not give us the expected phraseology, but comes at us from the flank. 

John reads Saving Grace, last chapter, letter her mom dropped in her lap, Grace not quite sure what to expect. Letter is from her boyfriend, father of her child. This is a good letter, Dear Jane letter, but I wonder if he would use the kind of words, syntax seems too educated, clear, honest for who I thought this guy was. Her boyfriend is a new convert, loves them both, and can't imagine living without them. Why was he too ashamed to say it to her face. Bob appreciated how John had Grace react, in thoughts and body language, reacting to the letter. Is the letter too detailed, gives too much away? I would suggest having him frank and honest about the habits of his past, acknowledging that he will need lots of help, wants to do what's right for her and for the baby, feeling inadequate, wanting to do what is right, she deserves more, Grace deserves more than he is and can give, but he wants to be that man. Patrick appreciates that John did not go too far and left the uncertainty.  

I read a chapter and a bit from Luther in Love, where Luther is giving a sermon at the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. Got some good push back about congregation interaction. Have I adequately prepared the reader for rough German church service with Luther preaching in the vernacular and peasant roughs responding during the sermon? Work on this. And tighten the actual sermon, avoid redundancies; here's a thought, try not to repeat myself, over again, and say the same thing more than once, and maybe I could avoid unnecessary repetition while I'm at it. Read an excerpt of LUTHER IN LOVE. Save your coffee money and join us for the LUTHER 500 REFORMATION TOUR June 15-25; space is filling so don't delay.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Douglas Bond: Profile/CV

Profile/Curriculum Vitae: Douglas Bond is author of more than twenty-five books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology, including several books now in Dutch, Portuguese, and Korean. Two-time Grace Awards finalist (2016), Bond directors the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is adjunct instructor in church history and creative writing at three institutions of higher learning, and leads Church history tours in Europe. He has been married to his delightfully patient and supportive wife Cheryl since 1983; they have been blessed with six children and three grandchildren.

He is adjunct Instructor in Church History at Western Reformed Seminary (WRS) where his Church history tours can be taken for graduate elective credit. Along with the Oxford Creative Writing Master class, his church history tours can be taken for university level credit at New College Franklin. Bond has earned a Masters in Teaching (MIT) from St Martin's University, and a Preliminary Certificate in Theology from Moore Theological College, NSW Australia.  

He has taught English and history for many years, and was awarded by the Pierce County Library Foundation and Arts Commission the "2005 Teacher Award"  for teaching young adults how to write; his high-school-aged writers have consistently dominated local and regional writing contests, including a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place sweep of the three-state and British Columbia Optimist 2015 essay writing contest; the Optimist Club awarded Bond the 2015 "Teacher of the Year." Bond frequently speaks on writing at various conferences. Additionally, Bond has ministered overseas in Peru, and taught in the Kingdom of Tonga, and with Equipping Leaders International (ELI) in Uganda.

He is on the advisory board of Glorious Films (Montreal) with Derek Thomas, Michael Haykin, and others (2014). In the Psalms Project (2009), funded by the Lilly Foundation, Bond was selected to be a speaker at Union University and to contribute a chapter to the book Forgotten Songs. As a hymn writer and author of several books on hymn writers and hymnody, Bond was asked to be a consultant for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) special feature series on Christian hymns God's Greatest Hits (2012). His NEW REFORMATION HYMNS album with Greg Wilbur, Steve Green, and Nathan Clarke George releases in 2017; a growing number of his hymns are being sung in churches and at conferences.

Bond is a ruling elder in the PCA, has served on a Presbytery committee, and in 2015 was elected to the permanent committee which oversees the campus ministry Reformed University Fellowship (RUF).

As an outgrowth of his books and teaching, Bond has led church history tours in Europe since 1996 (, and has also been consulted on a history documentary film on the Reformation. Meridian Filmworks is in negotiation with Bond’s publisher to create a major motion picture of his Scottish Covenanter signature novel Duncan’s War.

Frequently interviewed on Christian radio stations, Bond was featured in French newspaper Le Midi Libre (1/18/2015) on his book HAMMER OF THE HUGUENOTS, researched and written on-location in France. Additionally, Bond's articles on church history and theology have appeared in Modern Reformation, Table Talk, byFaith (author interview), Western Reformed Seminary Journal, Light and Life magazines, and in the Aquila Report. In addition to leading church history tours, Bond often lectures at conferences on literature and church history, including being scheduled for a third bonus speaking session at the Ligonier West Coast Conference in 2016.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Most Damnable and Pernicious Heresy--Luther the day after Reformation Day

The day after Reformation Day
All Hallow's Eve, 1517, Luther had timed things appropriately. All Saints' Day, November 1, 1517 Duke Frederick put on a huge exhibition of his latest reliquary acquisitions--the latest additions to his bone collection--pilgrims coming to venerate (and pay handsomely for the privilege), earning 1000s of years off purgatory in the bargain. No coin collector could have been more devout; the duke was serious about his reliquary, and wanted to make Wittenberg into the Rome of Germany. Luther scholar Roland Bainton tallied the elector's treasury of merit: 

"The collection had as its nucleus a genuine thorn from the crown of Christ, certified to have pierced the Savior's brow. Frederick so built up the collection from this inherited treasure that the catalogue illustrated by Lucas Cranach in 1509 listed 5,005 particles, to which were attached indulgences calculated to reduce purgatory by 1,443 years. The collection included one tooth of St. Jerome, of St. Chrysostom four pieces, of St. Bernard six, and of St. Augustine four; of Our Lady four hairs, three pieces of her cloak, four from her girdle, and seven from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of the gold brought by the Wise Men and three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus' beard, one of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven, and one twig of Moses' burning bush. By 1520 the collection had mounted to 19,013 holy bones. Those who viewed these relics on the designated day and made the stipulated contributions might receive from the pope indulgences for the reduction of purgatory, either for themselves or others, to the extent of 1,902,202 years and 270 days. These were the treasures made available on the day of All Saints."

Luther had taken a great risk posting his 95 Theses decrying indulgences the day before. The duke was his patron, and though he appreciated the popularity his university had gained by Luther's bold teaching and preaching, this was too far. Luther was undaunted because he had seen through the whole hoax of indulgences and a righteousness earned by ones own imagined merit. “The church’s true treasure," he wrote, "is the merits of Christ in the gospel.”

From studying and teaching the Psalms, Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews, Luther had come to know that Rome had flipped everything around and had, thereby, done violence to the gospel, and that venerating the saints and their supposed merits was a supplanting of the merits of Jesus Christ. The realization was at first a personal one. “I must listen to the gospel," he wrote. "It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.” 

Transformed by the power of the gospel and the gift of faith, Luther had to tell the Good News to others. And he did, as only Luther could do. “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of men was the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all holy God.”

Luther knew that the dukes exhibition scheduled for All Saints' Day, November 1, 1517 must be confronted. It was an affront to the gospel of grace, a supplanting of the authority of the Word of God, and an offense to true Christian worship. “The highest worship of God is the preaching of the Word, because thereby are praised and celebrated the name and the benefits of Christ.”

Finally, for Luther the risks to his person were worth it. Why? It was worth it because the Son of God is the only Savior and true friend of sinners. Johann Franck, German Lutheran pastor in the next generation expressed it this way: "Jesus, priceless treasure, fount of purest pleasure, truest friend to me."

Douglas Bond is author of a number of successful books, with LUTHER IN LOVE, forthcoming Winter, 2017, a biographical novel on Martin and Katharina Luther. Bond speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours, including the LUTHER 500 TOUR, June 15-25, 2017.