What can we sing about?

In recent conversation with friends we were considering why it seems to us somewhat odd to sing (in church, or I guess anywhere) about “God of concrete, God of steel, \ God of piston and of wheel,” etc. Here’s my working theory:

Romantic ideology or worldview still exerts an influence on what Western people consider things to sing about. That gives us nature, love and war and the full range of emotion turmoil as topics to work with. The church is not immune from cultural influence and so our hymns and songs are likely to be constrained by these limited aspects of life. So “when through the woods and forest glades I wander” fits our expectations of something to sing about rather than the starkly modern “when through the Facebook posts and blogs I browse…” or “when in the office juggling meetings and politics…” Perhaps this also explains our difficulties when it comes to singing some Psalms.

But let me back up a bit:

What and not just how we sing is an interesting part of culture, and it’s very easy to assume (erroneously) that all cultures will sing about the same things, even if their singing style is different. This is one reason why translating books of hymns and songs from one language to another may not be a particularly great basis for a new church’s song-life. The very topics contained in the songs may be awkward, embarrassing, boring or just odd for the target culture. (However, using a few translated songs from another culture may well address our own cultural blind-spots.)

I’ve already said that my guess is that we today inherit a list of singable topics from European 18th Century Romanticism, which just happened to coincide with some significant church growth and mission efforts. What I really should do, is to gather up older hymns and compare with ‘Romantic period’ hymnody and modern songs to try to gauge how well my theory is evidenced in reality.

Is there a problem? Romanticism was essentially escapist and a reaction against the urbanising, industrialising forces at work in Europe at the time. Are we in danger of yoking a significant part of church life to an escapist ideology if we limit ourselves to just the Romantic topics? Certainly the gospel can be powerfully expressed within the confines of Romanticism, but we need to be aware of some distorting influences that might slip through unnoticed. If Romanticism had a focus not just on escapism but extreme emotion, then it is quite possible that our singing may end up with a bias in that direction. And then since Romanticism excludes gritty, ordinary, working-class and modern aspects of life, is it possible that in our singing in church we may unwittingly reinforce the notion that the Christian gospel is primarily for the middle-classes? (They have the leisure to muse on higher things.) Might we end up excluding the impact of the gospel on everyday matters from our song-speech together?

Anyway, this is really just observation at the moment and so I’d find insights from others interesting.

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