It suddenly dawned on me that May was coming round, and for most of the past 8 years that meant there would be some kind of trouble and rumpus regarding the Church of Scotland annual General Assembly. It’s actually a great joy to be able to put all that behind us now. Indeed, Phillip Jensen very helpfully urged us to stop looking over our shoulders and not let the persecution of the past control us (my paraphrase). But I’m afraid I still couldn’t resist wondering what was happening and whether the ‘Kirk’ was actually declining and falling into obscurity as rapidly as we expected it to do so.
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.
At a consultant training seminar recently I made an observation in passing that may be an intriguing cultural insight or may be not worth considering. I share here with the hope that Nigerian friends may help refine my observation, and for the potential benefit of non-Nigerians.
So here was the situation: we were in the middle of a discussion from the floor about some issue that a presenter had just been teaching when one of the participants started talking at some length and somewhat passionately about something completely irrelevant to the topic in question. I forget exactly what we were supposed to be talking about but I do remember that he had somewhat misunderstood or else he just seemed to have a hobby-horse idea that he wanted to put forth. After a while someone called out “You’re preaching!” and others murmured for him to be quiet. Eventually he did stop.
So here’s the observation: the term ‘preaching’ seems to be associated with talking at length, without wisdom or understanding about some pet topic utterly unrelated to the text or topic in focus. Is that a common understanding about what ‘preaching’ is? So when someone is invited to ‘preach’ are we to expect something resembling that? That seems somewhat removed from the Biblical concept. Are there other terms that we could use? What should ‘preaching’ really look like? What about a passionate devotion to proclaiming the very point of the text in front of us, to say clearly to people the same thing that the original author penned the text for, based on taking some time to understand what it says and how it presents it?