By Joe LaGuardia
A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church. By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.
Hymns and hymnals have not been without controversy. At times, controversy erupts when publishers change beloved verses in the hymns as a way to update the language. Other times, the inclusion or exclusion of hymns can become a source of contention.
The most recent controversy involved the publication of the Glory to God Presbyterian hymnal in 2013, which centered on pushing variations (while limiting others) of the theological concept of atonement– one particular doctrine of atonement in which Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was said to appease God’s wrath.
The exclusion of one such hymn that communicated this model of atonement, In Christ Alone, created strife. Some thought the exclusion to be intentional, but editors indicated that they were unable to secure copyrights appropriate in changing the verse, “As Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “on that cross Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”
The publisher argued that there were some songs included that spoke to this type of atonement, but they emphasized the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for sin rather than an appeasement of God’s wrath.
Controversies in our own Baptist tradition abound as well. In one controversial publication, the 2008 Baptist hymnal failed to put “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the first hymnal (it was #2 in the 1991 hymnal, right behind a congregational litany). Another debate ensued as to whether to include “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which some scholars argue is theologically inaccurate.
Other controversies focused on whether to include contemporary songs or choruses. These are primarily theological: What songs or choruses reflect a biblical message and inspire hearts to soar heavenward while our knees bend towards Christ? What songs are so individualistic that they do not express any community theology or serve a pedagogic function for the church whatsoever?
In my own ministry, I have not had a particular dog in the hymnal fight. I have, however, been intrigued to hear how other, more interested parties have weighed in. I knew one minister of music who thought that excluding “Holy, Holy, Holy” from the #1 spot in the Baptist hymnal was among the greatest sins in human history. In conversation with another music minister, I learned that there is too much “white space” in the new Celebrating Grace hymnal–and why kill all of those trees when you can use a more effective typeset?
Conflicts surrounding hymns and hymnals will always surface as long as churches insist on having hymnals in the pews and of reading music as a crucial part of congregational worship. Yet, debates over hymnody communicate an important truth: Hymns mean something to us because they stir emotions, nostalgic or otherwise.
Hymns mean something because they teach us things about who God is and who we are to God. We link emotional expression and theological depth with the songs we sing–a peculiar hallmark of churches and of sacred music in general–so they become meaningful in more ways than one. So when a publisher comes out with a hymnal and people begin to notice that The Old, Rugged Cross is nowhere to be found, then you’re certain to find yourself in the middle of a hymnal fight. Watch out, it could get ugly!