Union University
Union University Dept of Language


In Praise of (hymn)Books

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

March 17, 2011 - The so-called “worship wars” among evangelical Christians rarely move beyond the gridlock created by the rhetorical obfuscation that results from appeals to “style.” Worship, so the conversations go, by which most evangelicals mean “music,” is largely a matter of cultural preference. Thus, arguments about whether to use “contemporary” or “traditional” worship (again, “worship” = “music”) degenerate into disputes about the targeted culture in question – i.e., the old, the young, the current membership, the unevangelized, the ethnically diverse, etc.

One of many casualties in this war is deep deliberation about the value of printed text. This is because, as a matter of historical accident (though not as a matter of philosophical necessity), the abandonment of the hymnal typically coincides with the use of “contemporary” worship (whatever that may be). More often than not, the adoption of a contemporary style includes electronic projection of lyrics – even where “traditional” hymns are used alongside “contemporary” praise and worship choruses. Thus, although this need not be the case as a matter of the internal logic of using electric guitars and drums, the hymnbook is typically relegated to the storage closet as soon as the amplifiers take the stage.

What is explains this phenomenon is likely a failure to make a proper distinction between form and content, as well as an inability to reflect on the significance of the former independently of the latter. The book itself (i.e., the form) gets inextricably (and wrongly) linked to the particular songs it happens to contain (i.e., its content). Thus, those who wish to “sing to the Lord a new song” (again, mistakenly) believe that the ability to do so requires the rejection of the form of the book itself.

The tragedy of this rejection lies in its failure to appreciate the value of lyrics as a source of theological training and the form of the book itself as a full, physical manifestation of both a church’s theological commitments and doctrinal limitations. Like the Bible itself, a hymnbook can serve as a canon. It is a rule by which a church expresses, “We believe…” That this is understood by those who publish hymnbooks can be discerned by comparing the texts of identical hymns as they appear in various denominational hymnbooks. It is not difficult to discover slight, but theologically significant, variations in lyrics which express the particular theological commitments of the denomination in question.

By the very nature of their form, books do this in ways that digital projection cannot. The slow, expensive, physical manner in which hymnbooks are printed provide the space in which theological deliberation about a church’s doctrinal commitments and boundaries can occur. Moreover, the product of such deliberation (i.e., the hymnbook itself) is not subject to the whims of the worship team precisely because, given the nature of print media, one can’t plausibly produce completely new hymnbooks (i.e., with an entirely new set of hymns) every single week.

Digital projection provides no such theological stability. The digital images of words on the screen have no more permanence than the fleeting thoughts of the songwriter. Moreover, even if digitally stored, the lyrics of such songs cannot serve as a theological canon in the way that a hymnbook does - even if the songs stored are the very same hymns that would have been included in a hymnbook. This is because the stability required by a canon-as-guide cannot be assured in a medium which, by its very nature, is transient. Apart from the stability of printed text, the church is, in fact, subject to the whims of the worship team – even if the team happens to choose from the same body of songs week after week.

Of course, the canonicity of hymnbooks should not be pressed too far. In contrast with Scripture, it is mistaken to think that the very words of a hymnbook (or the songs therein) should never change. But the medium of the printed book ensures that change occurs at a pace that is in keeping with the theological functions of church hymnody. And this is an essential aspect of church life that digital projection cannot provide.

Grasping this truth would not end worship wars. Yet it would most certainly move the debate in a more fruitful direction. A foundational commitment to the use of a book, with a genuine openness to change (within the boundaries of a church’s doctrinal commitments) would fundamentally shift the conversation. Rather than merely being an argument about style, a church would be forced to ask: “Is this ‘new song’ worthy, lyrically and musically, of the time and expense required to print new hymnals?” Unlike discussions about whether “worship” should be “contemporary” or “traditional,” seeking an answer to this question seems like a conversation worth having.