Category Archives: Engaging worship

There was no innkeeper, and he wasn’t inhospitable

Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows about the inhospitable innkeeper who wouldn’t allow poor pregnant Mary to stay in the only inn in town. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story originally said in the ancient Greek, according to Stephen Carlson of Duke University in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7, New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 326-342.

This apparently is a scholarly argument that has been going on for centuries, and at least one Renaissance scholar was reprimanded by the Inquisition for daring to show that “καταλυμα” in this context does not mean “inn.” Carlson summarizes his thesis as follows:

Putting these exegetical conclusions together, the entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. Luke’s point is not so much any inhospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate even a newborn.

Rats, there goes this Sunday’s Christmas pageant.

Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. Continue reading

Old 100 x 4

I remembered reading somewhere that the Pilgrims liked the tune to “Old Hundredth” because it was lively — not the modernized, plain vanilla, 4/4 version found in most hymnals these days, but the original version that trips up modern singers on the last line because of the change in rhythm. I convinced Amy that we should sing the original version in the intergenerational Thanksgiving service this past Sunday — sure enough, at the 9:30 service all of us (including me!) got tripped up on the rhythm of the last line. At the 11:00 service, I was smart enough to warn people to watch out for that last line, and we sang it without a hitch.

Later I realized I should have created a half-sheet insert of the sheet music for the order of service. Even though fewer and fewer people read music these days, there are still enough music readers that they could have helped keep everyone else on track. (Plus when you provide an insert, it can serve as a teaching and outreach tool — music readers might take it home and learn one of the harmony parts to the music.) Since someone else might actually use such an insert, below is a link to a PDF. The text is a common humanist version of words by Isaac Watts: “From all that dwell below the skies, / Let songs of hope and faith arise, / Let peace, good will on earth be sung, / Through every land by every tongue.”

Old Hundredth (original form).

The Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, sings their doxology to Old Hundredth every week — but they use different versions of the tune, including the original version above, and a version by Susan Conant with more modern harmonies and even more interesting rhythms. If you’re going to sing the same thing every week, you might as well make it interesting! In that spirit, here’s yet another version of Old Hundredth — William Walker’s arrangement of Old Hundredth from The Southern Harmony (1835), laid out in classic shape-note fashion on a half-sheet size suitable for an insert into an order of service:

Old Hundredth arr. by William Walker.

“Singing an eclectic repertoire”

One of the best short essays on singing in worship just went up at the Alban Institute Web site. In the essay, titled “Singing an Eclectic Repertoire,” authors Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger point out that singing in church “is not about aesthetics — about what we like or dislike. It is about singing our faith in our local community while opening ourselves to new possibilities for singing and worship.” With that principle in mind, they offer some really great ideas for singing a wide-ranging repertoire that includes the following types of sacred song: early American, Irish folk, Hebrew traditional, African American spiritual, gospel, African, Latino, Asian, and contemporary musics.

For example, check out this suggestion for singing Irish folk melodies: “Most people don’t know that the origin of the song ‘Be Thou My Vision’ was an Irish folk tune. If you play it directly from most hymnals, it will sound more like a traditional Germanic hymn. When we simplify the harmonies and change chords primarily only once a measure, the mood changes drastically. The tempo can be lively. Adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum will enhance the Irish flavor.” Obviously, you could use similar ideas with English folk melodies as well.

Epperly and Hollinger don’t cover every type of music we sing as sacred song. They don’t cover Welsh tunes, medieval music, or contemporary North American chant, for example. But the authors don’t need to give us precise instructions on singing (and leading) every different type of sacred song. Once we realize that most congregations tend to make every song sound either like (a) old Germanic hymns, or (b) contemporary praise music — we can deal with that tendency, transcend our present narrow approaches, and become truly eclectic singers.

How about Tuvan throat singing in church? Would that be going too far? Umm, OK, I guess something like this might drive some people out of a worship service.

Some criteria for seriously innovative worship

A friend of mine who’s headed towards liberal ministry told me that she hopes to do more innovative worship when she finally gets into a local congregation. I would tend to agree with that feeling. But over the years, I’ve seen many attempts at innovative worship either founder on the rocks of reality, or drift into blandness and puerility. Perhaps it is possible to chart out a better course.

Here is my attempt at listing some of the criteria we might use when creating seriously innovative worship — in a liberal religious context:

Criterion 1 — Seriously innovative worship has to encompass multiple theological stances. Circle worship is too often grounded either in a limited Neopagan theological stance (e.g., in Starhawk’s Wiccanism), or in a limited liberal Christian stance (e.g., in Letty Russell’s “church in the round”). Like conventional liberal religious worship, seriously innovative worship will work well with humanism, liberation theologies, contemporary liberal Christianity, Neopaganism, feminist theology, etc.

Criterion 2 — Seriously innovative worship must be scalable. A big problem with many circle worship and alt.worship approaches is that they work best for small groups (under a hundred people). If we’re going to be seriously innovative, we’re not going to limit ourselves to a certain size of worship service.

Criterion 3 — Seriously innovative worship cannot require additional worship planning time. Both paid clergy and volunteer worship leaders tend to have inelastic schedules that cannot accommodate even another two hours of worship preparation a week. Seriously innovative worship will be practical, and fit in real world time constraints.

Criterion 4 — Seriously innovative worship should be radically inclusive, allowing first-time visitors to participate fully. Seriously innovative worship, in the best tradition of liberal religion, will invite everyone to participate: children may stay for the whole service if they choose; all elements of the service are understandable; all may participate in communion (traditional communion, flower communion) or similar rituals when offered; there are no bits that only worship leaders see and hear because everyone can see and hear everything; and so on.

Criterion 4 — Seriously innovative worship should always have something for the person who has come that day in sadness or sorrow, or joy, looking for a place and a community to support them in sadness or joy. Seriously innovative worship will support us through real human hurts and hopes.

Criterion 5 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion cannot discard intellectual content. A defining characteristic of religious liberals is that we are thinkers; while we probably want to encourage more feeling in worship, that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of thinking. We will come out of seriously innovative worship with something to think about for the rest of the week.

Criterion 6 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion will remain connected with the historical roots of liberal religious worship. All innovation requires a deep understanding of, and feel for, an existing tradition. Seriously innovative worship won’t be widely adopted unless it grows out of a common experience most religious liberals share, bringing new life and energy to our existing tradition.

The next step is to take these six criteria, and start applying them to our current attempts at innovative worship….

Metrical paraphrases of religious texts

I’ve been comparing two metrical paraphrases of Psalm 19.1-4, one by the poet and writer Joseph Addison, and one by the poet and hymnodist Isaac Watts. It’s instructive to see how two different hymnodists handle the exact same subject.

First, they use two different meters: Addison’s version is in Long Meter Doubled (L.M.D.) which is somewhat easier to find a tune for, while Watts’ version is in Second, both take liberties with the original text, adding imagery, emphasizing and de-emphasizing what appeals to them. Third, they reflect different theological stances: Watts begins with the straightforward phrase “Great God,” while Addison prefers to use more oblique references like the “great Original”, “Hand” and “Creator”, and Addison also refers to “Reason” which since it is capitalized is personified. Fourth, Watts’ hymn directly addresses God, while Addison’s hymn speaks about God and God’s works. Fifth, while both are enjoyable hymns to sing (considered in terms of the rhymes, rhythms which aren’t too herky-kerky, “mouth-feel”, etc.) Watts’ verse is sturdy, bold, and tends towards the ecstatic; Addison’s verse is more nuanced, lower-key, and feels more subtle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both hymns are worthy of being called poetry — I don’t cringe when I sing them, and they’re worth singing more than once.

This kind of comparison is helpful for those of us who want to think about how to evaluate new hymns written by religious liberals hymnodists — and/or for those who may want to take a stab at writing new liberal religious hymns. Not that we should imitate Addison or Watts (although that may be a good idea), but we should start thinking about articulating criteria about what makes a good or poor hymn text.

I’ll include the full text of both hymns, plus the text from the King James Bible from which the hymns were drawn, after the jump. Update: I’ve added the Scottish Psalter’s metrical paraphrase of this same text at the very end of this post. Continue reading

Democracy in action, through singing

This paragraph, from an essay about 18th century American church song, reminded me why I have a visceral dislike of certain kinds of music prevalent in liberal religious congregations today:

“When it was composed, this music [American 18th century four-part church song] was experienced rather than heard because it was not written for an audience’s appreciation or to tickle an ear — it was written to be experienced in performance by performers. How it ‘sounded’ to a non-participant was of very little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. Clearly, a basic function of congregational music within the service should be to participate actively in worship through music. This active participation in worship is, of course, one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, a democratization of religion that was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music. Thus, congregation music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience, as with choir music, but through the performing experience. …” [“The American Tradition of Church Song,” in Music and Musicians in Early America: Aspects of the History of Music in Early America and the History of Early American Music, Irving Lowens (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 283.]

The paradigmatic composer of this American music was William Billings (link to some sound files of Billing’s music performed both by professional choirs and amateurs). Billings wrote songs that can be sung by average people with average voices, yet they are musically interesting enough to hold the attention of sophisticated musicians. The songs are written in four-part harmony where each part has enough melodic interest to keep all singers interested and involved. The songs are unaccompanied, and are in that sense truly democratic — there is no paid accompanist, no soloist who is more important than the other singers; just as in political democracy, everyone has to participate in this music to make it work. And as is true of a robust democracy, education is an integral part of the process; Billings was one many New England singing-school masters who taught young people how to sing in four-part harmony. We’re talking about truly democratic music.

This is why I have a visceral dislike of praise bands: the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad; that is profoundly anti-democratic. This is why I don’t care for song leaders who use a microphone in church to make sure their solo harmony part is heard above the unwashed masses who sing in unison; their purpose is not to get everyone singing together, their purpose is to have the masses singing so they can perform a solo over it; again, this is not democratic in the sense Lowens uses the word in the paragraph above.

I wish I had an easy solution to the problem, but I don’t. The solution to the problem simple, but not easy — the solution is to take the time to teach people how to sing, just like the solution to the problem of not enough volunteers in our congregations is to teach people how to do lay leadership. In a culture that values consumption over self-cultivation, education is a tough sell, unless it is education that directly improves your earning potential so that you can increase your consumption. As long as we have people coming into our congregations expecting to consume religion (rather than co-create it), I guess we’re going to have problems with congregational singing.

A new liberal religious hymnody

I’m bored with contemporary liberal religious hymnody. (Remember, hymns are the words that we sing, not the music itself.) We have a bunch of 19th century hymns which are pretty good, but which tend to carry the 19th century curses of sentimentality and niceness. We have some singer-songwriter hymns, and some praise-band songs, all of which I find vapid and overly individualistic, and sometimes cloyingly sweet, as if you’re drinking a glass of molasses. I like some of the old African American spirituals, but we religious liberals tend to remove some of the best imagery and the most striking word choices.

Recently, I’ve been reading Isaac Watts’s hymns. I find that I like many of his translations of the psalms in his Psalms of David: his verse is solid and sometimes poetic, his rhymes are fun to sing, and his imagery is often striking. But I don’t like his limitarian, non-Universalist theology one bit, and I don’t like the way he plays fast and loose with the Psalms — e.g., there is absolutely no mention of Jesus in the Psalms, yet Watts is constantly dragging Jesus into his hymns which are supposedly based on the psalms.

Before Watts, there was The Bay Psalm Book, another metrical translation of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, used by many of the 17th and 18th century New England churches that later became Unitarian congregations. In the first edition of this psalter, the translators tried to make as literal a translation as possible. This can make for awkward singing. Yet awkward though it may be, it has a directness and an immediacy that I find refreshing; and it retains all the vivid imagery of the Hebrew Bible psalms.

Scott Wells of the blog Boy in the Bands recently pointed me to Elhanan Winchester’s The Psalms of David. Winchester was a Universalist, so I’m much more comfortable with his theology. His verse is pretty good, too. He has his problems — like Watts he plunks Jesus down in the middle of old Jewish psalms that really have nothing to do with Jesus — but he’s a nice example of what good traditional Universalist hymnody could look like.

On the Unitarian side, there’s the 1865 Hymns of the Spirit by Samuel Longfellow and Samuel Johnson. Some of these hymns are quite good, certainly better than anything written by later Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist hymnodists — we still sing some of these hymns today. These are definitely 19th century hymns, which means a little too sentimental and nice at times, but the verse is pretty good, and some of the images are also pretty good.

I don’t want to resurrect these old hymnals; I’ve been reading them to help me understand what I want in a new hymnody. I have no talent for writing hymns myself, but I know what I wish for in a new liberal religion hymnody. I wish we had hymns that addressed big religious issues like death, grief, illness and healing, ultimate reality, and religious ecstasy. I wish our hymns were in vigorous metrical verse with interesting rhymes and vivid imagery. I wish our hymnodists knew at least some basic theology so they could give us some real intellectual content (Watts was a Doctor of Divinity, and his knowledge of theology made a difference).

Most of the contemporary debate in this area has centered on musical styles. Maybe we should let go of the music for a bit, and focus instead on hymnody — on the words that we sing. Instead of encouraging musicians, maybe it’s time to encourage our poets and hymn writers. Once we have a body of good hymns, then we can work on finding the best composers to set the new hymns to music.

Dr. Watts

I’ve been reading through Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs. He uses clear, vigorous language to present vivid and compelling imagery. I often disagree with his theology, but I think his hymns have rarely been surpassed in the English language. And sometimes I do I agree with his theology. Take, for example, this hymn:

Hymn 1:24.
The rich sinner dying, Psalm 49:6-9. Eccl. 8:8. Job 3:14-15.

1 In vain the wealthy mortals toil,
And heap their shining dust in vain,
Look down and scorn the humble poor,
And boast their lofty hills of gain.

2 Their golden cordials cannot ease
Their pained hearts or aching heads,
Nor fright nor bribe approaching death
From glittering roofs and downy beds.

3 The lingering, the unwilling soul
The dismal summons must obey,
And bid a long a sad farewell
To the pale lump of lifeless clay.

4 Thence they are huddled to the grave,
Where kings and slaves have equal thrones;
Their bones without distinction lie
Amongst the heap of meaner bones.

Now that’s what I call vivid imagery. Wouldn’t you enjoy singing that hymn? Wouldn’t it help keep you focused on what’s really important in life?