Three of my big obsessions in life are faith, history and music. However, it’s remarkably rare that I’ve had the opportunity to bring all three together in one place (the one notable exception being the series of articles I wrote with Peter Webster on change in music for worship in the post-war period a few years back). So I have Sam Miller of the Birmingham Mission Apprentice Scheme to thank for setting me a challenge: could I lead a session (at somewhere around Bishop’s Certificate type level) which enabled people to explore how the Gospel was expressed at different times in the history of Christianity, and which would also offer some brief introduction to the period in question, and to do this through songs, hymns or poetry written at those times? It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
The first problem was deciding which periods, out of the whole history of Christianity, to focus upon? Academic historians are markedly reluctant to talk about ‘turning points in history’ because once one starts trying to unravel cause and effect, there is literally no end to the chain of circumstances involved. Trying to identify ‘turning points’ are also remarkably susceptible to the concerns of our own agendas, times and places. A generation ago many historians of religion would have tended to identify World War One as the critical turning point in the religious temperature of the nation: now the pendulum of orthodoxy has swung towards an interest in the ‘long 1960s’. Likewise we in Western Europe tend to think of the European Reformation as a critical turning point in the history of Christianity, but for centuries it must barely have registered in the consciousness of most Christians of the Syriac tradition. As a result, picking out four or five periods of history as particularly significant is fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And yet…. trying to write history without selecting and meaningfully linking events is also pretty much impossible – and (all but the most die-hard post-structuralist would say) entirely contrary to what history is all about.
So, accepting the challenge of selecting particular periods to illustrate a much larger whole, a second challenge was in trying to choose hymns and songs that particular reflected their times and concerns, but were accessible enough for a group of relative newcomers to the history of Christianity to digest. To try and place some manageable parameters on the task, I decided to select only hymns and songs which:
– are known and fairly widely used today in at least some branches of the UK church (given that this was a UK-based group I was working with) or more generally through popular culture
– were in some way reflective of some key theological themes and musical styles of the times they were to represent
– offered sufficient raw material to be able to unpack aspects of the history of Christianity of those times
– emphatically not a list of personal favourites, but at the same time disregarding any songs that I personally couldn’t abide!
I have to confess that in the final selection I cheated slightly: the first choice below was originally written as a poem rather than for singing; the second was also a poem rather than a song linked to a person from one century but written about four centuries later, and not widely used as a hymn until the nineteenth century. I also very much regretted that in my choice of a song to represent the 20th Century, I have gone for something written by a westerner rather than someone who represents what an increasingly large percentage of the worldwide church had become by the second millennium: young, Black, Asian or Latin American, and living in a developing country (however, I felt my choice was to some extent justified by having chosen a woman writer, and one living south of the equator).
I don’t think that what follows is a perfect selection – it’s quite a personal choice, and it’s necessarily constrained by the limitations of my knowledge (in particular, of Catholic and Orthodox hymnody). But here’s what I picked:
1. Prudentius – Of the Father’s Love Begotten (4th/5th Century).
I chose this to illustrate the 4th/5th Century partly because this is one of the very few works from the early Christian centuries that we still sing (it’s in Carols for Choirs, the English Hymnal, and on the Bethlehem Carol Sheet, to name but a few). It dates from an era when the Roman Empire is gradually becoming thoroughly Christianised. Only a century before its writing, Christianity was socially marginal, still frequently seen as philosophically vulgar, and sporadically persecuted. By the time of writing, all that had changed: Constantine had accepted Christianity, and by the 380s/390s, his successor Theodosius 1 was decreed the Roman Empire’s official acceptance of Christian faith and its discouragement of alternatives. From being largely centred on a few major urban communities, Christianity was gaining ground across the more northerly and westerly parts of the Roman Empire, although not all were happy with its new-found imperial associations (as the growing influence of the monastic movement testifies). Of the Father’s Love Begotten was written by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, a lawyer, provincial governor and poet from the province of Tarracona in northern Spain – exactly the sort of elite Roman to whom Christianity was beginning to appeal at the time. By this stage, Christianity was capturing the cutting edge of western thought (Prudentius is a contemporary of Augustine, amongst others). Although not the first widely celebrated Christian poet, Prudentius was nevertheless an early example of the kind, and one of the few whose words we remember today. If one thinks about the church at the end of the 1st Century many would have thought poets were a luxury accessory for the Christian faith – but here, Prudentius is writing artful Latin verse in a way which seeks to communicate Christian beliefs to an educated audience. The poem also sets the person of Jesus within the whole canvas of salvation history (‘he the source, the ending he’), and although it is not alluded to specifically in the poem, it is easy to think of that portion of the western church (including one of its earliest chroniclers, Eusebius) who saw the christianisation of the Roman Empire as the culmination of a whole phase of salvation history. The poem is obviously Trinitarian and much in particular is made of the divinity – as well as humanity – of Jesus. This was the era of the great Ecumenical Councils of the early Christian centuries, and Prudentius appears very much to take the Athanasian rather than Arian side of the argument on the relationship between Jesus and the Father.
2. Anon. – St Patrick’s Breastplate (8th Century)
Most historians locate Patrick in 5th Century, although the words of this Celtic poem probably date from three centuries later, and we have the late 19th century hymn writer Fanny Alexander to thank for the version we sing today. Even so, both the content and the form of the poem proved an effective way into some of the key themes of Celtic Christian spirituality at a moment of energetic missionary activity in northern Europe. By this stage the Roman Empire had crumbled away, replaced by a mosaic of smaller kingdoms and tribal loyalties. In many contexts, the baton of Christian mission had passed to monastic orders, often on the western edges of the continent – first in France (Patrick may have studied and been ordained there) and then in Ireland. There developed the systems of penitential discipline which were to have a strong influence on the western church in subsequent centuries, and also developed the patterns of northern missionary activity which were to transform the continent over the next centuries: from withdrawal in isolated places to missionary contact with kings and tribal rulers who, once converted, would then permit and encourage preaching and the building of churches in their own lands. St Patrick’s Breastplate itself is an intriguing theological remnant of its times: in form it is a ‘lorica’ (a pagan charm designed through repeated use to ward off evil), but one which has been thoroughly Christianised in content. There is plenty of evidence of the delicate and sophisticated balance the Celtic missionaries struck between insistence on the exclusivity of the claims of Jesus Christ, and the ready accommodation with other patterns of pagan spirituality from the time: the celebration of the natural world as God-made and imbued with the divine presence; the emphasis on spiritual power to defeat evil (there are many accounts of pagan rulers being impressed by the greater power of the Christian God); and a definite sense of the heroic (there is little that is philosophically refined or cerebral about the breastplate: Jesus Christ is not just an interesting idea, but the purpose for, and also best protection from, the dangers of bringing the Gospel to new lands).
3. Anon. – Gaudete (15th/16th Century)
Given that the medieval period is often (albeit problematically) seen as the ‘golden age’ of Christianity in Europe, it was suprisingly difficult to choose one hymn in frequent use today which allowed an insight into another time and its concern. I could have used an excerpt from the Mass, except that it is more difficult to anchor to any particular century before the Reformation. ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded’ by Bernard of Clarvaux may have been a contender – certainly it is still sung today, and its graphic account of the crucifixion reflects contemporary interest in the wounds and sufferings of Christ during at least certain parts of the medieval period. One parish priest recently suggested to me ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ by Bernard of Cluny (most often found in contemporary hymn books in the version by John Mason Neale) – which again illustrates a number of contemporary themes, but in the end I found myself doubting how widely it was sung (I may be wrong). All Creatures of our God and King (attributed to St Francis of Assisi), was another contender, and much better known, although it offers comparatively little raw material for exploring medieval beliefs about God and Jesus. In the end I opted for Gaudete, best known today as a Christmas carol or in the recording by Steeleye Span – first appearing in print in Swedish/Finnish hymn collections of the late 16th Century, but possibly based on an earlier song dating to the 15th Century. On one hand, the carol/popular song style highlights an important method of communicating the faith in this era – yet it was also still a comparatively new song at a time when the new technology of printing allowed much wider propagation of Christian literature. If published in the late 16th Century, the song is interesting in the continued use of Latin during the era of Reformation in which vernacular worship was on the agenda of many reformers (although I confess I do not know how widely church music was still written in Latin in Scandinavia at this time – certainly the Bible had already been translated into both Finnish and Swedish). In any case, selecting an example from the northernmost reaches of the continent shows just how far Christianity had permeated through Europe by this point (Lithuania, the last pagan kingdom in Europe, had only finally officially accepted Christianity in the late 14th century, and parts of the country only began to embrace Christianity in any systematic way in the early 15th). I may be noticing it because it would suit my purposes, but there also is a marked contrast here to St Patrick’s Breastplate: Gaudete portrays a world in which ‘Christ is reigning’; Christendom is unchallenged (save on its eastern borders), and there is little sense of struggle here, except for the final verse ‘therefore let our preaching/now sing in brightness’, which suggests some unfinished business in the Christianisation of the population. The song also makes reference to the participation of the Virgin Mary in God’s plan of salvation – a key concern of medieval theology and piety. There is a particularly interesting, and to contemporary eyes cryptic, reference to the ‘gate of Ezekiel’ which some medieval theologians took to be a prophecy, or perhaps an allegory, about the coming of Jesus (in this case, that Mary’s womb would act as the ‘gate’ by which the doorway through which the Saviour would come).
4. Charles Wesley – O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing (18th Century)
In some ways trying to choose a hymn which summed up the ‘Long Reformation’ of 16th to 19th Centuries is made easier by the re-flowering of a culture of congregational singing in general (and hymn-singing in particular) to many church traditions in the period – first amongst dissenting churches in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then more widely within the Church of England in the early 19th. With so many published hymns available, the range of choice was vast. So why O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing? First, in form and style it is characteristic of the kind of popular song which was popularised by the evangelical revival of the 18th Century, and which became very typical of the kind of hymn which became mainstream within many traditions – crossing denominational boundaries much like the revival itself. Second, it emerges from the nascent Methodist movement which was so pivotal in the wider renewal of Christian faith in Britain and America during that time. Third, the hymn offers a clear window onto many of the key concerns of the revival (deep consciousness of personal sin, profound emotional as well as intellectual encounter with the Gospel, the atoning death of Jesus, liberation from slavery to sin, healing and restoration in this life as well as the next, a call to repentance directed at the ‘rough’ elements of society as well as the ‘respectable’). Fourth, its date of composition – 1739 – comes only a year after the composer (followed three days later by his brother John) had experienced a renewal of his own Christian faith. (The hymn he wrote to celebrate this, And Can it Be?, could equally have been a contender for inclusion in this list). Fifth, it is only a few small steps from the Wesleys into discussing a number of key features of their time: in some respects the Wesleys and their theology can be said to have embodied all the complexities and contraditions of their age: a deliberate engageent with the ‘lost’ of urbanising, industrialising Britain but also with the global Protestant missionary movement (‘to spread through all the earth abroad’); a combination of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason on the one hand, and the Romantic movement’s interest in the personal and affective on the other; a blending of popular interest in the intersection of the spiritual and natural realm on one hand, a debt to a more learned tradition of writing on practical holiness (William Law, Richard Baxter and others) on the other hand.
5. Darlene Zschech – The Power of your Love (20th Century)
Choosing one hymn or song to represent the diversity of global Christianity in by the turn of the second millennium is in truth an impossible task. Although communications technology allows songs and hymns to be shared, played and re-played across the globe more easily than in any preceding generation, differences of theology, denomination and church culture mean that there is comparatively little music for worship which is fairly ubiquitously used. For example, far too few songs composed by black musicians and sung in majority black or black-led churches are known and used by predominantly white churches. Significant divisions in doctrine and ethics also too frequently end up becoming replicated in worship style as well – indeed, it is music and worship style as much as theology which has tended to mark out different ‘tribes’ within the contemporary church. In making this final selection I’ve been particularly aware of the currents in 20th Century church life which I’m ignoring: western liberal Protestantism; a renewed vernacular Catholicism and theologies of liberation from across the denominational spectrum, to name but a few. However, I chose The Power of your Love for several reasons: first, as one of the most widely used contemporary praise and worship songs of recent decades, it has enjoyed global success (illustrating the globalisation of Christianity more generally). As a genre, the ‘praise and worship’ song owes much to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement, which emerged as a fourth key strand in global Christianity in the 20th Century (alongside Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. By the end of the 20th century perhaps as many as a quarter of all the world’s Christians were Pentecostal or Charismatic). Written by a woman who is well-known as a worship leader, the song reflects an increased tendency since the early 19th Century for women to become involved in writing hymns, leading worship, and leading churches (there were of course significant female leaders and composers of .church music in earlier centuries, but they were often exceptional and marginalised).
The words also reflect several features of the Christian experience at the end of the 20th Century. Like many songs of the time, it is written in the first person singular (‘Lord I come to you’): in an age when ‘personal authenticity is sovereign, music for worship has often consciously or unconsciously reflected this concern for the individual. Wesley’s O for a Thousand Tongues is also written from the individual point of view and in this respect Lord I come to you sits within a much longer tradition of evangelical song-writing. However, where Wesley inserts a significant amount of doctrine into his hymn (which could be imbibed as it was sung), Lord I come to you is primarily experiential. As an individual song this is not necessarily a problem: we need hymns and songs which engage the senses and feelings as well as the intellect and the will (although it can become problematic where a church’s diet of hymns and songs tips too far in one direction). However, it does reflect a more general trend within praise and worship songs to place a great deal of emphasis on personal experience. A first aspect of this is the yearning to see God ‘face to face’ – a common theme in contemporary worship songs. Spiritual intimacy is a central desire of the Pentecostal and Charismatic experience (though by no means the only one, and is by no means confined to this tradition – as the medieval mystics show). Yet the search for intimacy at the same time reflects a sense that in a ‘dis-enchanted’, post-Christendom society, such a close encounter with God can feel quite distant from everyday experience. We are far from home, but we are sustained by the vision of finally seeing God ‘as God is’. In the mean while (as various writers have noted), singing is one of the primary ways of creating the spaces in which God can be encountered intimately in the here and now.
A second aspect of the song’s emphasis on personal experience is the expectation that encounter with God enables transformation from inner dissonance to inner harmony (from ‘the weaknesses I see in me’ to ‘rising up like the eagle’). Some have seen in songs such as this a highly ‘therapeutic’ kind of faith, in which inner calm and wholeness are the primary aim of the worshipper, whilst questions of evil and personal responsibility fade into the background (the song talks of ‘weaknesses’ rather than ‘sin’). Yet the image of rising up on eagle’s wings is taken straight from Isaiah (40:31), reminding us that the Bible is a lot more attentive to all the different facets of our human selves than we sometimes give it credit for. (Again, such things only become problematic if one sings an exclusive diet of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ type songs – just as one ends up with a very dry, cerebral faith if one only sings songs containing doctrinal propositions). Yet at the same time, the song ends with an expectation that this intimate encounter will lead to a transformed life ‘as your will unfolds in my life, living every day in the power of your love’. Here is Christian discipleship not as the performance of a proscribed set of rituals and practices, or the discharge of religious duty (which even until recent decades many people would have felt it to be) but of a whole life orientated in the direction of God.
As noted at the beginning, this is a highly personal choice, one influenced by my time, place and the requirements of a particular piece of teaching. All in all it worked well enough to demonstrate the value of exploring hymns and songs as a way into the history of Christianity. But if readers can suggest any more suitable alternative choices, I would love to hear them.
(with acknowledgements to various articles on Wikipedia, the Cyber hymnal and the Hymns and Carols of Christmas, as well as to various academic and popular books on Christian worship).