Saturday, 5 November 2016

Fr Dwight Longenecker on Hymns

Fr Dwight Longenecker: What is a Hymn and What’s it For?

Surely a hymn is first, and foremost part of our worship. That means the words are words that we use to address our praise, adoration and worship of God. So much of the stuff I come across isn’t that at all. Instead it is sentimental language in which God talks to us to reassure us, make us feel better and comfort or inspire us. So…”Be not afraid…for I am always with you…Come follow me.. etc” This may be a pleasant enough devotional song to remind us of God’s promises, and there may be times when it is appropriate to sing such songs, but Mass is not one of those times. We’re not really at Mass to sing God’s comforting words to ourselves. We’re there to worship Him.

Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. “I am the bread of life…he who comes to me shall not hunger…etc” Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn’t a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God.


Very interesting thoughts. Fr Longenecker's criticism would very much apply to the Evangelical tradition of hymnography beginning with Charles Wesley and reaching full fruition in the Victorian era. Such hymns often focused on soteriology and assurance rather than direct worship to God.

Interestingly, Longenecker's requirement that hymns be focused on worship and adoration of God might lead us to a more positive view of Evangelical contemporary worship songs, with their imagery of worship in the temple and bringing glory to the Lord. Nevertheless, the problem with such worship is its heavy emphasis on emotions, which the worshiper may not feel. It feels awful singing a song with the words "I really want to praise the Lord!" when actually you feel pretty miserable. One of the great things about Victorian hymnography is that it had many songs acknowledging the weak and unworthy state of the worshiper, which are sorely lacking in contemporary Evangelical worship.

One of the things I like about Catholicism is the emphasis on duty. In the Charismatic Evangelicalism which I grew up with, duty was actually frowned upon. You were supposed to always be joyful and wanting to praise God all the time. A lot of people discover that this is unrealistic and drop out of Charismatic churches. Catholicism says "Yes, you may not feel like doing these things, but we still expect you to do it and if you do it, it will be good for you." I think this is something Evangelicals can learn from.

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