20.6.19

LOSING THAT INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY?

The Federalist's Tom Raabe suggests that hymn-singing ought to be out of the hymnal, rather than off the jumbotron.  I want to focus on an observation he makes about the traditional hymns.
As hymnals fade, theology also suffers. The rich repository of religious wisdom contained in hymns will be lost. The old-fashioned language of hymns may strike some as unusual, but their text teaches the Christian faith far better than most of the praise choruses that dominate contemporary services. Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.
That might have nothing to do with technology. It might be a reflection on the aliteracy of the writer of a praise chorus.  It might also reflect the stuff that doesn't get taught, whether in Sunday school or the common schools.  I'm more troubled by the loss of, for instance, classical and Shakespearean allusions as the curriculum becomes more quote-unquote inclusive:  wait until those first year law students hit the landmark Supreme Court rulings of the nineteenth century.

Or perhaps, some references lose relevance.  I was struck, for instance, by a line in Tony Bennett's "Paper Moon," which Tuesday's singer offered at the city's band concert.
It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
I understand Mr Bennett has sold out a summer concert at Ravinia Park.  But let's take stock of what's been changing.  The "oldies" radio stations used to feature love ballads, such as "Paper Moon," with singers backed by strings, or perhaps a swing band, rather than guitar and drum, and you could actually understand the words.  (Point your search engine at "Blinded by the Light" which now rates as an oldie.)  The band itself, which has been performing since 1854, still offers Sousa marches and medleys from Broadway's musicals, as well as the big band works longtime director Dee Palmer established his chops on.  But in the thirty-odd years that I have been attending, the G.I. generation seniors who were common at the concert have given way to the current crop of seniors (hi!) and we're fewer in number.  Yes, there are some little kids running around, but does the music mean anything to them?

Then there's that "Barnum and Bailey" reference in the song.  Yes, there has always been a sense that the itinerant circus is a humbug, and once upon a time Barnum and Bailey were The Greatest Show on Earth, but no more.  There are still little kids checking out the circus models at our shows, but does the circus train mean anything to them?

That might be the real problem confronting the churches, does the language of "Come, Come, Ye Saints" or "We Gather Together" or even "We Three Kings" mean anything to modern worshippers?

Or, as I once put it, "And yet the day may come when nobody knows how to set the valves on a steam locomotive, or how to catch the triple somersault."

2 comments:

David Foster said...

I'm not a Christian, but it has struck me that Christianity today, in America at least, has a "marketing problem" as a result of the heavy use of monarchical/feudal metaphors: King....Prince....Lord...etc. Surely these terms meant a lot more to people in societies where such roles actually existed.

(Although they *do* still exist in Britain, if in watered-down form, and that doesn't seem to have helped Christianity to retain position in that country)

Stephen Karlson said...

Perhaps so, although there's no good republican analogue to those terms, when the point of a faith tradition is to honor a Creator or a Great Architect of the Universe, which is to say an agency that humans had no say in choosing.