Why write new hymns and songs?

Because the Psalmist calls for them? Because language changes? Because new circumstances present themselves?

All of that and more! When we write poems and set them to music, when we sing, we set something free which pushes at the boundaries, that strains both doctrine and understanding, and in doing so gives birth to new hope. But this is dangerous. It can lead to heresy.

We need heresies. Heresies are the antidote to closed minds, to broken hopes. Christianity was predicated on a heresy, as far as the Jews were concerned; similarly Islam for Christians. Heresies sometimes help us frame what we really believe. Most of the historic creeds have come into being as defence against distortions of truth. But as someone once said, ‘what is truth?’ The moment we think we possess it we are, perhaps, captives of our own arrogance. Creeds can have a positive purpose, but equally they can be a strait-jacket.

I want to be able to explore faith in the same way that my scientific probing enabled me to make new discoveries. And yes, I know there is risk in that. But it was Sydney Carter who pointed out that you can’t cage the bird of heaven and still keep faith alive, anymore than you could cage a lark and expect to hear its voice. We know the truth of the metaphor, but people so often seek to cage certainty. Think of those Hebrews in exile who thought that God was dead because the temple and the city of Jerusalem and had been routed, until Ezekiel gave the dry, dead bones of their faith a wake-up call. [1] Or Peter who was so constrained by the Jewish food laws that he couldn’t talk to Cornelius until God pointed out the foolishness of his theology in a weird dream. [2] Or there are those friends of mine who wouldn’t go into a pub to ‘share the gospel’ because drink was evil, forgetting the wedding at Cana in Galilee – surely those jars didn’t contain grape juice? Oh, I could go on, but perhaps I’ve gone on long enough. The root of the problem is that we never fully know God.

And then we declaim and so often judge, we codify and the spirit of God is diminished and emasculated. Somehow the church needs to reclaim that prophetic spirit that can enable new adventures of faith, new discoveries of the unfathomable grace and freedom of God. At their best hymn poets have done just that. Today this is still part of our responsibility. On the one hand we are to communicate belief in that subversive way that perhaps only hymns enable, so that we sing our faith not only with our lips, but in our hearts that it might then be lived in our lives. On the other hand we should allow imagination to inform our writing so that we discover new and liberating truths fresh for our age and our need. Today this is as important as it ever was.

So we must express old truths in new ways. We must explore new circumstances and make sense of them in terms of our understanding of God. We must forge new instruments of audacious hope testing our theology and recognising it as dynamic, growing as our understanding of God and the world deepens. And in all of this, praise of God, sung is a tool to be used and to be treasured. We can often sing those things we only tentatively hold to be true with our intellect and we can give birth to hope through poetic imagination that we would never contrive through conscious thought alone. If we do not have hymns and religious songs then we must invent some tool to take their place. Until then, let us continue to write and to sing new hymns and songs to God!

©Andrew Pratt 2010

[1] Ezekiel 37
[2] Acts 10