Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hymns and Our Theology

Siriusly Sinatra. That's the name of my favorite radio station, and now I don't even have to be in my car to listen to it. For an extra $3 a month, I get to listen to Sirius Satellite Radio on my home computer or my iPhone. Nice.

Siriusly Sinatra. No, not quite all Frank all the time, but it's that kind of music, what they call the "old standards," sung by legendary singers like Frank, Ella, Tony, Nat ("King"), Judy, Bing, and Lena; and written by just-as-legendary composers and arrangers like Cole Porter, Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, the Gershwins, Sammy Cahn, Fats Waller, and Jule Styne. (and I could go on)

Last night, I was listening to Siriusly Sinatra while working away here at the computer. Once in awhile, I just had to stop working, close my eyes, and listen. And marvel at the cleverness of the lyricists of those days gone by. (And the genius behind such wonderful partnerships between lyricists and composers, resulting in beautiful marriages of words and music.) As a writer (that's how I made my living for the past 20 years), I find great joy when I come across a well-turned phrase.

And how those lyricists could turn a phrase! They could turn it every which way but loose.

An example: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, after crooning that they're "off on the road to Morocco," then sing "like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound." Get it? Webster's Dictionary was bound in Moroccan leather.

Or how about a sample of the lyrics from one of Tony Bennett's favorites, Cole Porter's At Long Last Love?
I'm so in love, and though it gives me joy intense, I can't decipher if I'm a lifer or if it's just a first offense.
Now back up for a moment, and read that line again - out loud.

Pretty clever, huh?

In this morning's worship service, we sang the great old hymn, To God Be the Glory, and the thought came to me that the marriage of music to lyrics is like unto the marriage of a hymn to theology. One without the other seems incomplete. Music and lyrics should fit, whether we're talking 1940s swing or timeless hymn. And the greatest hymns are those invested with a sound theology. I don't mean that the theology of the hymn is necessarily beyond question, but that it has some real "meat" to it, something to chew on.

For those of us who grew up singing hymns in worship, those hymns served to reinforce the theology behind our faith. In fact, if we're honest, we'd probably have to admit that they often taught us theology.
To God be the glory, great things He hath done, So loved He the world that He gave us His son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the life gate that all may go in.
There, in one simple stanza, is the theology of our faith at its most basic. A simple, straightforward marriage of lyrics by Fanny Crosby, author of over 8,000 hymns, and music by William Doane.

Or how about this one?
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. . . . Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.
That great, unyielding text, of course, was written by Martin Luther and inspired by Psalm 46. (Yes, the greatest hymn writers wind up giving credit to other writers - the inspired authors of the Bible - for their own inspiration.) In this case, the lyricist also wrote the melody, named Ein Feste Burg, which Johann Sebastian Bach later used as the source for his choral cantata, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

Then there's one that some have called the finest English hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
When Isaac Watts' words are put with Lowell Mason's tune, Hamburg, together they make our hearts bow in humility, shame, and unspeakable gratitude for the sacrifice of our Lord.

These three provide but the tiniest sample of the richness found in our hymnals. I pray that we won't just go through the motions on Sunday mornings, but that we'll take a moment to savor the hymns that we sing, and welcome God to speak to our hearts - and our minds - through them as we sing.

Thank God for the miracles He has wrought in bringing lyrics and music together to help shape and strengthen our understanding of Him.

1 comment: