Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Hymn as Art
It's amazing that that's a hymn. It's wonderful, isn't it? Even as someone who struggles daily with what I believe, with what I want to be true and what I want to know, it's easy to see the beauty there. It's a poem, it's got a beautiful melody that I would sing to you if you were here, it's a theology lesson; in short, it's a hymn. That's what hymns are supposed to do. All that stuff I just said. It's a huge task, and lots of "hymns" fall short. So many fall short, they started calling them "praise and worship" songs to skirt the criteria.
At this very moment, I'm listening to Sufjan Stevens' version of "Holy, Holy, Holy." When I listen to this (which is often), I think "why isn't this what Christianity sounds like?" It sounds like morning, like a new dawn, like a breeze, like life. It sounds like he gets the hymn, actually. We in the Christian tradition are blessed with some amazing pieces of worship art, and yet what grabs the spotlight arcs evermore toward the commercial and the bland. This is the unescapable consequence of the Protest Reformation. Don't get me wrong, Luther had some good points. But if you want to see how tasteless and artless and uninspiring Christianity can be, walk into one of a million Protestant churches in America. Maybe the picture of Jesus will be interesting. Like, maybe he won't be white.
I realize that, so far, I've been picking out a smaller piece of worship, the music, to make a larger point. Though let me point out that contemporary worship isn't the only perpetrator; old churches that sing old hymns can be just as bad. So the issue here isn't that "the old hymns are the good hymns." It's about good art versus bad art. It's about which art moves us into an experience with the divine, and the other kind which is about feeling good. And just because a church practices high liturgy doesn't mean they've got their finger on the pulse, either. When the liturgy and the atmosphere and the worship art, in all its forms, move us to an encounter with Being, that's when things are moving as they should. That's when the art is doing its job. Not only is it beautiful unto itself, but it's moving outward and shaping us. It's giving us a glimpse of grace and divinity. It's teaching us something. Can a contemporary song do this? Of course it can. But I haven't heard one yet up to the task. Maybe that's me just being picky. But if we place value on the space in which we worship and all that we hear and see in that space, I think it's to our benefit to make sure that the entire worship experience is examined. American Protestantism (and it's the American kind I speak of because that's where my experience lies) pushed off so heavily from symbol and art in its desire to find a kind of basic purity that it went entirely off the grid.
When we take things like hymns seriously as art and as theological tools, we're affording them a value in our attempt to become, in our attempt to more fully connect with divinity. When Sufjan sings "Holy, Holy, Holy," he's teaching. The hymn is doing its job, and as the interpreter and presenter of the art, he's doing his as well. That's why it works. He could just as easily do this with a song that doesn't try to be "religious" at all. Any song that meets the criteria above is a hymn in my book. Unfortunately, almost all contemporary Christian art (which I don't really recognize as its own category) fails to meet even one of those standards. I don't think it's because people are less able to create something beautiful that teaches me a theological truth—I think it's because Christianity (which is different from a life lived in and through Christ) is about presentation and perception and baseless emotion. In short, it's about selling me something.
Lemme Buy Some Jesus
Now, I'm not trying to put all churches in a basket here. I'm aware that many still practice meaningful, inspiring liturgy in a meaningful, inspiring space. It happens. I've seen it. But it's far more likely that I'll see some place called The Rock or Lighthouse or LoveSpace or J-Man's Clubhouse 4 Totes Awesome Timez. And what would I find in there? Probably "contemporary worship." Now, before I go on an old-man rant, let me say that I recognize the need for nuance. Not all churches do anything, not all contemporary worship is the worst, etc. Still, I can't remember the last time I heard a hymn that taught me anything that wasn't written by a dead person. Praise and worship songs (and the worship environments they feed and are fed by) are anthems meant to evoke an emotion, not tell you anything. It's not about you contributing to the worship in that moment, it's about the worship affecting you. This approach reeks of commercialism and marketing, which has become the mark of American Christianity. Churches are stores, and you shop around for one, and you buy the one that fits.
Hymns are an extension of the need to create in the face of the Creator, to create while being created. It's a fascinating way to connect with who we are and who we wish to be. The fact that such a process has become so largely about hitting the top of the Christian charts is depressing, naturally. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. Entering into a new Worship Center complete with gym and smoothie bar would be enough to show you that bringing people into churches is a business. The art is reflected in this cynical, extremely un-Christ-like model. Most new worship songs are as flat as the large screens they're projected on. Asking me to sing "Jesus, I love you" fifty times doesn't mean anything. It's about trying to get me to feel something. To have big feelings. Because if I have big feelings, I'll come back for more feelings, and eventually I'm donating to a place called The Highest Loft for a new warehouse to feel in. And I guarantee that what I experience in that space won't be about confronting the Divine. It won't be about reshaping my mind, heart, and the works of my hands. It'll be about getting me to buy in to a message with all the depth of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Which, incidentally, is the featured art at The Highest Loft.
So what? Where does that leave us? We know modern Christianity is increasingly hyper-capitalist. We know what this focus on self, on the push to get to "the basics" of scripture (which is usually framed as getting things squared away with yourself, again), extends into our sensory worship experience. A church's space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let's just stop and ask why. Let's ask if the art is teaching us something, if it's moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls. Let's ask if our hymns are good hymns, and if they're leading us deeper into the arms of goodness.