Motivation Why Hymns

This study considers the notion that time is accessible to human beings only to the extent that it is articulated in narrative form. My decision has been influenced by the theory of Paul Ricoeur, that appropriate talk of time cannot occur in direct discourse. It must instead be conveyed by the indirect discourse of narrative.1 According to Ricoeur, each attempt to analyze time directly only multiplies the problems that occur anyway. For this reason, there is no conception of time without narrated time.2 Narrative understanding deserves precedence over narratological rationality.3 Ricoeur compares this narrative understanding to a picnic to which the author contributes the words, while the reader contributes the meaning.4 In this way, the narrative can attain its highest degree of effectiveness: The readers find a solution to which they themselves must find the suitable questions.5 Resorting to narrative is thus not a simplifying reduction. Quite to the contrary, it is necessary to do justice precisely to the complex difficulties related to the problematic nature of time.6

If Ricoeur's theory is correct, namely, that the poetics of narrative unite that which speculative philosophy separates, then it should be reasonable to begin a study of the theology of time with narrated time. From a consideration of narrated time, questions should be formulated whose treatment can deepen a theological concept of time in relation to the insights of modern science.

Narratives often occur in stylized, poetic form, and they must also be able to be repeated. This belongs to their essence, and, in this way, the particularity of the Church—"being a community of memory and narrative"7—comes to complete fruition. The characteristic form and repeatability of the narrative make the worship service in particular an appropriate venue for theological narrative—and also for the narrative of time.

Narrations have always occurred in special ways in hymns. One can even maintain that, at the very beginning, the Christian church began by singing.8 One only has to think of the echo of numerous "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19) in the epistles of the New Testament. The hymns recorded in Luke—Gloria in excelsis, Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis—have accompanied the Christian community throughout the centuries. Following this tradition, current hymnals represent a collection of human, Christian, and theological experiences gathered over centuries. Even when denominational differences on church music and liturgy are taken into account, it is undeniable that the study of music, songs, and hymns often facilitates a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings of the Church than the study of the writings of its theologians.9

To some extent, hymns live their own lives in a borderland between experience and theological reflection. Precisely this aspect makes them so interesting in this context. In the words of a twentieth-century songwriter, the hymnal is the experienced Bible, and the hymns are works of art that have arisen from the encounter between the biblical message and the experience of life.10 As poetry, the hymns are concentrated experience, and they therefore also achieve a kind of universality. Furthermore, they attempt to express experience in a forward-looking manner.11 It would be astonishing if this treasure house of experience did not have something essential to say about experiencing and understanding time.

Surely, both more recent texts and those that have accompanied congregations for decades and even centuries exert a formative and normative influence upon life's meaning for those who read or sing them. Even without official canonization, the hymn collections of the churches tend, in practice, to attain canonical status.

It would have been conceivable also to include liturgical prayer texts in this study. In these texts, however, time is primarily spoken of in set phrases, so that one can speak less of narrated time in relation to such texts. Additionally, it is more likely the voice of the clergy that emerges from liturgical texts, whereas in the hymns, the path to the voice of the people should be at least somewhat shorter than in the inflexible liturgical portions.

Furthermore, the use of liturgical texts is concentrated in the church service, while hymns should have a broader application, "not only in the shaping of formal worship, but also as an enrichment of spiritual experience, both in private reading and memory and in meditation."12 The editors of The Australian Hymn Book were determined to maintain the "intimacy and immediacy that would carry it [a hymn] out of the time of formal worship as a source of daily guidance and inspiration."13 Similarly, the Evangelische Gesangbuch (Protestant Hymnal) also aims to fulfill the "tasks of a Christian family and parish book" [Aufgaben eines christlichen Hausund Gemeindebuches].14 Against the backdrop of the way in which the Swedish people practice piety, which is based more on the hymnal than directly on the Bible, Den Svenska Psalmboken (The Swedish Hymnbook) is indeed intended for private devotions as well as for public worship, as stated in its foreword.

Finally, the entire range of the centuries is easily accessible in the hymnals. Here, the new and the old—"the new to stimulate and extend us, the old to comfort and confirm"15—stand side by side. Methodologically, a study of hymns enables access "from below." Here, the starting point is not the abstract and historical development of dogmatic concepts, but rather the search for phenomenological access. This is not to say that dogmatics would not have been important in the creation of hymns. It is merely maintained here that this was not the primus motor. Finally, it may be noted that this study is less concerned with tracking down the Zeitgeist of different epochs than with listening to concentrated life experience.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment