I've been looking at different kinds of hymns, and how they function; it is possible, I think, to provide a taxonomy of hymns, in which a function analysis can tell you about the writers, the audience who sing them, and the kind of society in which they took root.
I'll start with Bishop William How's hymn. Bishop How (1823-1897) is a good example of a typical Victorian hymn. Victorian hymns like this are packed with New Testament imagery. This is a hymn about death, but it is also a hymn which tells you about Jesus, drawing upon images such as captain, and the whole notion of a fight to be fought, a race to be one; it is a call to arms, like "Onward Christian Soldiers". This is a hymn of Empire, calling the singers to strive to be good, and so earn the crown. It's the kind of hymn that helps people to buy into the idea of a society
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
This becomes even more pronounced as the verses progress, where the struggle is linked to warfare, and news of distant triumph, and it is a call to be part of this Empire "from earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast", to think of yourself as part of a "blest communion"; religious piety is linked to belonging.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Encapsulating Christian theology - Jesus crucified, died to save us all - is also something we find in Cecil Frances Alexander, the wife of the Bishop of Derry, and in this late Victorian hymn there is a call to morality, to be good. This is the reason why Jesus died, so that we might be good, and go to heaven. She doesn't say as much, but there's left the idea that if you aren't good, you won't (and probably go to hell). In its way it is a carrot and stick approach, in which the next life is there as a reward, as much as the victor's crown, and pearly gates of "For All the Saints".
There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains he had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.
But of course, being good, as another of Mrs Alexander's hymns reminds us, is also about knowing your place
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
It is no wonder that Karl Marx was totally revolved by this kind of piety, which he saw as using the promise of a reward in heaven as a means of keeping people in their place in this life; suffering is the path to heaven, and if the poor suffer, great must be their reward. Indeed, it is hard to read some of these hymns, and listen to the preaching and think otherwise - Christian children all must be - mild, obedient, just like he". What is happening is that Victorian culture is being given a Christian justification; it is not a baptism of Victorian values by Christianity, but an adaptation of Christian values to Victorian society. And, of course, a society which had lived with the notion of slavery as ordered by God for many years was quite able to live with the notion of rich and poor being ordered by God. This lingers even today, with a Christianity that becomes bound up with a retreat to personal piety, and leaves social justice on one side, is obsessed with matters sexual (women priests, gay marriage) but virtually ignores the call for social justice.
Which brings us neatly to a modern hymn writer, Graham Kendrick. Here is a subtle change of emphasis. The Victorian hymn tells us what to do, tells us how to feel. But the modern hymn is an expression of feeling that we make our own by singing; it is like a musical creed, but as much concerned with what we feel and how that guides our actions, as giving us theology.
All I once held dear, built my life upon
All this world reveres, and wars to own
All I once thought gain I have counted loss
Spent and worthless now, compared to this
Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you, there is no greater thing
You're my all, you're the best
You're my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord
Paul Heelas in his study on "New Age Spirituality" refers to this change, which largely happens post-war, as a "subjective turn" from religion to spirituality. There has been a turning away from objective and external roles and "towards a life lived by reference to one's own subjective experiences". This they term a "holistic milieu". It's the same thing that one finds in modern Yoga, Buddhism, aromatherapy, homeopathy, reiki and circle dancing, but in Kendrick's work, we see its Christian expression. That's not to denigrate it; it is a significant advance from Victorian hymns, and tonally very different. It's not just that Victorian hymns are almost written to be loud, congregational, with the organ in full volume, where these are soft, gentle, almost hymns for a guitar or piano; the difference between the external and internal goes deeper than that.
Now my heart's desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness
Oh, to know the power of your risen life
And to know You in Your sufferings
To become like you in your death, my Lord
So with you to live and never die
It is interesting to see how the notion of "heaven" has receded and is replaced by "never die", and there is here an idea that faith is both something unearned, and a matter of relationship at its heart; it is not about knowing things, but knowing a person. This difference is also apparent in his hymn "First Light". This is, at first sight, a much more "external" song; it doesn't present itself initially as an expression of feeling, and yet it draws the singer into its meaning. It's a much more subtle approach to the Victorian ones, and it is tied in with images of the living world - the sun, new shoots, springtime, trees. Unlike "All Things Bright and Beautiful", this is not a Paley's Watchmaker account of creation, but of creation as a dynamic unfolding of the potential that is hidden there; in a way, it is drawing upon both the modern approach to spirituality - the hidden self, the awakening, awareness - and evolution - this is not creation laid out, but creation unfolding. In "All Creatures", everything has a place in the world; here, everything is in flux:
First light is upon our faces
First light of the morning sun
First sight of a new creation
First hour of the age to come
New life from the earth is waking
First shoots of the second birth
First bloom of an endless springtime
First bud of the tree of life
And unlike Mrs Alexander's hymn, there's not the "everyone know their place", but the whole breaking open of the living world is tied in with the theme of justice. Light is shining into the darker corners of society.
First rays of the sun of justice
First note of the freedom song
First breath of the coming spirit
First shout from the conquered tomb
First light is the Father's glory
First light is the risen one
First born over all creation
We greet the unconquered son
And finally, instead of a moral of "be good, go to heaven", there's an idea of "new creation" starting, and old orders breaking up. One might always say that this is a critique, albeit oblique, on the Victorian hymns, the "winter's breath" trying to preserve a fixed and rigid order. It's not anarchy, it is not socialism, but it is definitely a very "different drum" that is beating in hymns like these, and one that reflects much more the society in which we live today.
First sound of a sacred rhythm
First beat of a different drum
First step of a dance with heaven
First joy of the age to come
Last sigh of an age that's passing
Last chill of a winters breath
Last night of the king of terrors
Last night of the sting of death
First light is the Father's glory
First light is the risen Son
The First and Last of all things
Jesus has risen from the tomb
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