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Poetic analysis of hymns

Tim Miller has an interesting post over at the Detroit Seminary blog analyzing the text of Wesley’s “And Can it Be.” There is some good food for thought there, and I certainly appreciate the emphasis on making sure our hymns are theologically accurate, but I do think that we often miss the fact that hymns are poetry, and poetry is doing something more than just making theological fact statements.

Here’s what I said in a comment on that post:

While I certainly applaud the concern to be sure that what we sing is theologically accurate, I think many with this concern miss the power and purpose of poetry (how’s that for alliteration?).

I’m not just talking about “poetic license” (so give the guy a break!!!). I’m saying that a phrase like “the Immortal dies” is not supposed to be a theological assertion about God dying, but rather, it is supposed to grip the imagination and affections with the profound and complex mystery of the Son of God, who is himself fully God, dying. It’s not theologically inaccurate to be perplexed by that reality, and the phrase captures that perplexity quite well. I’ve never been extremely bothered by the “emptied himself” line, either, for similar reasons. It portrays the gravity of what Christ did for us.

Further, while I commend a desire for comprehensibility in hymnody, However, there is great value in speaking and singing in a heightened way, different from how we “normally speak.” Again, this is part of the purpose and power of poetry. I see many hymns being written today that are certainly theological accurate, but there’s not a lick of beauty or elegance about them. They’re either so much how we “normally speak” that they’re practically slang, or they read like a dry systematic theology that happens to rhyme. Might as well get rid of the poetry and tune altogether and just lecture.

Poetry enables us to say/sing things and do things that are simply not possible with mere prose and propositional statements. So while I’m all for theological accuracy, we also need to be sure we’re evaluating theological poetry in terms of what it was meant to do.

Source: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary » And Can it Be Another Post on Music?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

2 Responses to Poetic analysis of hymns

  1. Thank you for wisely and clearly articulating similar thoughts I had when reading the article. Beauty sometimes escapes us, but the love for “loftiness” in poetry is important.

    In our hymnal, we changed “Emptied Himself of all but love” to “Humbled Himself in matchless love.” It is good theology (in my opinion!), but I believe I see where Wesley was headed.

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