For many people a hymn is nothing more than some truth made pretty. But such an understanding would be like viewing a person as a soul with some pretty skin. Yet just as a human has a whole anatomy working together to make him what he is, so a hymn has many components that help it accomplish its purpose. Austin Lovelace wrote a classic book in 1965 called Anatomy of Hymnody in which he summarized the importance of understanding this:
A hymn is not an amorphous bit of spiritual protoplasm designed for the enjoyment of the man in the pew and for the creation of a pious feeling or a “religious mood.” Like the human body, a hymn has a skeleton (which can be called the metrical design) and characteristics determined by the choice of poetic “foot.” It is a complete body, made up of several parts (stanzas), each with its definite function. Its visage or physiognomy is determined by the poetic devices the poet chooses. Underlying all the physical features, however, is the soul of the hymn—man’s response to God. ((Austin Lovelace, Anatomy of Hymnody (Chicago: G.I.A., 1965), pp. 6—7.))
In order to understand what kinds of hymns express appropriate affection for God, we need to understand something of how hymns work. And in order to understand how they work, we need to examine their anatomy.
Content vs. Form
An important distinction we need to make is content vs. form. Content is simply the message of the text. So, for example, the content of a hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” would be the holiness of God, the Trinity, praise, God’s mercy, etc. But unless you just list God’s attributes in that way, form is always involved. Form is the way in which something is shaped or presented. A form takes the basic content and shapes it in a certain way. The easiest way to understand this is to consider various vessels. When you pour a liquid into a vessel, the liquid takes the shape of the vessel. The content itself does not change, but its shape changes. With any art, form always shapes the content in such a way that it communicates something about that content. Form doesn’t communicate in the same way as the content itself; form communicates to the imagination and the affections. Form changes the “feel” or perception of the content. For example, consider type-faces, otherwise known as fonts. You can take a particular word or phrase and communicate different things by what font you use. For instance, let’s use the word “cool.” “Cool” can mean a couple of different things. It can mean the opposite of hot or it can mean calm or it can mean hip. I can use form to communicate which definition I intend: Now let’s take it a step further and consider the word, “God.” Part of our knowledge of God is what we imagine him to be like. Form communicates our imagination: Each of these font faces—these forms—shape our imagination of what God is like. I use the example of type-face only because it is visual, and it is easier to grasp how form shapes content with these examples then with poetry or music. Next time we’ll move to content and form within hymns.