Word and Phrase Choice in Christian Hymnody
There are several different ways that content can be shaped within a hymn. The first is simply with what words are chosen to communicate the message. Words are important. How we put them together into phrases is important. Words and phrases are important because different words and phrases have different connotations—different “feelings” attached to them.
For example, in describing my grandfather to you, I might say that he is ancient. Or I may say that he is elderly. Or frail. Or rickety. Or seasoned. Each of these words has basically the meaning of old, but each word conjures up different kinds of images in your mind about my grandfather.
The same is true with the texts of hymns. What words are chosen and how they are put together shapes the content.
Consider this example: suppose I want to communicate the truth that God is all-powerful, that he promises to protect us, and that we should trust in him. Here are four different ways to communicate that content through poetry. Notice how the form shapes the content:
1. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.1
2. How strong and sweet my Father’s care,
That round about me, like the air,
Is with me always, everywhere!
He cares for me!2
3. So, when I’m lying in my bed,
and the furniture starts creeping,
I’ll just laugh and say,
“Hey, cut that out!”
And get back to my sleeping.
‘Cause I know that God’s the biggest,
and He’s watching all the while.
So, when I get scared I’ll think of Him,
and close my eyes and smile.
God is bigger than the boogie man.
He’s bigger than Godzilla,
or the monsters on TV.
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man.
And He’s watching out for you and me. ((Veggie Tales, 1992.))
4. Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire
No one else will do
‘Cause nothing else could take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find the way, bring me back to you
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know you are near. ((Kelly Carpenter, 1994.))
In each of these songs, the basic content is the same: God is great, and we can trust in him. On the propositional content level, each of these songs is saying something that is true. But when we get to the level of form—what words are chosen and how they are put together—each of these songs is shaping the content very differently.
Next time, we’ll consider how poetic meter shapes content.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.