Songs as Yet Unsung

by Mary Louise Bringle

music abstract with notes and flowers

My vocation as a Christian feminist hymnwriter began accidentally—and perhaps even a bit irreverently. Never let it be said that God lacks a sense of humor.

For many years as a professor of Religious Studies at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC, I taught a course in early church history. What a task it was to make ancient doctrinal debates accessible to modern-day students! The various positions leading up to the final christological formulation of the Council of Chalcedon always presented a special challenge.

Then, one day I hit upon an idea. I recalled a passing remark that matristic/patristic theologian Roberta Bondi had made during a graduate school lecture at Emory University. “If the heretics had had their own hymns,” she mused, “what would they have sounded like?”

Hymns for heretics: now there was a pedagogical inspiration! Calling upon my unfortunate fondness for doggerel verse (my father used to read me to sleep with Ogden Nash poems instead of bedtime stories), I decided to craft a few such unorthodox texts.

Lest anyone take offense, I hasten to add that I penned these lyrics toward the greater good (I hoped) of helping students to learn the intricacies of orthodox Christian doctrine. Besides which, as the story unfolds, God ends up getting the last laugh on me.

“Hymns for heretics” 

The first of my hymns for heretics was “Hark, Docetic Christians Sing!” Docetism is the early Gnostic claim that Jesus Christ merely seemed (Greek verb, dokeo) to be human. In other words, He did not really suffer in the flesh, because such suffering would have been an affront to His divine majesty. Some docetic teachers even denied the reality of the crucifixion, claiming that the Christ flew away into heaven at the critical moment, leaving Simon of Cyrene to die in Jesus’ stead.

One line from Charles Wesley’s great Christmas hymn (“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”) had long seemed to me to flirt with docetic implications, if it were taken out of the overall context of celebrating Jesus’ fully human birth and incarnation. The docetist’s mock-carol exploited this implication:

Hark, docetic Christians sing:
only glory suits a king!
Loath to mount a cross to die,
look: He hovers in the sky!
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
feigning full humanity.
Hark, docetic Christians sing:
only glory suits a king!

A few centuries after the docetists, a different theological movement continued to raise questions about Jesus’ human nature. The Apollinarians, defeated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE, posited that perhaps Jesus was only two-thirds human–as suggested in the following text (singable to AURELIA, Samuel Wesley’s great tune most often associated with “The Church’s One Foundation”):

Apollinaris teaches
of Christ the Living Whole,
akin to human beings,
with body, mind, and soul.
Yet, though He seems so like us,
one question yet remains:
Can Christ be fully human
with Logos for His brains?

Admittedly, the poetry of this heretical hymn leaves as much to be desired as the theology. However, if my students are any indication, the problem of the Apollinarian position sounds through it both clearly and memorably!

Perhaps a little too memorably, in fact. Here we come to the part of the story where God begins getting the last laugh. A few years ago, a former student contacted me with the news that he was going to get married. With that news came an unusual request: the student planned to compose a hymn in honor of his bride, to be sung at their wedding, and he wanted me to write the text for it! Since I did not think I had ever written a hymn before, the request initially struck me as odd. But then I recalled that this student had taken church history with me . . .

A New Calling

“God moves in a mysterious way,” as that wonderful eighteenth century hymn by William Cowper proclaims. From such whimsical beginnings, I found myself drawn into an unexpected vocation as a writer of contemporary hymn texts. Nowadays as I go about plying this craft, talking to sundry church groups about why anyone would expend time and energy on such a task when the world already seems to have hymns aplenty, I remind people that the Psalmist proclaims: “Sing to the Lord a new song,” and not “Sing to God one of those twenty good ‘old standards’ that everybody already knows!”

As God’s people, we are called to sing new songs for some very important theological reasons. Foremost among them is the fact that the God proclaimed by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike is perennially “doing a new thing.” Thus, to keep pace with the gifts and challenges that are constantly opening up around us, we need fresh imagery–and fresh music to make that imagery come to life. A few illustrations of such new opportunities follow: opportunities related to women’s experiences, to interfaith conversations, and to new political and pastoral situations confronting the life of faith.

The importance of inclusiveness 

First, while I am no longer personally concerned to give a voice (even tongue in cheek) to heretical movements from Christian history, the church itself seems increasingly and rightfully concerned to lift in song the experiences of other groups who have not yet been adequately represented within the mainstream of its life and worship.

Gender inclusiveness

Women constitute a prime example. For generations, we unthinkingly sang from our pews, “Rise Up, O Men of God!” and “O Brother Man, Bind to Your Heart Your Brother.” Simply eliminating such exclusive texts from newly-edited hymnals does not go far enough to redeeming the past; nor does revising old hymns to “neutralize” exclusively masculine references for God. An increasingly gender-inclusive faith community cries out for more gender-inclusive hymnody: hymns celebrating significant female figures from biblical and church history; hymns using feminine imagery for God and the sacred; hymns written by women poets and women composers from both the past and the present day.

A major contribution to this goal of gender-inclusion comes to fruition this summer. Voices Found: Women in the Church’s Song, a hymnal supplement edited by Lisa Neufeld Thomas, is being presented to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this July. Authorized by the General Convention in 1997 to begin compiling the new hymnal, The Women’s Sacred Music Project has been at work for the past five years, collecting and editing a rich array of selections. The culminating Voices Found anthology contains over 150 psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs celebrating the gifts and diversity of women from twenty different nationalities and ethnic groups, from the eighth to the twenty-first centuries.

A related contribution to the gender-inclusivity of worship appeared just two years ago. Frank Henderson, a Canadian liturgical scholar, put together A Prayer Book for Remembering the Women. This small and elegant volume contains liturgies for morning and evening prayers, usable by groups or individuals, on the themes of God as Holy Wisdom, God as Creative Life-Giver, women as prophets and apostles, and women as anointers (a priestly function). All the hymn lyrics included with the liturgies are ones that I wrote during the summer of 2000, when I had just become aware of my calling to compose legitimate texts. God’s gentle laughter, I think, can be heard as background music.

Since writing the texts for the Liturgy Training Publications’ (LTP) Prayer Book (as well as half a dozen hymns that figure in the Voices Found collection), I have gone on to publish my own single-author collection—Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing. In it, the biblical Tamar (Gen 38) at last has her day as a sung rather than unsung heroine:

For the blessing of your God,
would you risk your name and place?
Would you wait beside the road;
like a harlot, veil your face?
And, like Tamar, would you ask
for your master’s seal and cord?
What are you prepared to risk
for the blessing of your Lord?

Likewise, a number of women from medieval church history become subjects for the church’s celebration in songs heretofore unsung. Elaborating upon images from the fourteenth century Mirror of St. Marguerite d’Oingt, a text entitled “Sisters in God’s House” begins:

Sisters in God’s house,
bold to sing new songs:

Marguerite, Umiltà, Agnes,
Julian, Clare, Macrina, Catherine . . .

Mothers from our past,
daughters in one faith–
named; unnamed and now forgotten;
held within God’s heart forever . . .

It is sad to realize how many of such foremothers’ names are lost to history, because their specific contributions were not thought worthy of recording during their lifetimes. Yet we can still lift their memory in song, trusting to God’s maternal and attentive Wisdom to take care of the rest.

Indeed, the maternal and feminine dimensions of God offer further treasures for exploring in new songs. The Hebrew Psalmist did not shrink from declaring the comfort of being held in God’s grace “like a child quieted at its mother’s breast” (Ps 131); why, then, should we? Brian Wren’s splendid text “God of Many Names” (set to William Rowan’s tune MANY NAMES, which I also borrowed for “Sisters in God’s House,” above) celebrates the “God of Hovering Wings, Womb and Birth of time.” Ruth Duck’s powerful “Womb of Life and Source of Being” speaks of God as “Mother, Brother, holy Partner; Father, Spirit, Only Son.”

In a recent hymn inspired by a sermon on Luke 13:34 (supplemented by passages from Hos 13:8 and Deut. 32:11), I play in separate stanzas with images of God who is “as tender as a mother hen who spreads her wings to shield her brood”; “courageous as a mother bear who guards her young from danger’s path”; and “a phoenix rising from the flames, a mother eagle soaring high.” Surely, even if we sang a hymn with new imagery every day for the rest of eternity, we could not exhaust the many facets of the One who is the very Source of all our creative imagining!

Interfaith understanding

Nor are women’s experiences the only unsung-dimensions today calling for incorporation into the church’s new liturgical life. Fresh opportunities and challenges arise as we attempt to bring ecumenical and even interfaith groups together for work and worship. British hymnwriter Andrew Pratt carries the idea of God’s many names, used by Brian Wren above to recognize gender-inclusivity, into the arena of global religious inclusion: “Great God of many names: Jehovah, Allah, Lord, Christ, Brahman, Spirit, Adonai; we worship you.” Similarly honoring the manifold ways in which humans address the ultimate mystery that surrounds us, one of my own hymns (“In Star and Crescent, Wheel and Flame”) celebrates the fact that

In Buddhist chant and Muslim prayer,
in shofar, drum, and sacred song,
the music thankful spirits share
gives praise in voices millions strong.

Surely the world would be a more peaceful place if we spent less time trying to pronounce one another “heretics” or “infidels,” and more time learning to make beautiful music together.

Remembering September 11

The impetus to interfaith understanding has taken on new urgency in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. I think, in a curious way, our recognition of the value of hymnody has taken on new resonance as well. Who could forget the image of the leaders of our nation joined together, across party divisions, on the steps of the Capitol Building, launching into a spontaneous rendering of “God Bless America”? How many of us found ourselves yearning to attend a service of worship where we could be comforted by the strong affirmations of Isaac Watts: “Our God, our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come”? Singing “old” songs brought us together, nurtured us through our grieving, strengthened us in our resolve not to let terror have the final say.

New songs seemed to be in order as well. Those of us who practice the craft of hymnwriting found ourselves called upon by colleagues in ministry to compose works specifically in response to the 9/11 tragedies, works that could be sung by people of various faiths and traditions joined in services of prayer and remembrance. At the initiative of author, composer, and congregational song leader John Thornburg, The Hymn Society of the US and Canada put together a collection of twelve such hymns, publishing them in the summer of 2002 for use by worshiping communities on the anniversary of the events the following September. Included in that collection are such heartfelt attempts to speak to the unspeakable as Rae Whitney’s “When All the World Is Wounded”; Mary Nelson Keithahn’s “When Life Becomes a Nightmare”; Carl Daw’s “When Sudden Terror Tears Apart”; and my own “When Terror Streaks through Morning Skies.”

New political situations

The list of new political situations calling for new responses in hymnody could go on and on. Awareness of the global environmental crisis, for example, has fostered a wide range of texts and tunes attending to the vulnerable beauties of the creation and our call to responsible stewardship. The AIDS crisis has elicited a stunning hymn by Thomas Troeger, coupled with powerfully evocative music by Sally Ann Morris (“God Weeps with Us Who Weep and Mourn,” tune name MOSHIER). The outbreak of war against Iraq prompted a number of new works by contemporary writers concerned to comment on the events of our day, even as prophets and poets for generations have sought to address the challenges unfolding before God’s people as we strive to live faithfully during the “in-between” times: in between promise and fulfillment, in between our exit from Eden and our homecoming to the New Jerusalem. (Readers interested in staying abreast of current ventures in hymnody would be well-served by paying occasional visits to the “News and Views” postings on The Hymn Society website at www.thehymnsociety.org )

Personal and pastoral concerns

During the 1970s, a slogan of the women’s movement reminded us, “The personal is political.” In such instances as the above, the political becomes intensely personal as well: a parent or spouse waits for a loved one to return from being stationed in combat; a friend or partner watches a loved one ravaged by AIDS or some other disease provoked by environmental toxicity. When illustrating new political and pastoral situations that confront our life of faith and call for hymns as yet unsung, we invariably recognize how such situations keep close company with one another. Timely or “occasional” issues stir up perennial questions of despair and hope, anxiety and courage, grief and the persistence of a joy rooted deeper than any earthly sorrow.

Of all the “timely” hymns I have written, none has seemed to touch more responsive chords than a text I wrote for a friend whose mother was suffering from the acute pastoral challenge of Alzheimer’s disease and whose father, the primary caregiver, was growing increasingly frail. Set to Jean Sibelius’s tune FINLANDIA (“Be Still, My Soul”), the first verse begins:

When memory fades and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused,
speak to our souls of Love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused . . .

The hymn goes on to affirm that although our human memories fade and our human arms weaken, the memory and the arms of God uphold us everlastingly. As people of the “in-between” times, we urgently need such affirmations. We need to sing them through our tears and doubts, to sing them as if we believe them–because in so doing, God helps our unbelief.

Moreover, beyond any such songs of lament, we also need new songs of celebration: ways of rejoicing together in the surprising gifts of a God whose constant, redemptive work is to “make all things new.” Since I opened this essay with the whimsical examples of my early “hymns for heretics,” I will close with the whimsical example of a celebratory children’s song, recently composed for use on Christian Education Sunday at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville, NC. In place of a sermon on that Sunday, we invited one of the story-tellers who normally works with the learning hour classes for children to re-tell in worship the biblical tale of Sarah and the angelic visitors–the ones who announce that she is about to enter the geriatric maternity ward. To give the adults and children something to sing together in response to the lesson, I wrote a new bit of musical doggerel. The last stanza and refrain go something like this:

Sarah laughed, O Sarah laughed,
and so should you and I.
When God can give such wondrous gifts,
our hope should never die.
So Ha Ha Ha!
and Ho Ho Ho! and Hallelujah, too!
With Sarah, laugh and clap your hands
at all that God can do!

By the end of our singing, the whole congregation was sharing in a hearty chuckle together. Somewhere, somehow, I suspect God joined in.

References

Contemporary hymn texts referred to in this article can be found in full, with musical accompaniment, in the following publications:

Bringle, Mary Louise. Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2002.

Duck, Ruth. Dancing in the Universe. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1992.

Henderson, Frank. A Prayer Book for Remembering the Women, with Hymn Texts by Mary Louise Bringle. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2001.

Pratt, Andrew. Whatever Name or Creed. London: Stainer & Bell Limited, 2002.

“Songs of Remembrance: Hymns for the Commemoration of September 11, 2001,” printed as a central insert in The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song. 53/5 (July 2002).

Thomas, Lisa Neufeld, ed. Voices Found: Women in the Church’s Song. NY: Church Publishing, Inc., 2003.

Troeger, Thomas. In Giving Thanks in Song and Prayer: Hymntunes of Sally Ann Morris. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1998.

Wren, Brian. Praising a Mystery. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1986.

© 2003 Mary Louise Bringle.   Written for EEWC Update and published in the Spring, 2003 issue, Vol. 27, No. 1.

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Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle
Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle, professor of philosophy and religion and chair of the Humanities Division at Brevard College in Brevard, NC, holds a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Emory University. Her scholarly work bridges the disciplines of theology and psychology in a contemporary approach to the seven deadly sins. (Her books, Despair: Sickness or Sin? and The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters, were published by Abingdon Press; and she is presently writing a book on envy.) Winner of numerous international hymnwriting competitions, she was recognized by The Hymn Society in 2002 as “the emerging hymn text writer of the US and Canada.” Her first single-author collection of hymn texts, Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing, was recently published by GIA. Many EEWC members will remember the workshop Mel presented at the 1990 EEWC Conference in Chicago.

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