A Glad Obedience

Why and What We Sing

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Walter Brueggemann
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , January
     2019.
     208 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664264642.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Presbyterian missionary to the Navajos in the early twentieth century explained his efforts to translate hymns into the Navajo language by proclaiming, “A saved people must sing!” And so, over many centuries, people who acknowledge their indebtedness to God—even for the act of creation itself, and sometimes dismayed that God’s habitual saving activity seems to be in hiatus—have put faith to music to give witness at altar and on pilgrimage, in both joy and in sorrow. Hymns are an articulation of theology that falls outside the meter of intellectual formulation, as Walter Brueggemann’s A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing acknowledges, “the purpose of doxology is to defy … explanatory reasoning, which is why at its best the church sings rather than reasons or disputes” (86). That is why the choice of the congregation’s song deserves the careful attention of worship planners, whereas too many have yielded to what John Witvliet, in his foreword (which is itself reason enough to purchase the book), terms “the commodification of the church’s song” (xi).

Expanded from comments he presented at the introduction of the Presbyterian Church (US)’s newest hymnal, Glory to God, Brueggemann relates a selection of fifteen new and traditional hymns, that he judges faithful to their task, to four specific Psalms of praise and thanksgiving for God’s saving acts. A concluding section addresses the Psalter’s testimony to covenantal fidelity (defined as “tenacious solidarity”), which is, the author observes, a mutual undertaking between God and creation. In contrast to “alternative facts”, a phrase that has intruded notoriously into public discourse, the author notes that the Church’s song has long testified to an alternate reality. “The more the church forms its life outside the restraints of dominant values and outside the economic necessity that insists on those values, the more its singing is an emancipatory practice of full-bodied selves in the image of God” (xvi). The musical witness to the covenantal relationship between God and the whole of creation (winsomely addressed in Jaroslav Vajda’s “God of the Sparrow”) is a natural occupation too often overlooked in seminary and disregarded in ecclesiological analysis. Reflecting specifically on Psalm 104, Brueggemann writes, “In both ancient cadence and contemporary beauty, the people of God sing because we are called to live in an alternative world that requires constant reiteration. It is a world of order amid palpable chaos, of food for all creatures, and of breath given reliably and sovereignly withheld. It is no wonder that we continue, even in our frightened context, to sing exuberantly to the God of life who dwells beyond all our explanations” (15). We sing, as the missionary captured in just a few words, because God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves as we are moved “from a zone of death to a new zone of life” (23, on Psalm 107:4-9). “We sing when the truth can only be told by our singing” (55), whether that singing be joyful or desperate.

Brueggemann applies to hymnody his trademark incisive exegetical skills and unflinchingly honest assessment of the contemporary situation. In a manner that parses more finely and sweeps more comprehensively than we find in most hymnal companions, the author harnesses his unparalleled knowledge of the Psalms and his encyclopedic familiarity with all of scripture to probe the treasures lying within these specific hymns, inviting similar attention in appreciative yet discriminating exploration of the entire repertoire and its place in the life of the faithful. His analysis of singing as an unreasonable activity bearing witness to an alternate reality constitutes a cogent critique of much popular and sentimental church music, “especially voiced in so-called ‘praise hymns,’” by observing, for instance, that “Holy, Holy, Holy” “stands as a mighty insistence that the reality of God cannot be reduced to comfortable, reassuring companionship” (85).

The focus of Brueggemann’s work is clearly on lyrics: “Attentiveness to the lyrics will suggest to a singing congregation the bold ways in which our hymnody contradicts and countermands the too-easily assumed dominant world among us” (61-62). Whereas the term “hymn” technically refers to a text, or “lyrics,” a “hymn” is, nevertheless, a poem intended to be sung in a worshiping assembly. The author notes that a difficult melody can confound a congregation’s understanding of the text, but in only a few of the hymns examined does he comment on the tune to which modern Christians sing the respective words, and how effectively the music interprets them. Although he might feel reluctant to tread upon the musicologist’s domain, this reviewer would have welcomed Brueggemann’s analysis of the tune(s) to which all of his chosen hymns are customarily sung, not as a technical exercise but simply to probe felicity of marriage between particular text and tune, given his sensitivity to the issue and qualifications both as committed participant and astute observer in worship. 

The author states that one of his purposes in supplementing his comments on the Psalms with an examination of specific hymns is to encourage church leaders “to slow down enough to exposit many other hymn words as well, so that our congregational singing might be more attentive and mindful” (62). His book is a demonstration of exegetical rigor for a task that, so far as the vocation of leading worship is concerned, should be at least as important as the preparation of a sermon. Sadly, many practitioners of the preaching craft seldom if ever assist their congregants in making a musical witness to “covenantal fidelity,” and the unfortunate and distinguishing gulf between pastor and church musician in most congregations admits of little opportunity to blend the disciplines in a way that would enrich both the hearing of the homily and the singing of the hymn. The long tradition of hymnic allusion to scripture and poetic expression of theological conviction set to supportive music is a resource undervalued and largely underutilized today in faith’s contest with a culture that claims to offer the only reliable way to satisfying truth and meaningful life. Walter Brueggemann models here a corrective for that deficiency.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Taylor is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of dozens of books, including Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Journey to the Common Good, and Interrupting Silence.

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