In Defense of Hymnals
When my wife and I first started attending our church, one thing in particular really stood out to me. Our church doesn’t print the texts of hymns or the elements of the liturgy in a bulletin handed to us on the way in. Instead, just like in the “olden days” we use real hymnals—heavy, leather-bound copies of the Lutheran Service Book nestled in each pew.
This was unfamiliar to me, and took a bit of adjustment at first: it can be a juggling act to rapidly flip back and forth from the day’s Divine Service liturgy to the texts of the hymns. (I’d only ever really used hymnals before during the occasional Catholic mass.) By contrast, my childhood church hardly uses its hymnals, instead preferring to use thick paper bulletins for each service. And most contemporary services I’ve attended eschew bulletins and hymnals entirely, instead splashing PowerPoint slideshows of praise song lyrics across large hanging screens.
But over time, my attitude has changed. I’ve since come to grasp the distinct value of hymnals within the church, for reasons that weren’t immediately apparent to me.
First and perhaps most importantly, the use of hymnals reminds us tangibly that our songs of worship—and the constituent elements of our services throughout the church year—unfold in the shadow of a longstanding, cohesive tradition. This tradition, in turn, testifies to a common orthodoxy that spans the centuries.
When so many contributions are viewed side-by-side in the pages of a hymnal, crucial theological patterns begin to emerge: how the hymns of Advent are charged with expectancy; how Lenten hymns forgo the “alleluias” of other seasons in favor of a more contemplative tone; how very many hymns’ final stanzas express the core of Trinitarian theology. (And at the risk of being uncharitable, there is almost never any doubt whether a hymn is speaking of Jesus or of one’s significant other.)
Second, and more subtly, the use of hymnals is connected on a deep level with the church’s continuity in physical space and time. Like church buildings, hymnals generally remain in one fixed place from week to week—and in so doing, serve as a tangible reminder of Jesus’ active involvement in the world.
To be sure, one can distinguish between the “visible church” and the “invisible Church” and point out that the persistence of the latter doesn’t depend on physical structures or hymnals. But this line of argument seems, all too often, to miss the forest for the trees. The great “scandal” of the Christian faith is its unabashed dependence upon real events that happened in real time in real places: the core truth-claim that God Himself became incarnate as a human being in space and time. (The audacity of these assertions, as many have noted, goes well beyond any vague notion of a divine ‘beyond.’) That understanding, at least in part, underpins the sacramental practices of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and certain other communions. Participation in the life of God does not involve simply assent to propositions, but involvement with an experiential reality. The physical elements of worship, in turn, testify to this understanding.
This sacramental view of reality, it seems to me, is profoundly undermined by the uncritical incorporation of contemporary technology (that is, slideshow displays and TV screens) into worship. As social critic Guy Debord once remarked in The Society of the Spectacle, “[t]he spectacle is a social relation between people that is mediated by an accumulation of images that serve to alienate us from a genuinely lived life.”
Debord’s critique is germane here. There is nothing sacramental—that is, anything linking real, physical elements with the Word of God—about a worship experience that relies almost entirely on flickering images across screens (and, in many cases, a worship experience that simultaneously disavows any non-symbolic significance to baptism, the Eucharist, and so forth). In that setting, we experience, and then we stop experiencing: the high point of worship fades away altogether as we psychologically “change the channel.” There is nothing tangible, in that moment, which grounds us in a reality and order beyond ourselves. We, not God, create a setting of worship.
In the older view, the physical components of worship—buildings, vessels, and, yes, hymnals—are shaped by human beings, but ultimately derived from the created world given by God. But the same cannot be said of PowerPoint-driven worship, except in the most strained sense (electrical zeros and ones)? The distinction speaks for itself.
Furthermore, while hard-copy bulletins share some of the advantages of hymnals (such as physicality) they also have an unfortunate element of disposability to them. If your experience is anything like mine, church bulletins often wind up under car seats, stuffed into the front covers of Bibles, or piled haphazardly in a recycling pile by the church door. Bulletins are not items one returns to again and again (with the possible exception of those commemorating baptisms, confirmations, or first communions), but items one encounters momentarily and then tosses. And that practice, it seems to me, does not tend to foster an understanding of Christian faith as something to be lived out every day. (Perhaps I’m overthinking this. But at the very least, I submit that the use of hymnals probably helps cultivate this understanding better.)
Obviously, hymnals and missals aren’t cheap acquisitions for any church (though in the long run, the cost probably averages out vis-à-vis paper bulletins). And for those unfamiliar with them, there’s certainly an adjustment period. But I think in the long run, the gains—in spiritual terms, if not material—are almost certainly well worth the cost.