In Defence of Printed Hymnals

Obscurantism is the principle of opposing the progress of knowledge, enlightenment or reform. It is not unlikely that I will be labelled an obscurantist for my insistence upon the use of printed hymnals. In an era of affordable projectors, Powerpoint and similar software, surely insisting upon hymnals is like insisting on horse-drawn buggies for transport or quills for pens? Is this simply an attempt to look and feel old-fashioned? What conceivable reason could there be for putting expensive, bulky, hardcover books into the hands of individuals, who will sing into them and not out, instead of a clear, colourful presentation that results in everyone looking up and forward, and probably singing louder?

Since you asked, I can think of at least five reasons.

1) When you hold a hymnal in your hands, you hold something of your Christian heritage. A good hymnal has hymns spanning the ages, from the first centuries into the present. Good hymnals include the names of the authors along with their era.  In a balanced hymnal, there will be hymns from Christians of all stripes – Church Fathers, medieval mystics and monks, Reformers, Puritans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Moravians. While you may not agree with every group on every point, you nonetheless owe much to these groups and ought to consider them as part of your heritage. When you pick up a hymnal, you identify with the church triumphant, and you sing her experience into yours. Since a projection is not a collection, it cannot convey this sense, or communicate that collective heritage.

2) When you hold a good hymnal in your hands, you are holding the distilled doctrine and resulting affections of hundreds, if not thousands, of believers. A hymnal is more than a songbook; it is a record, a testimony of what Christians collectively have believed and died for. Thumb through a hymnal, and it will usually be organised according to doctrine: God, Christ, the Spirit, the Church, Salvation, Heaven, Submission and Trust, and so forth. A hymnal is not systematic theology, it is doxological theology – truth set to music. Since a projection is not a collection, it can only project the particular hymn or song choice of the moment. No sense of cohesive, collective doctrinal thought can emerge from viewing one projection of a song at a time.

3) A good hymnal remains the best devotional literature we have. Hymnals grow, stretch and shape your affections beyond the narrow vision of one or two popular ‘choruses’. Every Christian should have a hymnal (or several) to have at home for personal and family worship. The Reformers fought and died for the privilege of singing to God in your own language in a hymnal you could read. The metrical indices allow on to find alternate tunes for unfamiliar hymns.  Hymns ought to be contemplated, understood, and sung to the Lord outside of church gatherings. Where hymns or songs are projected, the concept and value of owning a hymnal is often lost.

4) Since hymnals require more time and expense to produce, there is at least the possibility that the editors of those hymnals will sift through the chaff to include the very best of Christian hymnody. While every hymnal represents some theological bias, it at least represents a kind of canon, a settled standard of Christian hymnody in the eyes of its editors, from which a congregation can select appropriate hymns. Projectors connected to laptops or PCs mean songs can be included as easily as they can be deleted. Copy and paste, or select-delete. Forget about the consensus of the ages; a mouse-click and a song is in or out.

5) Hymnals still contain musical notation. In an increasingly musically illiterate age, to remove the last hope of interest in learning music is to resign ourselves to the slide to musical idiocy. If the church is supposed to be a place of training musicians (and it is), one way to do this is to include printed music and gradually teach on the basics of musical notation. Projections seldom, if ever, include musical notation. I can’t help thinking that seeing the bare lyrics on a screen seems to suggest that the music is merely a backing track for your personal Christian karaoke. Since we believe the music itself has a message, and is inseparable from the lyrics, it seems to me that only printed music properly communicates this relationship.

So, if we wanted to have a church with no sense of history or past, no sense of systematic or historical theology, no sense of devotional exercise except The One-Minute Devotional Bible, no submission to the history of Christian worship, and no value or thought for the music itself, we would eliminate printed hymnals.

Doing so wouldn’t accomplish this by itself, but it would go a long way towards doing so.

So maybe I’m not an obscurantist. If I am, then the progress, reform or enlightenment I’m opposing is not something I want my family or my church to be part of – so I’ll continue to oppose it.

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2 Responses to “In Defence of Printed Hymnals”

  1. ML Says:

    Isn’t the thought of music only being projected also assuming that people are musically illiterate…there is no score of music for the individual to have at home for the very purpose of singing and making melody themselves to the Lord. What a robbed people we are by our own lack of musical heritage!

  2. David Says:

    Yes, it’s rather like not setting up a church library because people don’t read much anymore. The problem is there – do we exacerbate it or try to fix it?

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