Hymns are powerful teachers of faith and doctrine and exert enormous spiritual and emotional influence on the people who sing them. As lyric poetry with regular rhyme and meter, they are easy to learn and easy to recall. A congregation that sings hymns together is a united community of belief, whose hearts beat as one. Their hymnals are teachers of theology at a grass-roots level and often influence the believers more than Scripture or creeds. The hymnody has evolved since the early Christian times, from the first century Greek communities, through the Reformation and after. Since hymns have been passed down through many generations, they have contributed to the worldview held by Christians today.
As humanity has gained technological knowledge and skill, it has the capacity to destroy the earth faster than the earth can repair itself. To address this situation, Thomas Berry calls for a “Great Work” in transitioning from a period of human devastation of the planet to a time when human presence would be beneficial both to humans and to the earth. (Berry, The Great Work, 1999) He asks that humanity develop a new story as a foundation to this effort.
But for the most part, the hymnody tells the old story of an external God who created all that exists and set it to run according to his order. This God is both a King, sometimes a warrior-king, and a benevolent patriarch who is only distantly related to the world. All power is on God’s side, whether it be domination or benevolence. Either way, humans are absolved of responsibility and cannot help themselves, but God cares for them and takes that responsibility himself. Nature fades into the background in the hymns, and it is labeled seductive and distracting, or is simply an aid for praise of the Creator-Father-King. The true human goal is redemption out of the world into which we were born, and the hymns are filled with images of our “true home” in heaven. Finally, the hymns reinforce anthropocentrism with their failure to include the whole of creation, beyond humans, as capable of relating to the divine.
The metaphors in a very large percentage of the hymnody are at odds with what we have learned from science about evolution, the origins of the universe, relativity, and quantum physics. And so the hymns seem to some to be irrelevant, not believable, and containing antiquated images. They sing the old story while we are learning so much more.
Fortunately, new hymns are being written to address concerns, both about the earth, and about systemic oppression of people, non-human species and the natural world. Slowly the new hymns are making their way into the established hymnody, but there is a need for more hymns to shift the focus toward a new story.
We need to sing our way into a new story. Until we do, our old models will continue to hold, no matter how much we learn about the systems of the earth, the consciousness of creation, and our unfolding Universe.