As it happens, my denomination got ever-so-briefly into the heat (if not always light) of cultural conversation of late, this time over the non-inclusion of a popular recent praise song in its forthcoming new hymnal. (In lieu of rehashing the controversy, I'll just indulge in a linkfest to blog posts and articles here, here, here, here, and here, among others available out there. It's not comprehensive; under no circumstances will this blog ever link to anything having to do with Glenn Beck.)
I have no intention of addressing the controversy directly. For one thing I don't even know the song. I don't particularly have an itch to do so. I have no doubt you can find plenty of folks using the kerfuffle to sharpen their already pointed knives to draw some more blood from what the consider a corrupt and fallen denomination, and I'll be damned if I contribute anything to that. It's my denomination, dammit, and if you have a problem with that you should probably move on.
My intent here is to go to what I hope is an obvious point, one that is often disputed or dismissed in other circumstances: hymnals still matter.
What I want to insist is that hymnals matter not primarily because they reflect a church's or a denomination's theology. They do that to some degree, but that is not necessarily the most important thing they do. I'm more concerned (much more concerned) with how hymnals shape a church's or a denomination's theology.
One project I did for an independent study this past spring semester put me in the task (one which quickly proved much larger than a spring semester could handle) of reviewing the hymns associated with the Lord's Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist, for readers of other denominational persuasions). It was a pretty sad affair. While collections ranging from the mid-1800s to, the mid- to late-1900s would offer a listing in the index titled "Lord's Supper," almost every hymn in such an index listing was at most a Maundy Thursday hymn or, even more likely, a Good Friday/Crucifixion hymn. With very few exceptions (as often individual lines in hymns as hymns themselves), there was nothing in what the congregation sang that spoke of being at the table; nothing to guide any sort of reflection or theological consideration about the table itself as an act of faith, welcome, hospitality, humility; nothing about the life of a Jesus who broke bread over and over again with all sorts of unseemly people, to the point that Pharisees sneered at him as someone who eats with sinners; it was all crucifixion all the time.
For a church that probably didn't observe the Lord's Supper more than four times a year, perhaps such a lack was less glaring. But as the twentieth century advanced and Presbyterians started figuring out that such infrequent communion may not be the best thing for the spiritual health of the church, there was very little available to those who might wish to have a hymn or two to turn attention to the act of communion itself in the congregation. The 1940 Hymnbook (the infamous "red book" to which some churches still cling) introduced a handful of table- or communion-focused hymns, including the spiritual "Let us break bread together." Even if an awareness and broadening of sacramental theology was at work in what might be called the "theological elites" of the denomination, one can say without too much stretching that even now such ideas have barely to make a dent in the larger body of the denomination, I would contend at least in part because it has taken quite a while for a body of hymns to emerge that can help to lead pastors and congregations in that direction where sermon after sermon will only go so far. What we sing matters, and what we collect to sing matters, even in an age where you can get a license and pop almost anything up on a screen.
Even a hymn borrowed from a distinct theological tradition will, given time, start to affect the way people think about their faith. The new Presbyterian book will include "Gather us in," a song born of the post-Vatican II overhaul of music in the Catholic tradition. While most of the text is fairly innocuous in terms of inter-denominational theological exchange, it does contain the phrase "give us to eat the bread that is You," which is fairly clearly tied to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, in oversimplified summary). Presbyterians don't hold that belief. Nonetheless, give that song (which is already pretty popular in some corners of the denomination) twenty or thirty years of use and you'll have at least a few people in the pews at least wondering about how that works, no matter how much they got instructed on What Presbyterians Believe.
What we sing shapes what we believe and how we do theology (hint: everybody does theology, whether they know it or not). I'm not particularly campaigning to yank "Gather us in" out of the new book, before anybody goes there, but I am insisting that hymns matter, that what we collect into hymnals (no matter what media form those "hymnals" may take) matters, and that paying attention to what the hymns we sing actually say (as opposed to enslavement to the "old favorites" or the hottest new praise choruses) is a bare minimum responsibility of any pastor, church musician, worship committee, or denominational hymnal committee.
What we sing matters.
And I haven't even gotten into how the music to which we sing those songs matters. But that's a whole other blog post, or bunch of posts, or a book or two.