A note from the Director, Helen Paynter
The CSBV is delighted to present a new blog entitled Hostility, Healing, Hymnody, led by one of our newest research associates Will Moore. Over the coming months, Will will be curating a range of perspectives on the use of violence imagery in church music, and we look forward to being challenged and stimulated by these blogs.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic, participatory live music was one of the biggest losses to Christian worship. Once we were allowed to gather again as Christian communities, but were not permitted to sing as a congregation, services just didn’t feel the same. Praise maybe felt half-hearted, and adoration somewhat inadequate – not that it matters to God in the least! Yet in the loss of music in our Christian worship, we realised the luxury and privilege of it.
The imaginative and poetic nature of lyrics, the theological depth of many hymn stanzas, the scriptural basis of so much Christian song, the prayerful and powerful refrains of choruses, and the magnificence of the melodic tunes we sing along to… for many of us, music is absolutely integral to the way in which we encounter, understand, deepen our relationship with, and worship our God.
We have to acknowledge then that music is powerful. Its capacity to create and enhance worship settings is striking, though we ought not overlook its potential for abuse. Just as music can bring about emotions of nostalgia and sentimentality, so too can it provoke anger and division. Likewise, in worship, music can allow us to engage more deeply in adoration of God, and to connect with those around us in song as a community of faith, even beyond the walls we are in. However, it can also be used for manipulative means – its targeted (mis)use can force particular emotional responses and even coerce worshippers into things they may not usually be comfortable doing, eventually damaging their faith and engagement with church entirely. Although we may often see music as a force for good, we must recognise it can be used in all manner of situations with a variety of motivations.
The creative arts are so intrinsic to our human experience, used as a method of response to various life situations. My fascination with these ideas come from my own experiences in the world of music and theology. As a church organist and choir director in my older teenage years, and now as someone training to be a priest in the Church of England, I have seen first-hand the real-life impact music can have. In times of grief, it says words that are unable to be spoken. Yet in times of joy, it offers celebration like nothing else can. Music articulates a great deal of the ineffability of human experience.
Therefore, we should not miss opportunities to put music at the centre of our theological reflection. What might it mean if our hymns use words of violence from scripture in their praise of God, or their condemnation of others? Should we be obliged to understand the deep political and cultural contexts that many of the songs we sing on a Sunday morning have emerged from? If music is a trigger of traumatic experience, how might we reconsider its use in our worship? On the other hand, can we imagine worship without music at all and what would that mean? These are just some of the questions that we might pose as we probe more about the relationship between our Christian faith and music.
This new blog series – Hostility, Healing, Hymnody – will focus on the vast intersection between violence and Christian music, and feature a breadth of contributors including academics, church ministers, hymn writers, musicians, and music therapists. Some posts will reflect on the lyrical and musical contents of hymns and worship songs themselves, whilst others will observe how music has been used in damaging and corrupt ways. On behalf of the Centre, I hope this series will help Christians notice the dangers and splendours of using music in our worship together. Once we are attentive to the power of music, for both good and bad, historically and today, we might be able to utilise it more conscientiously in our Christian communities for the real and worthy praise of God.
Research Associate Will Moore is currently training for priesthood in the Church of England at Westcott House in Cambridge and is studying for a PhD with the Cambridge Theological Federation and Anglia Ruskin University. He is the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities (SCM Press, 2022).