O-Files Q&A, Hymnology Edition

Subsequent to this post, I became embroiled involved in an email conversation which I present below (lightly edited for ease of reading and public consumption).

Q: What makes a hymn a hymn? Generally I think of hymns being “(usually old) songs in the hymnbook,” but you’ve gone and said this fellow is writing hymns all the time.

A: In my opinion, to qualify as a hymn a text must:

1. Be literary in quality and technique yet
2. express “praise” in generally accessible terms

The first ensures a true catholicity and durability. Just like the Odyssey will never be lost from our literary canon and is able to be appreciated by non-Greek speaking, non-Aphrodite believing folk, so “All Creatures of Our God and King” will continue (in my judgement) to be sung by Catholics and Protestants, nature lovers and shriveled capitalists alike until Jesus comes back. This is precisely why [the gospel song our friend mentioned] fails. One does not improve it by setting it to a tune other than the early 1900s parochial gospel tune to which it is normally sung. The words were written in a way that could only be appreciated to the fullest extent by a limited group of people, namely turn of the century revivalists. Anglicans and Catholics and Presbyterians of the time would have turned their noses up at it as an expression unworthy of the subject which fails to effectively communicate about that subject on those very aesthetic grounds.

The second element above ensures one need not be a professor of literature to stand in a congregation and sing a hymn in a heartfelt manner. Forgive the crass analogy, but they say that Hold ‘Em Poker is a game that takes 5 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. Similarly a good hymn is reasonably understandable upon first reading/singing, but also yields further insights upon multiple recitations. Indeed, it will bear up under centuries of repetition (unlike that poem of mine I sent you the other day, which is of limited insight despite creative fulfillment of the form used, and thus can only be read so many times before no more reward be found in it).

Successful meeting of these two requirements is terribly difficult, and our best attempts today pale next to those of previous generations. Anyway, there’s my two cents.

Subsequent to that rather offhand and haphazard explanation, I was gratified to find this definition

…a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshiper’s attitude toward God or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.

which is similar, but probably better. Thoughts?

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