When we visited Kentucky last week, we attended the Free Methodist church I belonged to when I lived there. The worship consisted of a mixture of hymns and choruses. The hymns were in hymnals, and the choruses were in a small black binder. For all the songs, the words and musical score were printed together on the page, as is typical of hymn books. Instrumentally, the worship team included an organ, a piano, a few guitars, a base, and a flute. The instrumentation gave the hymns a contemporary “feel,” but we sang the traditional melodies and chords.
It was a great experience. I loved having the whole song before me, including the written score. I know that many of these songs and hymns cultivated my literacy in both theology and music. Reading music in my piano lessons was just a continuation of the singing we did in church growing up; watching the notes go up and down on the page in the hymn book reinforced what I was learning from the pages of my piano lesson books. And the meaty texts of hymns, in which over and over again, the hymn writers met the challenge to fit theology within the limits of a fairly strict form, are deeply ingrained in my thinking to this day. Those hymns develop lines of thought in phrases that still replay in my mind.
I greatly prefer having the whole text in front of me. I have heard arguments over the years about how hymn books isolate people — after all, everyone stares at the page of their own book. But it’s not true. For one thing, I had to share a hymn book with a complete stranger. For another, I love being able to store up a few lines, glancing ahead in the music, and then looking up to survey the faces of others singing, or the stained glass window in the front, or the musicians, or the sunlight coming in the windows. This enhances the worship for me, and reinforces how connected we all are as we sing. I enjoyed being able to glance back, too, if I wanted to — at what we’d already sung. These things — the eye wandering ahead of where the mind is, or back to where it was, all the while singing — are much truer to the way I read a book, and they release me from the stranded feeling I have from powerpoint slides that strap the mind to one place, or even from the small screen of my Kindle. I like being awash in words and context, when I read and when I worship.
My daughters were disoriented by the hymn and chorus books. They are used to seeing a few lines of words at a time projected on a screen in the front of the church, usually with some inspiring visual background. I felt sad that they don’t have an inkling of the experience and skills that were so formative in my own spiritual life, and I wonder what replaces these literacies in this generation of believers.