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Hymns and Your Emotions

May 23 2018
May 23 2018


It is easy to assume that it's the style of music that determines whether or not it will adequately engage our emotions. There is clearly a power of music to "reshape" us, including our emotions (or "empaty"), as Duke Divinity professor, Jeremy Begbie, insists. Begie cites Oliver Sacks as one who makes a similar claim in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Though I've not gotten around to reading this myself, nevertheless, there is clearly an emotion-enlivening component (if we can call it that) to music that is rich and important. Perhaps this is too obvious to be worth stating. Someone like Rob Smith will be far more helpful here.

What I particularly notice is many who argue that the style of music closest to our contemporary, even, popular, conception of music, is far better at sparking the passions to life than older, dustier styles of music. In the same vein, instrumentation popular in the present (e.g. guitar, drums, etc.) contains more emotional capital than instrumentation of the past (e.g. organ, violin, piano, etc.). Again, not an area of specialization of mine, but keep in mind that to advocate for the contemporary-is-better view may be, as Michael Reeves reminds us, simply playing the part of a country bumpkin who argues that his village knows what's best. This, C. S. Lewis called, "chronological snobbery."

All this aside, let us not forget the importance of emotions and the Christian life, even in the early eighteenth century. In 2013, Graham Beynon published the wonderful little biography, Isaac Watts: His Life and Thought. Also that year, Douglas Bond published the slightly smaller, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. We sing a number of Watts' hymns at Faith beyond "Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place." Some that I particular like include "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed," "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past," "Stand Up, My Soul; Shake Off Your Fears," "Join All the Glorious Names," "The Heavens Declare Your Glory, Lord," "O Thou That Hear'st When Sinners Cry," and "Give to Our God Immortal Praise." Of course, some are better than others. But this isn't my point.

I lately stumbled upon Beynon's 2016 excellent article, "The Helpfulness of the Lesser Known Work: Isaac Watts on the Passions." What Beynon does is examine how important it was to Watts himself that human passions be addressed in the music of the church. We are so quick to attach care for emotional faculties to contemporary kind of style, but Watts himself wrote with a similar objective in mind. So, when prefering the hymnody of the church, we are not condemning the power of music to reanimate our heart-strings. Watts puts it like this:

[God acts to] reform our natures, to put all our misplaced and disjointed powers into their proper orer again, and to maintain this divine harmony and peace. It is the blessed Spirit that inclines reason to submit to faith, adn makes the lower faculties submit to reason, and obey the will of our Maker, and then gives us the pleasure of it.

Beynon includes several evidences showing how Watts employed music to increase our affections for God in our singing praises to Him. We think this the unique concern of American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. If not that, we think only writers of contemporary music think to touch the inner recesses of our emotional life with music. This becomes a central argument of those who locate passion only in new music.

What strikes me is that our problem with finding passion only in contemporary music may not be a problem with the music at all, style or otherwise. The problem may be that we have deliberately tuned our hearts to be envigorated only by our contemporary surroundings. We've almost entirely lost the ability to extend ourselves, mind and heart, beyond contemporary culture. Our passions, we tell ourselves, belong to a particular era, namely, our own. Pop culture and pop music have led to pop affections. How stunning that the author of so-called stodgy, dusty hymns, sought to make stody dusty hymns that touch embolden the passions, to

"fill the soul with overflowings of gratitude and make the lips abound in expressions of joy and praise ... attended with a peaceful and pleasing aspect, ... a sweet serenity in the heart and eyes ... and all concure to maintain religion in the power and joy of it."

Oddly enough, reading Beynon's article, one reason to elevate hymns in the life of the church might actually be that hymns have the power to elevate our affections.


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