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Exploring Christian Song

M. Jennifer Bloxam and Andrew Shenton, eds.
Published by Lexington Books in 2017

Exploring Christian Song, a collection of essays marking the fifteenth anniversary of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music (SCSM), is an admirable testament to the breadth and quality of contributions made by SCSM members to the growing conversation between music and theology. For these scholars, Christian song is more than liturgical decoration. It is, as editors M. Jennifer Bloxam and Andrew Shenton write, “a powerful social cohesive, a proclamation of common identity, and, above all, something that is uplifting and which allows us a glimpse of eternity” (xii). Song, they add, unifies Christian communities and contributes to church-wide, inter-denominational conversation. The various chapters in Exploring Christian Song unfold aspects of this conviction from different angles.

Ten chapters divided into six sections follow an Introduction, “Contemplating Christian Song in Context,” which includes helpful summaries of each subsequent chapter. Karen B. Westerfield Tucker and J. H. Kwabena Nketia, authors of Chapters 1 and 10 respectively (which also make up the first and final sections), are concerned with the power of Christian song to bridge differences across time and space in the worldwide church. In Section 2, “Reading Books of Catholic Song c. 1500,” M. Jennifer Bloxam’s and Melody Marchman Schade’s chapters mirror conversations within the SCSM community on Medieval and Renaissance Roman Catholic song, particularly focusing here on topics circa 1500. Stephen

A. Crist and Markus Rathey each discuss theology and eighteenth-century Lutheran song in Section 3, reflecting a portion of SCSM scholars concerned with Lutheran music from the Reformation through Modernity. The Christian songs of specific twentieth-century Eastern European composers occupy Timothy H. Steele and Andrew Shenton in Section 4. And in Section 5, Braxton D. Shelley and Joshua Kalin Busman discuss the ways that Christian song is similar to and/or functions as preaching in the contemporary United States.

At first glance, this volume might seem best suited for selective use of individual chapters since the subjects are so diverse. However, there are threads typical of studies in Christian music introduced in Westerfield Tucker’s opening chapter that are present throughout the volume. Westerfield Tucker discusses the ways Christian song relates to church unity by mapping the landscape of Christian song through time and space. Painting the history with broad strokes punctuated by specific examples, she opens the volume with probing questions about how the Holy Spirit may be working through Christian song, questions that set the stage for the rest of the book.

While deploying differing methodologies, contributors take up a number of themes from Westerfield Tucker’s chapter that resonate through the volume. First, there is an emphasis on the importance of the relationship between text and tune in Christian song, since both affect the theological meaning and reception of songs (see chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in particular). Second, multiple chapters trace the movement of hymns and songs through time and place. This movement often results in slight changes, but also contributes to the unity of the church (see especially chapters 1, 2, 9, and 10). Related to both of these is the third thread: an emphasis on the importance of the context of Christian song to understanding its significance (this arises in every chapter, but is less explicitly addressed in Chapter 7). The theological, philosophical, political, social, and/or cultural context of a specific work often incites a specific relationship between text and tune, or contributes to a particular kind of reception of the piece. These contexts also contribute to changes made in hymns through time and space or the decisions to retain earlier settings. Not only does context affect the works at hand, but the works themselves also communicate Christian messages particular to people in different contexts, as Nketia makes explicit in the final chapter in relation to West African missionary hymnody.

Given these unifying characteristics, this volume would make an excellent resource for music history classes in which the instructors wish to highlight sacred music and the ways Christianity interacts with music history. For example, Bloxam’s chapter on the influence of liturgical and devotional song on Jacob Obrecht as a cleric-composer could complement a session on fifteenth-century polyphony, and Steele’s chapter on the effects of Zoltán Kodály’s political, religious, and cultural contexts on his Geneva Psalm 50 could enhance discussion of reasons for the proliferation of compositional styles during the twentieth century.

Most of the contributors to this volume are musicologists, along with one ethnomusicologist and one liturgical scholar. In addition to their primary fields of study, many are also conductors and music practitioners, and a few have specifically studied theology. While clearly grounded in the field of musicology, contributors also employ methodologies from— and discuss topics in—ethnomusicology, politics and religion, liturgical studies, theology and culture, historical studies, semiotics, homiletics, ritual theory, and phenomenology.

Although particularly suited for use in music history, musicology, liturgical studies, or hymnology courses, the diverse methodologies and topics present in the volume will also be of interest to scholars in other fields. For example, in Chapter 5, Rathey delves into the world of politics and religion as he considers the relationship between text and music in oratorios by C. P. E. Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. Enlightenment philosophy and theology inform these eighteenth-century works as text and music align in service of moral and political pedagogy. This chapter could bring a cultural perspective to a Modern European class during a discussion of Enlightenment politics. Shelley’s essay could function similarly. Suitable for homiletics, ritual theory, or public speaking courses, it explores the idea of “tuning up” in black preaching. Expanding “tuning up” to contemporary Gospel music as well, he describes this homiletical, musical tactic as manifesting “the gospel imagination,” and thereby establishing “a transcendent space” (189).

As is often the case with such works, the volume’s interdisciplinary character is at once a great strength, but sometimes a weakness as well. On the one hand, moving beyond musicology aids these authors’ illumination of Christian songs throughout history. On the other hand, in many instances the handling of theological terms and ideas may leave some theologians wanting greater precision. A theologian who reads this volume might find him or herself wondering exactly what authors mean by their use of terms like “sacramental” and “transcendent.” For example, in his chapter discussing the theological implications of the “roadmapping” of old hymns by praise and worship bands in light of the relationship between text and music, Busman begins with a description of a concert by the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. He describes the “Hopelandic” language they created as sacramental, without specific explanation of what that term might mean except to liken the language to Hebrew, Yoruba, and others (196-197). The reader is left wondering exactly what he means by this. How is this language related to the Christian sacraments?

This request for more rigorous definitions and explanation is not meant solely as a means to explain difficult theological terms to readers in the music field who may not know the terms, though it would contribute to this. Rather, when an author uses the term “sacramental” they are invoking a concept with a deep, and incredibly broad, theological history. Theologians have used that term to indicate different theological commitments and their corresponding implications, as well as to exhort audiences to different kinds of action both liturgical and extra-liturgical. There is not simply one concept, “sacramental,” which everyone understands in the same manner. The term is highly contested and frequently redefined. It can name any number of materially different theological commitments and conceal any number of divisions. To make a claim about the concept’s meaning is to place oneself in a tradition of thought. This happens whenever the term is used, whether one is explicit about its meaning or not. Better, then, to bring these commitments fully to light and enable the conversation to move forward. This kind of engagement would only further the depth of understanding of a musical topic and its place in Christian history.

Perhaps the audience intended for this book is not primarily theological, but first and foremost musicological. Although some members of SCSM are theologians first and musicologists second, none of these members are represented in this volume. It is difficult in a volume that encompasses so many eras, genres, and methodologies to have a unified audience in mind. Instead, different chapters assume different knowledge on the part of the reader. For example, in his chapter on Arvo Pärt’s 1989 Magnificat setting, Shenton discusses what the Magnificat text is and then lists composers who have set it to music (158). Any scholar of sacred music would be familiar with the text and many of the settings he lists. However, theologians without background in music history are unlikely to be as familiar with the musical settings and may or may not associate the song of Mary in Luke 1 with its Latin incipit, “Magnificat.”

The variety of assumed audiences can be a weakness in the sense that it slightly destabilizes the unity of the volume, but it also demonstrates the strength of SCSM in attracting scholars from a variety of backgrounds who are able to support each other in challenging interdisciplinary projects. Work done at the intersection of theology and the arts is crucial for better understanding both realms. Such scholarship demands mastery of multiple fields, a task nearly impossible for one person. The SCSM community fosters relationships among scholars with a variety of different backgrounds, easing the task of mastering multiple fields of study by means of personal relationships across disciplines. It thus models ways Christian scholarship can effectively engage a wide range of topics, methodologies, and even disciplines.

Cite this article
Martha H. Brundage, “Exploring Christian Song”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 206-208

Martha H. Brundage

Boston University School of Theology
Martha H. Brundage is a Ph.D. Student in Theology at Boston University School of Theology.