Singing theology


Singing Theology

Karl Barth’s lectures on dogmatics given in Basle in 1946 used to begin with a psalm or a hymn. Mine last month in Belfast did not.  The reason is worth exploring.

Initially, the connection between hymn singing and teaching theology/biblical studies does not seem close. They are different activities. However, Barth was not alone in putting them in conjunction. Jesus, after the discourses in the upper room – the most theological teaching in the gospels – sang a psalm with his disciples at the end before they left.

Our lack of connection between the two, hymn-singing and teaching theology, is due to a certain recent movement of each away from the other. Theology has become more and more an academic exercise and, to the extent that it conforms to the objectivity of enlightenment university academia, struggles to find a place for sung belief. Hymn-singing has become less of a rehearsing of the great theological themes and, as Ward says, more of a transactional event between the singer and God. Thus these two activities have drifted apart.

However, there is no good reason why they should inhabit separate boxes. Sometimes we talk in self-satisfied tones of moving from the chapel to the lecture theatre and back but that un-necessarily separates the two activities. Integration is not furthered by having separate rooms for worship and theology. Anselm’s useful definition of theology that it is “faith seeking understanding” seems to me as not any more useful than to see theology as “worship seeking understanding”.

And now to the practical bit! What if the teacher doesn’t have a musical voice? What if the students are reluctant? I guess if you decide not to sing a worship hymn as a part of your theologising with your students, you have the right. But then you will have to find another way of impressing on them (and reminding you of) the intimate connection between theology/biblical studies and worship, or you do them a dis-service.

Perhaps it would just be simpler to sing.

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5 Comments on “Singing theology”

  1. Don George Says:

    Thanks for the article. I do not have the best singing voice and low student numbers make us sound woeful, however Youtube to the rescue. I regularly have a song that illustrates the lecture. Some of our modern songwriters are making an effort to be theologically based rather than, as some commentators disparagingly comment, write Jesus is my boyfriend songs.

  2. harknessa Says:

    This of course needn’t be introduced solely at the initiative/practice of the lecturer. Our assignment options could also include encouraging our students to respond with the lyrics of a song (or at least a poem), to express their response. It may be doxological/confessional in content, but could also go beyond that. In so doing we may be enabling the sense not just of integration between worship and theology, chapel and classroom, but enhancing a more holistic, formational response in our students.

    The assessment rubrics become a bit of a challenge, but doable.

    (Sorry, my creative juices didn’t rise to expressing these ideas in song.)

  3. PatrickM Says:

    Some students in a theology lecture last semester broke into song. Thereafter singing became a fixture for the remaining lectures. This was a (welcome) first in my experience – and felt natural and spontaneous for that group of students.

    I believe Luther was a great lover of music and regularly combined singing and lectures. A forthright quote from the great man:

    “A person…who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear
    nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

  4. Brent van der Linde Says:

    Good to be reminded that good theology needs to be in our songs, not just a transaction between us and God.

    Thanks for the post

  5. Lydia Jaeger (Institut Biblique de Nogent) Says:

    Hi Graham, stimulated by your post, I’ve startet an experiment and sing a hymn with my students at the beginning of each session on the Doctrine of the Cross. Very interesting discussions from there on. I hope you’re allright. Blessings, Lydia

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