It took me three tries (including two failed Kindle download attempts), but I finally got my hands on Chad Bird’s Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing.
I’m glad I persisted. Bird’s slim volume doesn’t look like much, but it contains some big ideas.
If you sing in church, those ideas are sure to spark some reactions.
Read it if you’re Lutheran or Lutheran curious. Discuss it with people like your cousin Jeff, who’s critical of “those old hymns that don’t reach people anymore.” Suggest it to your pastor as the basis for a Bible study at your church.
At its heart, the book is a defense of traditional Lutheran hymnody. Bird minces no words as he makes his claims:
“The world is flooded with hymns, but as with any flood, lots of trash and raw sewage are floating around in the water. Not all is safe for churchly consumption” (p. 7).
“No hymn deserves to be called a Lutheran hymn unless the entire corpus of its theology is crucified” (i.e., it must proclaim the theology of the cross, p. 21).
“All true Christian hymns must proclaim Christ, extol Christ, impart Christ. If His life is absent from the hymn, let us lay it to rest in an unmarked grave” (p. 6).
“[Hymnody] is by nature a preaching-song, a poem that proclaims the Word of God to man, and only secondarily prays to or praises God” (p. 29).
Some of you will agree immediately with most, if not all, of Bird’s arguments. Others (myself included) will find the book fairly persuasive but will still have questions. The book is, after all, only 38 pages long.
Which is why it would be ideal for a Bible study. The book is short enough for everyone to read, and the argument is laid out clearly, with specific criteria for Lutheran hymns. The book also contains specific examples here and there (e.g., “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”), which would be great discussion prompts.
I’m sure participants could come up with a lot of examples of their own—of hymns to keep alive as well as those to bury.
Whether or not you have the chance to pursue this in a Bible study, you could still test some of Bird’s claims on your own (after reading his whole argument), with hymnal or songbook in hand. You could run the “Bird test” on the hymns you sing the next time you’re in church, or just flip to a section of the hymnal (e.g., “Trust,” “End Times”) and see what you think.
You could even try this with your cousin Jeff at Thanksgiving dinner.
Okay, maybe not at Thanksgiving dinner…but you get the idea.
P.S. Chad Bird has just launched a sharp new website. I encourage you to check it out, especially if you like the sound of the arguments in Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing.