I can see that the structure of your thesis is very expansive. It’s a broad sweep—very compelling and inviting. You discuss the question of why the church sings with chapter headings: The Song of Israel, The Song of the Lamb, The Song of the Church, The Song in the Prison, The Song in the Harbor. How did you come up with this approach?
I started with this really ambitious structure with ten chapters in it! I was planning to go quite quickly through Scripture and tradition, and then focus on contemporary music and song. I started into my study of Scripture and very quickly discovered that it was going to take at least one chapter to talk about song and Scripture. One of the early things that I realised was that prophecy would have been sung originally, which means between a third and a half of the Old Testament was originally sung material! So I realised there was a lot more to think about there.
Then I got to the New Testament, and asked, “What’s new about singing in the church?” And that poured into a third chapter about the early church. It was important to me at that point to go deep into what was going on in the early church because it’s so crucial to the development of Christian theology and because something so beautiful is happening when those Christians write about song and music. There are passages just full of love for Christ as they encounter him in worship. So, that ended up being a chapter.
I ended up making this huge map on my wall of all these key movements in Christian music through history. There were some things that were popping out, and you could tell that an explosion of life happened at that time—for example, Martin Luther, and then all of the music that came out of the spirituals. So, those raised little flags that I wanted to explore. I had another key conversation with a close friend where I was asking how we even get from the early church to be able to focus on more recent history. It was his idea to focus on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because Bonhoeffer inherits from Martin Luther, but he also looks back over church history and gathers up a lot of the church’s wisdom about song and about music. So, that became the chapter, The Song in the Prison. I had also always wanted to spend some time with the spirituals. They are an archetypal “song in the night”, so to speak, but, at that point, it also just made sense within the context of the thesis. That chapter goes much deeper into some themes that were developing through the study.
It sounds like you had some key conversations along the way that were very important in your decisions around the structure of your work.
Yeah, certain conversations were really important. But also, the thesis doesn’t claim to be “the history of song in the church.” Or a full systematic theology. It’s really about testimony, about listening as deeply as I could to the witness of certain voices and reflecting on what was happening when they were singing or speaking about song. Those particular voices emerged out of a journey. So, it’s not saying, “these are the key moments in Christian history.” It’s just some examples, or some “soundings” if you like; and there are threads that bring them together.
What were a couple of memorable moments of discovery for you in terms of the answering the question of why the church sings?
There were a lot of…I’m just going to call them tearful moments—moments when something really, really resonated deeply. I’ll just give you a few examples. One of them was when I was in the New Testament chapter, and I got to sit with the “hymn” in Matthew and Mark, the one that Jesus and his disciples sang at the Last Supper before they went to Gethsemane. This is actually the only time that musical language is used in all four gospels. We don’t know what that song was for certain, and that’s a big caveat! But there’s a good possibility that it was Psalms 115 to 118. I think sitting with that passage of Scripture, reading those words and imagining Jesus singing to God before he stepped into the night to go to the cross, has really impacted me.
There was another moment when I was studying the life of Saint Antony, who was a monk in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. Antony talks to his monks, who have gathered around him, about spiritual warfare. He just encourages them, saying when you’re under spiritual attack, don’t face the enemy—face the Lord. Lift your voice in praise and rejoice in the Lord and in the things that are to come. When the enemy sees that, those weapons of deception and fear will vanish like smoke, because you’re filled with the truth.
The last one I’ll mention is when I was studying the songs of the slaves in the American South. They “stole away” from slaveholders at night to worship God in the forests. The language they often used was that they went “to talk with Jesus.” There are so many testimonies of people saying Jesus was with them there, the Spirit was moving in the community, healing them, filling them with joy. There were moments like that throughout the course of the thesis, actually. I think one thing that struck me through the study was the consistency of what was happening, community to community. Clearly, context is really important, and people’s songs grow out of a context. But there’s also this sense of common things that are happening in the history of the church. So for me, that’s more of a realisation about the work of the Spirit in the life of the church.
Were there things that grieved you as you looked at the history of song in the church?
The first thing that comes to mind for me is that when you’re listening to a community’s song, you’re listening to more than the song itself. A song is so much more than music. It’s an expression of a people’s life, and to really hear it well it helps to learn something about the life that it came from. And it was there where I hit those places of deep sadness. That happened when I was spending a year with the story of Nazi Germany. It was not just the violence but the idolatry that was that was happening at that time. I listened to some of the songs of the Nazis that compared Hitler to Christ and I was saddened—and angered, really—by reading that stuff.
That just goes deeper in chapter five. Chapter five was sitting with the story of American slavery for a year and what’s referred to in the spirituals as “trouble”—“nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” It’s impossible to find words for what the slaves went through. There’s a former slave, Linda Brent, who said that it would take an abler pen than hers to write about that trouble. But the flip side of that is that again, it’s in those places—when you’re sitting in the song with the people of God—that you’re encountering glory. It’s like this beautiful light in that place. So there was always this tension. I tried to enter as deeply as I could into the story, which involved deep grief that was always held hand in hand with beautiful hope and joy that happened in that place of worship.
In terms of the song itself, something that did stick with me is just that recurring thing through history where our song as the church hasn’t always matched with our life. That’s most graphically seen for me in slaveholding society and in slaveholders who would sing hymns, sometimes even by Isaac Watts, in a chapel. Then they’d get up and abuse their brothers or sisters in Christ. That’s hard. So that grieves me and echoes the words from Amos and other prophets, “take away from me the noise of your songs”—just do what’s right, do justice. But it all points back to ourselves: if I’m listening to that challenge, it should be a challenge to me when I’m singing a song in church. Like, where’s my life at?
You’re talking about things that have grieved you, but then right in the middle of that is the glory of the Lord—it’s very striking. In our whole interview in fact, speaking of the time since you were a young adult, these things have gone hand in hand: both the worship of the Lord and also questions of justice. Is that something that has excited you throughout your study, coming back to the glory of the Lord that is sustained and upheld in these different scenarios of worship? Has this been encouraging?
Oh, yeah. Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict, has this beautiful phrase. He talks about the communion that is our life. So, when we taste communion with God, what we’re tasting is a life that is stronger than death, that will carry through death. So we will pass through—like the spirituals say—we’ll pass through death into the arms of Jesus. Jesus is with us, Jesus is waiting for us, Jesus will meet us on the other side of the Jordan. The slaves in America sang that to be with Jesus is heaven, even in the valley and in the night. This is a theme that runs through all of it—entering into the dark places, the struggles and the doubts, and encountering Jesus, even in the silence. He’s there with us, and he’s the glory of God. So, when we encounter him, we come to know that indestructible life. It’s sustaining. It gives us what we need to keep living and taking each step forward. And I think that encounter happens in a special way when we’re singing.
It’s a communal expression of hope, right? And I guess, really, it’s the steadfast love of the Lord, expressed in Jesus. There’s nowhere that his love is not, where his love doesn’t sustain us.
And you can always sing that song. I love that that’s the refrain for Israel all the way through the Old Testament. You can sing that in any place in life where you are; you can be in the deepest grief but that’s still true—the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. And Jesus is that.