Don E. Saliers builds the case in his book Music and Theology that theology requires music. He notes that while the theologian’s realm is language, the subject of theology is beyond words. However, music expresses the verbally inexpressible, helping to clarify spiritual truths that seem complex and sometimes far-fetched. As Saliers writes, “we are asked to say some things that we don’t truly think we believe until we sing them, or hear them in appropriately complex activities” (Saliers 6).
Saliers also explains that when “great theologians wish to speak of the deepest realities, they move toward poetry and music – heightened speech – as an attempt to ‘sound’ spiritual matters” (Saliers 72). However, he cautions that not all music inspires contemplation, functions theologically, or is appropriate for religious reflection. Musical settings of liturgy in particular must be true to the message and spirit of the words.
Of particular interest is Saliers’ discussion of hymns in chapter four of his book. Sacred songs are often characterized by simplicity and redundancy, qualities that make them ideal for religious messages. Especially in Christian hymn traditions, succinct verses convey theological viewpoints argued elsewhere, or emphasize religious themes such as praise, commitment, longing, and lament. By the careful partnership of music and words, an effective song can capture succinctly the essence of both religious ideas and the sacred moment, producing what Saliers calls a “theological miniature” (Saliers 36). And because hymns are “hedged” by the demands of unity and clarity, they also serve an important didactic role. However, the role of the hymn in doing theology is unique, especially compared to other forms of theological reasoning. Saliers states:
… there is still a difference between singing theological beliefs in hymns, anthems, and more extended musical forms, and the work of systematic inquiry into the meaning of theological claims, with the use of philosophical reasoning… While sung theology is not intended as conceptual or analytic, it nevertheless can make profound contributions to our theological experience and understanding (Saliers 40).
In the mind of many theologians hymns do not step back and examine, but step in and worship. Thus, hymns are “vehicles” of theology through worship. However people are not shaped and formed by vehicles. Brian Wren argues in his book, Praying Twice, that theology is more than the expression and conveying of faith – it also an exploration, a discovery, and a challenge to know more about faith. Theology must use reason and imagination. Wren makes this profound statement: “There is a level of knowing that involves nonverbal learning – it takes experiencing something, practicing it out along with written theory. It takes time to truly understand and more fully grasp art” (Wren 364).
In light of such arguments, we must step back to ask a dangerous question – are sermons a more superior way of doing theology? We must first be fair and offer a critique on the nature of hymns. Hymns can’t be complete by themselves. Hymns use a few succinct words to explain what a sermon can do in paragraphs. Often, hymns only convince us if we already agree with the viewpoint or have heard their content explained elsewhere. However, Wren believes that the economy of words and metaphor play to the poet/lyric writer’s favor. The poet/songwriter can in a few lines draw in, walk through a story, and evoke thoughtful images. The use of simile and metaphor can bring unrelated things together in powerful ways. Wren explains the power of this usage of language:
…hymnic metaphors organize our thinking, generate insights as we transfer ideas and associations from intersecting image to main subject, help us to express and make sense of powerful feelings, and move us at a deep level by their appeal to the senses and the imagination. In doing so, the hymn-poem does theological work as valid and important as the reasoned article, lecture, or book (Wren 374).
Certainly both mediums – hymns and sermons – have their limitations. Reason can be used to manipulate. Metaphors are limited. However, hymns still have a very unique nature in the way they do theology. There are important benefits to lyrical theology. As Wren writes, “It is conceivable that a congregational song tune can express and generate theological insights” (Wren 355). For Wren, part of knowing is experiencing. Thus, he believes the worshipper experiences theology through good lyrical form – whether read or sung.
Hymns give memorable and imaginative liturgical expressions to theological themes elaborated elsewhere more systematically, such as in sermons. Thus, one great aspect to hymns is that they reinforce theological content. They express Christian faith in metaphor, epigram, and descriptive imagery within an economy of words, expanding knowledge in ways much further than reasoned exposition can do. Hymns need sermons and sermons need hymns.