Song of Jupiter
Nathanael Devlin on the Hymn That Turned His World Around
I was raised in a Christian home; my parents were former Roman Catholics who came to know the Lord during the Charismatic renewal of the 1970s. When my parents moved from Long Island, New York, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they joined a growing charismatic church full of young, enthusiastic, Spirit-filled men and women who were eager to worship in a style that was consistent with the charismatic renewal. In those days, the musical aspect of this style was folksy, populist, and usually guitar-driven.
We did not sing many traditional hymns at church when I was young, but were well stocked with the newly written "praise choruses" of that time; indeed, our worship services rose on the same wave as did the burgeoning contemporary Christian music industry. Thus, I remember often singing Steffi Geiser Rubin and Stuart Dauermann's "The Trees of the Field" (based on Isaiah 55:12), Jack Hayford's "Majesty," Twila Paris's "He Is Exalted," and Pete Sanchez's "I Exalt Thee." My exposure to contemporary Christian music continued through the years, both within and outside of church. I attended 2nd Chapter of Acts and Petra rock concerts along the way and, in my late teen years, made two pilgrimages to the Jesus People U.S.A.'s Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinois.
I have many fond memories of that church of my youth: the domed building in which we worshiped, which had belonged to the local water authority before the church purchased it and converted it into a worship space; the mustard-colored carpets, brown walls, dark woods, and brown vinyl chairs of the interior, a style of décor popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the dancing in the sanctuary, the tambourines, the band, and even the pastor pulling out his old trumpet once in a while and joining the worship leader in a chorus or two. I suspect that my experiences in that congregation have, for good and ill, powerfully shaped the person I am today. In the end, it was a congregation that introduced me to Jesus, and I will always be grateful to my parents for committing themselves to taking me to church when I was very young.
Enraptured by Thaxted
This upbringing meant that, when I first came to serve at Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in 2004, I was largely ignorant of the music that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has been familiar with for hundreds, even thousands, of years. At Beverly Heights, however, I quickly became exposed to more traditional hymns. My first exposure to one particular hymn is especially memorable. It happened one Sunday when I was participating in our second worship service, the traditional one.
As we began to sing one particular hymn, unfamiliar to me at the time, I felt a deep resonance within me, partly because there was so much bass in the music that when the organ played, I could feel the sound waves in my chest. But there was more. The hymn exuded such majesty and glory, such weightiness and royalty, that I felt drenched in it. The whole experience was wonderful, and in the following weeks, I continued to reflect on the effect this sublime hymn had had on me.
Some time later, our Senior Pastor needed to travel, and I was called upon to put together the traditional morning worship service. I knew I wanted to include that sublime hymn; the only problem was, I had no idea what its name was. I had forgotten to take note of the name of the hymn and couldn't remember any of the verses.
I went to our organist for help, but, having had no musical training, I could only describe the hymn by sharing my experience of it and mimicking some peculiar sounds. Somehow, she made sense of my guttural noises and suggested we try hymn no. 660, "O God Beyond All Praising." As soon as she began to play, I knew that was the hymn I was looking for, and I included it in the worship service.
Afterwards, I learned that the music of this hymn is known as "Thaxted." But the most significant things I learned about it, things that have caused my affection for this hymn to grow all the more, came from an unlikely source: the C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward.
The Glory of Jupiter
Ward is an English clergyman who has become famous for his literary discovery concerning Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. In own his book, Planet Narnia, Ward convincingly argues that Lewis based his seven Narnia stories on the seven planets in medieval cosmology. He suggests that the first tale in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was based on the imagery and mythology associated with the planet Jupiter. Jupiter (or Jove) was "the king of planets" and also Lewis's favorite. Ward quotes Lewis:
He also cites this about Jove from Lewis's long poem "The Planets":
Ward suggests that the line "of winter passed / and guilt forgiven" may be the best single-line summary of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Indeed, the whole story is concerned with the passing of the White Witch's winter and the forgiveness of Edmund's guilt, and this is all accomplished by the good King Aslan, the king of peace, through his sacrificial death on the stone table.
Lewis was not the only artist to make use of planetary imagery. Between 1914 and 1916 the English composer -Gustav Holst wrote an orchestral suite entitled The Planets, in which each of the seven movements depicts one of the planets. Lewis is said to have often listened to Holst's suite with great delight. Last winter, as I was reading Planet Narnia, I was inspired to listen to The Planets myself, so I purchased a copy and downloaded the music to my iPhone.
I played the music for the first time on a Saturday morning in early spring, while I cooked breakfast for my children and myself. We had sat down to eat by the time "Jupiter," the fourth movement,began to play. About halfway through the piece my jaw suddenly dropped: I was listening to the same majestic, glorious music I had first heard at worship all those months ago. I grabbed my copy of the Trinity Hymnal and turned to no. 660, and there, at the bottom of the page, it read, "Thaxted, From Gustav Holst, The Planets,1918." (Thaxted, I later learned, is an English village where Holst lived while working on the suite.)
With "Jupiter" playing in the background, I began to read the hymn text and weep for beauty and joy:
The entire piece is jovial; both music and text speak to its kingliness. It is a hymn in tribute to the King who makes peace through his blood on the cross, to the King who is enthroned on high at the right hand of the Father, to the King who causes to pass the winter of our sins even as he forgives our guilt.
The True Jovial King
I still enjoy contemporary praise choruses, but I've also come to love the older hymns and to appreciate their theological depth, their connection to the Church catholic, their history, and their musical sophistication. As I've grown older, I've also come to love the springtime: to wait anxiously for the passing of winter and to long for the sweetened air, the warmth, the colors, and the beauty of the season. But I've also learned that, as we wait, we sing and rejoice in the knowledge that spring is breaking out through Jesus Christ, the good King, the King at peace. In Christ, our spring has come, through the jovial King who shows us his favor.
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“Song of Jupiter” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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