Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns
In the Key of Christ
I have been wondering why I don’t care for the lyrics to modern hymns. Now, I’m not speaking of the smugly heretical, as in the truly embarrassing “Sing a New Church into Being,” or makin’-out-with-Jesus stuff, as in “Come Back to Me (Hosea).” I mean the lyrics to which one cannot object, because all they are is an unrhymed English rendering of one of the psalms. There’s something missing.
One might respond, “Yes, the art is missing,” and that’s true as far as it goes, because the artistic balance and parallelism of the Hebrew, and its play on sounds, do not often survive in the English, so that we really do need meter and rhyme, for hymns, in translations of the ancient poetry. But it’s more than that. The early Church read the psalms as referring to Jesus—as the Lord himself did. It’s no surprise, then, that the finest Christian hymns are Christological in that sense. If the poet is reading Exodus, he has the Last Supper in mind. If he is reading Daniel, he has the second coming in mind. It isn’t just that the Hebrew is made over into English, but that the whole of Scripture is transposed into the key of Christ. This is so common in the old hymns that it’s revealing to pause sometimes to cherish the subtle art and the profound theology.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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