NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 5th. So glad you’ve turned to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: our Classic Book of the Month.
This time, our reviewer Emily Whitten suggests a relatively new book about poetry put to music for the church.
EMILY WHITTEN, REPORTER: Next to the Bible, what would you say is the most important book for Christian discipleship? Author and historian Robert Morgan says it might be your hymnbook. He explains in this Youtube interview with gospel singer Matthew Fouch:
MORGAN: The second greatest cache of devotional and theological material we have is in the collected history of our hymnody and from the apostolic period until today, we have hymns that have endured all through the centuries.
Musical compilations offer a way to hear the scope of that hymnody. Consider this video by musician David Wesley. It begins with “Be Thou My Vision” from the 6th century.
MUSIC: Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart…
Five or six minutes later, he’s made it to the worship anthems of today:
MUSIC: I’ve seen you move, move the mountains….
Even with historical compilations like that, it can be hard to get our minds around favorite hymns. Archaic language can obscure the meaning. Other times, the music moves so fast or the words are so familiar that a hymn becomes vain repetition.
So, what if in 2021, we dig a little deeper? What if we take a closer look at great hymns written by men and women across the centuries? If that sounds appealing, I recommend our January Classic Book of the Month, 40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year by author and professor Leland Ryken.
RYKEN: Until the 1870s, hymnbooks consisted of words only books. They were 5 inches by 3 inches. That was a hymn book…
Ryken says earlier generations of Christians often treated hymns as devotional poems.
RYKEN: I am seeking to restore what can be gained by reading the hymns as poems.
What does it mean to read a hymn as a devotional poem?
RYKEN: Reading a hymn as a poem means slowing down. Taking as long as we need to unpack the images and phrases.
Ryken has written, edited, or co-edited over 60 books in his writing career—including the English Standard Version of the Bible. He’s also emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. You see his literary background in the way he approaches these hymns:
RYKEN: Looking carefully at the stanzaic arrangement and progression was the key to it. Then when I have the general picture in view, I go through line by line. I analyze the images and the phrases. That’s the straight exposition I’ve been doing in my literature courses for more than half a century.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be an English major to enjoy Ryken’s book. Take, for instance, this hymn by Isaac Watts. This clip comes from the Reawaken Hymns Youtube Channel:
MUSIC: O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…
Ryken says that because the hymn focuses on the passing of time, we often sing it at New Year’s Day services. He unpacks the devotional content this way:
RYKEN: From childhood, my imagination has been fired by the two lines, “Time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away.’ Well, that gets us to focus on an important dimension of our spiritual lives, namely that we are transient beings. But secondly, it also focuses our thought on a God who transcends time.
He talks about archetypes like homes and storms, and how they resonate in our hearts and minds. Ryken then turns his attention to the last stanza.
RYKEN: Be thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home. It fixes our thoughts on the spiritual life, including our human mutability. It also turns our gaze, I would say praise, adoration to a God who transcends time. It instills in us a greater love of God and a greater understanding of the spiritual life. That makes it a devotional poem.
Ryken organized his book around six occasions in the church calendar. Those include New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving, Reformation Day, and Christmas. That means readers can use Ryken’s book as a year-round devotional resource.
RYKEN: Just yesterday I received a letter from a grandmother, living in Florida, and believe it or not, that family has used my book as a table devotion. The hymns are packed with references to the Bible. Many are modeled on a specific Bible passage.
Ryken is a formalist critic. That means he focuses more on the words and form of the text than the personal stories behind the hymns. You won’t find extensive biographies about the lives of hymn writers like Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby. But Ryken does give some historical context.
RYKEN: Very few of great hymns have been written by professional poets. Very few. In the ranks of writers of hymns, Ministers are totally disproportionate to what we would find in literature generally. Some of them composed for the weekly church service. It’s no wonder so many are so laden with the Bible. The authors of the hymns knew the Bible thoroughly.
With so much Biblical content front and center, Ryken’s book 40 Favorite Hymns of the Christian Year offers a great way to savor the hymns, and the God, we love.
And as we kick off 2021, I hope you’ll consider hymn study as part of your devotional plan this year. You might be surprised how much you can learn.
I’m Emily Whitten.
MUSIC: Heart of my own heart whatever befall, Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
EICHER: For January, Emily Whitten recommends 40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year. For more classic book ideas, just search for Classic Book of the Month at worldandeverything.org.