I’ve been enjoying Kevin DeYoung’s ongoing blogs about hymns we should sing more often. Recently he wrote about O Word of God Incarnate, a hymn I know and like. http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2015/10/15/hymns-we-should-sing-more-often-o-word-of-god-incarnate/
“O truth unchanged, unchanging” is an anathema to our modern culture. As Christians, though, that is precisely what we are taught about the Word of God. The notion that truth is less important than self-expression is the mantra of today. Really, though, that mantra is just another version of “Did God really say…?” It is not modern at all.
I prefer old hymns, at least those that I think speak the truth in power. For All the Saints, another one I especially like, was also written by How. Two other things I especially like about them are the rather archaic language, which is often so much richer than ours today, and the knowledge that these songs are a heritage, a connection with the Church universal, in time, out of time, beyond time. Sometimes I almost feel that companionship when I sing them.
The same day I read DeYoung’s article I also read one of Rod Dreher’s, this one about memory and forgetting, particularly in reference to culture.
Here Dreher talks about a book he recently read (How Societies Remember written by Paul Connerton, an anthropologist), which addresses the importance of memory in a culture. From that book:
Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends
upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must
presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and
sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these per-
formances have to be embodied to be effective…
Connerton discusses three types of memories — personal (something in the past that
the individual experienced), cognitive (something in the past that the individual knows
from having learned it second hand), and habit-memory, which he defines as “our
having the capacity to reproduce a certain performance.” It’s like muscle memory:
we may not remember how we learned the thing, but we can recall it when necessary.
Reading this, I recalled the experience of Father George Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox
priest, who was able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy while in a Communist prison
because he had committed it to memory. The liturgy reminded him of who he was and
what was true, in a time and place in which the authorities brutally tried to force him to
forget. Connerton calls this third kind of remembering “habit-memory.”
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical,
religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do —
it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a
particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a
metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken
out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of
course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways
that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it.
Connerton says that “performative utterances are as it were the place in which the
community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution.”
….In simpler language, this means that the words spoken in a rite both bind its
participants together and remind the people who they are, as a people. Further,
the most effective rituals involve the body. Connerton:
To kneel in subordination is not to state subordination, nor is it just to communicate
a message of submission. To kneel in subordination is to display it through the
visible, present substance of one’s body. Kneelers identify the disposition of their
body with their disposition of subordination. Such performative doings are
particularly effective, because unequivocal and materially substantial , ways of
‘saying’; and the elementariness of the repertoire from which such ‘sayings’
are drawn makes possible at once their performative power and their effectiveness
as mnemonic systems.
This is where I thought about old hymns. They are often removed from everyday life in one way, the language is different. The best thing, though, is that when we sing them thoughtfully we are bound together as a people and we affirm and remember who we are.