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Thursday, April 11, 2019

"A Glad Obedience" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019, (230 pages).

One of the consequences of sin is rebellion. Constant rebellion. Whether it is squabbling or dissent; reaction or retaliation; in a world of different voices and mindsets, it is easy for relationships to break down quickly even after years of goodwill. How is it that human beings do not get along as well as they ought to? In Christian Theology, sin has essentially cut ourselves loose from desiring to worship God. This in turn has led to a breakdown in human relationships. It is all connected. How do we fix this? Turn our hearts from reluctance to acceptance; from sadness to gladness; from rebellion to obedience. Even believers too must guard against hidden resistance and unbelief. For example, one might not understand why we sing certain songs during Sunday worship. Without an appreciation of the meaning behind the songs or the message behind the hymn, we lose out on the rich history and theological significance of the songs. In this book, Walter Brueggemann helps us bridge the gap from ignorance to understanding. We learn about framing songs around joyful truth of the gospel. We examine Scripture using the music and songs from various angles. We cultivate creative imagination to let the Word of God speak to us from different angles. We learn also to pay attention to context and to let songs stretch our faith.

Inspired by the 2013 hymnal, "Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs," the author focuses on two key questions:
  1. Why We Sing?
  2. What We Sing?

In the first part, "Why We Sing," Brueggemann looks at four different psalms. In Ps 104, he uses the themes of wonder and awe that inspire praise. Calling it the "best model for a creation hymn," we sing as an earthly response to a glorious God. Lest we shrink the world to our own thoughts and perspectives. In Ps 105, we remember God's actions that moves us to obeying God with gladness. From God delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery to how He redeems us from sin through Jesus, we look forward to a future glory in Christ. We also see how our culture of self-indulgence is a modern form of slavery. In Ps 106, we see our own sinful waywardness to help us be honest with our sins and weaknesses. As a "counter-narrative" to Ps 105, we sing because we need to know the truth about ourselves. We reflect on our rebellious nature. We seek God with continued pleas and revelation of God's truth. We then sing the truth in spite of trouble or despair. In Ps 107, we learn of gratitude that leads us toward hymns of thanks and praise. Lest we fall into ingratitude to give thanks to where thanks are due. Interestingly, Brueggemann discusses Ps 104, 107, 105, and 106 in that order rather than in numerical order. I suppose one can only worship authentically when we deal with the things that hinder us. Ps 104 helps us tackle self-indulgence and self-groundedness. Ps 105 helps us resist ingratitude. Both of these are crucial barriers to remove before we can take a closer and clearer look at ourselves. This is followed by Ps 105 and ps 106 to teach us to resist disobedience and avoid denial respectively. 

Part Two deals with attentiveness to the words in the hymns, to slow ourselves down to the pace of the hymn-mood. For once we pay adequate attention to the theology of the words, we are better able to sing with vibrancy and faith. This is crucial in an age of quick-fix and fast-tempo songs that possess tunes that might be catchy but distracting. Both timing, mood, and words must blend in to exalt truth. I like the way Brueggemann says: Relish. That's what worship is about: relishing and savouring the presence of God. It invites participation. It stimulates the desire of God. It keeps us attentive to the Word and sensitive to the Presence of the Holy Spirit. After listing the selected hymn in full, Brueggemann shows us what relishing means. Each verse comes with a description, like a master scholar exegeting a verse. We move back and forth between the history of the hymn and the thinking of the hymn-writer. We are then given an affirmative truth of why we sing. "Blest be the Tie that binds" brings us to affirming truth of faith in an age of half-truths and deception. "Holy, Holy, Holy" is about how the beauty of God "takes our breath away." "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" may seem to be individualistic, but it was written in the context of a singing community together. IT reminds us that only the power of God could rule the world. "O for a Closer Walk With Thee" is our acknowledgement of our need for God and how He will save and restore us. Toward the end, there are two hymns surrounding the subject of "sparrows" which might raise an eyebrow or two. Upon thinking about Jesus' reference to the birds in his famous anti-worry exhortation, it begins to make sense. "God's Eye is On the Sparrow" connects us in both heavenly hope and earthly reality, and to sing of God taking care not just of the whole world but also on us. "God of the Sparrow" not only carries forth this same theme but helps us worship from where we are: Our creatureliness.

My Thoughts
There are three reasons why I like this book. Firstly, it is a well structured defense for the relevance of hymns today. Just because something is old does not mean it is irrelevant. We need to beware of what CS Lewis has warned us about "chronological snobbery" that makes us thing that only the latest and the greatest are preferred. That is essentially one symptom of living in a culture of "technological fixes." Everything old seem to be waiting for a new fix to come. By resisting this tendency, we are taught to wait on the words of truth, which are timeless. The hymns selected by Brueggemann are quite varied. Many of them are relatively familiar, at least to those in that sing hymns. By the way, I still think that modern renditions of hymns still lack that classic catchy tunes of old. For that reason, given a choice between a new and an old tune, I would prefer the old tunes as the newer melodies could become a distraction in themselves.

Secondly, Walter Brueggemann continues to amaze me with his ability to connect history with reality. With his knowledge of Scripture, in particular, the Old Testament, and his ability to understand the human struggle, he helps us see old hymns with new eyes of understanding. He makes a great point when he says that hymn singing is a "bold act of resistance" against our culture of "monetization, technological fixes, and instrumental reasoning." The way he directs our attention to counter these three things is worth the price of this book. On "monetization," we are urge to cultivate relationships over the riches of money and worldly things. On "technological fixes," we learn to move away from the worries of problem-solving toward appreciating the essence of "sacramental mystery." On "instrumental reasoning," we substitute "convenience" in favour of covenantal truth.

Finally, it is written by Walter Bruggemann. Fans and readers who enjoy his works will understand this. Any book written by this man is worth reading.

Walter Brueggemann is currently the William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He has also taught at Eden Theological Seminary from 1961 to 1986. A prolific author, he has written many books, of which "The Prophetic Imagination" and his commentaries have been among the most popular.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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