4. The poetry of worship in a prose age

We live in times in which it is extraordinarily difficult to write words well for worship.  Not that it has ever been easy, but we live now in a prose age, and that makes it extraordinarily difficult, because, in contrast, worship requires a poetic style: it needs, as I seem to keep saying, language that points beyond itself.  The only trouble is that we no longer live in times in which poetry is a prestige style.  And the result is that we discard poetry in favour of prose (or, in the case of hymns/songs, a kind of prose forced into occasionally-rhyming lines); for we consider prose style to be plain speaking at least; and prosaic, plain speaking is becoming our normal worship language.  Indeed we have been doing this with Bible translation for the last fifty years. The Revised Standard Version was a superb worship Bible - best since the Authorized Version, perhaps better, and still only in need of minimal revision (in the RSV, use of thou/thee was discarded except for God).  However the non-stop bible translation which has occurred since has been undistinguished.  In particular, the commercially highly successful Good News Bible, with its allover, honeyed tone of homely sincerity, has a good deal to answer for.  Sorry to sound so damning, but when we reduce the Bible to prosaic, plain speech, we make it really tough going for writers of liturgy and hymn and hard-working worship leaders, who are enormously dependent on a good worship Bible, which can not only offer us a feast of poetic possibilities, but also a control on our own wayward poetic enthusiasms.  I suspect we are all quite often disappointed with the blandness of our writing for worship, in fact bland is an adjective I hear quite commonly in this sort of discussion.  However the intention here is not to blame, it is to justify the remark with which this little piece begins: we live in times in which it is extraordinarily difficult to write words well for worship.  How did we get to this position?  How did the language get us to this position?

       The prestige written style of our time emerged in the middle to late nineteenth century as the prose style of the natural sciences (physics , chemistry, biology) - a specialized style for objectivity, which arose with the professionalizing of science at that time. It searched the ancient languages of learning (Latin and Greek) to coin precise terms for precise meanings, especially a multitude of new nouns.  Syntactically, it eagerly used the native possibilities of English to greatly extend the noun phrase with precise qualification of the head word (and how was that for a bit of flash academic prose lingo?).  It also made frequent use of passive verbs to highlight the observation: I used to tell my ESL students, "It's the observation that matters; the scientist isn't important; so you have to leave out the scientist."  It is artificial, of course, but an impressively honest and objective style, and, as scientific and technological benefits became apparent (any disillusionment therewith came later), the language style gained great prestige.

 The result of this prestige was that the language style, quite admirable in its place, began to be coveted by others.  The first of these seem to have been writers in the emerging human sciences, psychology, sociology, economics, (indeed linguistics as you may have noticed above) and the like.  And who could blame them for using, for these new scientific disciplines, a seemingly ready-made language style just at hand?  Well no one could blame them; but human beings studying human behaviour cannot really claim the same objective distance as human beings studying, say, a physical or chemical phenomenon; so there is a certain dissonance lurking behind the use, for the human sciences, of the objective language style of the natural sciences.

 This dissonance, however, only becomes particularly questionable in the next development: activities in which the human sciences are put to work, like education, social work, public administration and the like.  In these kinds of enterprise, decision and action are taken, as such have to be taken, on the basis of relevant detail (sometimes limited), available finance (usually limited), and balances of power (always inevitable).  Gone is any sense of scientific objectivity, so that when such decisions and actions are then described in a language style similar to the objective style of the natural sciences, the dissonance becomes rather glaring.  (If a public figure uses the passive "It was agreed..." or "It has been decided..." the first questions should be, who decided? who agreed?)  Striking examples of this dissonance can occur in "management speak," "military speak," and some kinds of "economic speak," where the implied claims of objectivity in the language style can actually hide at the least sheer pretension, or at the worst gross deceit on the part of the speaker or writer.  The result is a public language seriously entangled in a decadent, prestige style which is savagely and entertainingly described in Don Watson's Death of a Language.  Bless his heart.
 To its credit the Church has generally resisted this style, (though not always in synod meetings or theological writing).  And the Church, especially at worship, needs to resist it.  One occasionally hears in worship echoes of these various "speaks," which are actually quite alien to speech.  But the Church at worship is certainly speech, in one way or another.  Hymns, of course, are sung, not spoken, but they are in your mouth; and, speech or song, hymns are language which needs to transcend itself - to point beyond itself.  Which brings us back to where we started:  worship requires a poetic style.

 Hitherto in our discussion it has been useful to speak of two contrasting writing styles; poetry and prose.  However, it now becomes useful to make the picture a little more complex, by thinking of these twain as two ends of a spectrum of styles, with an author making stylistic choices which depend on things like social setting, attitude to reader, and attitude to content.  Thus Jane Austin's careful speech-based prose (it doesn't imitate speech; but it stays within the structures of speech, and formalizes them) seems, despite its quiet ironies, quite near to the prose end of the spectrum, while Fielding's style seems to move around a bit, sometimes even near the middle of the spectrum.  This is not to say that one is better than the other: both make stylistic choices, and they work.  Similarly the great monuments of public worship style in English, the AV and the Book of Common Prayer, though prose in form, seem somewhat nearer the poetry end of the stylistic spectrum, especially the BCP, whose language is more carefully structured than is commonly realized.  Again one is not better than the other; they are different stylistic choices, but both are superb public style.  For further example, the great hymns of Wesley and Watts are near the poetry end of the spectrum.  But again this is necessary choice: they are in verse form for a start, and the language is highly structured, especially Wesley's.  Of course they are not better than AV or BCP because they are nearer the poetry end; they simply involve different stylistic choices.

 With the help of this different viewpoint on style, we can now see more clearly what has been happening to the church's worshipping language over the last half century.  It seems quite clear that over this period the language style of all main aspects of worship - Bible, liturgy and hymn - have drifted nearer to the prose end of the spectrum, while at the same time the prestige prose style is itself being seriously corrupted.  Of course this is not for lack of intention or care on the part of the church; it is the pernicious, unperceived effect of culture on a church struggling, quite rightly, to find a new style for a new time.  But, naturally, the church at worship does not need a prosaic language, and that is why, in seeking a new style, we must learn also from the achievements of the old.  So what does this mean for songs and hymns?

Posted on April 25, 2008, 5:36 pm by Don
Content Management Powered by CuteNews

<< List of Don's Articles