I know wading into opinions of hymns, worship songs, and other church music can be thorny. But, here on Labor Day, I am reminded of verse 4 of the hymn “Earth and All Stars”:
The hymn presents different aspects of Creation and the fourth verse specifically addresses workers, particularly those devoted to building. There are not too many church songs I know of that address how work can be part of worship and devotion. Indeed, many songs could give the impression that Christian activity should primarily consist of sacred duties. Of course, there is a long history of Christians wrestling with work and how ordinary tasks contribute or connect to faith. Adding more music that highlights work, something that occupies many hours and engages the minds, bodies, and talents of many, could go a long way to connecting laboring and faith.
(As a musician and educator, I also notice verse three and five and the ways they connect these activities to religious expression. And in what other setting can you sing about “loud boiling test tubes”? At the same time, there is room in this song to celebrate other forms of work and labor.)
Yesterday’s service featured #580 in the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, “God, who stretched the spangled heavens.” Beyond being a mid-20th century hymn (and they have some interesting quirks themselves), the second verse was very interesting:
Proudly rise our modern cities,
stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling,
stare on canyoned streets below,
where the lonely drift unnoticed
in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost to purpose and to meaning,
scarcely caring where they go.
It almost seems like this should be immediately followed by “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
This hymn tries to balance two images in this verse (and supported elsewhere in the song): on one hand, we have “stately buildings,” impressive demonstrations of modern capacities and on the other hand, these great cities are full of people “lost to purpose and to meaning.” On the whole, this is not a favorable view of city life, even if it is trying to be descriptive and demonstrate the issues modernists face. Are there any hymns that talk about vibrant urban neighborhoods?
I resolve to be on the watch for anti-urban messages in other hymns. I wonder if there is a large gap in hymn content in this area between more mainline denominations who retained a little more presence in the big cities during the post-World War II suburban boom and also tend to hold to political views that suggest engagement with the city while religious conservatives have more individualized songs and desire escape from the dirty, evil cities.