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Book: Hymns and the Christian Myth

Lionel Adey. Vancouver, British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press, 1986, 288 pp., $24.95 (Canada), $20.50 (U.S.).

Hymns and the Christian Myth is a difficult, ambitious, and rewarding book. The author, an associate professor of English at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, examines the way hymn writers have responded to the Christian "myth," by which Adey simply means the "sacred story" (p-2). Adey includes enough citations from authors like C.S. Lewis and enough telling asides (e.g., "Given the Incarnation, why quibble over a star" p.44) to suggest that he considers the myth at least largely historical.

The difficulty of the book stems largely from its ambition. It not only references, quotes, and alludes to hundreds of hymns and hymn writers, but also considers a wide range of cultural, social, and historical circumstances. Adey describes his task as "steer[ing] between the limitless oceans of cultural history and the secluded bay of hymnology past which many a critic and historian sails unaware" (p.99). It is all to Adey's credit that he has treated hymns as more than ecclesiastical artifacts, but in this book reference to cultural context is sometimes too cryptic and excursions into hymnology sometimes too allusive. It is fortunate that Adey postponed to a coming second volume—his study of economic and class implications of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hymns.

Adey's chapters are about equally divided between a study of hymns from early Christianity and the Latin Middle Ages, and English hymns. Throughout, the text is studded with convincing readings and insightful conclusions about the relation between a hymn and its age.

As Adey evaluates matters, medieval hymn writers excelled at capturing the awe and splendor of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; they were also able to infuse and transform secular poetic forms into proper vehicles for sacred song. By contrast, the English hymn writers moved closer to "the dangers of egocentric and idolatrous application," yet did better than their medieval predecessors at showing that "personal involvement" is necessary for "the Christianizing of both the individual and the social organism" (p. 54).

The section on English hymnody is especially rich in commentary on well-known hymns. (To Adey, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is the finest English hymn on the passion; "Abide With Me" reflects the "mixture in the Victorians of faith, sentimentalism, and an Evangelical death wish," p. 144.) Many of Adey's larger conclusions—like the suggestions that the politics, economics, or even psychology of an age can explain the shifting character of dominant metaphors in hymns—are also provocative.

The book cannot be read rapidly. Yet its profound awareness of how closely hymns reflect and shape common understandings of the Christian faith, as well as its learned analysis of a vast multitude of hymns, makes this an especially valuable book for those who choose, contemplate, or simply enjoy singing the songs of Zion.