“Christ Sits At God’s Right Hand” This hymn comes from the pen of Rev Steve Starke (b. 1955), a contributor of several dozen hymn texts to Lutheran Service Book, and a friend of Lord of Life’s music ministry, having been a featured presenter at the worship conference several years ago. Pastor Starke, presently serving a Lutheran church in Bay City, Michigan, presents to us an example of a contemporary, living writer of quality hymnody. Gene Edward Veith, a great writer, cultural commentator and recently-retired Academic Dean of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA, writes about such modern hymn writers, “Music by hymn writers such as Steven Starke or James Boyce is more contemporary than the praise songs coming out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s. But these contemporary hymn writers are writing hymns.” Having Pastor Starke (and other great living poets and composers from past years) around Lord of Life for a few days elicited some great conversations among the participants about our heritage of Lutheran hymnody—a heritage which has not ceased, but continues to flourish and bring new artistic and musical offerings into its corpus. There are many wonderful, contemporary hymns in LSB. At the risk of stirring an emotional argument, the anonymous writer of music notes always likes to point out that Lutheran ecclesiastical culture is far from dead and static! New musical offerings are being presented weekly in our congregations, even here at Lord of Life. But let us return to Gene Edward Veith who continues to write about our Lutheran heritage of worship and the threat under which it too often finds itself, ironically from those who should know better:
Baby boomers seem to be the first generation to demand that the music they listen to in worship be in the same style as the music they listen to for entertainment. In the 1940s, it never occurred to anyone to insist that worship services incorporate the big band style of Glen Miller and his orchestra. The hymn styles of earlier eras bear the marks of the century in which they were written, but they are nothing like the eighteenth-century opera scores or nineteenth-century musical theater.
Again, the issue is not “contemporary music.” New hymns are being written and published every day. . .
Hymns are written to be sung corporately, with many people with many different kinds of voices joining together. The praise songs that come out of the contemporary Christian music genre were originally written for solo performance. An Amy Grant needs a tune she can color up with vibrato, runs, key changes, and big swelling emotional crescendos. But a congregation of lots of people trying to sing together just cannot sing like that.
Hymns are written with a regular rhythm, making it easier for groups of people to sing together. They are typically written to accommodate high voices, low voices, and the voices in between. Thus, basses, tenors, baritones, altos, and sopranos can sing the same song, creating not discord but a wonderful and meaningful effect, namely, harmony. [Ed: This does not mean congregations should sing all hymns in harmony. To do so is unmusical and ill-informed, since many hymns were not written to be sung SATB.] Praise songs, in contrast, usually have a single melodic line with lots of performance-based variations and are thus very difficult to sing well in a large group.
Hymns are also written out, so that anyone who can read music — and this is still taught in school — can sing along even if it is unfamiliar. Praise songs, for some reason, tend to have their lyrics projected onto a screen. If you do not already know the tune, you are out of luck.
The question is not whether or not we should make use of contemporary music in church, but whether we should make use of pop music. By its nature, pop music is catchy, entertaining, and thus “likeable.” It cannot have much content, much less complexity or depth. If it did, it would cease to be pop art. The art of the folk culture, with its traditions and communal experience, has such things, as does the consciously-crafted art of the high culture, with its challenging content.
The more important issue is whether we should create the impression in our worship that the Christian faith is a “pop religion” — void of depth, complexity, and demands — or whether it is traditional, communal, and challenging.*
Our hymnody, then, is not shallow, nebulous, or abstract. But it can be challenging. Consider Starke’s second stanza, “Christ was that priest God swore, uniquely First and Last, who would in righteousness and love be unsurpassed; ‘A priest forevermore,’ an oath God would not break, ‘A priest within the order of Melchizedek.’” These are challenging lines and require us to turn to God’s Word to elucidate. Mentioned in Genesis 14, Melchizedek is king of Jerusalem who blesses Abram (ham) prior to God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Further, Abram is said to have given the King “a tenth of everything.” Having earned Abram’s tribute, Melchizedek has been viewed as the superior priest even to Aaron, since Abraham paid tribute to him. The writer of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament expands theologically on this thought in Hebrews 7: 11-26 in which he writes, “And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on a basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” The writer then compares Jesus to the high priest, for Jesus was “. . . holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day. . . He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” Starke’s hymn, then, does not point to some obscure Old Testament figure, but is supremely Christological, using metaphors to elucidate our understanding of who Christ is.
Like all good hymn writing, this hymn sends us straight into God’s Word in order to know exactly that about which we are singing. It challenges our minds and scriptural knowledge, and is an iconic representation of how quality Lutheran hymnody should be: profoundly Christological, scriptural, rich in imagery and metaphor. We can be thankful for living hymn writers such as Pastor Starke whose labour helps to expand and deepen Lutheranism already rich treasure trove of hymnody.
*from the blog article “Corporate Reverence.” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/corporate-reverence/