Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Oct 2013

Scripture or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of American Hymnody?


A few years ago, Stanley Gundry wrote an article, “Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatologies?” (JETS 20 [1977]: 45–55). In it, he proposed that the church’s eschatological trends have not been established principally by hermeneutics or exegesis but by Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age.” In times of persecution or societal disfavor, the church prefers eschatologies of discontinuity or escape (e.g., premillennialism and even pretribulationism). In times of goodwill and societal favor, the church prefers eschatologies of continuity or progress (e.g., amillennialism and postmillennialism). Gundry admitted that these are generalizations, with every era sporting exceptions—principled hermeneuts who transcend their Zeitgeist—but after he completed his historical survey, his thesis feels remarkably solid.

The lesson? Zeitgeist has a far more powerful influence that we realize when we “do theology” (whether in the classroom or pulpit), and we need to make self-conscious efforts to create distance from our Zeitgeist, standing above it without disengaging from it entirely. We need to apply Christ’s injunction to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15ff) not just to our ethics, but to every aspect of the Christian doctrine and practice. Specifically, I’d like to suggest in this blog post that Gundry’s approach to eschatological trends in the church may also be applied to trends in worship and musical style in the Christian community. Note the following historical generalizations:

  • The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous progress, and the church was leading the way. This was the era of martial hymnody—“Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Banner of the Cross,” “Faith Is the Victory,” and the like.
  • The early twentieth featured much societal contradiction. Progress slowed and even reversed during the Great War, but the 1920s featured a roaring comeback that in retrospect we know was counterfeit. The church did the same thing, wishing away the looming fundamentalist-modernist controversy with a battery of impossibly happy, rollicking songs like “He Keeps Me Singing,” “In My Heart There Rings a Melody,” and “Love Lifted Me.”
  • The New Deal, the Second World War, and the ensuing recovery was a reality check of sort—a period of necessarily organized rebuilding and industrial development. People united to save the country and then to rebuild it. The same thing happened in the church. The music matched the efforts, introducing new forms of upbeat group-sing. It was the era of ladies’ trios and men’s quartets, and whole congregations learned, under the guidance of dymanic song-leaders, to participate in lively and interactive harmonies.
  • The late 1960s and 1970s were a darker time, and so was the music of the era. Cynical and wistful critique in secular music gave way to outright defiance as the youth culture gave up on the perceived hypocrisy of the “establishment”—both political and ecclesiastical. In Christian music, the group-sing of the previous group found gentle resistance in the sad, crooning folk style of the “Jesus People,” then more emphatic resistance in the cacophonous sounds of “Jesus Rock.” The church began to polarize over their favored Zeitgeisten.
  • The 1980s and early 1990s represented a recovery from the bleakness of the 1970s. With apologies to Neil Diamond and Keith Green, people wanted something lighter and more perky. We found it in Sandi, Twila, and even an unlikely guy named Patch the Pirate.
  • The mood of today’s hymns is harder to classify—we lack the benefit of historical reflection. Perky and light is mostly out, replaced by an odd combination of celebrity and deep-seated but private earnestness. Small group-sing (e.g., quartets and choirs) is also out of favor, replaced with music suitable only to acutely expressive individual performance on the one hand or to provincial unisons on the other. And generational segregation, sadly, has never been greater.

So what’s my goal here? It’s not to defend any one popular style as better or worse than the others (I’ve tried to be an equal-opportunity critic). It’s not to say, either, that older popular styles are superior to newer popular styles. And it’s surely not a statement that contemporary musicians are universally too naïve to escape the clutches of their own Zeitgeist. Instead, my point is the same as Gundry’s: We need to be aware of the powerful influence of Zeitgeist on the production and selection of our music (both in content and in style). Then, having become aware of this influence, we need to privilege musical forms that, irrespective of when they were written, self-consciously offer timeless, transcendent, and other-earthly commentary on our Zeitgeist, rather than transient, provincial, here-and-now expressions of the Zietgeist in which we feel most comfortable. We are in this world, yes, but when the mood of the church’s music matches exactly the mood of the age, we inevitably end up with (1) sharp generational polarization and (2) the troubling possibility that the Christian community has missed the paradox/antithesis that attends our dual citizenship both in this world and in the next.

6 Responses

  1. Tim Scott

    I have often wondered if the same thing could be said for church polity. There is a close connection between the Roman Catholic church government and the governmental structure of the Roman Empire. The respective views on Calvin and Luther resemble their respective political situations. Even Baptist polity has a lot of similarities to Enlightenment views of government. Off the subject I know, but the approach of the article made me think of it.

  2. Ben Wright

    I’d be very curious to know whether and how you think this hypothesis applies to the hymnody of the mid-19th century and prior.

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    Ben, yes, but to a lesser degree. The absence of recording and broadcasting technologies in earlier generations meant that (1) music was not nearly so ubiquitous as it is today—people only rarely composed or listened to music for entertainment, (2) there wasn’t a battery of musical genres to define each generation and sub-culture, and (3) any shifts that did occur in musical style happened much more gradually than they do today, resulting in far less polarization. Furthermore, (4) the role of the church in establishing society’s music was much greater, with the result that believers were setting musical standards rather than following them. So I don’t think we have an apples-to-apples comparison here.

    If I’m right, then this problem is an accelerating one, and one that consequently demands increasing vigilance in the prevention of conflict due to musical choices. I’m convinced that one of the darkest legacies in our chapter of church history will be that of generational schism. And digging in behind ramparts of “Let’s never change our church culture lest we become worldly” vs. “Let’s change our church culture regularly lest we become irrelevant” is not adequate. We need more transcendent solutions than these.


    1. Ben Wright

      Totally agree, particularly about the acceleration. But I don’t think we’d want to assume that the Zeitgeist had no influence on the church and its music before the rise of the factors you note.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Very true. I was just interacting privately with someone else on this issue, and I mentioned to him that I see Stephen Foster (1826-1864) as something of a critical hinge here. Prior to Foster, the idea of composing and collecting vernacular music was rare. Most musical composition prior to that time was sponsored either by churches or by wealthy patrons. But starting in the middle of the nineteenth century the idea of grassroots culture-driven music really began to accelerate. That’s why I began at that time.

    It’s not that Zeitgeist had no influence at all prior to 1850, but there is reason to suggest that an important change in the relationship of church music and culture took place around that time.


    1. Ben Wright

      Totally agree, Mark. I do think it’s naïve for some either to believe, or imply, or fail to account for the reality that the pre-1850 churches, pseudo-churches, and wealthy patrons (many of them political leaders) were also subjects of a Zeitgeist, even if the dynamics were different.