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Hymns in a strange land

Posted on 13 January 2013, 2:09

One of the most enjoyable aspects of going to atheist church last Sunday was singing the hymns.

After a lifetime singing along to Charles Wesley, John Newton and Mrs Cecil Alexander, it felt thrillingly transgressive to stand up in church and launch into ‘Why do you build me up, buttercup baby?’ plus two other inappropriate songs which have certainly never graced the pages of a hymn book.

The songs we sang weren’t especially relevant even for an atheist service, as all of them were individualistic love songs. But when I watched the video clip above today, of a flashmob singing ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in a Spanish unemployment office, I saw how a song of hope can have a powerful effect.

In the middle of Europe’s horrible economic winter, in a job centre, the place where the freeze cuts most deeply, here is a song which dreams of ice melting and the sun returning. ‘Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right.’

Christian hymns and spirituals have been a powerful source of hope and inspiration in our culture especially since the 18th century revivals. Several of them linger on in cup finals and rugby matches: ‘Abide with Me’, ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. They’re wonderful songs, but their language and imagery, steeped in stories of the Bible, come to most people from long ago and far away. They are disconnected from today’s world.

In contrast, what seems to be happening in the Spanish job centre is a song of our times, a song you’ve heard on the radio, a song you actually understand, coming to life in an unexpected way. It’s a moment to feed on something truly good. This lovely Beatles song is doing the work of a hymn.

As a Christian, I’m fascinated to see this happening. I’ve seen it in other flashmobs, where a kind of gospel joy breaks out in a train station or a shopping centre. How do I account for it, or think of it, when it seems to have broken free of the Christian culture which first shaped it? I’ve no answer for that, but the question is intriguing.

The Israelites in exile in Babylon asked (in Psalm 137) ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Maybe that’s our situation today. What do you think?

While I’m here, just to say that I’m going to be interviewed on several BBC local radio stations early tomorrow morning, Sunday 13 January, talking about my experience of atheist church last week. Here are the stations and times…

0710 3CR (Beds, Herts and Bucks)
0720 Humberside
0730 Hereford & Worcester
0740 Sussex and Surrey
0750 Lancashire
0800 Ulster
0820 Bristol
0830 Leeds
0840 York
0850 Derby

Looking forward to it, despite the early start. I’ll be cooped up in a self-service studio in the bowels of Western House, the home of Radio 2. If you hear one of the interviews (they happen live, in sequence), do tweet to let me know.

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It was moving to see happiness bursting into an otherwise joyless environment. And I wonder if moments such as these, whether they are created by flashmobs preforming secular songs, atheist churches belting out pop classics or whatever else, are not themselves pointing or tapping in to something more, something that is good. One can deny the tree while still enjoy the fruit.

Simon, you said that your Spanish flashmob gave us chance to “feed on something truly good”. Assuming that this isn’t a throwaway phrase, then we are left with a question about the origins of such goodness. I won’t speak for other religions or non-religions, but to me the God of the Bible (a loose term, I know) is a very good explanation for this goodness.

I would suggest that true goodness can be found in many things, not all of which are obviously ‘Christian’ in nature but all of which are good because they are in some sense from God. We can, for example, appreciate a sunrise for its immediate aesthetic impact or we can go a level deeper and enjoy it because it ultimately comes from a good God. Perhaps the author of Psalm 19 would agree.

Squibs, Mon 4 Feb, 06:30

These days secular words aren’t really put to religious music, but you do get pop songs that make reference to religious concepts. The most obvious example is ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. As it happens, I’ve heard a ‘Christian version’ of this song. What surprises me is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often; once upon a time hymns were being written to popular tunes, but this seems not to happen now. I wonder why not.

R.M., Thu 24 Jan, 04:29

I read your blog, glanced at the time and realised you were just about to speak on Radio Surrey, so through the wonders of the internetty thing, I was able to listen to you straight away. Well done – sounded good! Must have been hard by this time to keep sounding fresh and interested after saying the same thing over and over again at ten minute intervals!

Smudgie, Sun 13 Jan, 13:51

And about 35 years ago, a disco group in West Germany recorded an unforgettable version of Psalm 137…

Yes, Boney M. My feet are still tapping.

Brian Barratt, Sun 13 Jan, 13:40

A lot of the most memorable popular songs of the last fifty years have their roots in Gospel music (even ‘Build me up buttercup’ – tho not a personal favourite!).

I’m a CofE priest who’s also a big fan of Northern Soul/R&B. It’s a tragedy that the spirituality and life of this music has been lost to the church.

What Ray Charles and Sam Cooke did in putting secular words to Gospel music was far more controversial than anything the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Manson ever did.

Jon, Sun 13 Jan, 06:03

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