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)
0730 Hereford & Worcester
0740 Sussex and Surrey
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.