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The Routley Lecturer at PAM’s Worship & Music Conference asks his audience to critique his work

Hymn writer Dr. David Bjorlin explains why some hymns are beloved and others not so much

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. David Bjorlin is the Routley Lecturer at this year’s Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

MONTREAT, North Carolina — It takes a special and secure hymn writer to stand in front of a packed classroom and ask those gathered to tell you why a hymn for which you penned the lyrics doesn’t work.

That’s what Dr. David Bjorlin did Monday during the first of five Routley Lectures he’ll be delivering during the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship & Music Conference being held this week at Montreat Conference Center. He’s calling the series “Form, Context and Theology in Congregational Song.”

Bjorlin, an assistant professor of worship at North Park University in Chicago, wrote “We Are Part of Christ’s Own Body” two years ago for a symposium at North Park University on “Accessibility to All? A Faithful Response to Disabilities.” He asked those in class to sing the hymn, which is set to the tune HOLY MANNA. Then he asked, “why doesn’t it work?”

It has a lot of words, someone said, a “high text load.” Bjorlin said that although people at the symposium were kind with their comments, he wondered, “am I excluding a group I’m trying to include,” namely, people with cognitive disabilities.

Then he asked the class to sing his “God, We Fear Your Fire,” with music by Sally Ann Morris. Class members said they appreciated the simpler and less crowded lyrics. “Can the text move,” Bjorlin asked, “or does it need a chiropractor to adjust it?”

In discussing a hymn’s form, Bjorlin suggested thinking about the form an automobile takes. You wouldn’t want to take children to soccer practice in a Lamborghini, and you wouldn’t enter a 15-passenger van in an auto race.

“The content is the purpose of the car,” he said. “If you’re taking your date to prom, you don’t want your mom’s minivan.”

Form can be thought of as “the frame we put around something so we’ll pay attention to it,” he said.

Bjorlin also discussed hymnic meter, the number of syllables and lines in a hymn. Most hymns have 6-12 syllables in every line, a length probably related to how much breath the singer has, he said. In general, the more syllables per line, the more expansive the theology the hymn writer can get across.

He then asked class members to sing three verses of “Be Thou My Vision,” which they did, beautifully. Why, he asked, does the hymn work so well?

It has a lilting quality. It’s easy to sing. “When you ask God to be your vision, it’s something you don’t have yet,” Bjorlin pointed out. “It’s the vision of the Christian faith. It gives you that sense of the journey.”

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