In seminary, one of the classes that stuck with me was a theology class after Easter in 2004. The professor had visited a local church’s Easter service the day prior and posted that church’s order of worship on the projector. We were then to read the hymns, liturgies, and scriptures to discern “what type of resurrection was being depicted?” I remember being struck by how many understandings of the Resurrection were in a single worship service.
Ten years later, I recreated this class, thanks to my classmate Rev. David Nicol in New England Annual Conference who shared his copy of the class notes that day. This past Sunday, I taught an adapted version at my local church. The following is the taught lesson. Feel free to copy or teach it yourself.
It has three components:
- A case study of a traditional Order of Worship that has multiple depictions of the Resurrection in its worship music.
- A list of six understandings or depictions of the Resurrection (feel free to use more/less/different ones based on your context)
- Guiding questions and possible takeaways
Thanks for reading and I hope this is helpful to both worship planners and laity in the pew.
1 – Case Study
Instructions: Look up the text for the italicized hymns and respond to the question “What does the Resurrection look like in this verse?”
Note: This outline includes the page numbers for the United Methodist Hymnal and links to hymns not in the UM Hymnal
An Actual Order of Worship from an Easter service
- Call To Worship – Rejoice the Lord is King (UMH 715 – read as text, not sung as hymn)
- Hymn – Christ the Lord is Risen Today (UMH 302)
- Opening Prayer / Silent Prayer / Lord’s Prayer
- Time for Children “The Resurrection and the Butterfly”
- Anthem – Requiem: Sixth Movement – Johannes Brahms (link – sixth section)
- Scripture – Luke 24:1-12
- Sermon “What does Jesus’ Resurrection Mean?”
- Hymn – Thine Be The Glory (UMH 308)
- Offertory – Hallelujah Chorus – G.F. Handel (link)
- Hymn – Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to Heaven (link)
2 – Six Types of Resurrection
Instructions: Categorize your responses in the following six categories. Please note that a singly hymn likely has multiple categories.
- Is the resurrection Literal?
God actually raised Jesus from the dead. Bodily resurrection.
- Is the resurrection Mythological?
Is there a clash of powers? A defeating of death, a bursting of the gates of Hell?
- Is the resurrection Spiritual?
Is resurrection everyday? Signs of new life just like what happened to us when we find new friends, and unplanned opportunities.
- Is the resurrection Metaphorical?
Is resurrection depicted in way where it is understood metaphorically or a simile? Uses “like” or “as”?
- Is the resurrection Demythologized?
Resurrection is likened to a natural process (metamorphosis of the caterpillar to the butterfly)?
- Is the resurrection Eschatological?
Does it refer to the end times or the Second Coming? ie. Revelation 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign forever and ever.”
For example, I saw in the closing hymn Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to Heaven (link) depictions of resurrection as literal in the first stanza, mythological in the second stanza, and metaphorical in the third stanza. I would then put check marks in those categories for that hymn.
After scoring the hymns, here’s our final numbers (your interpretation or numbers may differ):
In short, in six hymns, a scripture, and a children’s sermon, there are at least six different understandings of the Resurrection–and many have multiple understandings within a single hymn!
3 – Guiding Questions & Thoughts
- Is it okay for a worship service to have more than one depiction of the Resurrection or is multiple contradicting depictions okay?
- For many folks, they sing the hymns because they’ve “always been sung.” For an increasingly post-Christian world, is that a viable practice?
- Are hymns merely “preparing hearts” for the scripture and sermon and prayers through emotion? Or are they stand-alone intellectual engagements with theology that should have every bit as consideration as the rest of the service? In short, do you care what you sing?
- For many people in my class, the tune and the singability of the hymn was more important than the theology. For Charles Wesley and other hymn-writers, the tune was the way to get people to sing their faith and learn theology (especially for people who cannot read or write). How odd it is that we have flipped from care for the words to care for the tune!
- For conservative congregations that hold to a literal/mythological resurrection, it is easy to find hymns and music that support that depiction. For progressive congregations that have more varied understandings in the pews, it is harder to find hymns and music that are spiritual/metaphorical. Little wonder conservatives have a tighter crafted worship service with narrower depictions of the Resurrection: it’s easier to do in the hymnody!
- One request was really interesting: could we put short introductions to the hymns in the worship bulletins? That way we could better frame the hymn about to be sung with “For a Thousand Tongues to Sing was written in the 1780s by Charles Wesley to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.” or some words about the historical context to better frame the hymn’s language. A possible logistic nightmare, but could be helpful for a teaching congregation.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading.
Ben Anderson Hensley
1. Is it okay for a worship service to have more than one depiction of the Resurrection or is multiple contradicting depictions okay?
I think multiple ways by which we approach resurrection is ok and that the use of metaphor/analogy (for i think the butterfly was a more an attempt at analogy than an attempt to demythologize, given that it was a children’s sermon) is a way by which we can meet people where they are in order to teach them about resurrection. I think it could be problematic if we get our lines crossed on the part of resurrection that is a part of our theology of atonement, though. I think it’s also confusing to mix eschatology in with resurrection, but I suppose I understand the sentiment. Being raised from the dead sort of has its connection with many people’s idea of the end times…
2. For many folks, they sing the hymns because they’ve “always been sung.” For an increasingly post-Christian world, is that a viable practice?
No. A good compromise however, would be to take the familiar hymn tunes and write new texts that reflect the theology of the gathered community more clearly and in a way that it instructs/edifies. With that being said, I don’t think we should cast off certain hymns that we find old or dated. There is a reason particular hymns survive for so long, and if the reason is a good one: substantial and good theology… (for methodists at least Charles Wesley lives on because of how his hymn texts teach theology in a beautiful, poetic, and memorable way), then go for it. Not all old hymnody/sacred music is bad.
3. Are hymns merely “preparing hearts” for the scripture and sermon and prayers through emotion? Or are they stand-alone intellectual engagements with theology that should have every bit as consideration as the rest of the service? In short, do you care what you sing?
Hymns should be both. Our worship as a whole should be an engagement of both head and heart, if you will. Hymns teach, and hymns lead us through the liturgy as all parts of our liturgy should do. The pervasiveness of hymns in our memory should lead us to be incredibly careful about what hymns we choose, however, as those words are going to be hummed/remembered on the way home and throughout the week far longer than anything in the sermon.
As an aside, I think the use of Brahm’s requiem was an absolute terrible idea for an easter service. Is the music director aware that the Requiem is a funeral piece, and that the sixth movement is very eschatological and has nothing to say in regards to Jesus’ resurrection? He must have seen the text about death being swallowed up in victory and though “Oh! this will work!” Very lazy.
What’s also missing, partly because of your case study, is *other* texts and what they say about resurrection — specifically liturgical texts in the form of prayers. The opening prayers and greetings in the Book of Worship probably have a variety of versions (I’m not doing a tally right now), and I always think it’s awkward to celebrate the resurrection on Easter without the Feast of the Resurrection. Eucharistic Prayer and responses probably have some versions as well.
Several reactions to this:
1. I am ok with some variety of theological messages because I know that variety exists in my congregation. (Take this in the spirit of different hymns for people at different stages of faith development).
2. I think that people may enjoy singing a song for different reasons than they enjoy hearing a song. The singing is more emotional/expressive and the hearing is more didactic/informational. A valid critique of what is heard may not be a valid critique of what is sung.
3. Because I value the “unexpected surprise” of the gospel (see parables and Easter itself) I find theologically explicit hymns less profound and meaningful than secular songs that surprise us with a more subtle and profound religious understanding. (I also like to mix religious and secular music together and let them interpret each other in a creative way.)
4. I have no problem using a hymn that I then preach against in much the same way that I sometimes preach against a particular scripture passage.
One question comes to mind. Why should we assume each of the ways of understanding resurrection are contradictory? It seems to me that all of the ways you describe resurrection complement one another to provide a big picture. I would want to say that the literal resurrection signifies the overthrow of the powers, death not least, which also inaugurates the last days and is helpfully understood, if not exhausted by natural analogies (e.g. metamorphosis) and even metaphor and which is anticipated in a variety of spiritual ways. It seems to me that if we limit ourselves to one or two ways of describing resurrection, then we’ve not yet really taken on board the varied significance. The resurrection is literal, but not merely so. The resurrection is apocalyptic, but not merely so. The resurrection is illustrated through metaphor, but metaphor is only one angle to deepen our perspective. So, a service that embraces multiple ways of talking or singing about resurrection seems rather more faithful, not less. Interesting post. Thanks.