Simple Gifts: Great Hymns:
One Man’s Search for Grace
By Bill Henderson
Free Press, 2006.
ANY DISCUSSION of hymns is bound
to get personal, and that’s where Bill Henderson’s new memoir, Simple Gifts, begins: at the Rockbound Chapel on the Maine coast, where neighbors and strangers have gathered to sing and familiar chords reverberate from the walls:
In untrained, inelegant, often too-loud or too-soft voices, we sing to each other of our pain, loneliness, and fear, topics we would hesitate to admit flat out in gatherings after services. We also sing of love, grace, trust, hope, peace—sentiments that are left out of the usual daily patter. We sing words that matter to us.
Bill Henderson, better known for founding the Pushcart Prize anthology in support of American small presses than for his role as an elder at his church, wasn’t always this comfortable in a pew. The first chapter of Simple Gifts relates the tortuous journey that landed him—blinking with surprise—back in church after years away.
Henderson grew up singing hymns in the church choir and attending Billy Graham tent meetings with his “Pop.” But much of his adult life—and consequently much of this book—involves a wrestling with his father’s devout faith.
Henderson, who drifted away from church as a teenager, writes that until relatively recently “the idea of walking into a church after decades of absence evoked astonishing dread. Did hell and damnation live there? How annoying that they might try to welcome me back with their Christian grins.” But one day, almost in spite of himself, he accompanies his wife and daughter to church.
I don’t remember what hymn it was, but suddenly I was gasping for breath, overwhelmed by recognition. In our singing was the love I sought, as we all did. I knew then it was all right for me to be in this little building. Because of that song, and because of my daughter, Holly, singing next to me in her innocence and simplicity, I was back in the church of my father and mother.
Finding himself back in church, he embraces the hymns of his childhood, but in the meantime he has formulated a personal theology that eschews much of traditional Christian doctrine in favor of a more generic conception of God: “It really had nothing to do with hell and damnation and the only Son of God and the Trinity and all that. This was about love.”
The chapters that follow, then, celebrate what Henderson calls “world hymns,” songs that can be sung by anyone no matter what their creed, because they “do not insist on narrow theologies, but rather love, wonder, and simplicity, my names for God.” While he has little patience for dogma, he finds joy in singing hymns that are true to this three-fold experience of God. Love, wonder, and simplicity are the themes around which he arranges the hymns in this book, including some of his personal favorites—and mine.
My love for hymns, like Henderson’s, is tied up with the experience of singing them. For me, it began in the staff lounge of an evangelical Christian camp the summer before high school. Every morning, the ranks of counselors, camp nurses, and trail bike instructors gathered on mismatched couches to sing together, and it was here that I learned some of the songs that Henderson treats in Simple Gifts—“Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Be Thou My Vision.”
Like Henderson, I felt like something of a trespasser at first. For one thing, since I’d been raised in the Catholic Church, I was new to Protestant hymns, whereas everyone else in the room sang them from memory.
Nor was I as secure in my beliefs as the other counselors. I had always envied their confidence. As a child I compensated for my doubts by “accepting Jesus” every summer at camp and attending Sunday school and mass during the rest of the year.
Sitting in the staff lounge, a room set apart for the most steadfast of believers, I was eager to join the choir of the confident and faithful. So I learned the hymns in staff meetings with my eyes closed and head planted on my knees, memorizing verses while everyone else sang around me. And a curious thing happened. Not only did I learn the words, I began to glean a theology from them, and they began to do their work on me. I was fifteen that summer, and ravenous for beauty, romance, and above all, truth. Singing verses that spoke of an unchanging God, humanity’s helpless condition, a Savior’s sacrifice, and grace for sinners raised a thousand questions. But it also brought me to tears. I had a sense of borrowing these words—they weren’t really mine, but I was saying them. As they formed on my lips, I accepted them with astonished gratitude.
So it seems Bill Henderson and I came to hymns from separate directions: he sang to salvage something from a heap of burned-out theological premises; I, on the other hand, embraced the theology I was hearing and found myself, verse by verse, gaining a more concrete vision of God.
Despite our differences, Henderson and I agree that there’s something about these songs. Blending memoir, history, and analysis, Simple Gifts seeks to pinpoint that something. He starts by describing the occasionally melodramatic stories behind some of the classic hymns. His account of John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” is keen, sympathetic, and personal. While caught in a storm at sea, Newton cried out to God and was saved from drowning. He later visited a church where “he fell on his knees, took the sacraments, and surrendered to the faith of his childhood.” It’s a powerful story, but it doesn’t end there. Newton later captained a slave ship—a troubling detail for Christians who love “Amazing Grace” for its portrayal of once-and-for-all transformation: “I once was blind but now I see.” As the life of the hymn’s creator suggests, it’s not that simple:
That Newton was found and then lost, by his own admission, to periods of vice—and to moral blindness to slavery—doesn’t surprise me. To see a vision—to really see and to keep on seeing every day—was a tough task in a harsh and practical world that, then as now, denied spiritual visions at every turn. For Newton, there was money to be made in slavery, a career to be constructed, a woman to please.
The narrative moves gracefully between this historical, biographical approach and an intuitive exploration of the lyrics. In his discussion of “Be Thou My Vision” Henderson works line by line through words like “vision,” “naught,” and “inheritance,” dwelling on each with an almost meditative attention—a method that reminds me of lectio divina, the monastic practice of reading with close attention to words and their associations. The scores of several hymns appear alongside a line-by-line analysis, allowing the reader to dwell on the words—or sing along, if so inclined.
Although the historical and textual approach to hymns in Simple Gifts is rewarding, there’s something odd about Henderson’s insistence that the litmus test for a good hymn is its universality—that it can be sung by anyone, regardless of creed. By Henderson’s measure, the most popular hymn of all time qualifies as a world hymn.
Because “Amazing Grace” is easy on the details of Christian doctrine, it is possible to ignore the religious message and accept it instead as a hymn of universal hope, a narrative of confidence that somehow through grace we will all make it “home.”
On the other hand, he says, songs that dwell too much on theological premises are divisive. He can hum along for the sake of tradition, but he prefers not to sing the verses that offend him.
To be sure, concepts like hope and home are universal and comforting—the moving subject matter of many a song. But it seems to me that these concepts dissolve into sentimentality when they become disembodied from theology. To sing “Amazing Grace” without accepting the doctrine of original sin diminishes the meaning of grace.
Throughout his book Henderson dismisses doctrines like the Trinity and the physical resurrection of Jesus by referring to them as “theological niceties,” “narrow theology,” “clichés,” and “tired nonsense.” He also takes aim at those who believe the theological premises articulated in hymns. Faulting Alfred Ackley’s hymn “He Lives” for the line, “The day of His appearing will come at last,” Henderson accuses its singers of indulging “lovely self-satisfied dreams of vengeance (under the guise of ‘justice’).” This seems like an unfair judgment for him to make—plenty of decent churchgoers sing this song without relishing vengeful fantasies.
And this is my main criticism of the book: Simple Gifts fails to engage those people for whom hymns are neither self-satisfied victory songs nor universal feel-good anthems, those for whom hymns are an affirmation of mystery, songs we sing to declare—however shakily—something we can’t fully understand but believe nonetheless. By favoring universal hymns—or editing traditional ones until they become universal—Henderson ends up singing only the words he doesn’t question.
What would our traditional hymns sound like if John Newton or Alfred Ackley had adopted this principle, trying to create generic, universally palatable hymns? In the beginning of his book, Henderson criticizes the sentimentality, “accessible lyrics,” and “first-person pronouns” of contemporary praise songs. But I wonder if it would be possible to write a generic hymn without succumbing to those same vices. In skipping the theological verses, Henderson aims for universality. But for the classic hymn writers, specific theology was precisely what motivated their creativity, and their songs in turn give emotional life to heavy, complicated doctrine.
Hymns have a mysterious power for me—as they do for Henderson—but I don’t find it in doctrine-purged lyrics. It’s in the book’s more personal passages that Henderson begins to probe that mystery. He describes several experiences of startling grace. In one chapter he relates a night at a book party where, inebriated and mourning his dead father, he clasped hands with a famous evangelist and sang “Trust and Obey.” At times he explores the joy of congregational singing—the intimacy of bare voices, simple melodies, and a tune everyone knows. On the Sunday when he happened upon a singing chapel and encountered hymns for the first time in years, he says: “We sang as best we could, missing words, mashing notes, but confessing everything to each other in our unadorned voices, as the snow swirled around us.” There’s an emotional acuity in these passages that is lacking in his diatribes against “narrow theology.”
When the narrative turns to memoir, Henderson embraces the ambiguity of religious experience, avoiding the diagnostic tone that tainted parts of this book for me. When he describes the visceral experience of singing, his zeal is contagious. Reading those passages, I was nothing short of inspired—I got up from the couch, went downstairs to the piano, found an old hymnal, and plunked out the notes to the songs I first learned at camp. They still have their pull on me. In the basement, at church, or in an intimate gathering at camp, generations of singers add their faltering voices to these confident declarations; and the hymns, in turn, help us affirm the things we cannot fully grasp.
—Reviewed by Beth Bevis
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