Timothy P. Shafer
40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at their Spiritual and Poetic Meaning, by Leland Ryken. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019, 156 pages, $15.99.
What a pleasure it is to read through the most recent book of prodigious author Leland Ryken (professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College). In 40 Favorite Hymns, Ryken takes the reader on a literary and theological tour of the poetry of some of the most cherished hymns of the Christian faith. Ryken, of course, is well regarded for his literary analyses of some of the most well-known Christian literature, including Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the Bible itself.
Ryken has, in this current volume, turned his considerable literary analytical skills specifically to hymnic poetry, consciously omitting references to the musical settings of the poems. In the introduction of the volume, he describes his rationale for this musical omission as three fold: 1) until the late nineteenth century the format of hymnals was that of a small book containing only words; 2) every hymn is a poem first, and; 3) there are gains that can be had by reading the poems in linear fashion, as a poem, as opposed to the strophic design in which they are found in modern hymnals (11–12).
One of the interesting advantages of linear reading that Ryken points out is that the gaze of the reader continues to move forward (as opposed to returning to the top of the page, as in a modern hymnal), making clear the sequential progression of thought and feeling found in the poetry. Another is the ability to slow down and take in the words at one’s own pace, rather than being pushed forward by the pace of the musical setting. Yet a third advantage that he explores is that of shifting the spotlight of beauty from the musical setting to the text itself, which beauty is often overshadowed by the musical elements during sung renderings (12).
With the above, Ryken makes a strong case to consider the texts of our hymns separately from the music. Approaching our hymns in this manner will no doubt deepen and enrich the worshiper’s experience of corporate sung praise on a given Lord’s Day when the text is once again partnered with its given tune. Doing this work in advance of corporate worship could easily be considered an element of bringing a “sacrifice of praise” as commanded by the author of Hebrews in 13:15, or a part of “singing with understanding” that the Apostle Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 14:15. While Ryken’s book serves as an aide to our corporate worship for only forty specific hymns, it is nevertheless a model for us to follow for hymns not contained in the volume. Mr. Ryken is in effect teaching us how to understand the texts we sing, and as such is making a wonderfully edifying contribution to our faith in practice. Each local congregation would do well to consider using the book for a Sunday school term as a resource to encourage and teach individuals and/or families to study their sung praise in advance of each Lord’s Day service.
Ryken himself describes the format of every entry in his anthology as consisting of three elements—a hymnic poem, an explication of the poem, and a passage from the Bible that ties into the hymn and its explication. He further states that the Bible passages are intended to contribute to the reader’s use of the book for devotional purposes (12).
Within these three categories, Ryken offers the reader an amazing variety of information and insight. The first category, the poetic text of the hymn itself, is self-consciously printed in a linear format so that readers might experience what Ryken speaks of when he describes the advantages of reading the text as poetry.
In the second category—explication of the poem—the reader can find all manner of information related to the hymn. As appropriate for each poem, Ryken covers such diverse topics as the historical circumstances surrounding its origins, its influence after having been written, history of its use, personal circumstances of the author that inspired the creation of the poem, the form of the poem, poetic/literary devices contained in the poem, the genre of the poem, biblical references within the poem, the principal imagery of the poem, and much more. Each entry averages two to three pages, but Ryken’s writing is vigorous, not wasting words, making for rich content as he proceeds.
Without giving away too much of the surprising information to be found in the volume, some examples of the above diversity of information include: the use of “Holy, Holy, Holy” in nearly every English hymnbook; Charles Wesley’s composition of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” to celebrate the anniversary of his own conversion; the astounding number “ten million” as the number of times “Amazing Grace” is estimated to be sung publicly each year; the nearly fifty biblical references to be found in “The Church’s One Foundation”; the rhetorical techniques found in “How Firm a Foundation”; the gang membership of the author of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”; the Trinitarian structure of the prayer of petition in “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”; the literary archetypes that govern the composition of “Like a River Glorious”; the reason “Rock of Ages” was written on a playing card; the nature imagery that binds “How Great Thou Art,” “O Worship the King,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” and “A Shelter in the Time of Storm”; the role of “Abide with Me” in the Rugby League Challenge Cup in England; and the rich metaphors of iron mines and bitter buds ripening in “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
Ryken frequently describes the specific ways in which each poem demonstrates beauty by being both unified and diverse — recalling Jonathan Edwards’s definition of beauty and excellence as that of “consent of being to being.” With this emphasis, Ryken points a way forward for the hymn writers of our generation and beyond: far from the insipid and vain repetition found in so much modern worship music and lyrics, Ryken extols the layered beauty to be found in the time-tested poems of our most familiar and beloved hymns, all in the context of biblical beauty.
Equally, if not more importantly, is Ryken’s provision of numerous biblical allusions to which he points for each and every hymn text. Far from being “the imaginations and devices of men,” Ryken demonstrates that the poems of these authors are steeped in biblical language, imagery, genre, and theology. Meditating on the biblical sources and references provided by Ryken in this volume is solid preparation for letting “the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16) both privately, and in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ each and every Lord’s Day.
Ryken’s volume will no doubt prove to be a blessing to individual believers as well as Christ’s church in the months and years to come before Christ’s return, should he tarry. I encourage my fellow laborers in Christ’s church to avail themselves and their congregations of this wonderful new resource.
 Jonathan Edwards, “The Mind,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 22–34.
Timothy P. Shafer is a ruling elder in Resurrection Orthodox Presbyterian Church in State College, Pennsylvania. He is a performing pianist and professor of piano at Penn State University School of Music. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2019.