Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.
Reviewed by GARY PANETTA
Faced with crisis, Elijah returns to the story of God’s mighty acts by seeking refuge at the holy mountain of God’s covenant with Israel. Faced with a crisis of a different sort, the editors of “Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal” likewise return to the story of God’s mighty acts using this story as the new hymnal’s chief organizational device.
The move is pastorally astute and, in a sense, prophetic. We are not, to be sure, under the thrall of an evil king and literal idols of stone. But we are beset by challenges of our own. A few of these are stated in the first appendix of the hymnal: wrenching divisions within the church; widespread ignorance of Christian teaching and practice; empty spiritualities that fail to satisfy; and shaken faith in human progress. All of these are symptoms of a single ill: We are more preoccupied with ourselves, and our own
efforts, than with God. This hymnal, however, acts to shift our focus. The bulk of the hymns are organized under a section titled “God’s Mighty Acts.” The section is subdivided and mighty acts are listed — from God’s act of creation to God’s act of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. Appropriate hymns appear under each subdivision. To sing these hymns in order is to sing the story of salvation — and to pray and respond to God’s invitation to join in the mission of redemption. The hymnal reminds us that we are a people of mission and that mission is not about us. It’s about God. And this God loves the world.
The editors therefore have chosen hymns that reflect the world that God loves. On the one hand, familiar hymns are included such as “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” (#52), “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” (#1), and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (#12). On the other hand, the hymnal accents diversity: there is an Arabic hymn (“Holy Lamb of God” or “Ya hamalallah,” #602); a hymn from Ghana (“Praise to God the Father” or “Da n’ase,” #605); a Punjabi setting of Psalm 150 (“Blest Be God, Praised Forever” or “Rab ki hove sanaa hameshaa,” #617); and many others.
Some of the hymnal’s diversity also reflects the diversity of worship styles. So, for instance, a Christian radio hit from 1988 — “Our God Is an Awesome God” (#616) — is included in the hymnal. Included as well are chants from the modern monastic community at Taizé, France (including two versions of “Holy Spirit, Come to Us,” #281 and #284). The hymnal’s diversity teaches us that congregations are not isolated units but rather local expressions of the one universal church. In so doing, the hymnal seeks to move our attention away from ourselves to God. This is a fitting goal for a hymnal. True worship directs our attention to God and God’s mission.
“Glory to God” may look like just another hymnal. But it is not. This hymnal is a call to travel with Elijah back to the sacred mountain — to the stories of God’s mighty acts — for refreshment, reorientation and renewal. It is a call to turn our hearts to God.
GARY PANETTA is studying for the Master of Divinity degree at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.