The sounds of the Eastern Mennonite Choir singing arrangements from Hymnal: A Worship Book permeate the space as I sit to write this review for Singing: A Mennonite Voice. The mellifluous voices of the choir support the words of John Bell in his foreword to the book. He encourages us to "read at a leisurely pace the testimonies of God's everyday saints as they reflect on the relationship between their lives and the life of God as it is mediated, explored and affirmed in song."
Throughout the book, the authors use selected testimonies of Mennonites and non-Mennonites and their responses to congregational singing. The authors, Marlene Kropf, professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Ken Nafziger, professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, draw on one hundred personal interviews conducted in 1994-1995 in the United States and Canada. After compiling this oral material, they organize these interviews in three chapters: the sound and sense of Mennonite singing, what happens when we sing, and toward a spirituality of song. The fourth chapter is reserved for a description of the evolution of singing since the publication of Hymnal: A Worship Book. The epilogue becomes a personal statement of philosophy that would be helpful for any musician learning to lead congregational singing.
The strength of this book lies in the premise that hymns generate stories, stories that are personal and often divine. These stories are private, rarely shared with other members of the congregation or worshiping community. The publication of the book indicates that the task of conveying these memories is an integral part of reconnecting with our heritage of congregational singing. The authors begin this important storytelling process in a vibrant and engaging way.
Singing: A Mennonite Voice suggests additional topics that could be explored. For example, is there a way we can illuminate the shadow parts of our singing, encouraging those people in our congregations to articulate why they don't sing? Could we come to a better understanding of who we are by engaging the ones in our midst who choose not to participate? Could we begin to listen more attentively to those individuals who may not actively engage all of the new styles? A broader study might provide intriguing insight into the ongoing evolution of our congregational singing. Perhaps having told some of the story, now is the time for someone to do detailed research in why we sing, what constitutes our favorite hymns. We could perhaps more accurately describe our geographical differences and our similarities. Careful research could open up dialogue of what we should learn that would broaden our world perspective.
The anecdotal material appears to be gathered from individuals located on the East Coast, in northern Indiana or on the West Coast. The communities in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas do not appear to be represented. Would the stories from these congregations be different as a result of migration patterns or use of instruments in the worship service? Since the interviews date from 1994 and 1995, would the content of the interviews have changed as a result of our evolving patterns in congregational singing?
The accompanying CD is a supplement to the book. Crafted by Ken Nafziger and the Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers, it is a valuable addition to the Hymnal Masterworks series that many of us have grown to appreciate. The singing is accurate, the arrangements are attractive and the musicians are engaged with the music. Persons interested in hymns and hymn singing will want to purchase this CD as an educational tool as well as a vehicle for contemplation.
These authors have created a fine contribution to the life of worshiping congregations. They have begun the process of creating oral faith histories of the hymns we sing. This process should be invaluable for the entire church. Worshiping communities should begin to see the value of vibrant, vigorous hymn singing that refocuses the mind and revitalizes the heart. This limitless resource is present in all of us and is called forth by the vital worshiping congregations among us. For those among us deeply interested in congregational singing: read this book in segments, with a cup of coffee in hand, using it to recall your memories of favorite hymns and reflecting on your personal experience with hymn singing.
William H. Eash
Professor of Music