SALEM, Mass. (AP) - “Amazing Grace” sounds a lot different when you sing it to the tune of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song.
That’s why Jeannette Lindholm, an English professor at Salem State University, chooses music for her hymns very carefully.
“There’s a close connection between music and text,” she said. “Music provides an interpretation of the text.”
But Lindholm is also concerned about the impact hymns can have on people’s views of God, and of themselves.
“Hymns are very influential in terms of forming people’s religious imaginations,” she said. “They’re more memorable than sermons because of their connection to music.”
In particular, Lindholm feels there is a male bias in the terms that hymns have traditionally used to define human relationships to the divine.
“I started thinking about using other names for God,” she said. “I’ve been using the word Love, with a capital L, to represent God in my hymns.”
Lindholm, who is originally from Minnesota, teaches courses on the Bible as literature at Salem State, in addition to other topics.
She has written about 20 hymns since the early 1990s, not all of which have been published, but most of which have at least been performed.
“I’m not a very prolific writer,” she said.
But one of her hymns, “Unexpected and Mysterious,” has been performed on Minnesota Public Radio, and was incorporated into the official hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“When major denominations decide they’re going to work on a new hymnal - and this happens every 30 or 40 years or so - they put out a call for hymns,” Lindholm said. “I sent out a collection of my hymns in the ‘90s, and they chose one for that collection.”
Another of her works, “Love Astounding,” which was included in an Episcopal hymnal supplement, sings about “Love’s transforming, healing goodness, / Love’s abiding, gentle grace” (quotation used by permission of the author).
Lindholm first encountered feminist interpretations of hymns while getting her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She then studied hymn writing at the Boston University School of Theology, where she received a master’s degree in 1999.
Hymns are the words of a song that is written to praise God, and they are typically written to a strict meter, or syllable count, she explained. These are usually matched to a pre-existing tune in the public domain, which has a rhythmic pattern that matches the hymn’s meter and also fits its mood.
In addition to substituting words like “Love” for more masculine and hierarchical terms such as “father,” ”lord” or “king,” Lindholm draws on stories from the Bible that feature women, but may not be well-known.
“‘Unexpected and Mysterious’ is from Luke 1,” she said. “Mary, when she’s going to give birth with the Messiah, mentions her encounter with Elizabeth, who isn’t featured in hymns. So I mention Elizabeth.”
This approach reflects research that was being done across disciplines when Lindholm was in graduate school, in an effort to recover feminine perspectives in art, and throughout history.
One of the most important sources for Lindholm’s approach to hymns was “Metaphorical Theology” by the feminist theologian Sallie McFague, which is subtitled “Models of God in Religious Language” and was published in 1982.
“A lot of feminist scholars were doing work about articulating women’s roles in the church, looking at biblical texts that featured women, and acknowledging the important work of women in doing work for justice and peace,” she said.
Accompanying these views, Lindholm wants to evoke a relationship to the sacred in which the notion of sin is not so important, and God is not invoked as a dominating figure.
“I emphasize God as love and how love is so transformative,” she said. “God as love is transforming and inspirational and empowering.”
Information from: The Salem (Mass.) News, https://www.salemnews.com
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