Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In reflecting on our recent book, “Singing the Story” the word collaborative is appropriate. It was the result of a collaboration by the staff of Pietisten in Minneapolis, initiated by its editor Phil Johnson, with the staff of Pietisten in Seattle. One of the first goals of the Seattle staff was to begin publishing books under its own name. I was surprised in their decision by another collaborative act of taking 28 essays from my previous columns in Pietisten, “Sightings in Christian Music,” as the first book to be published by the Seattle editors. This for me was a surprise beyond belief that these essays were deemed worthy enough by a group of young, creative pietists to be collected in book form.

Thus began a collaborative enterprise between the publications staff, and the author, involving different tasks, including the following: taking a second, more critical reading of the essays; selecting hymns that were appropriate to the theme of the essays; securing the copyrights for the hymns selected; and proof reading of the manuscript by the publisher, Karl Nelson and chief editor, Mark Safstrom, and many others. There was further collaboration with Sandy Nelson, the layout editor and the artist of the book’s beautiful cover. Caught again by surprise was to discover at the end of the book indices, a listing of CD recordings, and a list of the wonderful patrons, who also were important collaborators and made the publication of the book possible.

I must mention one moment in this collaboration process, which was when we were selecting from three of the artist’s concepts for the cover. We wanted to choose the one that most fit the spirit of the work. Concept No. 1 depicted birds singing; Concept No. 2 was an old-time mission meeting with a feeling of joyous singing from heart and soul; Concept No. 3 was an abstract group singing in a simple line drawing, inspired by the artwork of Immanuelskyrkan in Stockholm. After serious discussions by many on the publication staff, Sandy and I seeking the consensus of others were strong in our advocacy of Concept No. 1 for these reasons: The loose watercolor image of the birds, an old tree branch still fruitful, and a church building in the background, evoking the hymn line “joining all nature in manifold witness.” The strong image of the branch suggesting the historic church from which our music has come, and with fresh beauty in nature, contemplation, timelessness, story-telling, cheerful and uplifting, bright and unexpected, which are Sandy’s descriptive words. My immediate response was to the birds singing, recalling the much-loved hymn This is my Father’s World and the following lines: “All nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.”

So many of our Heritage hymns referred to in the essays contain nature images. Those who have already purchased the book have commented with surprise and appreciation for the uplifting cover – a gift of collaboration.

Pastor Bruce Benson, chaplain of St. Olaf College, says of this gift:

“The Biblical story is the story of a highly collaborative God. It is hard to miss that during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons God chose to collaborate with Mary, with John the Baptist, with disciples, with the earth itself. Incarnation is the story of God collaborating with created life. Church music, fittingly, is a highly collaborative art. Hymns seek the collaboration of all–the entire congregation–because the fulfilling of the Christian story comes not just in hearing the song but in singing it, in living out the life of faith. The result of this collaboration is justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, truth. And the music of the church wonderfully serves and participates in this holy collaboration. Sing for joy!”

I must add a simple witness as to what has motivated the essays and hymns and their publication in “Singing the Story.” It has been my passion to preserve the music of our movement as Covenanters and Pietists. There will be those who see the music as irrelevant to our times. I believe, however, that there will be plenty in the next generation, if not this one, who will find in this music a treasure worth preserving and singing!