Music that makes community

by David Bjorlin

As at least some readers of Pietisten no doubt experienced, one of the rites of passage in Covenant History class was reading Karl Olsson’s By One Spirit. The sheer size of the book led to many of my classmates experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath! While I don’t claim to have retained a great deal from my hurried reading of its 800+ pages, there has always been one section that stood out for me, in part, because I think it best encapsulates one of the defining features of Pietism. In it, Olsson is explaining the influence of the British Methodist George Scott on Pietist forefather C. O. Rosenius. After noting some of their similarities (their emphasis on evangelism and their disavowal of such worldly activities as dancing, theater-going, and card-playing), Olsson argues that there was also a clear difference in their theological vision:

“But Rosenius had a dimension which Scott lacked. For Rosenius, nurtured in the Herrnhutian piety of Norrland and steeped in his studies of Luther, the converted man remained simul justus et peccator (at once justified and sinful) to the end of his days. Even the Christian man lives under God’s wrath. It is only as he flees in faith to the blood and wounds that he is secure. This realistic, not to say pessimistic, view of man’s nature is balanced in Rosenius by a joyous assurance that God’s grace is sufficient for man’s sin. But the doubleness is there: the crabbed, dark, and crooked paradox of law and grace from which freedom and gladness flow. This Rosenian emphasis upon unmerited grace is not absent in Scott, but the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification and perfection dominate. It is not too much to say that Scott, when the crisis of conversion was past, turned away from himself to external tasks. The followers of Rosenius, and later the disciples of Waldenström, who resemble the former in much, never quite succeeded in achieving this attitude. To this day the Mission Friends, as they came to be called, are too deeply introspective to embrace a doctrine of perfection” (pp. 48-49).

While the difference between the two leaders is interesting—the Methodist view of sanctification and perfectibility of humanity versus the Lutheran view of the simultaneously saintly and sinful nature of humanity—it is the last sentence that was my “Aha!” moment and continues to serve as an interpretive key for Pietism. At the heart of this movement is the introspective person—one who is aware of their own faults and moves through the world with this basic self-reflective posture.

As with any defining feature, this introspective lens seems to me to be both Pietism’s greatest strength and weakness. At its best, the reminder of one’s own imperfections keeps the Pietist from ever assuming that they are completely right or just while their neighbor is completely wrong or unjust. They feel deeply the claim of Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn that “the line dividing good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.” When not overly influenced by evangelicalism, this truth has often helped Pietists remain humble about their own theological positions and charitable to those with whom they disagree.

Yet, at its worst, this type of self-reflection can lead to an unhealthy scrupulosity that keeps people fixated on their own sinfulness. Especially for those predisposed to spiritual sensitivity, this can cause acute anxiety and even existential despair (indeed, if the movies of Ingmar Bergman are any indicator, this might be a particularly Scandinavian temptation!). To be constantly reminded of one’s own sinfulness can sometimes drown out the “joyful assurance” of God’s grace and become a paralyzing force.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with church music. Well, over the next two columns I want to explore how this Pietist introspection plays out in the songs of the early Mission Friends, particularly the preponderance of songs that deal with the singer’s own sinfulness as well as their anxiety and despair. I think it not only demonstrates the truth of Olsson’s claim at the beginning of the article, but it may also show how the songwriters of the movement helped their fellow Mission Friends sing themselves through the negative side of introspection. In the meantime, keep singing!