Sightings in Christian Music

by David Bjorlin

In my last column I discussed how a particular passage in Karl Olsson’s history, By One Spirit, helped me understand what I believe is a key characteristic of Pietism. As I wrote then, 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. At its best this posture leads to humility and charity towards others; at its worst, it fosters scrupulosity and anxiety that can slip into despair. Continuing that theme, I will explore how this self-reflective posture is found in the early songs of the Mission Friends — especially in the poignant descriptions of anxiety, worry, and fear.

Language of anxiety and fear is ever-present in the pietist hymns. The two most obvious of these in the Covenant Hymnal (1996) are “Now, Anxious Heart, Awake from Your Sadness” (No. 472) and “Why Should I Be Anxious?” (No. 431). While many such hymns are framed as songs of victory over these troubling emotions, their ubiquity suggests that anxious and fearful thoughts must have been daily realities for some Mission Friends or there would be little need for so many texts addressing them. For example, in David Nyvall’s “In Your Temple Courts, O Father” he writes, “Thanks for warnings, for instruction, / thanks for newborn hope received; / thanks for light, blind fear’s destruction / for anxiety relieved” (No. 507). Similarly, in August Ludvig Storm’s paean of thanksgiving, “Thanks to God for My Redeemer,” the singer gives “thanks for comfort in despair!” (No. 657). C. O. Rosenius’s aforementioned “Now, Anxious Heart” is perhaps the clearest example, as he writes a hymn addressed not to God, but directly to the anxious heart:

Now, anxious heart, awake from your sadness,
have you forgotten the things that remain:
grace and communion, unbroken union
with Christ arisen and ever the same?

In asking the rhetorical question, the hymn suggests that the anxious pietist heart did often forget the grace and communion of Christ and needed the reminder of Christ’s love that is present whether or not we can fully see or experience it. So, in the final stanza Rosenius turns to exhortation:

So, anxious heart, awake from your sadness,
rise to remember your blessings to claim.
Though skies be clouded and the sun shrouded,
never forget it is there just the same.

Yet, if there is a patron saint of the sensitive pietist, it is no doubt the songwriter Nils Frykman. In all his texts, there is an underlying sense of anxiety and a desire for spiritual assurance, as if he is first trying to convince himself of the love and grace of God. So, he writes,

Why should I be anxious?
I have such a Friend,
who bears in his heart all my woe;
this Friend is the Savior, on him I depend,
his love is eternal I know.

Frykman similarly tries to master his despair by recalling God’s faithfulness in the past:

How often when in deep despair
my soul has been restored;
and when the tempter would ensnare
‘twould strength to stand afford. (No. 533)

Even in a hymn that by its title would seem to suggest nothing but delight, “How Great the Joy” (No. 552), Frykman cannot help but acknowledge the more difficult seasons inevitable for the Christian disciple: “When shadows come, as come they will, and gloom pervades the day, / when hopes once bright grow cold and chill, the Lord provides a way.” These evocative words — shadows, gloom, cold, despair, anxiety, woe — suggest that Frykman knew spiritual darkness well and used his songwriting to help combat the shadows.

In author Donna Tartt’s sprawling and beautiful novel, The Goldfinch, she ends the book with a meditation on the function of beauty and art in a world that so often seems so fearful and ugly. After writing about the way certain pieces of art call out to us individually and connect us to some larger reality, she ends by claiming, “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.” Perhaps this describes the pastoral and liturgical function that these Mission Friends hymns served. They not only helped the singers talk to themselves — to name their anxieties and worries and fears and despair — but the songs then taught them to sing themselves out of despair. In every season of anxiety and fear, may we still find songs that help us do the same, in Jesus’ name.