A friend emailed about an atheist she knew who came to church. He came with his wife in order to listen to the hymns. Although he wasn’t a believer, there was something about the hymns that drew him.
I also discovered that Richard Dawkins, probably the Western world’s most well-known atheist, still likes to listen to hymns.
It’s probably only the older generations who were brought up on hymns who are drawn to them. I think it was during the 1970s that hymns were phased out of state secondary schools in New Zealand. Previously, it was standard fare to have a hymn and a Bible reading during a state school assembly.
Nowadays the TV programme ‘Praise Be’ still has a steady following in New Zealand, but those watch it are far more likely to be either believers or have a musical heritage that included hymns. (Friends of ours, who are believers, record the programme and often finish off their Sunday evening by watching it. On the occasions when we have joined them, I have found it is a lovely way to complete a Sunday.)
But is it just a cultural nostalgia that draws non-believers to listen to hymns? Their appeal doesn’t appear to register with younger generations – ‘What’s a hymn?’ asked a young guy when he lined up as a groomsman during a wedding rehearsal.
And even if younger people recognise and know what a hymn is, there are scarcely any hymns known by the general populace now – the notable exception is probably Amazing Grace because of the number of times it is sung at funerals.
When you are older you do like to dwell on some of the things that fashioned or influenced your youth, and particularly music. The popularity of concerts when aging rock or music stars visit illustrates that – the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) has just been to New Zealand with sell-out crowds and a big media focus.
It may just be that hymns are in a similar category for older people, but without the fuss and fanfare stirred up by the visit of a rock icon.
I am wondering though if the appeal is more than nostalgia. Is it more than the poetic memorability and quality of the language used, more than the deep resonance of a well-played organ? After all, a hymn tune is very basic and usually easily sing-able (unless it is set too high for a choir).
I wonder if something of the faith and humanity that the words express still draws people. The faith that transcends generations does convey a sense of the eternal, a sense of something immoveable that can’t be shaken – and points to the eternal One.
Just maybe these hymn-listening non-believers do have ‘ears to hear’ the still small voice of the Spirit. Let’s pray that that’s the case – rather than scoff at their apparent hypocrisy. And sing along with them.
Liz Hay lives in a house in the mountains, but also enjoys joining with others in worship in Christchurch, whether it’s praising God in the words of one of the old classic hymns, or in a more contemporary worship song. She and her husband Ron enjoy the outdoors and share a love of literature.