Friday, July 22, 2011

On Three Ways of Hymn-Writing for Children

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it - Proverbs 22:6

This works both ways. When our children pray and are taught the catechism over the dinner table it becomes a part of their every day life (and the family's in the process). When a child drops an f-bomb at VBS or camp (I've seen it happen) they probably learned it from their parents the day before as they were experiencing some good old Southern California traffic. When children sit with their parents in the Divine Service and grow up surrounded by the historic church year, the liturgy, the hymns, these, in turn, grow up within the heart, mind and faith of the child. Everything we say and do (or don't say and don't do) confesses something; it's simply a matter of what (or rather who) we are confessing and pointing to when we teach our children, in and out of the Divine Service, at church or at home. This is the unique vocation of parents. "As the head of the household is to teach his family."

As a prolific writer, C.S. Lewis understood this quite well. He didn't make the same kind of age-restrictive sub-categories we civilized Christians do. You know, children's "church" where the kids leave the Divine Service for something "more their style" or children's songs seemingly more age appropriate in musical setting. While intending to ween them off of pure spiritual milk they are often being fed nothing more than spiritual junk food (better left for Sesame Street than in the pew). While infants may not be ready for the solid steak and potatoes of hymnody, feeding them spiritual milk does not mean watering it down; babies know the difference between the real stuff and the store-brand knock-off.

In his brief (yet insightful) essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, Lewis has a great deal to say about literature and how we should approach writing for children, not to mention awakening their imagination to a life of creativity through books (especially good fairy stories). While Lewis is busy defending the fairy tale he inadvertently teaches us something rather remarkable about our entire philosophy of training up our children, especially when it comes to hymns. I am not sure whether Lewis had ever connected his writing for children with the music of the church but there is a very deep connection between the written page and the written note. As I read this little essay from Lewis I was amazed not only by his grasp of literature and the child's mind, but this nagging thought kept bubbling up in my mind: many of the things Lewis is saying about writing for children can also be applied to singing the liturgy and writing hymns for children in the church, of which I am sure there are more than three ways.

"I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can only like when you are waltzing is a bad waltz" (Lewis).

So it goes with hymns: the good ones last, growing our children in the faith, proclaiming Christ. I've seen this in our preschoolers at Redeemer. A while back they sang: Consider How the Birds Above - not the easiest hymn to sing. And it includes a rather complex word (at least for preschoolers): fragility. While talking about a cross necklace she was wearing, one of these little preschool girls, when asked to describe it, said it's fragile. She clearly knew what the word meant. And more specifically, she learned it from that particular hymn. Why? She was taught.

When children are taught and trained up in the life of the church (not some artificial sub-culture), children sing and love the liturgy in all its height and depth and richness; when they are given solid milk (and later meat) of hymns and the liturgy they enjoy them at a young and old age, they mature into a rich life and faith in Christ. We should never teach our children Christian songs from which they will mature out of later in life.

This is, I think at least in part, why Lewis wrote the way he did. There was no gimmick, or bait and switch for any of his readers. He did not underestimate children's capacity for learning and being challenged to grow. Nor did he write as Tolkien did (in many cases), beginning with ex tempore stories for friend and family which later grew into beautiful tales of recovery, escape and consolation (i.e. Roverandum). In his own words, Lewis wrote, "The children's story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical [and I think we could add textual/confessional] ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form." The text drives the tune and the tune supports the text. It works the same in good fairy tales and good hymns, liturgy, etc.

VBS, etc.) in the same way. For out of the mouth of babes flows the praise of Christ and children inherit the kingdom of God. John the Baptizer kicked in praise of Christ our Lord. And Jesus, undoubtedly learned the Psalms - the hymnal of the Scriptures - as he grew in wisdom and knowledge before God and man.

There are plenty of children (and adults) who haven't read the right books. And too often we act like Eustace when it comes to liturgy and hymns in the church: children haven't sung the right songs. In part this is born of an innocent (although at times irrational) fear that the stuff of Sunday morning (or the weekly offices) is too hard for children to learn and grow into. Have you ever tried telling a child they can't do something? They can. And it's usually adults holding them back far more often than their own limitations. The irrational part of this fear is, in part, a reflection of our own adult presuppositions. When adults say, "that hymn is too hard for children" or "they can't sing Matins, we need something more age-appropriate," many times we are merely projecting our own fears or feelings about the music. Children don't have the fear of, "I can't do this." Yes, they can get frustrated in learning a difficult song just as much as an adult can. The problem often rests in the teacher not the student. Children are far more capable of learning hymns (both simple and difficult) than we give them credit. We should treat them with respect, both in their present abilities and their future growth. The rich heritage of Lutheran hymnody and the church's liturgy does just that: it gives us and our children a faith to grow into, not a faith to grow out of. Quite simply, it gives us Jesus, making his death and resurrection for us the habitual furniture of our minds, lives and learning. Catechesis, after all, is a life-long "training up."

Lewis understood this too. What he says about writing for children is equally applicable to children reading and singing in the pew or at home.

We must meet children as our equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals...The child as reader is neither to be patronized or idolized: we talk to him as man to man...We must of course do them no harm; we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect (Lewis).

So, maybe you don't start off teaching your children the hardest hymns out there. But on the other hand, don't start off by saying things like, "This is too difficult for my child" or "They'll never learn this hymn." If that's the case, you've lost before you've even begun the battle. And let's face it, this is one battle in the current pop, consumer driven culture that has utterly infected the church. But it's a battle worth fighting. Thank God for this Fortress: the Scriptures, the liturgy, the hymns, and the historic church year in all its boldness and richness. Here Christ is raising up his powerful, living two-edged sword, training all of his baptized children up in the way of the Lord so that we might not depart from him.

To that end, here are a few excellent arrows for your quiver that I've found. Let me know if you come across any others that hit the mark.

The Children's Choir of St. Paul's Lutheran, Fort Wayne, IN - CDs.
The Music Academy - click here for the website.
Kelly Klages - website - Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (an illustrated children's hymnal) and her excellent interview on Issues Etc.


  1. So thrilled to read that parents need to encourage their kids to learn liturgy and hymns! Have too often heard that it is too hard for young children. Kids live up to what is expected of them.

  2. thank you for both of these comments and for reading as well.

    exactly, kids are sponges, they soak up whatever we give them to learn and I am convinced that no hymn or liturgy is too hard.