There is an important discussion going on in the International Fellowship for Research in Hymnology (Internationale Arbeitsgemeinshaft für Hymnologie) on the proper location and scope of the field of hymnology.
To put it much too simply: Should the field be interested primarily in hymns and songs sung in the worship of the churches – history of repertoires, literary and theological appraisal, liturgical role? Or should the field take its place within “cultural studies” and be more exlicitly interdisciplinary with the social sciences and other fields? The second viewpoint is often tied to a call for hymnology (if that name is retained) to extend its scope to include religious and spiritual singing in all sorts of ritual contexts outside the churches or organized religion.
Michael Fischer from Freiburg University in Germany, advocate of the second position, has an important contribution to make to this conversation. Below is a keynote he just delivered at the IAH conference in Denmark.
Do read the article in its entirety. But to whet your interest, here is a summary of the conclusions Dr. Fischer makes on “The Outlook for a Hymnology Informed by Cultural Studies.”
- The starting point for hymnology informed by cultural studies is an open, pluralistic, and de-hierarchialized concept of culture which takes account of the entirety of human life and human productivity (holistic concept of culture), not merely individual partial realms such as literature, music, or theology.
- The concept “cultural studies” does not imply a new particular discipline or meta-discipline which stands alongside or even above fields of natural science, the humanities, and the social sciences, but rather a method, a “regulator across disciplines,” which in new ways is concerned with diverse cultures (the plural is intentionally employed) and how they take shape in institutions, objects, symbols, texts, and actions.
- Accordingly, traditional hymnology must completely cast off various “isms,” to the extent that these still give off the “aromas” of the 19th and early 20th century” – particularly historicism, positivism, dogmatism, confessionalism, traditionalism, and aestheticism.
And here are Fischer’s four positive theses for a hymnology that understands itself as cultural studies:
- The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary aspect that already exists must be extended further, for example in the direction of a general sociology, sociology of knowledge, sociology of art, and sociology of religion, or in the direction of image and media studies or empirical cultural studies / anthropology of culture. Affiliation with popular culture studies and popular music studies would also be rewarding…
- Hymnology is not only an interpreter of culture, but to a certain extent also a “generator of culture.” In the connection, hymnology also has the task of explaining identify-forming processes (e.g. confessional models of interpretation and self-interpretation) and tracing the construction of traditions.
- Alongside the principle of reflexivity, the principle of critique is important for cultural studies, including in the form of critique of ideology and of authority structures. Every discourse is tied up with power; it is always also a matter of the height of interpretation and validity. Hymnology should, for example, critically inquire into the entirety of normative theological and aesthetical discourse – how these come into being and become powerful in their effect, and which interests are met by them.
- Hymnology which understands itself as cultural studies is to be oriented in secular terms. Methodologically, hymnology should proceed similar to religious studies or sociology of religion, from methodological agnosticism – that is to say, it should bracket the question of truth in its scholarly work.
Finally, Fischer asks whether the concept “hymnology” could not be replaced by a more open and less confessionally burdened term.
Read the piece. And tell us what you think.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author and the Leadership Council of the International Fellowship for Research in Hymnology (Internationale Arbeitsgemeinshaft für Hymnologie).