Hymnology as Cultural Studies

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.

Fischer Hymnology as Cultural Studies

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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).


  1. “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.”

    Is this not an arbitrary bracketing?

    Why is hymnology thought to be “extensible” into cultural studies, but not “extensible” into metaphysics or theology?

    When choosing a hymn, among the questions that choir directors and similar ministers would ask is, “Is this hymn true – does it convey the truth of the faith?” If hymnology isn’t prepared to help answer that question, then is it of any practical use to a parish minister?

  2. I would agree that it should take place in and with cultural studies, although hymns and religious songs no longer play a major part, if any, in most Western cultures. What is culturally significant is the rise of praise songs (replacing hymnody) which tend to be more performance driven as opposed to congregationally sung, especially in non-denominational, warehouse/theater style communities. What does that say about culture informing music used in religious meetings?

    Conclusion number 3 is problematic as some music written for congregations today captures and brings to bear “isms” and “aromas” of today, which is no better than the purported carrying over of 19th and 20th isms in hymns from those centuries.

    What are we to make of his statement calling hymnology a “generator of culture” when less and less people attend services and hear or sing this music? And the call for a secular hymnology which spills out of religious service and into public secular gatherings is also odd to me. What would he invision these to be? Why would they be sung in a religious context and how and where would they be sung? At sports games? National and political gatherings?

    As far as replacing the term hymnology, I would agree, as hymnology has become only one facet of the music that is used in religious meetings. However, I don’t find it confessionally burdened but musically stylistic. Overall this piece raises many more questions than it answers in a society where the topic is basically not cared about or even known except by academics.

  3. An interesting paper. It raised two questions for me.

    First, although Fischer’s introduction suggests that ‘musicology’ is part of ‘hymnology’, his study of Luther’s hymn seems to be based only on the words: hymnology as the analysis of poetry. I agree that, as he says, it makes no sense to limit the study to “only those who sing, or who comprehend the substance by singing”. But hymns are songs – music. Where does musical analysis figure in Fischer’s scheme?

    Second, he insists, in several places and in different ways, that “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.”

    I can see the value of this in an academic field – and, following Van Harvey’s thinking, I would add history to the list of similar fields. But I’m curious about how this secular, clinically distanced academic hymnology is supposed to contribute to what Fischer calls “a practically oriented hymnology which has as its goal the selection of hymns for a hymnal or for an individual worship service.”

    Speaking of the preparation of a hymnal for worship purposes, he writes: “It is entirely indisputable that normative points of view – aesthetic and theological – must play a role there. However, hymnology which understands itself as cultural studies can also supply standards for this and serve as a critical regulator, in that such a hymnology often puts up for discussion those norms which had been presupposed without question.”

    Is the idea here that the academic (secular, critical) hymnologist might say to the practical (theologically committed) hymnologist, “be careful here … you are evoking tendencies of exclusion, nationalism, racism, etc.?”

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