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Protest of Praise: 50 Hymn Texts

Reviewed by David Gambrell

David Gambrell is associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), co-editor of the latest edition of the Book of Common Worship (WJKP, 2018), and a hymn writer and church musician.

Protest of Praise: 50 Hymn Texts

David Bjorlin
(Chicago: GIA Productions, 2020)
136 pages. ISBN 978-1-62277-466-1. $20.95

At a time when there is much to lament and confess—the idolatry of wealth and
status, the atrocities of warfare and mass shootings, the devastating effects of climate change, the exclusion of beloved children of God—the church’s song is an act of resistance against evil, a sign of solidarity with the oppressed, an affirmation of faith in God’s future. This idea inspires the title and infuses the contents of David Bjorlin’s hymn collection, Protest of Praise.

Bjorlin’s hymn texts are deeply rooted in the doctrinal, liturgical, and musical traditions of the church, drawing on familiar theological themes and biblical imagery. At the same time, they speak with a fresh voice and engage contemporary concerns, challenging worshipers to expand their vision and embody the faith they profess. Three hymns related to the Eucharist illustrate Bjorlin’s expansive vision and embodied faith.

In a hymn titled “At the Table, All Are Equal,” Bjorlin explores eucharistic ethics, describing Christ’s table as a place where “all are equal . . . none are best,” “none go hungry . . . all are fed,” “all are cherished . . . none are lost,” and “none are finished . . . all are sent” (p. 20). Benjamin Brody’s tune wilcox underscores the unfinished nature of eucharistic living and the urgency of our call to feed and welcome others as we have been welcomed and fed.

Bjorlin wrote “Build a Longer Table” in response to a call from the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada for new hymns of hospitality to refugees and immigrants. Set to the fifteenth-century French carol noël nouvelet, this text confronts the twenty-first-century ills of xenophobia and mass incarceration. Christ is depicted as one who “breaks walls to pieces,” “breach[es] the jail wall,” and “tears down our fences,” in order to become “our doorway to the reign of God” (p. 22).

“If We Eat Our Lavish Banquet” consists of three stanzas, each a powerful and pointed question to the church. “If we eat our lavish banquet while the hungry cry for bread . . . is the meal we share indecent, is our eucharist a lie?” “If our sermons soothe the mighty but bring humble people shame . . . is the word we preach insulting, is our gospel then a fraud?” “If the rituals in chapels are divorced from acts of care . . . is our liturgy offensive, is our worship just a sham?” (p. 60). The vigorous hymn tune ebenezer fuels this hymn’s sense of righteous outrage against injustice. (You may guess what four-letter word rhymes with “sham” in the final stanza).

With this outstanding collection, Bjorlin makes many other vital contributions to the church’s song. There are hymns that ponder the relationship between faith and doubt, such as “Ask the Complicated Questions” and “O Spirit, Send Doubt.” There are hymns that introduce feminine characters in familiar songs of faith, as “Children of the Heavenly Father” becomes “As a Mother Loves Her Children” and “The God of Abraham Praise” becomes “The God of Sarah Praise” with a stanza for Hagar. Two hymns, “The Heavens Tell of Your Creative Glory” (Los cielos cuentan la gloria de Dios) and “When the World Is Controlled by Petty Tyrants” (Cuando el mundo padece tiranías) are translations of works by modern Spanish-language hymnwriters. There are hymns that reconsider metaphors of darkness and light, such as “Darkness Is a Gift of God” and “When God First Promised Abram.” And there are seven new Advent hymns, including “Advent Begins in the Darkness of Night.”

Worship planners will find this to be an imminently useful body of work. The thematic index enumerates hymns pertaining to the life of daily discipleship (anxiety, courage, imagination, memory, risk, wonder), matters of the church’s mission (environment, greed, hunger, inclusion, justice, reconciliation), significant pastoral occasions (marriage, motherhood, ordination, pastoral transitions, vocation, weddings), as well as festivals and seasons of the Christian year (Christmas, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints).

In the anecdotes that accompany each hymn text, Bjorlin reveals that he often finds inspiration in the words of poets, theologians, and other thinkers such as Wendell Berry, Brené Brown, James Cone, Madeleine L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, and Barbara Brown Taylor. This literary influence is evident in Bjorlin’s own graceful and thoughtful writing. Other texts arise from events in the author’s life and relationships with family, friends, and mentors in ministry.

Bjorlin’s musical collaborators in Protest of Praise include William Beckstrand, Benjamin Brody, Lim Swee Hong, Sally Ann Morris, Randall Sensmeier, Joel Sierra, and Horacio Vivares. New compositions by these composers are found alongside well-known hymn tunes such as ar hyd y nos, hymn to joy, nettleton, resignation, and slane. This juxtaposition yields an engaging diversity of musical styles and cultural traditions.

As Bjorlin writes in the introduction to this work, “The act of true praise is always a protest against all that curses or denigrates the Creator’s world and the people made in the Creator’s image; and an act of true protest is always in praise of a world that the protestor has begun to envision and works to make real. Praise is protest; protest is praise” (p. 10). In this spirit, I commend this hymn collection to the church, praying that it will inspire our witness and incite our worship.