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Sing No Empty Alleluias

Reviewed by Mary Louise Bringle

Mary Louise Bringle, fellow of the Hymn Society, is a professor of philosophy and religion and chair of the interdisciplinary studies program at Brevard College. A hymn text writer and translator, she has served as president of the Hymn Society and chair of the committee responsible for the 2013 hymnal, Glory to God.

Sing No Empty Alleluias: 50 Hymn Texts

Chris Shelton
(Chicago: GIA Publications, 2021)
168 pages, ISBN 976-1-62277-583-5, $20

Many of Christianity’s notable hymn text writers have been ministers, from Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century to Ruth Duck and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette in the twenty-first. The pulpit/poet connection makes sense. In their ministerial training, clergy are steeped in Scripture and theology. In their subsequent labors, they discover pastoral and prophetic words their congregations need to sing. Thus, they are especially well-placed to discern and fill gaps in the available repertoire.

Chris Shelton is no exception to this model. His hymns give special attention to tradition’s lesser-sung persons and passages: Jacob and his stony bed (“Broken World, Broken Dreams”); Jonah in the belly of the great fish (“Out of the Deep”); Ruth declaring fealty to Naomi (“I Shall Not Leave from By Your Side”); David as a small boy, almost overlooked in the review of Jesse’s sons to select a king (“I Am Not Forgotten”); Daniel resisting a tyrannical ruler (“We Will Stand”); Job questioned by God out of the whirlwind (“Were We There When Earth Was Made?”); Joseph, Mary’s “sidekick” (“O Joseph, Awake”).

In total, Sing No Empty Alleluias contains fifty texts, with ample supplementary materials. The back matter includes an extensive scriptural index (referencing passages from thirty-one different books of the Bible, almost equally divided between the two Testaments: sixteen from one, fifteen from the other); a thematic index (ranging from “Advent” to “Word of God,” passing distinctively by way of “Darkness and Light,” “Descent into Hell,” “Humility,” and “Parables”); a metrical index (cataloguing thirty-five different meters, with a marked preference for unusual patterns, and relatively few examples of the often overworked short meter, common meter, and long meter forms); a tune index (containing roughly two dozen familiar melodies, supplemented by new compositions from the likes of Ben Brody, Chris de Silva, Bex Gaunt, Marty Haugen, Mark Miller, Sally Ann Morris, and Paul Vasile, along with a baker’s dozen by Shelton himself); and the standard alphabetical listing of texts by title and first line. A handful of texts appear in two settings: one set to a well-known tune, and a second to a more contemporary offering. The front matter offers a foreword by Troy Messenger, director of worship emeritus from Union Theological Seminary, a biographical sketch of the author, and a beautifully crafted preface in which Shelton chronicles the deep roots of his affinity for hymns, his pastoral process of writing for needs born of his work as preacher and liturgist, and a moving story about his witness to the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City and the power of music to heal.

Shelton is currently the pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, a location that suits him well. His bachelor of arts degree in drama and music from Texas Woman’s University richly supplements his master of divinity from Union Theological Seminary. Indeed, he notes in the preface an important “fusion between the liturgical and the theatrical” in his vocation, adding that “the performance of worship ought to have the same thoughtful, artful development as any performance in the theatre or recital hall” (p. 8).

Several examples testify to this artistry. He suggests, for example, a lamp lit context for a pre-Advent homage to the parable of the Bridesmaids (“O Come, Great God of Darkness and of Light”). He describes hand gestures to embody a prayer for illumination and response to the Word (“Through Ageless Words of Scripture”). He deftly bookends a service begun with Fred Pratt Green’s in-gathering “God Is Here!” by offering a sending text, “God Is There” (with numerous well-constructed textual parallels). He provides an a cappella, paperless chorus, inviting congregations into multi-voiced harmony (“Sing unto God a New Song”). His rendering of the parable of the Persistent Widow is configured by Paul Vasile as a rhythmic protest song with percussive accompaniment (“Never Give Up”).

The fact that this collection appeared mid-pandemic is evidenced in two particular hymns: “I Will Sing for You” speaks of how we sing for one another even when circumstances may prevent us from singing together. “Through the Walls” imaginatively applies Jesus’ resurrection appearance in John 20 to contexts in which we may be “sheltering in place,” yearning for God to break through the walls of our fear, anxiety, and forced separations.

Shelton’s texts are relevant in other ways as well. He is especially fond of Hannah’s cry for justice, anticipating Mary’s better-known Magnificat. In one of the more delightful hymns in the collection, he sets Hannah’s prayer (“My Heart Rejoices in Our God”) to the tune of GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN. In so doing, he cleverly enables a text about reversing power dynamics to upend and re-gender an originally male-focused carol. In a culture still plagued by imbalances of power and prideful pursuits of “more,” he deftly focuses on the humility of smaller things: “Sun, Soil, and Seeds”; “flour, oil, and yeast.” Simplicity invites originality: he has written the only hymn poem I know of that likens the dissemination of grace to God’s casting “dandelions on the wind” (“O God, You Scatter Grace Like Seeds”).

The title hymn of this collection is “Sing No Empty Alleluias.” Like Carl Daw (“Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song”) or Brian Wren (“We Cannot Be Beguiled by Pleasant Sounds”)—two more hymn writers who are also ministers—Shelton cautions against mouthing syllables we do not actively embody. Far from empty, his Alleluias—and his laments—are rich and resonant: ripe for use by composers, worship planners, and other clergy looking for fresh ideas and words that will preach as well as sing.

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