For many years theologians and worship leaders in various circles have been discussing the prevalence of light and darkness imagery found in both the biblical, liturgical, and hymnological language of the church. While it is undeniably a metaphor that can be helpful, theologians and activists of color have pointed toward the harm that this imagery can do when combined with the past and current racial realities where lighter skin is associated with being more positive, desirable, or better. For more on that conversation, you can read about it in this article by Religion News Services posted on December 7th, 2022: https://religionnews.com/2022/12/07/amid-racial-reckoning-christians-reconsider-the-language-of-dark-and-light-at-advent/
While the theological and broader liturgical language parts of this conversation is beyond our scope here at The Center for Congregational Song, we thought it would be helpful to highlight some congregational song that bucks the longstanding metaphorical trend of “dark is bad/sad” and “light is good/happy.” Regardless of where you fall in this conversation, I hope that we can agree that it is a healthy thing for the church’s text writers to continue digging deeply into the biblical witness to help God’s people sing as faithfully as possible. And, because God is so big and so good, we’ll never fully capture it using any human language. So, seeking to expand our hymnological language is an important task because there is so much more about God and God’s work that we need to sing about.
“Joyful Is The Dark” by Brian Wren
When you want a prophetic voice in class hymnody, always have Brian Wren on your short-list. This text addresses this topic exactly and is copyright 1989. Found in some major denominational hymnals like the Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ), Glory to God (Presbyterian USA), Voices United (United Church of Canada), and Voices Together (Mennonite), this is one of the most well-known of the hymns we’ll reference in this list.
“Holy Darkness” by Dan Schutte
A well-known writer because of his hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” Dan Schutte has many other wonderful texts and tunes that often don’t find their way into Protestant resources as much as they should. This text, also copyrighted in the late 1980s, is another one that addresses this topic directly.
“God In The Darkness” by Elizabeth J. Smith
This text acknowledges the complexity of darkness. Stanza one addresses the role of darkness as a place of creation and growth. Stanza two addresses the role darkness places in times of grief and sadness. Stanza three addresses the role of darkness as one of hope, dreaming, and ultimately renewal.
“In The Deep Unbounded Darkness” by Mary Louise Bringle
What list of prophetic hymn texts is complete without a Mel Bringle reference? While this text does not necessarily cast darkness as a positive thing, it also certainly does not use it negatively. Situating God in the darkness before creation, Bringle does not bring in any light imagery in this text. So, the darkness is not positive or negative…it just is.
“Brother Darkness, Sister Silence” by Richard Leach
This text by Richard Leach will really push your congregation forward by using familial language for both darkness and silence, two things which get really bad wraps in modern American church culture in general. Not found in any hymnals, you can get access to the text via his collection Carpenter, Why Leave the Bench” (link here) which has many other hidden treasures you’ll enjoy singing through.
Other Resources & Links:
A “Coffee & Hymns” Episode from April 2020 on this subject: https://www.facebook.com/centercongsong/videos/3019370348130409
A hymn writer’s blog with a page dedicated to this topic: https://www.brethesla.com/darkness-hymns/
May your congregational song be blessed by holy darkness.
Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song