History of Hymns: “God of Many Names”

by Heather Josselyn-Cranson

Brian Wren

Brian Wren 

God of Many Names
by Brian Wren
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 105

God of many names, gathered into One,
In your glory come and meet us, moving, endlessly becoming;
God of hovering wings, womb and birth of time,
Joyfully we sing your praises, breath of life in every people…*

* Copyright © 1986 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Pastor, professor, and poet Brian Wren has thought deeply about how language affects our thoughts about God and our relationship with God. While he has written about this issue in books such as What Language Shall I Borrow?, he also brings the fruit of his reflections about language to his hymns. “God of Many Names” richly demonstrates many of Wren’s helpful and challenging ideas.

In What Language Shall I Borrow?, Wren explores the way that biblical authors use metaphors for God. He notes that the Bible is full of different, sometimes even conflicting, metaphors for God. Since none of these metaphors is literally true, it is important to use a variety of metaphors – as the Bible does. When we limit our God-language to one or two metaphors, they can become idols that limit our understanding of God rather than point to the God who is beyond all human language.

Wren encourages those who are responsible for the language of worship to find new, vivid, and varied metaphors for God. He does exactly this in his 1985 hymn “God of Many Names.” The three stanzas and refrain of this hymn help congregations participate in the creative God naming that Wren values. From the very first line of the hymn, we are reminded that it takes “many names” to point to who God is; only one name or metaphor would prove inadequate and idolatrous. Moreover, Wren describes God as “moving, endlessly becoming.” We see an active, dynamic picture of God in this hymn, summoning active and dynamic language from the congregation.

The next four half-stanzas explore a variety of names for God, metaphors that are both fresh and biblical. God has “hovering wings,” (Genesis 1:2; Isaiah 31:5), is both “womb and birth of time” (Job 38:12,29; John 1:3). God relates to Miriam and Moses (Exodus 15:1-21) and to Jesus Christ. God is a “carpenter of new creation” (Mark 6:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:1) and “web and loom of love” (Exodus 35:35; Isaiah 30:1). Wren affirms that the God we ask to “come and meet us” is God of the Old Testament and New, a God active in bringing about the new creation, and a God who is “rabbi of the poor.” The last half-stanza reiterates the first, summing up the “many names” that the congregation has used to call upon God.

Following each stanza comes a refrain:

“Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!”

The contrast between “hush” and “shout” begs to be enacted in congregational singing, so that the people would be guided to whisper the first phrase and boldly sing the second. But more than a moment of musical drama, this refrain reminds us of appropriate theological responses to God.

In seminary, we learned of the via positiva and the via negativa: two ways of going about naming God. In the via positiva, we layer name upon name upon name (much as the stanzas of Wren’s hymn do): God is power, and wisdom, and strength, and mercy, and majesty. The via positiva climaxes in a cacophony of metaphors for God, all of which are (partially) true. The via negativa takes us in the opposite direction, warning that our metaphors can never be literally true of God. God is not (only) power, or wisdom, or strength. If we follow the via negativa to its conclusion, we are left in silent wonder before a God we cannot definitively name.

The refrain to “God of Many Names” embraces both paths. First, we sing our awestruck “Hush, hush,” quietly before the God we can never adequately name. Then, we sing our raucous “Shout, shout,” rejoicing in the accumulation of so many names, however partial. And both via negativa and via positiva, both the hush and the shout, bring us to the best metaphor we have for God, which Wren saved for last: “God is love!”

Carlton Young’s Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Abingdon, 1993) informs us that Brian Wren created this hymn text as a submission to a search for new hymns addressing the topic of “music and praise.” Yet this text, with its multitude of scriptural references, would fit admirably into a worship service employing any of the Scripture passages mentioned above. It provides a hymnic response to Moses’ question in Exodus 3:13 and to Jesus’ question in Luke 9:20. It also could serve as an imaginative and praise-filled counterpoint to the affirmations of faith found in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.

While this hymn and its tune many be unfamiliar to many congregations, it is not difficult to sing. Congregations might start by learning the refrain, with which they could respond to a choral or solo rendition of the stanzas. As mentioned above, dynamic changes can make the refrain even more dramatic to sing. Whatever musical means are used to introduce it, “God of Many Names” is a welcome challenge to those who prefer to use only one or two metaphors for God.
 


About this week’s writer:

Heather Josselyn-Cranson
Heather Josselyn-Cranson
is Associate Professor of Music and Sister Margaret William McCarthy Endowed Chair of Music at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts.

 

 

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. 
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts

 

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, Worship & Song, Worship

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