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MU professor Craig Roberts edits poetic hymnal

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs emphasizes words and meaning


Craig Roberts recently finished Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. The hymnal has sold about 750–1,000 copies each month.

January 31, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Hymns are more than just music. They’re poetry. Imagine a book of poetry, the clean lines and the blank space that surrounds the stanzas.

“That’s what older hymnals used to look like,” says Craig Roberts, an MU professor of plant sciences. “It was more about the words instead of the music.”

Roberts is one of five senior editors who contributed to Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. Thirty editors from different states and diverse backgrounds worked on the book. After nearly 15 years, the hymnal was published this summer and reprinted in January. The project began in Columbia in 1997 when the writers first came together. Since then, the group based its work here because it was a location where all five senior editors could meet. Roberts joined the project when a friend asked him to help. With experience editing seven scientific journals, a two-year degree in biblical studies and a love of hymns, he agreed.

But this is more than pages of sheet music bound together. The design of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs emphasizes the poetry of the words and the meanings behind them. Historically, the addition of musical staves broke the poetic layout of hymnals; lines became paragraphs.

“The words carry the meaning, so they should define the layout,” says David Maravilla, another senior editor of the book and minister in Republic. “The words determine the line breaks instead of the music.”

The style of the hymnal follows a nonconventional layout called phrased notation to emphasize the reader’s focus on the content of the page. This means the width of the hymn is dictated by the length of the phrases, not by the page margin as is common in other hymnals.

The result is more white space on the page and also space that is used differently.

“How many poets want their stuff written in paragraphs?” Roberts says. “None, of course. It’s the same with hymns, so that extra blank space is a good thing.”

The balance of musical styles is another innovative characteristic of the book, senior editor Mark Coulson says. Its offerings include original hymns, gospel, contemporary and folk. Coulson adds that the restored verses give new life to older hymns, such as “Come Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “Abide with Me.”

In many ways writing hymns is just like any other type of writing; they shouldn’t be hammered with clichés, lacking depth or poorly organized. Roberts says good hymns should speak truth or a greater knowledge. The message must be meaningful, full of feeling and concise.

“All the editors share a love of good hymns and an appreciation for worship,” Coulson says. “The work is enjoyable because we all connected over something that we all believe is important.”

But Roberts is wary of getting too much attention himself. He says there are some hymn writers and editors who are treated like church rock stars within certain circles. “We don’t do it for the limelight but to serve a higher purpose,” Roberts says. “It’s not just humility; it’s also just more professional.”

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