Perhaps you have heard of the literary or oratorical device known as the “rhetorical question.” It is used for dramatic effect, say to “beg to question,” to imply or point toward an obvious answer without stating it directly, or even expecting an immediate answer.
Consider the coach’s exhortation: “Do you want to win?” Or parental expressions of exasperation like, “Why do I even try?” or “Do you want something to cry about?”
This is not a new phenomenon.
In the Holy Bible, the Apostle Paul paradoxically challenges readers, “Should we sin so that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the protagonist, while dying, utters the brief lament, “Et tu Brute?” (Even you, Brutus?). Finally, even the uber-lazy Garfield in the funny papers (as they used to be called) sighed pathetically, “How could anyone have a more boring life?”
Just now, however, I want to remind us of an emphatic statement of hope in these times. It comes in the form of an American hymn written in 1868, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”
“My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation, I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn that hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?” (-Wikipedia)
With no less power than other such statements, this sacred song, apparently written by an otherwise unknown “Pauline T” and first published by The New York Observer, fully embraces the reality of that day.
Was it in the aftermath of the horrific Civil War or the concentric circles of events and conflicts surrounding that national tragedy? We don’t know, but we do know a minister named Robert Lowry found significant hope in the words, quickly set them to music, and produced a new hymn in 1869.
Off and on in the years since, this American folksong continues to inspire us with a simple, reality-based, hope-filled rhetorical question, “how can I keep from singing?”
While the original words were set within a Christian faith-perspective (possibly rooted in Psalm 145), they have also been adapted by Pete Seeger, Enya and others for secular settings. But the appeal is universal, as human tumult and strife are universal, lending to such cries as: “What tho’ my joys and comforts die?” “What tho’ the darkness gather round?” “And day by day this pathway smooths, since first I learned to love it ... .”
The key to the song’s power, I believe, are several transitional words of determined hope, including “through,” “though,” and “since,” repeated from scene to difficult scene and culminating in its great declarative rhetorical question.
This is faith and hope in action! Not ignoring the struggle and setbacks. Not waiting until all is well. Not pining for a sweet by-and-by.
No, right now: how can I keep from trusting, from trying, from praying, from working, from holding on—how can I keep from singing? The answer is: I can’t! We can’t!
Timothy J. Ledbetter, D<in, BCC is a retired American Baptist-endorsed professional chaplain and member of Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 4253 W. 24th Avenue, Kennewick, WA 99338. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.