Nurturing Spirit through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer

Jonathan Dueck

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)

Rebecca Slough and Shirley Sprunger King, eds. Nurturing Spirit through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007.

Broader than its title suggests, this collection marries Festschrift to life history in celebrating influential Mennonite musician, scholar, and teacher Mary K. Oyer. It offers biographies of her life and work; stories and poems by students exploring her influence on Mennonites, global churches, and other institutions; and selected writings by Oyer that offer both a window on Mennonite music since the mid-twentieth century and still provocative ideas about church music.

Two central aspects of Oyer’s work are evident, both running counter to scholarly and popular assumptions that musical meaning is situated in music’s lyrics: first, the idea that musical sound has meaning; and second, that musical practice has meaning. In a 1965 essay, Oyer draws attention to the melodic question a tune may pose by rising and answer by falling (185). She argues this theologically as well, suggesting that beauty has meaning, in that God has given us a desire for beauty that encourages us to engage with creation (147-50); thus, beautiful musical sound has meaning, and it can call us to right relationships with others and creation. In a 1992 essay Oyer suggests that the organizational structure of the 1989 Hymnal Sampler and the 1992 Hymnal reflects a functional view of sound, recognizing, for example, that both the lyrics and the music of a hymn might have a function of “gathering” (211-13).

This volume also includes Oyer’s 1967 article, “Cultural Problems in the Production of a Mennonite Hymnal,” signaling a cultural turn in her work – a concern with the way musics represent and are owned or shared by the communities that practice them. Oyer places the making of the 1969 Hymnal in the popular-cultural sea changes of the 1960s and the divergent musical practices of the General Conference and (Old) Mennonites who partnered to produce it (189-92). But she also suggests that differences within each group might well outweigh differences between them (194).

The book’s biographies weave together Oyer’s work and its institutional contexts. Rachel Waltner Goossen considers Oyer as an insider scholar in Mennonite institutions, a gendered subject in Mennonite orthopraxis, and an anthropologist in relation to “world” Christian musics. Rebecca Slough contributes a life history focused on Oyer’s career, including doctoral studies, work at Goshen College and travels to Scotland and Kenya, and, later in life, work at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and in Taiwan. Slough focuses on Oyer’s “improvisational” work, putting together her life from musical and social materials at hand (78-87). This useful frame allows Slough to track structures that both enabled and constrained Oyer, while taking her very seriously as an agent.

Reminiscences from students and colleagues illustrate Oyer’s strong mentoring of students over long periods. Jean Ngoya Kidula notes that some North American Mennonite hymns taught by Oyer at Kenyatta University became part of the singing repertoire of Kenyan Christians, including “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” and “When All Thy Mercies” (117). When Kidula attended Goshen College, she encountered under Oyer’s tutelage Zimbabwean music and the marimba for the first time (119).

The volume includes poems that were important to Oyer and art she chose as Goshen College’s Maple Leaf art editor. But it is not a canonization. The biographical materials include stories of her regrets as well as triumphs. Slough, for instance, sees Oyer’s nonlinear thinking as problematic for modernist scholarly argument but helpful for initiating creative change in academy and church (83). As a whole the volume contextualizes Oyer’s work in terms of the larger scholarly and churchly influences on it, as well as the contributions Oyer made.

This focus on context extends the book’s purview beyond Oyer’s own life to that of the development of church music (and church leadership structures) among Mennonites. Her essay, “Two Centuries of American Mennonite Hymn Singing” (235-56), is a fine example, presenting a historical sketch of Mennonite hymn singing focused on the intersections of Mennonite practices with broader mission movements, Baptist ministers, diasporae, singing schools, and so forth.

Nurturing Spirit through Song succeeds marvelously as both Festschrift and biography, and exceeds the bounds of both. It should be of interest to scholars and students not only of Mennonite music but of Mennonite history, institutions, and society.

Jonathan Dueck, University of Maryland, College Park, MD