Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tackiness, Norwegian Style

When I survey the sheer number of tacky hymns in the Ambassador Hymnal, that 1994 product of pietistic, Norwegian-American Lutherans, I feel an overwhelming sense of discouragement. If I could narrow my life's work to a single task, it would be to fight against the encroachment of pietistic spirituality, and to help restore the heritage of excellent hymns that powerfully confess the whole, Bible-based, Christ-centered, Lutheran faith in all its Gospel comfort.

The enemies I see ranged against me in the Ambassador Hymnal are numerous: a rogue band of doctrinally unclear, spiritually misleading hymns, and every one of them tacky beyond belief. I feel powerless to deal with them individually. So forgive me if I dump them all in one pile, though the stench that rises from it may be overwhelming.

Hymn 14: "Now Jesus at the door is knocking," a hymn by the Norwegian poet Landstad which perpetuates a synergistic misinterpretation of Revelation 3:20 ("Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me"). The AH editors cherry-picked their favorite parts of three translations. This, in my opinion, compounds the dishonesty of taking a text where Christ reproves erring Christians and twisting it to teach that unbelievers must invite Christ into their heart. This shows how the fundamental assumption of "revival"-based churchmanship (the decision for Christ) conflicts with the faith taught by Christ, Scripture, and Lutheranism. The presence of such a hymn shows which side of this conflict the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations comes down on. As to whether it's a fluke, read on.

Hymn 24: "It came upon a midnight clear," the product of a 19th-century Unitarian minister which has somehow gained currency as a Christmas carol. Not content with denying the Trinity, author Edmund Sears uses the story of the angels announcing Christ's birth not to tell the wonder of the incarnation or the comfort of God's saving love, but to draw a sentimental picture of the angels' song echoing through the ages and heralding a golden age of peace. I'm not sure whether this means some kind of man-made paradise on earth, a millennial reign of Christ, or what - it lies open to any interpretation except a specifically Christian one. Folks of an Anglican persuasion tend to sing this song to a nice, English traditional tune called Noel, which makes it easier to pass off as a traditional carol; but everyone else (including the AFLC) sings it to Richard Willis' warm, fuzzy, sentimental tune Carol, which should give the fraud away. And yet more and more Lutheran hymnals are buying this snake oil. My awe knows no bounds.

Hymn 31: "Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown," Emily Steele Elliott's 19th-century anthem to the humiliation of God's Son, with the refrain: "O come to my heart, Lord Jesus: There is room in my heart for Thee." Timothy R. Matthews' tune Margaret adds just the right tint of nauseating sentimentality to this prayer, which thoughtlessly (?) neglects to mention any means by which Jesus is to enter us, such as Word, sacrament, etc.

Hymn 48: "Shout the glad tidings, exultantly sing." William Muhlenberg's Christmas text is all right, but I stand by what I said earlier about John Goss's tune Glad Tidings.

Hymn 62: "Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand." This does for Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross what "In the Garden" does for ditto at the empty tomb. The word "fain" in the second line should serve as a warning of what is to come. Elizabeth Clephane wrote both the text and the tune, St. Christopher, which is about as smarmy as they come.

Hymn 71: "Jesus, keep me near the Cross," a mourner's-bench ballad with words by Fanny Crosby and music by William Doane. The refrain croons: "In the Cross, in the Cross, Be my glory ever; Till my raptured soul shall find Rest beyond the river." Just what the church needs: a hymn that locates the benefits of Jesus' death in our own pious imagination.

Hymn 72: "What wondrous love is this, O my soul!" Actually I think this is a lovely document of early American religious art. As an hour-of-worship hymn, however, it leaves much to be desired. For all the time it takes to sing, precious little content is delivered. Its four stanzas employ much repetition, and the tempo is fairly slow. It's the kind of song that makes me want to yell: "Get to the point already!"

Hymn 76: "The hour in dark Gethsemane," whose text by Edward Hammond concludes with the refrain "Gethsemane, Gethsemane, I must remember thee, Where God's eternal Son I saw In pray'r on bended knee." The tune In Dark Gethsemane, by Asa Hull is unspeakably tedious; the refrain, for example, goes to the same notes as the verses. That means not 4 but 8 repetitions of the same pale, flaccid music. And again, it places the believer on the scene of Christ's passion, "in spirit gazing around." Which is to say, it places the work of Christ in our suggestible imagination and our changeable feelings. This is not how God operates.

Hymn 77: "He was wounded for our transgressions." Actually, I think this could be all right as a choir piece, though Merrill Dunlop's tune (named after himself) orbits at the outer limit of touchy-feeliness. The text by Thomas Chisholm is a fairly straightforward versification of Isaiah's "suffering servant" prophecy of Christ. But would I have the congregation sing this? Never. In fact, it so strongly suggests a soloist with a trembling voice that I'm not even sure how a choir version of this music would jive with the musical context of a Lutheran worship service.

Hymn 78: "The Old Rugged Cross," words and music by George Bennard. I will let Wiki speak for me on this one. I merely want to mention a funny thing that happened to me at a funeral. During the visitation I was playing selections out of The Lutheran Hymnal on a soft registration, when a relative of the departed approached me and sniffed, "I hope that at the funeral tomorrow you will play some Lutheran music." I asked her for an example of what she meant by "Lutheran music," and this hymn is the example she gave me. Now that is depressing.

Hymn 83: "Were you there," an African-American spiritual which, in four successive stanzas, repeatedly asks (3 times each) whether you were there when they crucified my Lord, when they nailed Him to the tree, when they laid Him in the tomb, and when God rose up from the grave. The refrain - the only part of the text that isn't a question - offers the following profound observation: "Oh, oh, oh, oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." That's all this "hymn" gives you, and three-fourths of it is a total downer. Its limitations are obvious. Good Friday is the only day of the year when it could be considered remotely appropriate. And yet, when I was a parish pastor, I once had to be quite firm with a church choir that wanted to sing this song on Easter Sunday.

Hymn 84: "'Man of Sorrows!' what a name," also known by its title (also its refrain) "Hallelujah, what a Savior!" Of the words and music by Philip Bliss the best I can say is that they are brief. Theologically the five, three-line stanzas are OK, but the refrain should sufficiently illustrate the hymn's want of style.

Hymn 85: "'Tis midnight, and on Olive's Brow," which in contrast to No. 84 has more style that it strictly needs. William B. Tappan's description of Jesus' suffering in Gethsemane drips poetic diction and oozes emotion. As for William Bradbury's tune Olive's Brow, just wait. One of these days I am going to devote a blog post to this hymn tune composer of transcendent smarminess.

Hymn 90: "O come and mourn with me awhile," Frederick W. Faber's turn at using Christ's crucifixion to toy with our emotions. I have already blogged on John B. Dykes, whose tune St. Cross is used here.

Hymn 111: "Low in the grave He lay," words and music by Robert Lowry. The music is one of those harmonically bland part-songs where the lower parts often furnish an echo effect. The verses are simplistic, while the somewhat faster refrain is marchlike: "Up from the grave He arose (He arose), With a mighty triumph o'er His foes (He arose)..." It goes on and on.

Hymn 120: "Golden harps are sounding," an Ascension hymn with words and music by Frances Havergal, to whom I also need to devote an entire post sometime. Like No. 111 and so many others in this book, this hymn and its creator are 19th century products through and through. The impulse to preserve that heritage is symptomatic of a misguided conservatism that chooses an unfortunate moment of church history to repristinate. Had they picked a time when Luther's doctrine still lived, perhaps they would be more Lutheran.

Hymn 121: "There's a Kingdom fair and gently looming," Oscar Overby's hymn set to his arrangement of a traditional melody which this book called Herre Gud, but which I have elsewhere come to know as Deus fortis. Overby betrays his Reformed leanings by emphasizing the monarchy of God, even as far as using the word "sov'reignty."

Hymn 124: "Open my eyes, that I may see," a Pentecost hymn with words and music by Clara Scott. One's immediate impression of this hymn will be based on its music, which has more in common with the theatre of its day (again, the late 19th century) than with any church I know. The refrain says: "Silently now, I wait for Thee, Ready my God, Thy will to see; ...illumine me, Spirit divine!" Are we Quakers now? Shall we sit quietly and wait for the Holy Spirit to zap us?

Hymn 130: "Holy Spirit, faithful Guide," words and music by Marcus Wells, with the refrain "Whisp'ring softly, 'Wand'rer come! Follow Me, I'll guide thee home.'" Again, a bland part-song, typical for its era, with hackneyed rhymes such as "fear/drear" and "sore/o'er." If I had to go to a church that sang this type of song, I would die of boredom. Spiritually, at least.

Hymn 142: "Faith of our fathers, living still," an anthem to a vague sense of religious conservatism by Frederick Faber, suggested every time the tune St. Catherine plays on the church carillon system in your neighborhood.

Hymn 156: "One day when heaven was filled with His praises," an End Times hymn by Wilbur Chapman (words) and Charles Marsh (music). The text is a passable summary of the Second Article of the Creed, albeit with an annoying persistence of the phrase "one day." The tune is another one of those bland part-songs that threaten to make the church sound like a mediocre vaudeville act.

Hymn 159: "It may be at morn," also known by the title "Christ Returneth." H. L Turner's lyrics have a little-by-means-of-much prolixity typical of their time (guess which century), giving an unintened irony to the refrain's "how long, how long." James McGranahan's tune is simply, unspeakably awful.

I have not even begun to exhaust the tackiness of the Ambassador Hymnal. I've devoted enough time and space to it for today, however. Much more remains for future installments, which will document a Billy Sunday spirituality encroaching on the Lutheran church. If it can happen to the AFLC, it can happen to your church too!

IMAGES: Homer Rodeheaver, William Bradbury, Frances Havergal, and a bunch of other folks.

2 comments:

robert said...

H-m-m... Well, you have gone to a lot of work to ridicule what you describe as the "tackiness" of some fine hymns. Not all are great poetry, true. Nor are some tunes musical masterpieces. But they have spoken to hearts for many generations, as folks have reached through the hymns to the Him of the hymns.

Different strokes for different folks, I'm sure. But as a hymn historian who continues to study our heritage in hymnody, I've gotta disagree. And perhaps it's not the hymns that are really on trial in your critique.

Robbie F. said...

Well, I stand by my assessment that they are aesthetically tacky. But as you probably sensed, I was aiming my rapier wit mainly at the spiritual and theological inappropriateness of these hymns in a "Lutheran" church. They militate against the true Christian faith as I understand it and serve a form of piety that I consider empty and false. Every atom of my nature fights against them. Lutheranism has a better spiritual, theological, artistic heritage in its historic hymnody.

It seems a shame to let such treasures fall by the wayside in order to make room for such hymns as I lampoon in this thread, and which (out of respect for the healing power of laughter) I choose to ridicule for their tackiness rather than condemn for their deceptiveness. I do a little of both, actually, but I try to lean toward a positive outlook.