Friday, October 10, 2008

Norwegian-Style Tackiness 5

It's been a few months since my last installment on this thread, but I haven't given up. And now that I have a bit more spare time on my hands, here are some more hymns from the Ambassador Hymnal, demonstrating that not everything that plays well on 700 Club is suitable for Lutheran worship.

Hymn 326 is "O give us homes built firm upon the Savior," with words by contemporary writer Barbara Hart and a tune taken from the nationalistic tone poem Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. Now this isn't the first time I have seen the tune "Finlandia" in a hymnal; even The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia, 1941) had it, albeit in a section of the hymnal purposely set aside for tacky hymns. When I was an adolescent, just coming to know and appreciate fine art music, Finlandia made a strong impression on me. But later, while studying music at a university level, I had to make excuses for Finlandia in order to get my classmates and professors to take Sibelius seriously as a composer. It's one of those big, blustery, blockbuster pieces that overshadow everything else an artist does, and in the judgment of my "form and analysis" prof, "It's not in very good taste." My oral presentation on Sibelius's 5th Symphony opened eyes because of it - which is to say, in spite of it. And since then, I have tended to shudder at the sound of Finlandia - and particularly its use in a hymnbook.

Just because something has a nice tune doesn't mean it ought to be in the hymnal. Just because it's a successful piece of classical music doesn't mean the church should use it. This is one of those occasions when the tune is best left where it belongs. Though it works as a "chorale theme" in the context of the original tone poem, this tune has a frustrating, dallying, inconclusive, tedious effect when set to words. The average congregation's attempt to sing it will fall pitifully short of doing justice by the theme as classical buffs like me hear it in our mind's ear. And the words by Barbara Hart give a toehold to decisionism (we invite God into our lives), synergism (we work with Him), and a non-Lutheran concept of Christ as an external force of spiritual influence rather than an indwelling Person.

Hymn 354, in the "Children" section, is a paraphrase of Psalm 19 that begins with the words "God's law is perfect and converts." Each stanza ends with a refrain repeatedly declaring: "O how love I Thy Law!" Like this book's "Children" hymns in general, it has that peculiar sound of sentimental old Gospel ballads, iced with spun sugar to appeal to little palates, which made Sunday school and Vacation Bible school a nightmare for me every year of my childhood. I am fully aware that some people are committed to the belief that children can't or shouldn't be taught real hymns, that the only choice we have as parents and teachers is to feed them this spiritual sugar-water (often with a fundamentalist-evangelical "kick"). I'm sorry, but I am too well acquainted with congregations that have made the effort to teach Lutheran hymns to the kids, and the beautiful successes they have achieved, to take this opinion seriously. Plus, if we teach them to sing like fundies, that's what they will grow up to be.

On similar grounds, I submit for your disgust: Hymn 339, "Let Me Learn of Jesus" (words by Fanny Crosby); Hymn 342, "Hosanna, Hallelujah" by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh (whose refrain is too long and whose stanzas have a comical rhyme scheme); Hymn 344, "On this blessed Easter Day," which consists of one 4-line stanza, so it's over almost before it gets started; Hymn 351, "Father, I adore You" by Terrye Coelho (the Sunday school version of "Row, row, row your boat"); Hymn 355, "The B-I-B-L-E" by Dwight Uphaus (3 stanzas teaching kids how to spell one word); Hymn 356, the "Sunday Morning Song" by Joseph Clokey (one 4-line stanza about the importance of going to church, in which the main verb is "should"); Hymn 359, "This little light of mine," a song I once found myself forced to sing (with hand gestures) as an adult visitor at a church I never visited again; Hymn 362, "Jesus loves the little children," which makes a vague generalization that probably means nothing to the kids who sing it; and Hymn 365 "O be careful, little eyes, what you see," a nice moralistic ditty that, with tedious repetition, encourages children to imitate the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys of decorative art and lore. This is perhaps the worst one, because it paints God as a critic, scribbling notes about our misdeeds on his book, and shaking his head sadly as we stumble with our eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet. Where is the Gospel?

But then again, there are Hymn 378, "I ought to love my Savior," which starts off on an "ought" footing and carries its argument through to the strains of a classic, sentimental Gospel ballad. And Hymn 379, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in the morning," which takes 5 stanzas to say no more than Love Him, Serve Him, Thank Him, and Praise Him morning, noon, and night. Or how about Hymn 382, "Jesus, rule my thoughts and guide me," a hymn that I believe was translated from Norwegian, and that contains the incredible word "heart-pulsation." And Hymn 383, "Savior, while my heart is tender," a first line that sounds like it ought to be followed by cooking instructions, but instead leads to more "giving my heart to Jesus" theology. And finally Hymn 384, "Praise Him, praise Him, all you little children," which is so light on meaning and heavy on cuteness that it makes me want to toss my cookies.

And wrapping up the first 400 hymns on a tacky note is Hymn 398, "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," such an all-pervading musical symbol of generic Protestantism that, in a sit-com I remember seeing many years ago, a group of townspeople who wanted to impress their visitors as being very religious started singing this hymn... couldn't remember any of the words after the first line... and ended up singing the words of the first line, over and over, to the rest of the tune. I found it memorably funny - so memorable, in fact, that the memory of it (and a stifled snicker) is triggered every time I hear this hymn. On its merits, however, this hymn is no laughing matter.

Musically, it tends to be sung in such a sentimentally dragging manner that one loses a sense of rhythm. Textually, it is marred by a line in the first stanza, "Be of sin the double cure," which is an expression of crass neo-Pentecostal theology, regardless of what innocent spin our imagination may put on it. Lutherans ought to be embarrassed to sing words whose original intent was to teach that one must undergo two justifications, or two baptisms. And yet some of the most "conservative" Lutherans have come up with reasoning to defend these words, even raising them up as the best part of the song. The strength of their pious imagination is certainly to be admired; but words do mean things, and we smudge the edges of their meaning at our peril.

Ah! Now I am sure I have offended and insulted lots and lots of people. I feel like myself again!

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