Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Norwegian-Style Tackiness 6

Looking back over my blog, I see that I have left some wonderful threads dangling. And today, because I'm in such a good mood, I feel like reviving a thread that has brought me many laughs and rueful grins. We resume where I left off a bit under two years ago, with the 400's in the Ambassador Hymnal for Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, 1994).

This hundred-weight of hymns begins puts its tacky foot forward with Hymn 400, I look not back. Its unattributed lyrics are here set to a tune by Oskar Ahnfelt, a 19th century composer of church music that often sounds like it was written for a polka band. This tune, "O Sälla Land," sounds more like a part-song written for the choir that backed up Homer Rodeheaver. Be that as it may, the five stanzas follow a logical progression to the point of absurdity: "I look not back... I look not forward... I look not round me... I look not inward... But I look up--into the face of Jesus..." This explains why the Twin Cities are such a scary place to drive through. Seriously, though, this is a textbook sample of banal hymn-writing, and it requires its singers to make claims about themselves that are probably untrue. Recasting it in a second-person, imperative mood might help, though I doubt anything can cure this hymn's weeping pietism.

Now, though it goes against the grain of my character, I'm going to put in a plug for a neat little hymn I've never seen or heard before. It's AH #403, O let your soul now be filled with gladness. The words are translated from Peter Jönsson Aschan's (1726-1813) original Swedish, and the tune "Så haf nu Själ" is Swedish traditional. It's got a bouncy, buxom, folk-Nordic appeal to it, and the three stanzas appeal to the believer to rejoice in the fact "that you are ransomed as you are." In a word, justification! I may show this hymn to my choir this fall. On the other hand, since they're not Swedes or even wanna-be Swedes (I've been called the latter), they may not see the appeal...

But this bright spot is immediately followed by #404, And can it be that I should gain, a hymn by Charles Wesley that somehow contrives to make one feel guilty about being justified by Jesus' blood. I have seen this hymn in other hymnals, usually set to a somber, minor-key tune. AH makes the interesting choice of setting it to a bright, major-key piece of pomp & circumstance ("Sagina") composed by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844). It's a tricky, random-sounding, through-composed tune with a long refrain arranged in part-song fashion, so that the alto, tenor, and bass parts play echo to the soprano line. Sure, the last stanza is pure Gospel, but then the hymn goes right back to the refrain: "Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" I should think a sensible, evangelical hymn writer would think twice before leaving such a question unresolved.

Hymn #407, Jesus paid it all, comes with 19th century words by Elvina M. Hall and timelessly awful music ("All to Christ") by John T. Grape (1835-1915). You would have to turn the tremolando knob on your Hammond parlor organ all the way to "12 on the Richter Scale" to cover up Grape's lack of melodic and harmonic imagination. And the music needs something to distract you from the howlingly funny lyrics, which include the lines: "Can change the leper's spots / And melt the heart of stone." Altogether an amateur effort whose words and music have just now re-ignited my ambition to publish a hymn edition of Very Bad Poetry.

Hymn #408, How gladly I my place have taken, derives its text from Peter S. Vig's (1884-1929) original Norwegian. Its tune ("How gladly") is an unusually unfortunate product of Norwegian tradition. Notwithstanding "Sagina" (#403), maybe there is something to be said for a chorale, intentionally composed for church use, as opposed to baptizing every third folk tune ever recorded. I actually like Vig's text, though I could wish that the last stanza were clearer. I'm not sure what Vig (or translator Paul Paulsen) is saying, for example, in the line "To see Him even face to face." Is this something happening now, in the liturgy? Or is it the future hope of a beatific vision, etc.? No translation is perfect. With that clarification and a different tune, I wouldn't be opposed to singing this hymn at my church.

I almost let #411, I could not do without Thee, slip by without a comment. I have no complaint about Hans Leo Hassler's "Passion Chorale" (a.k.a. "Herzlich tut mich verlangen"). I don't even have a specific objection to most of Frances R. Havergal's (1836-1879) five-stanza text. But there are lines in the last two stanzas that trigger red flags. "How dreary and how lonely this changeful life would be, Without the sweet communion, the secret rest with Thee." Huh? What secret communion is she talking about? Is this some sacrament they don't teach at the seminary? Or how about: "But Thou wilt never leave me, and though the waves roll high, I know Thou wilt be near me, and whisper, 'It is I.'" This is pietism stripped of all pretense of churchliness: a personalized spirituality for socially-awkward religious types caught between the agony of loneliness and their contempt for the Church. And at the very bottom of it is a nervous sort of enthusiasm in which Christ communicates with each of us on our own private wavelength, apart from Word and Sacrament. Schwärmerei!

Hymn #412, There is a fountain filled with blood, is one I have lampooned before. I have gotten in arguments over it. I have gotten in trouble over it. But after much soul-searching, and even after years of trying to like it, I find that I just can't stomach this ridiculous, embarrassing hymn. The American traditional melody "Cleansing fountain," elsewhere attributed to Lowell Mason and named "Cowper," is one of those pieces that could be played with a Classical lilt (like a piece by Mozart), but that one ordinarily hears stretched and kneaded into a slow, sentimental, rhythmically incomprehensible mess. The words are by William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper"), a pre-Romantic English poet and co-editor (with John Newton) of the Olney Hymns. We're in "Amazing grace" territory here, so on the one hand it's dangerous to criticize and, on the other hand, practically impossible for me not to. So I'll chicken out for now and let stand what I have already said on this hymn.

Hymn 415, The great Physician now is near, has a text by William Hunter (1811-1877) that effuses endlessly about the name of Jesus without saying a great deal. But the full depth of its tackiness is revealed only when you hear it with the tune "Great Physician." No one cares to take credit for composing it (and no wonder), yet AH takes special care to identify the arranger as John H. Stockton (1813-1877). This is very mysterious, since the worst thing about this hymn is its arrangement. How hard is it to put the same E-flat Major chord under practically everything? You're sick of it before the Refrain gets there. The line "Sweetest note in seraph song" takes on a special kind of absurdity when sung to this boring music.

Hymn 416, There's a wideness in God's mercy, typifies aspects of American religious tackiness that richly deserve to be lampooned. To start with, "there's a vagueness in this ditty" that would have been avoided by a careful theological poet. Instead, this hymn was written by Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863). Interestingly, the above-linked Wiki volunteers that this hymn was translated into Swedish in 1970. What insight into the Swedish spirit does this give us? If I wrote a paragraph the way Faber wrote this hymn, you wouldn't read it even if ordered at gunpoint to do so. There's an impersonality to the thematic form of his lines. There is a lack of specific evidence or illustrative detail. There's a sweeping generality in practically every line, a claim so conceptualized that it might as well be hypothetical. And the tune ("Ripley") is by Lowell Mason. So, predictably, it sounds quite nice (though a little plain) if played in a crisp, upbeat manner; but at the shmeery, shmaltzy pace its fans insist on singing it, it conveys a sense of waffling mediocrity precisely keyed to Faber's text.

I only have two words to say about Hymn 417, Just as I am, without one plea: Billy Graham. OK, here are two more: altar call. Enough said!

Hymn 420, Jesus calls us o'er the tumult, is another altar-call song, with words by Cecil F. Alexander (1823-1895) and music ("Galilee") by William H. Jude. I must guiltily admit that I like Jude's tune, though it is totally of a character with Mrs. Alexander's text. The latter, meanwhile, was known for writing hymns of a fine literary character, and this is no exception. But I maintain that there is something spiritually mixed up about a church that sings hymns like this to itself, hymns in which the singer identifies himself with the unconverted. And though its words and music are decidedly on the high-culture end of AH's repertoire, it nevertheless serves as an intriguing illustration of the synergy between the musical style of a hymn tune and the spirituality, or school of thought, behind the hymn text wedded to it.

Hymn 422, I hear thy welcome voice, is an altar-call song of the first water, with words and music by Lewis Hartsough (1828-1919). Refrain: "I am coming, Lord! Coming now to Thee! Wash me, cleanse me in the blood That flow'd on Calvary." Most of the stanzas themselves could be interpreted in a biblically faithful way, though the emphasis on answering Jesus' altar call is constantly in your face. Someone should write a dissertation on how a church gets to the point, theologically, where this is the inescapable consequence to the doctrine of justification. Meanwhile, even an easy going feller like me can only pinch his nose so hard without leaving a bruise. The stench of this hymn reaches the bruising threshold at least by stanza 4: "'Tis Jesus who confirms the blessed work within, By adding grace to welcomed grace..." In other words, we've gone to the half-way point, now we need Jesus to fulfill His part. This synergistic, decisionistic stuff is toxic to Lutheranism. Plus, stanza 3 suggests that Jesus expects us to achieve perfection in this life.

Hymn 423, God calling yet! shall I not hear? weds Henry K. Oliver's (1800-1885) plaintive tune "Federal Street" to Gerhard Tersteegen's self-inflicted guilt-trip of a hymn, perfectly pitched to cow the last-holdout into joining the altar call. When you stop to think about it (which I doubt service planners do when they pick this hymn), most of the people who sing this are either "preaching to the choir" or having loaded questions directed at themselves shrewdly placed in their own mouth. In any event it's a masterpiece of manipulative, decisionistic, me-centered poetry and music that, in the last analysis, offers no Gospel, nothing that God has done, nothing but a shadow-play of someone's idea of the psychology of conversion. How sad!

Finally (for now), Hymn 425, Whiter than snow, features words by James Nicholson (1828-1876) and the tune "Fischer" by William G. Fischer (1835-1912). The latter sounds like a ditty out of a turn-of-the-20th-century music hall, albeit one catering to folks of a pious, sentimental persuasion. Personally, I would rather listen to "Hot Time in the Old Town" than croon the Refrain: "Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow; Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." The lyrics could be worse (the best I can say of them); it's left to the music to make them so.

Now, let me underscore my main point in all these observations. Every church group has its own preference as to what corner of church history to preserve and imitate. Put more briefly, everybody wants to get stuck in the past -- but not everybody chooses the same point in the past to get stuck in.

There's an LCMS church in my city that chooses to inhabit the 1970s era of folk-song liturgy. Other churches aim to repristinate the golden 1940s of the LCMS. There are lots of Lutheran churches riding the coattails of the Willow Creek scene circa 1998. I could (but won't) drop names of pastors who want to dial their church back to 17th century Lutheran orthodoxy, or 11th century Catholicism, or the 7th century, or the 4th. There are even church bodies that claim to bypass all the detritus that has built up since the days of the apostles. There are churches that do all things Anglican, all things Eastern Orthodox, all things liberal. There are even Lutheran congregations of a Messianic Jewish character, where the worshipers pretend to know nothing of New Testament religious culture and history; they synagogue in the traditional Hebrew way, only with a few extra books of Torah. Face it, every church is built inside a world of imagination. And most of the details of what they do, viz. worship practice, come from precisely there: the imagination.

What a Lutheran should ask, after looking at the hymns in AH, is not "Do I like these songs?" or "Wasn't everything great when the church was like that?" What a Lutheran should ask is: "Is this stuff Lutheran?" Maybe it's just me, but I see this selection of hymns as heavily weighted toward 19th century English and American Protestantism, with the odd artifact German Reformed and Scandinavian Pietism thrown in. The latter will be harder to root out, because Scandinavian Pietism still lives in a broad corridor of the American Lutheran scene, and I know from experience that its proponents will defend it vigorously. So let's set that element aside. What proportion of these hymns is from a religious tradition inimical to Lutheranism, and from an era in which those traditions formed a common artistic culture that all but worshiped tackiness? What makes this a worship-world any Lutheran group would want to return to?

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