Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Norwegian-Style Tackiness 7

Continuing the 400's of the Ambassador Hymnal, which I began looking at yesterday, we will see how much American evangelicalism prevails over Lutheranism in the worship book of the so-called "Association of Free Lutheran Congregations." And lest we Missouri Sinners laugh at their apostasy from the historic Lutheran faith, remember: they're only a step ahead of us...

Hymn 426, "Almost persuaded" now to believe, is a particularly bullying example of the altar-call anthem, its three stanzas haranguing any unconverted who may be in the midst of the singing congregation. The third verse is decidedly a downer, imagining the moment when Mr. or Ms. "Almost Persuaded" realizes that it's too late; "Harvest is past... Doom comes at last... Sad, sad, that bitter wail-- "Almost but lost!" Words and music are by Philip Bliss (1838-76), who was an intimate of Dwight L. Moody.

429 is O Jesus, Lord, to Thee I cry, a lyric by Eliza H. Hamilton whose refrain repeatedly urges God to "take me as I am." If you've already guessed that this hymn is a cheap knock-off of "Just as I am, without one plea," you're right! That's exactly what it is, right down to Ira D. Sankey's thoroughly uninspired tune "Take Me As I Am." (Sankey was another Moody associate, don't you know.) This type of spirituality seems to be a magnet for profoundly inferior hymns. And I do not say this out of cultural prejudice. I would take almost any African American spiritual over a hymn like this, 6 days a week and twice on Sunday. For all that I think most folk tunes are ill-suited to congregational singing, I would rather listen to a traditional melody from almost any culture than an aggressively corny song like this.

430 is O Jesus, Thou art standing, set to a lovely Classical-sounding tune called "St. Edith," which is mysteriously attributed to the unlikely composing team of Justin H. Knecht (1752-1817) and Edward Husband (1843-1908). My guess is that it's a Frankenstein's monster of Knecht's tune "Kocher" (whose first two lines are identical to those of "St. Edith") and material of Husband's own invention. But that is neither here nor there. Where it gets tacky is William W. How's text based on Revelation 3:20, where Jesus knocks on the Laodicean church's door, calling them to repent. How's first stanza includes the lines, "Shame on us, Christian brethren, His name and sign who bear, O shame, thrice shame upon us, to keep Him standing there!" I think, if you're going to indict the whole church for its apostasy, it behooves you to give specific grounds. Or is this an autoanathema for all occasions? Whatever it is, it doesn't have so much as a tint of Gospel in it, ending with us opening the door "with shame and sorrow" and asking Jesus to come in. Where's the good news?

431 is Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, a hymn you will instantly recognize from the amplified carillon system that serenades your neighborhood three or four times a day. I have frequently belonged to that carillon church. I always felt embarrassed to hear my church's belfry broadcasting hymns that conflicted with its confession. This was one that frequently got under my skin. Will L. Thompson (1847-1909) wrote both the words and music, a sort of part-song ballad in which the men's parts echo the women's during the refrain: "Come home (come home,) come home (come home)..." American religious history is rife with evidence that the type of outreach exemplified by this hymn doesn't result in conversions that "stick." But maybe that's not why churches like the AFLC still sing it. Maybe they just like the old-time religiosity of it. Me, I know something older and better. This I'm not buying.

433 is Jesus is tenderly calling you home, a less-inspired knockoff of Thompson's masterpiece. The text credit is divided between John 11:28 (Martha telling her sister Mary, "The teacher has come and is calling for you") and Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915). I daresay old Fanny deserves most of the credit. The tune is "Calling Today" by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945), who also composed the tune for Adelaide Pollard's "Have Thine own way, Lord." The moment I heard its piously theatrical strains, I realized: this was contemporary Christian music in 1883! This is what pop music sounded like! And it also reminded me of the "new measures" and "Methodist songs" C. F. W. Walther (d. 1887) cautioned the Missouri Synod against during his lifetime. The Lutheran church's struggle with the temptation of "pop" worship music is nothing new. The irony is that groups like the AFLC are clinging to the pop songs of yesteryear in order to resist the same temptation today. The cuckoo has usurped the nest!

The very next hymn, 434, is also by Fanny Crosby: O wonderful words of the Gospel, four stanzas set to a Swedish folk tune ("Til Ă˜sterland vil sag fara") full of exotically Nordic, minor-mode shadings. The first 3 stanzas are all right, summarizing the Gospel and inviting the hearer to come to Christ. So it's strange that the hymn should end on such a downer: "O turn ye, for why will ye die?"

435 is Come to the Savior, make no delay, with words and music by George F. Root (1820-1895), the Civil War-era composer of patriotic songs whose "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching" evolved into "Jesus loves the little children." This hymn is predictably martial-sounding, and whatever it means by "Come to the Savior," it spends 3 stanzas (plus a long refrain) persuading the audience by every means except the Gospel to do it. Stanza 3, for instance, says: "Heed now His blest commands, and obey..." You know, if you actually proclaimed the Gospel, I bet a lot of this agonized pleading would be unnecessary. The Spirit would take care of it! I think another potential dissertation lies in the thesis that a church develops a pietistic obsession with conversion as it loses its faith in the power of God's Word and Sacrament.

436 is O seek the Lord today, translated from the Danish bard Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764) and set to one of the few honest-to-gosh chorales in this region of the hymn-book. Unfortunately, it also shows that the pietistic tendencies I just described were not limited to American Protestantism. Brorson burns all of his literary fuel on cajoling the addressee to be converted. You know, all these hymns where the singers are addressing the unconverted (frequently including themselves) are making me nostalgic for the good old Reformation-era hymns in which, once in a while, the believing singer addressed God (in prayer, praise, confession of faith, etc.), or else rehearsed objective articles of the faith. At least you could take something away from such hymns -- something like encouragement, consolation, the assurance of forgiveness, growth in knowledge of God's Word, what have you. Hymns like this one, on the other hand, leave little residue except, perhaps, a guilt-trip or a touch of smugness.

437 is How blessed is the little flock, Nils J. Holm's (1778-1845) words set to Ludwig M. Lindeman's (1812-87) tune "Hvor salig er den lille Flokk," on which I have already said enough. I still think it's shameful for a Lutheran hymnal to include a song that invites believers to doubt their election. And maybe it's just Carl Doving's translation, but the climactic lines of the hymn are so convoluted that they may come across as nonsense to the casual singer.

440, Give Me thy heart, is Eliza E. Hewitt's (1851-1920) knock-off of "Softly and tenderly," with an eponymous tune by William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921), a Methodist camp-meeting fixture famous for the tune "Cradle song" ("Away in a manger"). This piece, however, is tasteless, crude, and uninspired; and the three stanzas that go with it are only notable for the Trinitarian confession woven into them. Nevertheless, whichever person of the Trinity you're singing about, He comes across as the same soft, feminine Presence breathing sweet nothings in your ear. And if you have a mischievous turn of mind (though surely no one I know does), the persistent mantra of "Give me your heart" can take on a certain gruesome campiness.

441, Is your all on the altar?, with words and music by Elisha A. Hoffman (1839-1929), seems to echo from the era when country & western singers included Gospel ballads on their albums. Its signature line (from the beginning of the refrain) certainly has a country-song whimsy about it. As for the tune, well... the melody has approximately one interesting gesture in it, which gets repeated so many times that it stops being interesting after the first time through; and the harmony is so static (with only two chords, mostly E-flat Major, until the Refrain) that by the end of four long stanzas, you'll feel well and truly preserved in a frozen moment of time.

443, Just one step, is translated from some Scandinavian language or other. The original was by someone named H. A. Urseth (1866-1909), and the tune "Kun et Skridt" is by F. Melius Christiansen (1871-1955) of St. Olaf Choirs fame. I have heard many chorale arrangements by F. Melius, but I'm now uncertain whether I have ever encountered one of his original pieces before. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted at how bad this piece is. It reminds me of Hitchcock's film Topaz: a creative work shockingly inferior to what you would expect of its maker, and probably compromised from the start by a want of face-recognition. You need top-shelf talent to pull off a big creative risk without the aid of star power, and neither Frederick Stafford (for Hitch) nor H. A. Urseth (for F. Melius) was such a talent.

Urseth's altar-call ditty is banal beyond description. More damningly, it makes no sense whatsoever. Verse 1, line 3: "It will show you the way..." What will? I can't find the antecedent of "it." Later: "Have you courage to take it way through...?" Way through?? Stanza 2: "Just one word from a strange foreign land Carried home to the Father..." Huh? Whose word, carried by whom, from where, to where? "It will lighten your mind..." What will? My word, when I say "yes" to God's invitation? "It will lift up your state..." Oooh. Suddenly we're in the Kenny Rogers dimension! "Just one word takes your stress and your need up to God..." What word? A hypnotic trigger? Have you ever heard the word "stress" used in a hymn before? "It will carry you through, one word from your heart unto God"--Ah! So that is the direction the word is going! In which case, this makes even less sense. Stanza 3: "Just one glance..." Oh boy, now Doris Troy is getting into the act. What was I saying about a lack of star power? I'm sorry, I just can't go any further with this hymn. The more I study it, the more it makes me sick!

447 is He leadeth me! O blessed thought! The words are by Joseph H. Gilmore (1834-1918), the tune ("Aughton") by William B. Bradbury (1816-1868), and it's another one of the canned carillon classics that make me squirm to hear it pealing from a Lutheran bell-tower. The words are full of gushy, warm sentiment about all the ways it is comforting to know that He leadeth me. "He," meanwhile, is never identified more specifically than a couple of mentions of "God" and one mention of the "Lord." This hymn never mentions Christ by name. Which is not to say that believers in any monotheistic religion could sing this hymn. By alluding to Eden and Jordan, the hymn probably limits its application to Jews and Christians. But with so little of a distinctly Christian nature, I can't see what use this hymn would serve in the Lutheran church.

449 is I need Thee ev'ry hour, a romantic love-song to God written by Annie S. Hawks (1835-1918), and set to the tune "Lowry" by, er, Robert Lowry (1826-99). The latter was Baptist hymnwriting powerhouse, credited at least in part with such hymns as "How can I keep from singing," "Shall we gather at the river," "Low in the grave He lay," etc. Even I can appreciate some of his songs, as a fan of American folk culture. But that doesn't mean I think they belong in the Lutheran church. Though very much in character for the Ambassador Hymnal, Lowry's sentimental tune grates against the spirit of Lutheran hymnody as I have learned to love it. But the tackiness laurel goes to Mrs. Hawks, hands-down, for yet another Christless hymn. There's almost a whole sub-genre of hymns like this. Such an art form could only arise in a Christianity where having a "close personal relationship with God" is emphasized over the saving acts of God in Christ, and their objective application to us in Word and Sacrament.

Lastly for now, Hymn 450 is Savior, like a shepherd lead us. The words are by Dorothy A. Thrupp (1779-1847), the tune "Bradbury" by (again) William B. Bradbury. Typical of today's selection of hymns, it has a refrain, though in this case the repeated phrase "Blessed Jesus" alternates with a line unique to each stanza. Again, the music is strongly rooted in the part-singing tradition of the ruggedly individualistic, vehemently sectarian Protestant scene in the era of the American frontier. The slurs in the melody always seem to be performed as shlurpy portamenti, at least in my imagination if not in my experience. At least I can honestly say there are some things about Mrs. Thrupp's text that I like. Maybe it's the heatstroke talking, but after coming out of a desert of Christ-less hymns it seems awfully refreshing to hear the name "Jesus" mentioned a few times. It does draw from biblical models (such as Psalm 23) and asks for relatively objective blessings (such as forgiveness). In fact, other than my misgivings about good taste & stylistic congruity, I might be hard put to substantiate a serious objection to using this hymn in the Lutheran church. Yet I still maintain that it sounds Baptist. And once we start feeling comfortable singing Baptist-sounding songs, it really isn't a big step to singing Baptist songs... and then believing Baptist doctrines... So why risk it?

I know I must appear to be poking at every possible weakness in nearly every hymn in this book, but believe me, I want to get through this book as fast as possible. So if I had any doubt whatsoever, I left the hymn alone. It's a testimony to how wretched this stretch of hymns has been - the sections on "Call, Repentance" and "Following Christ" - that I didn't skip over very many. I'm not doing this as a negative advertisement, as though to say "Don't buy this hymnal!" Rather, I would like to see at least a few people start to think about the possibility that there is more at stake in the hymns a church body chooses for its hymnal, or that a congregation chooses for its worship, than what sounds good, or is fun to sing, or gives you a warm sentimental feeling of going home. It's really important to look at what the hymn texts say & don't say, and how they say it. And yes, I also think it's important to evaluate the spiritual baggage of tunes. Lutherans are inherently blessed with a chorale tradition of literally the highest caliber of musical and literary art, doctrinal depth, and spiritual power. So perhaps I'm not so far off the mark when I suggest, not entirely in jest, that singing tacky hymns could be a sin.

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