Thursday, July 15, 2010


Henceforth NST="Norwegian-Style Tackiness." Further to yesterday's post, we go on to wallow in the spiritual and artistic tackiness of Hymns 451-475 of the Ambassador Hymnal, late of the Assoc. of Free Lutheran Congregations. Believe me, I am doing all that I can to be lenient. And I'm trying not to have too much fun!

Hymn 454 is Thy life was giv'n for me, a Frances R. Havergal hymn about which I have amply expressed myself here, under Joseph Barnby's (1838-96) tune "Pro me Perforatus". At least AH has the good taste to opt for the "I ought to meet Jesus halfway" version rather than the abysmally tacky "Jesus as a Jewish mother" redaction used in, for example, The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941, Hymn 405). I'm going to be irritated by the odor of synergism either way; why should I take a guilt trip with it?

457 is Fanny Crosby's Pass me not, O gentle Savior, set to the tune "Pass Me Not" by William H. Doane (1831-1915). Nowadays this music inspires a certain bemused horror, inspired perhaps by racial memories of insufferably girlish old ladies bundled from ankle to chin in ruffles and black bombazine. It's like a Sunday School song for 40-year-old virgins who do not go gently into that good night. And the lyrics inhabit a strange spiritual universe in which Jesus drops in on each person individually... if they're so lucky. "While on others Thou art calling, Do not pass me by." Actually, apart from that line (repeated five times in four stanzas) the text does have some merit... but not enough to enable me to keep my hands and feet still through the entire recital.

458 is Rise up, O men of God by William P. Merrill (1867-1954), set to the tune "Festal Song" by William H. Walter (1825-93). The latter is pretty much a vanilla hymn tune, but the words are strongly spiced with ideas about the ministry. If my interpretation is correct, Mr. Merrill expected an awful lot of the pastors of his generation: "Bring in the day of brotherhood And end the night of wrong..." Whew! I hope the validity of my Synod's ordination and call is never judged according to that standard! In all the generations of pastors, faithful and otherwise, the goal quoted above hasn't been achieved yet. And then there's this bit: "The Church for you doth wait, Her strength unequal to her task: Rise up, and make her great." Whoa! I thought the pastoral office was mediated by the Church! If her strength is unequal, than so is her pastor's. He can no more "make her great" than he can right all wrongs and inaugurate an era of peace and brotherhood. Whatever power they have between them is the power of Christ working in and through them. It is enough to ask that pastors serve the Church faithfully, and in faithfulness to Christ!

I have already alluded to Adelaide A. Pollard's Have Thine own way, Lord and its eponymous tune by George C. Stebbins. What can I say about it that won't make me sound like a broken record? First off, in this day and age it sounds a little fishy to ask Jesus to "have his way" with us. In Stanza 1 "I" ask Jesus, the divine Potter, to mold me like clay "while I am waiting, yielded and still." Service while you wait! Isn't that great? This conjures imagery of a patient trying not to squirm while his doctor fiddles with... never mind. There's something a bit off about the word "yielded," though. Who yielded me? Stanza 2 requires you to sing the awkward phrase "wash me just now" relatively fast. Stanza 3 prays, "Wounded and weary, Help me, I pray"--showcasing either a misplaced modifier or an incongruously profound description of how Christ helps us. Theologically it is not without merit, but as a work of poetry it falls embarrassingly flat.

461 is Sabine Baring-Gould's (1834-1924) Onward, Christian soldiers, an OK children's processional hymn that has evolved into a campy congregational conceit of militant religious zeal. I already said plenty about it (though without rejecting it out of hand) under the tune "St. Gertrude" in my post on hymn-tune composer Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900).

462 is More love to Thee, O Christ, Elizabeth Prentiss's (1818-78) ripoff of "Nearer, my God, to Thee," with an appropriately cheap-sounding tune (also titled "More Love to Thee") by William Doane. Actually it's kind of a touching song, a very personal expression of "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24) from a heart marked by sorrow. I have nothing against songs of intimate, private devotion. It's just that they aren't the same as hymns for public, congregational worship. Hymnal editors need to think more clearly about this distinction when they choose hymns, and perhaps assign songs like this to a separate book for personal, home use. Why do I think this matters? Because I know from experience that churches are jealous of their dollars and cents. Nothing says "bad stewardship" quite like filling the pews with a book of ditties that don't meet the objectives of corporate worship.

464 is Something for Thee, also known by its first line "Savior, Thy dying love." Sylvanus D. Phelps's (1816-95) text gushes warmly about my ardent desire to render something to the Lord for all his benefits to me, which is all very well to be sure. Each stanza builds steadily, through a combination of poetic meter and shrewd phrasing, to a climactic "something for Thee." If you read the text carefully, there's nothing wrong with it. But I suspect that, swept away in its rhetorical rip-tide, many who sing this hymn overlook the phrases about what Jesus gives us and focus relentlessly on what "I" bring to Jesus. Robert Lowry's arch-sentimental tune "Something for Jesus," even more than Barnby's "Winterton" (which TLH paired with the hymn), supports this me-centered, feelings-driven tendency all the way.

465 is Once to every man and nation, powerful words by the American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell (1819-91) set to the magnificent Welsh tune "Ebenezer" by Thomas J. Williams (1869-1944). To me this poem has the same sort of appeal as Rudyard Kipling's "If": a stirring call to moral decision and public action, but spiritually applicable only within the pale of "civil religion." Christ is named in this hymn, as are spiritually stirring terms such as "martyrs" and "Calvaries" and "Cross." But when you get to the bottom of it, we may as easily be singing about secular politics as matters of the faith. Plus, I become suspicious of Lowell's epistemology when he says, "New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward Who would keep abreast of truth."

468 is Nearer, still nearer, close to Thy heart, with words and music by Lelia N. Morris (1862-1929). The tune "Morris" sounds like an exercise written by an undergraduate student in music theory class, complete with a rare example of the use of augmented-sixth chords in hymnody. (Music profs may want to distribute this hymn as an extra-credit exercise on their "harmonic analysis" exam.) Surprisingly or not, one bizarre harmonic twist late in the game does not save the music from sounding stiff and under-powered. As to the text, the fact that the last line of each stanza is repeated isn't the only reason it feels sluggish and thin. Its author evidently belonged to the "say very little by means of many words" school of poetry. What she does say is OK, though its emphasis comes down on faith as the individual's "close personal relationship with Christ."

469 is All the way my Savior leads me, another Fanny Crosby/Robert Lowry collaboration in which Lowry blows several obvious opportunities to make his music interesting and artistically effective. Miss Fanny, on the other hand, goes on and on about how Jesus guides us through life, but I have misgivings about how she thinks this guidance takes place. Stanza 1 doesn't throw much light on it: it could be by example, or by moral precept, or by information learned from reading the Bible... Who can say? So, none the wiser, we begin singing verse 2 and are surprised to hear that He "feeds me with the living bread" and quenches my thirst with water gushing from a Rock (with a capital R). Could she actually be talking about Baptism and the Lord's Supper? I wish I could say with certainty, but Miss Fanny never expresses herself more clearly than that. Verse 3 sheds very little additional light: "Perfect rest to me is promised..." So perhaps Jesus' guidance is embodied (at least in part) in the promise of eternal life? I suppose if I wanted a dogmatic treatise, I wouldn't get a Fanny Crosby hymn. But from long experience singing, playing, and studying Lutheran hymns I can confidently say that you can have a warm, devotional song and a clear confession of faith at the same time! Why not demand it, every time?

470 is Make me a captive, Lord by George Matheson (1842-1906), a Scottish theologian and hymn-writer (best known for "O Love that will not let me go"), of whom Wiki makes the following fascinating observation: "His exegesis owes its interest to his subjective resources rather than to breadth of learning; his power lay in spiritual vision rather than balanced judgment, and in the vivid apprehension of the factors which make the Christian personality, rather than in constructive doctrinal statement." I actually think the author of those words meant them as a compliment! But I digress. I think the hymn may be a poetical portrait of the apostles Peter and John, emphasizing their shortcomings as followers and asking God's help in overcoming them. I think it's a very interesting poem, but not much of a hymn. For one thing, it doesn't apply equally to everyone in the congregation. It's like one of those hokey, "creative worship" confessions of sin in which all the people are required to admit to specific sins of which few, if any, are really guilty. This poem should be distributed in a volume of devotional verse, rather than taking up valuable space in a hymnal. And George W. Martin's (1828-81) "Leominster," without exaggeration one of the boringest hymn tunes of all time, adds less than zero incentive to sing this hymn, even after Arthur Sullivan's valiant efforts as an arranger.

471 is I am Thine, O Lord, a Fanny Crosby-William Doane yawner whose custom-made tune ("I am Thine") was evidently designed for part-singing. I'll grant one thing to this school of hymn writers: they understood how to write music that lay within the reach of a congregation expected to sing in four parts. The result, however, is particularly tedious in this latter day when some entire congregations have trouble carrying a tune; so the organist nods his head sleepily while changing chords about once every bar. The text, meanwhile, is nothing to write home about. Exactly how does Miss Fanny think Christ will "draw me the cross where Thou hast died"? It can't be by means of the Lord's Supper, since the same hymn uses the word "commune" in the context of an individual believer's prayer life. So exactly how one can be sure of this "communion" is unclear; perhaps it's a matter of using one's imagination!

472 is based on Am I a soldier of the cross by the British Empire's foremost didactic/moralistic poet, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). I say "based on" because the abbreviation "alt." is appended to the credit line. The tune by Thomas A. Arne (1710-1778) is a nice little Classical thing, dressed in the same frilly collar as Watts's text. It only qualifies for this menagerie of tackiness by dint of the poet's apparent regret at not being allowed to suffer persecution and martyrdom. Oh, what a trial it must be to belong to the Religious Establishment! But what if I must fight in order to reign in heaven? Does the pain of knowing that I should be suffering, but am not, count as suffering? Zounds, what a cross!

474 is Lead me to Calvary, a still-copyrighted hymn by Jennie Evelyn Hussey (1874-1958) with an eponymous tune written by William Kirkpatrick, evidently just before his death in 1921. The refrain sums up the hymn: "Lest I forget Gethsemane, Lest I forget Thine agony, Lest I forget Thy love for me, Lead me to Calvary." In exactly what sense does Miss Jennie Evelyn expect to be led to Calvary? In a dream? a vision? a willful act of make-believe? Or are we talking about personal sufferings? Though the last possibility is suggested by stanza 4, this type of poetry is anything but self-explanatory. If it means what I think it means, I can see some devotional value in it. But because it takes so much thought and guess-work to arrive at that interpretation, I wouldn't wish it on the congregation.

Not just this hymn, but this whole thread constantly reminds me of a principle my vicarage bishop taught me: If you don't tell the people clearly how they are to locate Christ--if you leave their pious imagination to fill in the blanks--they will come up with a subjective, man-centered answer unsanctioned by God's Word. It is an inevitable consequence of our perverse, sinful nature, combined with the American culture in which we are all steeped whether we like it or not. So if you don't direct them to Word and Sacrament, you are failing in your duty to preach them to Christ. (See also my hermeneutical "Principle 9").

And finally (for today), Hymn 475 is Teach me to pray, words and music by Albert S. Reitz (1879-1906). Yet another example of a hymn that is neither fresh and contemporary nor truly and venerably old - and I say this not only of the vintage of the hymn, but of its middle-of-the-road character. This whole genre of hymns, in fact, has a Laodicean tendency to poetical, musical, and spiritual lukewarmness that makes one want to spew it out of one's mouth (Revelation 3:16). The tune is a bland blend of beer-hall stalwartness and warbly-voiced, teetotaling sentimentality. The text is an absurd demonstration of how not to do what it asks God to teach us to do. And the refrain raises the remarkable petition: "Grant me Thy power, boundless and free: Power with men and power with Thee." In stanza 3, one may spot another occurrence of the dread word "just," in the sense that made my 10th-grade social-studies teacher ban it from his classroom, and that has grown to vast stature in the language of Evangelical prayer: "Lord, I just ask..." etc. If you sing this hymn, be thankful that Jesus is more patient than I. For if someone nagged me the way the petitioner nags Christ in this prayer-hymn, they wouldn't get through stanza 4 without a smackdown.

No comments: