Saturday, August 7, 2010

NST 11

Further to "Norwegian Style Tackiness #10," here are more laugh-out-loud selections from the same hymnal which, incongruously, belongs to a present-day "Lutheran" church body....

Hymn 526 is Turn your eyes upon Jesus (a.k.a. "The Heavenly Vision"; first line: "O soul, are you weary and troubled?"), with words and music by Helen Howarth Lemmel (1864-1961). Check out the Wiki linked above if you want to see the lyrics for yourself. Stanza 1 has a line that (to my sick imagination) conjures images of flicking one's Bic so that one can look at Jesus in the darkness. The refrain promises a sort of rheostat effect with respect to the rest of the world while you contemplate the face of Jesus. What I don't understand is whether we're looking at an image of Him, or beholding Him in our spiritual imagination, or if there is something more specific implied in the advice to "turn your eyes upon Jesus." Stanza 3 confesses that "His word shall not fail you" but isn't clear about which Word; in this context it doesn't seem likely to be a confession of the efficacy of the preached and sacramental Word. The tune "Turn Your Eyes" is Romantic to the point of sentimentality, though harmonically quite effective. The relatively static bass line, together with an echo-effect in the inner voices of the refrain, suggests that it was intended as a part-song.

527 is I serve a risen Savior, words and music by Alfred H. Ackley (1887-1960), brother of Billy Sunday associate B. D. Ackley. Under the title "He lives" (drawn from the refrain), Wiki describes this popular hymn of 1933 thus: "The hymn discusses the experience claimed by Christians that Jesus Christ lives within their hearts. It is disliked or excluded by some conservative evangelicals, on the grounds that the appeal to experience is less reliable than the words of scripture and can lead to heresy." I quote this so as to save time and space looking for a way to say the same thing, only with the addition: if Evangelicals have this problem with the hymn, how much more should Lutherans be suspicious of such lines as "He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way... You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart." The hymn never refers to the Easter miracle after the first line. Meanwhile, how can you experience for yourself just how ludicrously bad the tune "He Lives" is? Here's a perverse thought: It might be worth the cost of buying this book!

528 is There is a name I love to hear, more widely known by its refrain "O How I Love Jesus," which is also the name of its tune. The words by Frederick Whitfield (1829-1904) are by no means an improvement on John Newton's "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds." The four stanzas, set to approximately the same music as the refrain, discuss the benefits of knowing the Savior's name, though one has to be well-versed in the faith to understand its oblique reference to the forgiveness of sins. And then there's the refrain, which takes plenty of time to express the simple (albeit excellent) sentiment: "O how I love Jesus, because He first loved us!" This is kids' stuff. I liked this ditty when I was a kid. No one bothered to teach me more then the refrain, so it didn't tax my intellect much. The unattributed American tune added an extra drop of popular appeal to "Jesus loves me," to whose verses it was added (for unimaginable reasons) as an alternate refrain. Apparently my Sunday School teacher thought "O how I love Jesus" was more meaningful than "Yes, Jesus loves me." It's a strange thing.

529 is Glory to His name (first line: "Down at the cross where my Savior died"), words by Elisha Hoffman (pictured under Hymn 498) and music by John Stockton (previously encountered in Hymn 415). Have you noticed yet how having a refrain seems to be essential to the popularity of this type of hymn? The idea seems to be that if you repeat a few words many times, and add no more than an equal number of words per stanza, you'll give people more to remember, less to forget--sort of an evangelical ethic of "catchiness." Consequently, the doctrinal nourishment being fed to congregations that sing these songs could be administered via an eyedropper. Stockton's music for this hymn is the type of bland march that makes you think of little old ladies in lace-trimmed hats going on an evangelism crusade.

The words aren't half so cute. Stanza 1 (echoed by the refrain) claims, "There to my heart was the blood applied." Where? "Down at the cross." This immediate application of Christ's sin-atoning blood to the individual's heart is foreign to Scripture, and the description of where it happens beggars explanation. Is a time machine involved? Does this require a trip to the holy land? Do replicas and images count? Are we talking about a flight of religious fancy? However this is done, it seems to bear no connection to preaching and sacrament. To be fair, Stanza 3 could be interpreted as talking about Baptism when it describes a "fountain that saves from sin," by which I "have entered in" and by which Jesus "saves me and keeps me clean." But since it doesn't say the word "baptism," it could be referring to something just as mysterious as the application of Jesus' blood in Stanza 1. And Stanza 4 ties it all up into a sort of "dunk-tank altar call": "Plunge in today..." How many times does one get baptized in this religion? Or is this a reference to something other than Baptism? (In which case, what a cheat!) Or is this, perhaps, a tent revival song that has no relevance to a congregation of baptized believers?
To ask the author (d. 1929) one would have to dig him up; I, however, would just as soon leave the whole matter buried.

530 is Have you any room for Jesus, with words by Daniel Whittle (author of Hymn 516 and pictured at the top of this post) and music by C. C. Williams (d. 1882). The music is rhythmically identical to the well-known tune to "What a Friend we have in Jesus." Both tunes are in the same style and neither hymn has any more aesthetic merit than the other. I do not know to what I should attribute their difference in popularity, other than an accident of chance. Another thing they have in common is their lyricist's tone of anxiously pleading and cajoling the listener (or the singers cajoling themselves and each other), either to approach Christ in prayer or (in this case) to "Swing the heart's door widely open" and "let Him in." Here again we see the worst possible use of Revelation 3:20, completely ignoring its context in order to make the image of Jesus knocking on the door a demand for a "decision for Christ." It's a thoroughgoing revival song, complete with a stanza warning about the day of grace ending and the window of opportunity closing for one to make room in one's heart for Jesus. Yeesh! Does the time ever come when the faithful worship together?

531 is Jesus loves even me (first line: "I am so glad that our Father in heav'n"), words and music by Philip Bliss. The music is infantile in its simplicity, though there is a certain contagious joy in the melody of the refrain, "I am so glad that Jesus loves me." The words are basically "Jesus loves me" with air bubbles pumped into it, amping up the prolixity just enough to fit a self-indulgent, 6/8 rhythm. I haven't the heart to pick on the theology of the text. If I hadn't seen flesh-and-blood evidence that children can learn and love top-quality Lutheran hymns--which, I know, runs contrary to the convictions of many Lutheran parents and teachers--I would call this an adequate hymn for small children. But I know they can do better than this; or rather, we can feed them better than this. For proof, listen to these CDs of the youth choirs at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne.

532 is Tell me the story of Jesus by Fanny Crosby, with the tune "Story of Jesus" by John R. Sweney (1837-1899). For all the crispness of its dotted-eighth figures, the music is tediously bland. The text, as an example of the "I love to tell the story" subgenre, is rare in that it actually tells the story rather than merely talking about telling the story. Like "O love, how deep," though in less impressive language and with a minimum of theological detail, it narrates the story of Jesus from His birth onward. Unfortunately, and unlike "O love, how deep," it stops telling it at the point where Jesus dies and is buried. Final line of Stanza 4: "Stay, let me weep while you whisper, Love paid the ransome for me!" All this is true, but wouldn't it be better to include Easter in the story?

533 is At Calvary!--first line: "Years I spent in vanity and pride"--words by William R. Newell (1868-1956) and music by Daniel Towner, who is also pictured here. The tune carries dottedness to the extreme: I count 18 dotted-note rhythms in it, and it only has 6 phrases (not counting the simple cadence "At Calvary!") This is "Battle Hymn of the Republic" rhetoric. As for the text, it is a brisk, versified account of an individual's conversion from "vanity and Calvary." Stanza 1 sketches the narrator's spiritual condition prior to finding Christ; Stanza 2 and its refrain describe the effect of Law and Gospel on the sinner; Stanza 3, his commitment to Christ; and Stanza 4 glorifies God for the "love that drew salvation's plan," etc. Skimming across the surface, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with this. A Lutheran listening with "Lutheran ears" might even consider it excellent. The trouble, however, arises when you focus on the heart and core of hymn. The turning point is the individual's decision, when (s)he "turned" at the end of Stanza 2. Plus, there are more direct ways to proclaim the Gospel, and certainly more appropriate things for a congregation to sing, than an individual's testimony of how (s)he came to faith.

534 is I know of a Name, adapted from lyrics by Jean Perry (1865-1935) and set to the tune "That Beautiful Name" by Mabel Johnston Camp (1871-1937). Both words and music are mediocrities of sentimental long-windedness. The refrain attempts to rhyme "free us" with "Jesus." Stanza 1 muddles the Annunciation story in saying that "angels brought down to earth" the name of Jesus and "whispered it low, one night long ago, to a maiden of lowly birth." Check your Bible. It was an angel (singular), not angels (plural); and the text says nothing about whispering, nighttime, or Mary's lowly birth. Stanza 2 describes the Christmas angels but, instead of mentioning the shepherds, devotes a whole line to the glittering stars. Stanza 4 finally claims that Jesus' name was "whispered, I know, in my heart long ago--To Jesus my life I've giv'n." What this whispering signifies, I can't say; nevertheless it sends up a red flag in my mind. And after all this hymn's blather about that wonderful name, it turns out to be a confession of decision theology!

535 is I'd rather have Jesus, words by Rhea F. Miller (1895-1966) "based on Matthew 16:24-26," and music by George Beverly Shea (b. 1909), a Billy Graham associate who once sang to a world-record live audience of 220 million people. This was one of his signature songs, actually. So it's perhaps ironic that it includes such lines as "I'd rather have Jesus than men's applause" and "I'd rather have Jesus than worldwide fame." For all the things than which the narrator would rather have Jesus, it's amazing how profoundly unlike Matthew 16:24-26 this hymn is. Where is the cross that Jesus says those who follow Him must take up? The song never explains why I would rather have Jesus than all these things. So it comes across more as a testimony of my devotion to Jesus than of what He has done for me.

536 is I will sing the wondrous story, with words by Francis H. Rowley (1854-1952) and the tune "Wondrous Story" by Peter P. Bilhorn (1865-1936). The music is probably beyond the abilities of Bob and Betty Pewsitter, squeezing dotted quarters, dotted eighths, triplet eighths, tied notes, and an inexplicable shift from 3/4 to 4/4 at the refrain, into one rhythmically demanding package. And yet, with its color-by-numbers harmony that doesn't even use that many numbers, it manages to sound pallid and uninspired at the same time. The text has the merit of making all that pertains to salvation the work of Jesus. It wouldn't be bad (though its prosody is nothing special) if it weren't for the refrain, which seems to delay my appointment for singing the story until I'm "with the saints in glory gathered by the crystal sea." Which is silly, since one is singing it right now....

537 is Jesus is all the world to me by Will L. Thompson, the composer of "Softly and Tenderly." Thompson's uninspired tune seems to be pasted together like a ransom note spelled out in words cut out of different magazines; you may be impressed by the structural aptness of two bars here, four bars there, but the phrases do not gel together overall. The harmony of the third quarter of the tune is a monotonous drone of G; the last quarter dares an augmented-sixth chord in one measure and a half-diminished-seventh chord in the next, without quite saving the phrase from boring the tune to death. (Problem: the melody of this phrase consists almost entirely of a single repeated note.) Unto this tour-de-force of musical dullness is added lyrics of spectacular mediocrity. Stanza 2: "I go to Him for blessings, and He gives them o'er and o'er." I could sing this o'er and o'er and this phrase would still sound queer; but it is only an outstanding example of poetry that is anything but outstanding. The final straw that breaks the funny-bone is the repeated-note phrase toward the end of the tune, where the previous two phrases are recapped in digest form reminiscent of the "Schnitzelbank" song: "Sunshine and rain, harvest of grain..." And the final line of all 4 stanzas is: "He's my Friend." Awww.

Finally (for now), Hymn 538 is Blessed Redeemer (first line: "Up Calv'ry's mountain, one dreadful morn"), with words by Avis Christiansen (author of the jazzy Hymn 495) and the tune "Redeemer" by Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965), who also wrote "This Little Light of Mine." His music for this hymn is staid part-song writing with a few kicks of chromaticism to make sure the solo quartet earns its fee. In defiance of my previously observed law of flat keys, it's written in the 2-sharp key of D, so that the chromatic flourishes include notes that are sure to haunt your organist's nightmares, such as E-sharp and B-sharp. The text puts Calvary at a high elevation, contradicting the "down at the cross" imagery of Hymn 529. In its limping, compound-meter way (with the metrical pattern /-- /-) it depicts Jesus struggling up the hill to be crucified, praying for the forgiveness of sinners, and deserving endless love and praises. It doesn't say anything particularly bad, but its emphasis on the feelings Christ's passion and death inspire, rather than other more profound applications, shows a little bad taste. Plus, you must carefully observe the punctuation where it describes Jesus as "wounded and bleeding, for sinners pleading--blind and unheeding--dying for me!" No, it's not saying Jesus was "blind and unheeding" in dying for me; those words refer to the sinners mentioned in the previous phrase. But it could certainly give less attentive readers a double-take!

I'm going to have to cut this installment short at only one eighth of a hundred hymns, for the simple reason that in this stretch of the Ambassador Hymnal not a single hymn rose above the swamp of tackiness that keeps spreading its sticky, stinky bogs more and more widely. Watch where you step, folks!

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