Wednesday, August 11, 2010

NST 12

The tackiness of the Ambassador Hymnal goes on and on. Last time we left off only 3/8 of the way through the 500s. And so we pick up at

Hymn 539: Praise Him! Praise Him! is a Fanny Crosby hymn with music by Chester G. Allen (1838-78) which impiously reminds me of "Daisy Bell" (the "bicycle built for two" song). Neither the words nor the music add anything to the culture of Christian hymnody except a lowering of its standards of taste.

Hymn 540: I stand amazed is by Charles Gabriel, the author of Hymn 502. When the second line of the hymn identifies Jesus as the Nazarene, it almost seems to be talking about his denominational affiliation. Shucks, Robbie, that's not nice! Gabriel was a Methodist, after all. The text does score some nice points about Jesus' atoning work, though in a manner strongly oriented toward the individual rather than the worshiping congregation. I like the line "He had no tears for His own griefs, But sweat drops of blood for mine." For all its theological merits, it comes across as a popular anthem to be crooned by a soloist. So why is it in a parish worship book?

Hymn 541: What will you do with Jesus?--first line: "Jesus is standing in Pilate's hall"--has words by Albert B. Simpson (1843-1919) founder of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, and music by Mary L. Stocks (no dates given). Would it be mean of me to point out that Simpson and his C&MA had a strong influence on the Pentecostal movement? So of course their contribution belongs in this "Lutheran" hymnal! It's a revival/altar-call anthem, every iteration of whose refrain leaves singer and hearer alike with the profoundly comfortless message: "What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be; Someday your heart will be asking, 'What will He do with me?'" Stanza 2 suggests that the choice is yours, whether to be false or true to Jesus. Stanza 3 offers you the decision whether to evade or choose Jesus. Stanza 4 lays on you the option to deny Christ and flee (like Peter) or dare "for Jesus to live or die." Stanza 5 finally puts the words of the sinner's prayer in your mouth, complete with quotation marks so it's clear that the jury is being instructed as to the verdict they are to return; meanwhile, for believing singers, it's all an exercise in play-acting and imagination! Alas, I haven't room enough to describe how dismally uninspired the tune "Whatever You Will" is.

Hymn 542: Victory in Jesus--first line: "I heard an old, old story"--has words and music by Eugene M. Bartlett (1885-1941), author of "Take an old, cold tater and wait." All I want to say at this point is that there's a learning curve for singing Baptist hymns, which Baptists do best. When Lutherans try to do it, they tend to sound half-hearted, awkward, and frankly silly. When they can finally do it really well, it's a sign that they are no longer Lutherans but Baptists. Now, here's a YouTube video for your (ahem) edification.

Hymn 543: What a fellowship, with words by Elisha Hoffmann (author of Hymns 498 and 529, at least), music by Anthony J. Showalter (1858-1924), and a refrain of "Leaning on the everlasting arms." Very American Protestant sounding, very part-songy (with a separate set of lyrics for the lower voices), it goes on for three whole stanzas without saying anything more than, "Gee, it's nice to have peace with God," and it leaves you wondering exactly what it means to "lean on the everlasting arms."

Hymn 544: Power in the blood--first line: "Would you be free from your burden of sin?"--has words and music by Lewis E. Jones (1865-1936). Yes, chillun, this is the part-song that crows, "There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r in the blood (in the blood) of the Lamb (of the Lamb)..." It's like a Four-Square Gospel advertising jingle for Lambs' Blood spot remover. For all the power they attribute to Jesus' blood, the real wonder of it is that the people who really know how to sing this song well, don't believe in the power (or even the presence) of Jesus' blood in the Lord's Supper. So the question becomes: how are you supposed to take delivery of this fine product?

Hymn 545: Because He lives--first line: "God sent His Son"--by Bill & Gloria Gaither, leading Gospel singers of the Elvis Presley generation. I first encountered this song in a collection of 1970s commercial jingles, pop music, and movie soundtrack outtakes. So perhaps the Gaithers are not to blame for the fact that my mind can hardly separate it from "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and "My Bologna Has a First Name." Nevertheless, using this song in worship can only be relevant to a church that interprets "conservative Lutheran worship" to mean "getting together to sing our favorite tracks from the Christian Contemporary network's HD band for Golden Oldies." And although there's a stanza about going to heaven someday, the refrain's lyrics "Because He lives I can face tomorrow" aren't as good as the line I erroneously remembered, "Because He lives, you will live forever." Apparently I was thinking resurrection theology, John 14:19, what have you. Silly me.

Hymn 546: Now I belong to Jesus--first line: "Jesus my Lord will love me forever"--has words and music by Norman J. Clayton (1903-92). The tune "Ellsworth" is harmonized in a distinctly Barbershop manner, albeit with parts in the SATB range. The lyrics are written with an equally distinct want of skill. Here are three awkward examples. Stanza 1: "From Him no pow'r of evil can sever"--sever what? "His precious blood He gave to redeem"--redeem what? "Not for the years of time alone"--is that Claytonese for "solitary confinement"? As the author of both the words and the music, Clayton shows a surprising disregard for the physiological challenges of singing, for example, "Joy floods my soul" where the two middle words are set to eighth-notes. It's tacky, I say, because it's not well done, whatever else it is; yet it got past the hymn selection committee. How does this happen? Maybe it's a matter of knowing the right people...

Hymn 547: The Light of the world is Jesus--first line: "The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin"--has words and music by our old friend Philip Bliss. It's a Christian testimonial-cum-revivalist altar-call song, with rhetoric such as: "Come to the Light, 'tis shining for thee! Sweetly the Light has dawned upon me; Once I was blind, but now I can see..." It makes some pretty interesting claims about the Christian life. For example, Stanza 2: "No darkness have we who in Jesus abide..." Really? No valley of the shadow of death, etc.? "We walk in the Light when we follow our Guide..." Yeah, sure you do. Isn't it great that Jesus is your Guide. Stanza 3: "Go wash at His bidding and light will arise"--very baptismal sounding; but would Bliss really go so far as to say that Baptism creates faith?

Hymn 548: In the Garden--first line: "I come to the garden alone"--has words and music by C. Austin Miles (1868-1946). Wiki has some noteworthy historical data on this song. I have already said as much about this song as I care to. I'm not shocked to see it in this hymnal. On the contrary, I feel a sense of déjà vu. Have I really only just gotten to this hymn now? Nothing that I have seen so far in this book would sound out of place alongside this song.

Hymn 549: Wonderful grace of Jesus is by Haldor Lillenas (1885-1959), whose Norwegian birth fits right in with our theme of "Norwegian Style Tackiness." But this particular scion of Norwegian-American Lutheranism is not a particularly good example to hold up to families struggling to pass on a Scandinavian Lutheran heritage to their children. For Lillenas apostasized to the Church of the Nazarene, a Holiness group where his bestselling brand of Gospel music was a better fit. Musically, "Wonderful grace" is a part-song that is totally out of the range of a congregation accompanied by an all-too-mortal organist. It requires an a capella choir of a certain agility and (for the optional high G at the end) a wide vocal range. For all that, it's not especially interesting to listen to.

Finally (for now), Hymn 550: When we see Christ--first line: "Oft-times the day seems long"--is by Esther Kerr Rusthol (1909-62). While the three stanzas bemoan this life's way of trying our patience, the Refrain assures us: "It will be worth it all when we see Jesus; Life's trials will seem so small when we see Christ..." After listening to a dozen songs like this, I find that very reassuring. It's funny how, from a certain twisted point of view (like mine), this hymn seems to be describing itself: "We're tempted to complain, to murmur and despair..." The solution to these woes is a bit facile and trite. "Let Jesus solve your problem--just go to Him in prayer." Is it really that easy? Where is it written that He will necessarily solve your problem? What about "My grace is sufficient for you," etc. (1 Corinthians 12:7-9)? And here are the joys of heaven: "a harp, a home, a crown..." What, no wings? (A little sarcasm there).


robert said...

My goodness! You do seem to find a lot to criticize in some perfectly fine hymns and gospel songs.

As to Charles Gabriel's "My Saviour's Love," and its reference to "Jesus, the Nazarene," that's taken right from Scripture (Matt. 2:23). When the song is sung slowly and meditatively, it is beautiful.

And I've sung (and conducted) Haldor Lillenas's "Wonderful Grace of Jesus" with congregations of many different sizes. Musically, they've handled it quite well. But the thrill of the song comes from its celebration of the overwhelmingly abundant grace of God.

Mr. Showalter's "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" is also inspired by Scripture (Deut. 33:27), and actually grew out of a double tragedy in which he offered the consolation of the Lord to two young men. (The song needs to be sung a bit slower than it often is, though.)

I could go on with some of your other examples, but I'll stop there.

It's one thing to appreciate a particular genre of sacred music more than others, as you seem to do. But to mock songs that have blessed the saints for many years is a put-down that is neither courteous nor kind. And sometimes it simply reflects an unfortunate unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

Robbie F. said...

Sorry you missed my point. What I'm mocking is Lutherans using these songs in their worship. While they may work in their proper context (and as artifacts of American culture I can actually appreciate them) they have nothing to do with Lutheran spirituality and in many cases actually militate against Lutheran teachings.

The "bad taste" I am ridiculing is the "bad taste" of Lutherans thinking these songs are appropriate in their church. As I said in another place on this thread, if they're really Lutherans they won't be able to do these songs well & if they can do them well, they're not really Lutherans. I have no call to judge any other religious context. But I have a right and even an obligation to bear witness when Lutherans allow the camel's nose into their tent.