Saturday, August 14, 2010

NST 14

For once, we need not pick up directly from where the previous post on "Norwegian Style Tackiness" left off. Hymns 558 through 562 in the Ambassador Hymnal could be done by a Lutheran congregation without a qualm, although I'm a little leery of whether such hymns as "Great is Thy faithfulness" and "It is well with my soul" are really at home in Lutheran worship. I tried to write something mean about them, but I couldn't--especially after hearing the tear-jerking story of how and why Horatio Spafford wrote the latter. (Hint: He made this confession of invincible faith while hastening across the Atlantic to bury all four of his children, who had been killed in an accident at sea.) I had to conclude that not even I am that mean.

However, the sight of Hymn 563, Hiding in Thee (first line: "O safe to the Rock that is higher than I") brings out my bitchiness in all its power. William O. Cushing's (1823-1902) lyrics are a study in the thoughtless juxtaposition of religious clichés: for example, the line "In the tempests of life, on its wide, heaving sea" is immediately followed by an allusion to the hymn "Rock of Ages," which makes God sound like a shipwreck hazard. Could this be interpreted as a Rock that protects us from the raging sea? Sure. But where would be the fun in that? Ira Sankey, meanwhile, provides a cute little tune that, except for a handful of notes, is supported entirely by two tiresome chords and that, in my imagination, would not sound out of place at a polka festival.

Hymn 564: God will take care of you (first line: "Be not dismayed whate'er betide"), has words by Civilla D. Martin (1869-1948) and the tune "God Cares" by her husband, Walter Stillman Martin (1862-1935), a former Baptist minister who had apostasized(!) into the restorationist movement. Having served a Lutheran parish in a region that had a "Christian Church" at every rural route junction, I am compelled by experience to pray that Lutherans would give no quarter to thoughts, feelings, or cultural artifacts engendered by that religious movement. And yet here it is in a "Lutheran" worship book! Folks, the spirit behind this hymn is an enemy of evangelical doctrine, diabolically effective in planting theological tares that are nigh unto impossible to uproot.

Is this an ad hominem argument rather than a critique of this hymn and its merits? Sure. Here's all I have to say about the hymn and its merits: The music makes me sick. There isn't enough to the words to make out whether it has merits or not. Other than endlessly repeating that "God will take care of you," its four stanzas furnish a total of 8 lines of distinct content which, for the most part, adds up to a series of adverbs modifying that thesis. It seems to concern itself with "First Article" issues, God providing for His children and sustaining them through trials. There is no Christ, cross, forgiveness, or spiritual power in it other than the assurance that God cares. Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" runs almost as deep, and it's more fun to listen to. Are its merits, or lack thereof, compelling grounds for barring this hymn from Lutheran services? No. But they don't give much reason to allow them in, either.

Hymn 565: My faith has found a resting-place by Eliza Edmunds Hewitt (1851-1920), a schoolteacher who was intermittently crippled by a spinal injury caused by one of her students. While it's encouraging to know that her disability did not damage her faith or make her bitter, her song (here set to a cute little Norwegian folk tune) doesn't hold a candle to "How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord." A Presbyterian and a friend of Fanny Crosby, Miss Hewitt expresses some ideas in this hymn that ought to stick in Calvinist throats, let alone Lutheran ones. For example, the second line of the hymn is "Not in device or creed"--in other words, doctrine is irrelevant.

There is a fine line between "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, under the authority of Scripture alone" and Gospel reductionism, and I'm not sure which side of that line this hymn stands on. "Enough for me that Jesus saves: This ends my fear and doubt..." Does it? Bully for you! Some of the greatest saints and doctors of the church couldn't say that. Is it right to put these words in the congregation's mouth, as though it applied to all? "My heart is leaning on the Word: The written Word of God..." That's good, but is there no other form in which the Word can come to you? "I need no other argument, I need no other plea..." Who's arguing? Obeying the Savior's command, we proclaim; we baptize; we absolve; we feed Christ's body and blood to those afflicted with fear, doubt, and the sin that still lives in us like a poisonous parasite. God takes pity on our weakness and so gives us His forgiveness, life, Spirit, and blessings in so many ways, so that even if one Pennsylvania schoolmarm doesn't need them, they are there for those who do.

The historic fact "that Jesus died, and that He died for me" is not enough unless it is applied to us, here and now, by forms of the word more living and dynamic than dead letters on the page (i.e., preaching and teaching and the sacraments), by which Christ forms in our hearts the faith whose articles we confess in the creed. Having embraced this creed, we can take comfort from it and its liturgical footprint in our life, wherein Jesus' blood is not past but present. Other than that, the hymn is all right. A Calvinist could sing it (except maybe the line that disses creeds). But what's in it for Lutherans?

I'm starting to think I mis-named this thread. Maybe it should be "Swedish Style Tackiness." For Hymn 568: Day by day was translated by Andrew L. Skoog (1856-1934) from Swedish lyrics by Lina Sandell-Berg (1832-1903), the "Fanny Crosby of Sweden." Perhaps best-known for her hymn "Children of the Heavenly Father," she frequently collaborated with a guitar-strumming minstrel named Oskar Ahnfelt (1813-82), whose tune "Blott en Dag" graces this hymn. Virtually indistinguishable from the style of part-song that prevails in this hymnal (and which, it seems, one would be mistaken to consider distinctively American), Ahnfelt's music has undeniable popular appeal but nothing like a churchly character. Skoog's translation, meanwhile, provides an enjoyable diversion from whatever point Mrs. Sandell-Berg's prolixity is meant to convey. For example, Skoog rhymes "moment" with "bestowment," a combination I have never heard before. Stanza 2 is mined with the adverb "fain," always a bad-taste "red flag" for me, and continues with lines so convoluted that the effort of singing them well (even with a bit of rehearsal) will probably defeat any attempt to understand what one is singing. Probably the trickiest line of all three stanzas is the last one, in which a phrase identical to one sung earlier (with a new syllable on each note) is grouped into two-note slurs. Like walking through a minefield on your tongue, this makes it hard to appreciate the scenery.

I'm going to include Hymn 570: Jesus, Savior, pilot me simply because I have yet to hear it sung and played well by a congregation and its organist, present company excepted. The rhythm is a real S.O.B. Both singers and pianists of an average skill-level tend to struggle with it and, sooner or later, to stop aiming for accuracy. After that, the only possible outcome is a big, syrupy mess. AH omits the time-signature, and Grandma Wurlitzer (who didn't get very far in music theory) may have a hard time totaling up the dotted-eighth, dotted-quarter, and triplet-eighth figures. With no one shouting "One! Two! Three!" into her ear-trumpet, how is she even going to know that a strong 3-beat pulse can save this hymn? Played and sung accurately, John E. Gould's (1822-75) tune "Pilot" has a certain Classical lilt. Played and sung as usual, it sounds like a disorderly herd of pigs wallowing in a puddle of lukewarm shmaltz. And though Edward Hopper's (1818-88) poetry has all the charm of a powerful metaphor relentlessly extended throughout three six-line stanzas, I'm not sure that people educated in today's public schools will know what to make of it unless you spend twice as long explaining it to them.

Hymn 571 is He Hideth My Soul (first line: "A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord") by Fanny Crosby, set to the tune Kirkpatrick named after himself. Based on Elijah's experience of seeing the Lord's backside, the Refrain croons: "He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land. He hideth my life in the depths of His love, and covers me there with His hand." Holy Peekaboo! Unless you know the Biblical context, you might find this a bit creepy. Stanza 1 isn't much fun until the last line before the refrain, "Where rivers of pleasure I see" (Careful! Those leave a stain!) The same line of Stanza 2 says, "He giveth me strength as my day" (Huh?) What relevance this hymn holds toward the Gospel of Christ crucified for our justification is only apparent to one skilled in reading between the lines. Nowadays, anyone with that kind of subtlety ought to have the taste to admit that neither Crosby's poetry nor Kirkpatrick's music is any good.

Hymn 572: O love that wilt not let me go is a hymn that reveals my own bad taste. I know that Albert L. Peace's (1844-1912) tune "St. Margaret" is an excessive effusion of musical sentiment, and that this hymn out of Scottish Presbyterianism owes at least some of its popularity to the moving story of what prompted George Mattheson (1842-1906) to write its lyrics--something about being jilted on the eve of their wedding when his fiancée learned that he was going blind. It's the stuff of sad Country-Western songs! And yet it works so well in the warm glow of Peace's throbbing, arching, sighing melody. Knowing this, try not to get choked up by Stanza 2: "O Light that foll'west all my way, I yield my flickering torch to Thee; My heart restores its borrowed ray, That in Thy sunshine's blaze its day May brighter, fairer be." It's really a touching song of surrender and hope that, finally in Stanza 4, speaks of Christ's cross. In a way, it's too good to be in this hymnal. The tackiest thing about it is the idea of wasting it on a congregation, most of whom will mumble their way through it in a half-hearted, inattentive way, while the organist pulls out the "tremolo" drawbar so far that the auditory strobe effect could send synesthetes into epileptic seizures. There should be a book where this hymn belongs: a songbook for private devotions, containing biographical blurbs as well as the words and music for each hymn.

Hymn 574: I have a Friend so patient, kind, forbearing is obviously a hymn that could only be sung to a Swedish folk tune, such as "One Radiant Morn" (also the tune of Hymn 324). I mean, just look at that first line! Appropriately, therefore, the text is John Jesperson's (1858-1943) translation of Swedish lines by Carl Olof Rosenius (1816-68). Rosenius was a revivalist preacher who published a journal titled Pietisten, if that gives you any idea. If it doesn't, there's no point in my saying another word because the influence of Pietism is alive and well in American Lutheranism, especially churches dominated by those of Scandinavian descent. Nothing I can say is going to convince them that Pietism is the oil that greases the slope from Lutheran orthodoxy to the meaningless "conservatism" of American Evangelicalism (whose strongest principles involve the rejection of key teachings of Christ) and from there on to total apostasy. But again, I've said all this without saying one word on the merits of this hymn.

So here they are. Stanza 1 piques the interest of the unconverted tent-meeting-goers by describing what a great friend my "Friend" is without directly revealing, until the middle of Stanza 2, that we're talking about Jesus. Rosenius does express key points of the Gospel message: Jesus liberates us from sin, death, and hell, bruised the serpent's head, ransomed my soul, covers my guilt with His blood and merit, etc. So, other than the hymn's slow start (due to its rhetorical purpose of drawing the sinner into the revival narrative) it scores some good theological points. But it has this to work against: the Divine Service is a gathering of the faithful, not a tent revival!

Hymn 575: Count Your Blessings (first line: "When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed") is by the same Johnson Oatman who wrote Hymn 502. The tune "Blessings" is by Edwin Othello Excell (1851-1921), also known for his popular, 1909 arrangement of "Amazing Grace." His music for this hymn sounds like a chorus from a Jerome Kern musical. I should know; I once single-handedly played half the male members of the chorus in a college production of Oh, Boy! All right, so Kern was better. But this show could have closed the night before that one opened. Oatman's lyrics, meanwhile, have a "musical comedy" sensibility of their own, ripping so many phrases out of other, better-known texts that its only defense against the charge of being unoriginal is that it was intended for laughs. Stanza 1's "tempest-tossed" comes from the base of the Statue of Liberty. Stanza 2 has "burdened with a load of care," loosely quoted from "What a Friend we have in Jesus," and "as the days go by," reminiscent of the big number from (you guessed it!) Oh, Boy!.

The remaining lines are full of instructive phrases such as "Money cannot buy your reward in heaven." It's weird to hear sacred lyrics being sung to this music, and almost equally weird to hear "Count your blessings, name them one by one," repeated over and over, used in a literal sense as sacred text. Maybe the reason this hymn reeks of bad taste is that the people who created it, together with the people who selected it for this hymnal, therein betray their inability to perceive the existence of sacred time and sacred space, and to distinguish that which belongs there from that which does not.

2 comments:

robert said...

Your denigration of some fine gospel songs (seemingly, in the main, because they aren't "Lutheran") is sad to see. One particular target, "Hiding in Thee," caught my attention today because this is the 187th anniversary of Mr. Cushing's birth.

You seem overly concerned that he has mixed symbols in the second stanza. But this kind of carping and nitpicking is uncalled for. Cushing knew his Bible--which, incidently, sometimes mixes images together too (cf. Isa. 54:11). The Word of God uses a rock as a symbol for the Lord numerous times (e.g. Deut. 32:3-4). He provides a shelter for His people (Ps. 18:2; 32:7; 143:9), and also, as the Rock, can give a higher vantage point on the trials of life (Ps. 61:2).

These songs--including others you demean--were often written out of deep, personal experiences with the Lord. They may not always be of highest literary quality, but many who sing them sense their authenticity and are blessed by them.

And incidentally, you do realize that what you vulgarly call your "bitchiness" is defined by the dictionary as being spiteful, malicious, hateful and mean. That is a sin, something you need to deal with.

Robbie F. said...

I stand by my bitchiness. I think if there is a sin here it may lie with the "Lutherans" who choose such spiritually dubious and artistically mediocre hymns at the expense of the richness of hymnody faithful to the Lutheran confession.

I own my bitchiness with pride because I grant everyone else the right to hold their own opinion, no matter how obnoxious I may find it. I don't necessarily make the leap from disagreeing with someone's opinion and accusing him of sin.

If you're a Lutheran, you should look more critically at the words you sing in worship, as to whether or not they jive with the "faith once delivered." If not, te absolvo, depart in peace.