Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NST 16

We continue our labor of (admonitory) love where we left off, in poking fun at the hymn selection of the Ambassador Hymnal, with its water-thin doctrinal content, glue-thick adherence to artistically inferior music, and general unsuitability for group worship in a church that bears the name Lutheran...

Hymn 606 is Nothing between (first line: Nothing between my soul and the Savior), with words and music by Methodist minister Charles A. Tindley (1852-1933), giving additional credit to one Dan Peterman (b. 1925) for his harmonically undistinguished, part-songy arrangement of the tune. The only moment where the music is remotely interesting is the rhythm of the words "Nothing preventing the least of his favor" in the refrain, especially surprising given the page layout of AH, which places this trip hazard right after a page break. Meanwhile, the text puts into each worshiper's mouth the boast, "I have renounced all sinful pleasure--Jesus is mine! There's nothing between." Is this one of those things that's OK to sing, even if it isn't necessarily true, because we hope that by singing it we will convince ourselves to do it? Either way, the message grates against Lutheran ideas in several ways. It smacks of decisionism, for one; it denies the means of grace, for another. With great effort one could correctly interpret this hymn as an expression of total devotion, but all the heavy lifting seems to take place at "my" end. What ever happened to "Jesus does it all"?

Hymn 608 is Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, John Henry Newman's (1801-90) words set to the tune "Lux Benigna" by John B. Dykes (1823-76). I have already said as much as I ought to about this hymn. At the risk of saying more than I ought, I might add that Newman phrases his anthem to Christ in such a way that you might think the only relevance He has for our life lies in His moral influence. Newman's piety seems to be all about Jesus' impersonal, mystical involvement in our journey of spiritual experience, rather than any objective, historical, flesh-and-bone facts about who He is and what He has done.

Hymn 609 is We would see Jesus, for the shadows lengthen, words by Anna B. Warner (1827-1915, the author of "Jesus loves me, this I know") set to the tune "Consolation" by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47). Having sung and played some lovely pieces by Mendelssohn, I find it hard to believe this straight-edged, square-cornered piece represents his original intentions. More likely, it has been adapted within an inch of losing all semblance to its maker's handiwork. Its gushy effeminacy, unfortunately, is probably authentic. The text takes its departure from "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21), a phrase that I saw engraved on a sign inside the pulpit of a church where I once preached. I find the point of that simple sign easier to take than this hymn, because for all the hymnist's (and the singers') avowed wish to see Jesus, they don't seem able to locate Him in the preached Word and the Sacraments. Apparently, if you follow Miss Warner's line of thought, you don't really get to see Jesus until we get to heaven. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the heaviness of such phrases as "Other lights are paling" and "Yet the spirit lingers" until one really feels a longing for death.

It strikes me, just now, how interesting it is to see 608 and 609 on facing pages, when one is all about making the best of this life, the other about marking time until the next. Isn't it amazing that such opposites can exist side-by-side without bursting the shackles of tackiness?

610 is Jesus, Rose of Sharon (first line: "Jesus, Rose of Sharon, bloom within my heart"), with words by Ida A. Guirey (no dates given, early 20th century) and the tune "Rose of Sharon" by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). When I look at the list of all the songs to which the latter contributed, I feel a sense of despair. It's not that it isn't a nice tune; in fact, as harmonically sedentary, echoey part-songs go, it's quite lovely. And except for the premillennial implications of the last stanza ("Till the nations own Thy Sov'reignty complete..."), the text makes nice use of the Rose-of-Sharon metaphor. Except for one thing: Song of Songs 2:1, where the biblical image of "rose of sharon" appears, seems to apply it not to Christ but to His Bride. How embarrassing! For four whole stanzas we're addressing Him as the female character to whom, moreover, He stands as Bridegroom. Tsk.

611 is Teach me Thy Way, O Lord, a hymn in the same meter as "Nearer, my God, to Thee"--which is worth mentioning because there are many such hymns and they all breathe the same spirit. Both the lyrics and the tune ("Camacha") are by one B. Mansell Ramsey (1849-1923), whose fame now rests almost solely on this hymn. It's all quite nice, in a nothing-special way that contrasts depressingly with the hundreds of outstanding Lutheran hymns left out of this book. Perhaps as a sign that Ramsey was more musician than hymnographer, the overall pleasantness of the hymn almost obscures the fact that it calls on Jesus, in all kinds of troubling situations, not for His comfort or grace, but for information and advice: "Teach me Thy Way," again and again.

612 is I'm but a stranger here, a hymn by Thomas Rawson Taylor (1807-35), wedded to the tune "St. Edmund" by Arthur S. Sullivan. Click the link on the composer's name and you'll see that I've already thrown this hymn down and stamped on it. I am ashamed to say this hymn has even infected the piety of my own Missouri Synod, going all the way back to The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), so what I say about it discomfits me as much as anyone else; but I am not the only one. My ears still sting from the harangue on this hymn, of which one of my seminary profs unburdened himself over a decade ago. The gist was that one can sincerely sing a hymn like this only if one believes either that Christ's death and resurrection obliterated the incarnation, or that He was only ever "made man" in appearance only. This thought seems to lie implicit behind all such hymns of pietistic renunciation; because what Christ did not assume, He did not redeem. Hence this life and all that it has in it is meaningless; the only real thing awaits us in heaven. This is a hymn that should fit right into the spirituality of Christians who now, more and more widely, opt for cremation rather than burial; because they have imbibed the idea, in common with pagan culture, that after the soul departs, the body is a worthless empty shell.

On the other hand, a Christianity founded on the conviction that God and Man became one Person in Christ, never again to be separated, will also insist on the distinctive practice of Christian burial--the planting of a seed still precious to the Lord who redeemed it; the respectful preservation of an honored vessel; the peaceful slumbering of a saint who will one day soon be awakened, transformed, and glorified for eternity. The body, and the material world in which it lives, are not just so much dead weight to be sloughed off so that the spirit can be free; rather, when your soul and body are separated in death, your soul pines for the part of yourself that you have left behind, until the whole "you" is reconstituted again. Because the eternal Son became flesh, died, lives again, and now sits at the Father's right hand, all creation has been renewed and sanctified to the holy use of God's holy people. Even while it writhes in birth pangs and awaits the deliverance to come, it is still God's world where He has called us to live, and how we live in that calling is of great consequence. To say, "I'm but a stranger here, Heaven is my home," etc., is basically to deny all that and say, "Phooey on this life! It's all just a tedious layover before our flight to the real destination." My prayer is that a few who read this will give this serious thought. Perhaps then this hymn will stick in their throat as it does in mine.

615 is More about Jesus (first line: "More about Jesus would I know"), with words by Eliza E. Hewitt (1851-1920) and the tune "Sweney" by John R. Sweney (1837-99). It's a catchy little part-song number with a jaunty, swinging rhythm concealing its static harmony. But rather than teaching us more about Jesus, it goes on and on for four stanzas (with a refrain), ceaselessly pounding the moral imperative to learn more about Jesus. Stanza 2 prays, "Spirit of God, my teacher be, Showing the things of Christ to me"--prior to any hint of how one gets access to that Spirit. Stanza 3 does locate where you can learn "more about Jesus"--"in His Word...hearing His voice in ev'ry line," which at least saves the hymn from failing to tell you how to learn more about Jesus; but the accent seems to be on absorbing useful information about Jesus rather than finding Him coming into your life through Word and Sacrament. "More about Jesus" is all very well, but once you have absorbed all the data available about Him, are all your problems supposed to be solved?

623 is Face to Face with Christ my Savior, a hymn in the meter of "What a Friend we have in Jesus," with words by Carrie E. Breck (1855-1934) and music by Grant C. Tullar (1869-1950), the author of a well-known devotional poem called "The Weaver." Again, the assumption of this hymnal seems to be that as "conservative" Lutherans, it behooves us to preserve a given slice of the past. Unfortunately, the slice selected by AH is the American Protestant culture of the mid- to late 19th century, a crucible in which anything distinctively Lutheran must boil away. The emphasis in this particular hymn is so inimical to Lutheran theology that it can only turn up the flame. For now we look forward to seeing Jesus "far beyond the starry sky," but until then, "Only faintly now I see Him, With the darkened veil between..." In other words, He is not with us as He promised (Matthew 18:20; 28:20); rather He is separated from us by an infinitely vast distance, if not actually separated from His assumed humanity; and so we cannot, in our present life, participate in full communion with Him through Word and Sacrament. What a bummer it would be to believe this. I don't think I would be able to wait to meet Jesus face to face; I would probably blow my brains out.

Then come several hymns I haven't the heart to pick apart except to remark on their "old-time religion" part-song music, which (I find) suffuses worship with the lukewarm, sickly sweetness of spiritual sentimentality, a flavor that generally makes me want to spit. Thus the tunes "Han skal öppna Pärleporten" by Elsie Ahlwén (set to 625 "He the pearly gates will open"), "Saved by Grace" by George C. Stebbins (626, first line "Some day the silver cord will break"), and "Ahnfelt" by Oskar Ahnfelt (627, "There many shall come from the east and the west") tease my tonsils and test my gag reflex, especially the Ahnfelt one because its polka-band banality replaces a beautiful Swedish tune called "Der mange skal komme."

629 is the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," including all four stanzas--most of which you only knew existed because your 10th grade U.S. history teacher forced you to learn one of them by heart. It's nice to know where to look in case you need to find those other stanzas, but it's strange to think of them being sung in church--particularly the bloodthirsty lines consigning all enemies of the star-spangled banner to "the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave," etc. 630 is "America, the Beautiful," 631 "My country! 'tis of thee," 632 the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," 633 a patriotic hymn by Leonard Bacon (1802-81) identifying the Plymouth Pilgrims as "our fathers," and 634 "O Canada" (in the interest of being fair and balanced). I guess when your church body is centered in Minnesota, you have to take extra care to make sure you're covered in case the wind blows your church across the border. Happily, this is not the Lutheran hymnal that contains "Maple Leaf Forever"--though I assure you, there is such a book.

So, in the last analysis, being American (or, at minimum, Canadian) is at least as much intrinsic to the piety of this hymnal as being Lutheran. Perhaps more so; because its hymn selection is thoroughly steeped in American cultural Christianity, and where that conflicts with Lutheran teachings--well, you can guess which one is set aside....

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Positive feedback from Glenn in Michigan, who writes (in part):

"It just happened that I was looking for information about several hymnals and hymnaries that I’ve purchased with the idea of considering them for a potential church planting about an hour north of here, in two years, and I saw your comments on the Ambassador Hymnal from a couple of years ago (which is done by another free association of Lutherans). That’s how I found your blog.

"I just wondered if by chance you had ever had a chance to look at these two. [Glenn means the EV. LUTH. HYMNARY, which I put alongside TLH 1941 as the best American Lutheran hymnals, and CELEBRATION HYMNAL, which I have yet to evaluate.] I’d be curious about your opinion. I kind of thought the Ambassador Hymnal wasn’t that bad of a choice, but was amused and interested in your blog (though to be frank, most of the hymns you cited, I’ve virtually never heard used in any Lutheran churches I’ve gone to). I took your point about wanting to have good theology behind the hymns to heart, though, and this is what my prior (Missouri synod) pastor, now deceased, used to say as well."

Thanks, Glenn!