Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tacky Hymns 24

Moving on with the latter half of the 100's range of songs in the Missouri Synod Lutheran youth hymnal All God's People Sing! (CPH, 1992)...

151 "King of Kings" is by Sophie Conty and Naomi Batya. It consists of two musical-textual phrases, each repeated, which can then be combined in a two-part round: "King of kings and Lord of lords, glory, hallelujah! Jesus, Prince of Peace, glory, hallelujah!" By now I am conscious of my own tedious repetitiveness and substantive thinness when I criticize these songs' tedious repetitiveness and substantive thinnness. Other than that, my only quibble with this song is that the round would probably be more effective if each phrase were sung only once, rather than repeated.

152 "Knock, Knock" is a ditty based on Luke 11:9-13, by Betty Pulkingham. It's really not as awful as the title suggests to veterans of the knock-knock joke. The refrain says, "Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and ye shall find. Knock, knock, knock, the door will open unto you ev'ry time." There then follow four stanzas paraphrasing Jesus' remarks about whether a father would give his son a stone for bread, or a serpent for a fish, or a "scorpion that can bite" instead of "an egg over light." Wait. I just snorted milk up my nose. There's even a super-sized stanza that includes Jesus' conclusion ("If ye then, being evil...") and adds a line about "the best gift of all...the Holy Spirit." It could be worse. But there's the misleading title, and the milk-up-the-nose thing.

155 "Let All Things Now Living" is only tacky to the extent that one of my organ teachers once complained, whenever she hears the tune THE ASH GROVE (which this hymn uses), she thinks of girl-scout campfire singalongs.

160 "Life Is a Journey" is another Terry Dittmer opus. Its first three stanzas draw on the faith-journeys of Noah sailing the ark, the wise men visiting the baby Jesus, and Paul traveling to Rome. Stanza 4 leaves open whether our journey will include, among other things, "giggles or tears." The refrain emphasizes that "Life is a journey" in which "God in His mercy" blesses us. While I can imagine uses for this hymn (particularly at the closing devotion of a district or national youth conference), I can also recall better "hymns of farewell" for similar occasions, hymns which give us more than the simple assurance that God will bless our journeys. Hymns that can really be quite touching on a deep level that cannot conceivably be penetrated by a hymn with the word "giggles" in it.

161 "Lift Every Voice and Sing," with words by James Weldon Johnson and music by John Rosamond Johnson, is often described as the "African-American National Anthem." Originally written in 1900 to celebrate the opening of a racially integrated school in Florida, it's a very effective poem backed up by music that blends Afro-American spiritual gestures with the overall shape of a patriotic march. But let's face it, it's not about the Christian gospel; it's about the struggle for racial equality. Congregations (especially predominantly white ones) that sing this hymn must lose some credibility for being taken in by its religious metaphors and mentions of God. And they certainly lose time that could be spent clearly articulating the gospel.

162 "Lift High the Cross," with words by George Kitchin and Michael Newbolt, is tacky in my books, firstly and foremostly, because of the tune CRUCIFER by Sydney Nicholson. I'm sorry. I just feel that one can only endure so much Pomp and Circumstance in one's lifetime, and this tune (through hackneyed repetition at every celebration of the Church Triumphalistic) has already exceeded my quota. As for the text—I like its emphasis on Christ's cross as our means of victory, but I weary of its military conceits. Here's what it says about baptism: "All newborn soldiers of the crucified bear on their brows the seal of Him who died." It covers the day of resurrection in one line: "Raise us, and let Your cross the magnet be." And of course, this life for Christians is depicted as a march to conquest. It's a funny way to talk about the cross, though. It never speaks of "taking up the cross" in the sense of bearing a burden through a dark vale of temptation, fear, and regret. It never directly acknowledges Jesus' cross as an object of suffering or humiliation. And so the victory it trumpets might just be hollow.

163 "Light One Candle," by Natalie Sleeth, seems to be a song for the lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath. You light one candle each for hope, peace, joy, and love, because He brings hope/peace/love to every heart when He comes. Also, "Ev'ry nation will find salvation in Bethl'em's baby boy." Thus far the text. The tune is about equally banal. As a song dramatizing a liturgical ritual (even one as relatively unimportant as illuminating an Advent wreath), it has the odd effect of reducing the meaning of that ritual down to a minimum of meaning, rather than deepening it.

164 "Listen! You Nations" has words by John Arthur and music by Bert Carlson. The text reads like a "prose versification" of lines from the Old Testament, appropriate for Epiphany and its season. I see no harm in it. The music, however, is aggressively uninspired—perhaps as a result of being a setting of an unmetrical text. Though I can think of many vocal pieces that overcome that difficulty beautifully.

165 "Lord, Be Glorified" is by Bob Kilpatrick. Apart from repetitions, stanza 1 prays, "In my life, Lord, be glorified today." Stanza 2: "In my song," etc. Stanza 3: "In Your church," etc. But without saying anything that God has done for me, does the song glorify Him or promote the sanctification either of my life or of His church? Another one of those ironies...

166 "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" (in my heart) is an Afro-American spiritual with four stanzas and a part-songy refrain requiring two melodic voices to answer each other with antiphonal in my hearts. Besides to be a Christian, the song declares that I want to be more loving, more holy, and like Jesus. But sadly, the song gives the hears and singers no help in attaining these desires.

168 "Lord of All Nations, Grant Me Grace" is by Olive Wise Spannaus (with editorial alterations), and benefits greatly from the 16th-century tune TALLIS' CANON (which really can be sung as a four-part canon, with entries spaced four beats apart). The text is a prayer to be used by God as an instrument for social and racial justice. I really like parts of it (especially stanzas 3 and 4, which could be excerpted for a discussion of the Eighth Commandment). As a devotional poem I can see no harm in it, though the fifth stanza (asking "that all I touch...may be divinely touched by Thee") stirs recent memories of a gimmick in which blessed teddy-bears were taken to the sick as a sort of humanly-instituted sacrament (or, to put it the way another Lutheran pastor did, as church-sanctioned magic and idolatry). And then there's the little problem—excuse me for mentioning it—that hymns like this open the tent door to admit the camel's nose of social issues, in a context where God's law and gospel should be all in all. If it didn't do such a good job of selling an application of law and gospel to the topic, I might be able to say something really nasty about it. And that's what makes me suspicious.

170 "Lord of the Dance" is a 1963 ditty written by Sydney Carter and set to Carter's adaptation of the Shaker tune SIMPLE GIFTS (cf. Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring). It's a narrative of the activity of God/Christ from creation to eternal life, metaphorically cast in the form of an ongoing dance. It reminds me of the traditional English carol "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," which follows a similar procedure. It also reminds me of the Men Without Hats hit "The Safety Dance," especially where it reports that the scribes and Pharisees would not dance (and if they won't dance they're no friends of mine). I don't particularly object to anything this hymn says or doesn't say. I simply question the artistic judgment of its creator and, especially after witnessing a Bunny Hop liturgical procession being danced to the accompaniment of this song as performed by the Christian "acoustic thrash" duo Lost and Found, I question the sanity of the youth leaders who let this hymn under the turnstile.

174 "Make Me a Servant," with words and music by Kelly Willard, is another CCM piano ballad/prayer that expresses little more than what you can make out from the title. Of course, it's all law—all about what I want to do for God—but in that it's like many of the ditties we program our kids to accept as Christian hymns. What makes this one particularly obnoxious is how egregiously it blows an opportunity to proclaim gospel (e.g., what it means that Christ has been our Servant).

179 "My Tribute" (To God be the glory) is a 1971 gospel torch-song by AndraƩ Crouch. Sifting through the repetitiveness of its text (short though it is), it says this much: "To God be the glory for the things He has done. With His blood He has saved me; with His pow'r He has raised me." And I'll hand it to AndraƩ, that's pretty good compared to a lot of the CCM tripe swirling around today's worship drain. But it's most definitely a solo number. A tear-jerking, passionate, deeply personal solo. Enticing groups of kids to sing this will, in the short run, result in serious aesthetic pain. In the long run, it will simply lead them away from a treasure-trove of hymnody that they should be taught rather to value.

180 "New Testament Song" (author unknown) is a list of the books of the New Testament set to a tune similar to the folksong "Hush Little Baby" (a.k.a. "Mockingbird"). It's more economically done than the "Books of the Old Testament" song, I'll grant it that. But once the tune overflows the melodic dimensions of "Mockingbird," it aspires toward heights of uninspiredness attainable only by composers under the age of 10.

188 "Oh, He's King of Kings" is the American spiritual in which lines of a hymn text similar to "I know that my Redeemer lives" alternate with repetitions of "No man works like Him." It seems to be an example of African call-and-response music that might have thrived in the cotton fields of the pre-Civil War South. As a cultural artifact, I'm sure it has value and deserves to be taught and performed. But as a hymn it clashes blindingly with the culture of American Lutheranism, and its text is a pale imitation of a hymn that is itself one of the palest Easter hymns in our repertoire. Some traditions, I think, are best left to the appreciation of academia.

189 "Oh, Sing to the Lord" is a certain G. Cartford's adaptation of Psalm 98 in both English and Spanish, set to a Brazilian folk tune. As a token bit of Spanish hymnody in an otherwise overwhelmingly anglophone songbook, its usefulness to Hispanic believers will be symbolic at best. As a versification of a psalm, it doesn't have much to say for it either. All it says is, "Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song" (repeated several times), and "For God is the Lord and He has done wonders" (repeated several times). I can think of several secular songs that are at least as edifying as that. And of course, there's the question whether it's in good taste to use a Brazilian popular melody in church, especially outside of Brazil and its cultural sphere. If I thought the answer was "yes," I wouldn't have brought it up.

193 "On Eagle's Wings," with words and music by Catholic priest Michael Joncas, a leader in the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican Council II. Its drippy sentimentality and pop-music style are tacky enough when viewed in their fullness, as in several "grown-up" Lutheran hymnals of my acquaintance; this book compounds the guilt by snipping away the stanzas and leaving only the chorus. It's like Reader's Digest Condensed Tackiness; or Borden's Sweetened, Condensed Shmaltz. Make no mistake: this is a solo number, or at best a choir piece. And did I mention drippy sentimentality?

195 "Open Our Eyes" is not the lovely choral piece I remember from college, but a banal little CCM ditty by Bob Cull. The sum total of its lyrics is: "Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus to reach out and touch Him and say that we love Him. Open our ears, Lord, help us to listen. Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus." I can't quite make out what this cloud of poetical fluff is supposed to mean in a church that denies the power of the sacraments. Where are you supposed to see Jesus? In your pious spiritual imagination? Which eyes, then, are we talking about? There's a tiny hint about listening to His Word, but the stress falls so strongly on this mysterious eye-opening business that the listening bit almost doesn't matter. Whatever reality we are talking about in this song, it is evidently one where we can approach Jesus without sacramental means, and where the burden is on us to reach out and touch Him, and say that we love Him—rather than being reached, touched, and loved by Him.

196 "Pass It On" (It only takes a spark) is the Christian scout-troop campfire-singalong ditty par excellence. Kurt Kaiser's text and tune have exactly the same pith as the Coca-Cola jingle "I'd like to teach the world to sing." He uses a couple of wholesome analogies (a warm fire, springtime) to describe "how it is with God's love once you've experienced it," then concludes by saying, "I wish for you, my friend, this happiness that I've found..." It's the kind of emotionally manipulative love-bombing on which cults are built. If, that is, you can stand to be hugged, metaphorically or otherwise.

199 "Praise God, Praise Him" (whose first line, confusingly, is "Praise God from whom all blessings flow") is a 20th-century hymn from the south of India, translated from V. M. Iyer's original Tamil by the late Daniel Niles. The tune TANDANEI is credited to "Carnatic Tamil," which being translated means (I think) the Tamil-speaking minority in the Indian state of Karnataka. It's a dancelike little number that imposes a bizarre poetic meter on its text, resulting in such lines as "His the cup, so dare it. His the yoke, so bear it. His the sword, so wear it. His the load, so bear it." The first stanza is all praise. The other three alert Zion that her Savior, Bridegroom, and Master is coming, urging her to meet him in the appropriate fashion. It strikes me as altogether law-oriented. For example, "There is All your service to be rendered, your self surrendered." There's even a touch of "You can run but you can't hide."

And so AGPS goes, through Hymn 200! Have you noticed that the hymns are arranged in alphabetical order by title, without regard for purpose, topic, or season of the church year? I've studied many hymnals, including several children's hymnals, and I've never seen this method of arrangement before. You might think it would be convenient to have the songs organized this way. But the only convenience I can see in it is enabling song-leaders to find a particular piece that they already know by name, without having to consult an index of titles or first lines. To find out what's available on a given topic, meanwhile, you have to consult the book's Topical Index, or perhaps its Scriptural Index. No big deal. I just think it points up an interesting shift of emphasis in the suggested methodology of using the book.

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