Friday, August 9, 2013

Tacky Hymns 26

This is the one where I finish snickering at the tastelessness of 1992's Missouri Synod Lutheran youth hymnal, All God's People Sing...

Song No. 240 "This Is My Commandment" is another round, or canon, with a tune that (I suppose appropriately) falls into an ABBA form. The complete text, based on Jesus' words in John 15:11-12, is: "This is my commandment that you love one another, that your joy may be full." Far be it from me to criticize the words of Jesus—or even the narrow scope of the selection thereof, since you can't expect a musical exercise of this kind to fit in much more text. What I do criticize, however, is the suggestion at the bottom of the piece, that additional stanzas say, "This is my commandment that you trust one another... serve one another... lay down your lives..." The middle one of these three "commandments" arguably comes out of the footwashing discourse in John 13, and has some direct Biblical support (Galatians 5:13). But I have doubts about the scripturalness of the other two optional stanzas. And if Christ didn't actually give us the commandment, putting those words in His mouth may be a more serious error than mere bad taste.

241 "This Is the Day" (that the Lord hath made) is Les Garrett's setting of Psalm 118:24. His lyrics repeat, several times, the above-stated text, plus the words "I will rejoice and be glad in it." Repetition of one or two lines of a Bible text is a mainstay of modern Christian music, and I am tired of repeating over and over that children have long since proven they can absorb, and even appreciate, hymns that squeeze more content into the same amount of time. And as for the tune, it's nicely written enough for what it is, though once again, I won't recruit many allies by pointing out that generations of children have proven equal to mastering beautiful pieces of fine-art music, challenging the assumption that you can only get through to them on the level of tunes like this. So the only picky-picky observation that leaves for me is to point out that this ditty has plenty of room in it to say something specifically Christian, or about Christ, but it declines to do so.

242 "This Is the Feast of Victory" (for our God, Alleluia) is John W. Arthur's adaptation of the Dignus et Agnus canticle ("Worthy is the Lamb"), excerpted from the book of Revelation, broken up by repeats of the above refrain. The musical setting given here is the one by Richard Hillert, familiar to Missouri Synod hymnal users of the "flyover states" since 1982; though the "saltwater states" tend to lean toward another setting, and the ELCA's latest hymnal has something on the order of 10 different settings of this song. Actually I am pleased to see this piece in the hymns section of the hymnal, where it can be chosen at the discretion of whoever picks hymns for worship, rather than in the liturgy, where it tends to usurp the place historically occupied by the Gloria in excelsis ("Glory to God in the highest"). This shift from Gloria to Dignus really upsets me when it becomes an unchangeable default setting in the attitudes and expectations of church members (an issue that once brought me as an organist into heated conflict with a congregational chairman). This permanent takeover is especially obnoxious when you reflect that the Dignus est Agnus text is really only fitting at a couple of points in the church year, or perhaps (at most) throughout the Easter Season. So rather than complain of the tackiness of finding this hymn here, I applaud it for being where it truly belongs. Whether Hillert's tune has the timeless quality that justifies using it 30 years on, is a topic for another time.

244 "Those Who Trust in the Lord" (are like Mount Zion) is another Heinz-werner Zimmermann/Marjorie Jillson collaboration, about which I would say exactly what I said about #231.

245 "Thy Loving-Kindness" (is better than life) is by Hugh Mitchell, and its tune is notated on two staves so you can better appreciate the echo-effect of its two melodic voices. After repeating the above text a few times, the piece progresses into the refrain, "My lips shall praise Thee; Thus shall I bless Thee. I will lift up my hands unto the Lord." There follow three more stanzas about lifting up my hands, voice, and heart unto the Lord. So really, from the standpoint of conveying knowledge of God, it's over after Stanza 1. And it reminds me of "Bill Grogan's Goat."

247 "Thy Word Is a Lamp" (unto my feet and a light unto my path) combines the lyrics of Amy Grant with the music of Michael W. Smith. And unlike some previous renditions of CCM oldies, this one doesn't stop with the refrain, but includes two stanzas of tender, romantic expressions of devotion to Jesus, who (for His part), is always there beside me when I feel afraid, etc. So, in essence, it's about the positive feelings I have toward Jesus and the comforting sense of Him that fills my religious imagination. As for His presence in the word and rites where He promises He will be found—as for actual acts of divine mercy He has historically done—not a word.

248 "To Him Who By the Power" is John Ylvisaker's setting of Ephesians 3:20-21: "To Him who by the pow'r within is able to do more than we can, to Him be glory without end. Amen! Amen!" It would be a nice end-of-service blessing, perhaps, if it was more explicitly Trinitarian. Another consequence of its Trinitarianness being only implicit is the possibility that, taken out of context, the phrase "power within" might lead people to look for the source of that power elsewhere than in the Holy Spirit and the means through which He is pledged to us. Other than that, it's no better or worse than any of the other brief canons spaced throughout this book. (This one happens to be a four-part canon).

250 "Wake Us, O Lord, to Human Need," set again to Thomas Tallis' eponymous Canon, is a four-stanza prayer by Phyllis Kersten, asking God to make us more sensitive and compassionate to human suffering. Some of Ms. Kersten's poetic diction is so bold and creative that it rides the edge of good taste, such as "Unblind our eyes" and "free our hands for healing touch"—phrases suggesting that what we ask is a miracle, as a result of which we will be ready to do miracles for God. Some of her word-choices, however, fall firmly on the banal side of the line, such as "worried frown," "those let down," "retarded child" (no longer considered an appropriate term), "delinquent," and the concluding line, "Because you love, we love and care!" Finally, a possible (though probably unintended) interpretation of Stanza 3 suggests that God's love gives us such a "healing touch" that we can even "cure" poverty, delinquency, and developmental disabilities. Read the stanza for yourself. Could it not be read that way?

251 "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is an Afro-American spiritual whose five stanzas all begin with the same line repeated three times, and end with "Soldiers of the cross." Minus these repetitions, the full text is: "We are climbing Jacob's ladder. Ev'ry round goes higher, higher. Sinner, do you love my Jesus? If you love Him, why not serve Him? We are climbing higher, higher." All my works, my choices, my activity, my power—all law, and no gospel. And instead of being all in all, Jesus is held up as an emotional hostage to cajole you into trying harder.

252 "We are the Church" (refrain: "I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus all around the world! Yes, we're the church together!") is by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh. Its five stanzas put the doctrine of the church in Kindergarten language, moving from "The church is not a building" (but a people), to the church is made of people of all times and places, to the church's activity of worshiping (and sometimes laughing and crying together); then it mentions Pentecost and the spread of the Gospel. All of this is well enough, if a bit uninspired and questionably churchly; but the ditty concludes with the one verse that tips it across the good taste/bad taste line once and for all: "I count if I am ninety or nine or just a baby; There's one thing I am sure about and I don't mean maybe..." You read that right. If you've been waiting all your life to find a hymn, in an actual hymnal, falling back on the "I don't mean maybe" cliche for its final rhyme, here it is!

253 "We Come, O Lord, This Day" is a three-stanza effort by Michael Bedford in which we first "lift up our hearts" (in Stanza 1) to worship God, then "bow our heads" (in Stanzas 2-3) to pray that He would, among other things, "make clear our goals" (as though we're necessarily doing His will, if only we have clear goals). Though the final stanza goes above and beyond the average kiddie praise hymn in specifically asking for God's forgiveness, it is mostly for sins of omission (failing to do a God-pleasing act of love)—though I suppose that really depends on how you interpret the final line, "Forgive us when we turn away." Somehow this conclusion leaves me feeling a bit down. It makes me wonder whether putting Stanza 1 at the end might not have brightened it up a bit. Or, must maybe, the song could toss in a hint that in worship, we expect to receive the forgiveness and sanctifying power we have been praying for.

258 "We Shall Not Be Moved" is an American spiritual doctored up by John Ylvisaker to include a paraphrase of Psalm 1. And as much as it pains me to say it (because I perceive this tampering as an improvement on the original), there's just something wrong about this whole procedure. I say that with the interests of the original spiritual at heart, though I admit that sounds like the unlikeliest story I have told so far. Plus, whatever may be the song's merit in the history of American folk art, it is not even a tiny bit churchly.

259 "We Shall Overcome" is another Afro-American spiritual brought into the consciousness of the Flower Child generation by the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. There are five whole stanzas with lots of repeats and one line that appears in each stanza: "If in our hearts we do believe..." Will the "someday" when we will overcome, walk hand in hand, and all have peace be in this life or the next? Clearly, based on the history of how this song has been used, it can be interpreted both ways. And if we mean a "someday" in this world, then we're not dealing with biblical promises and probably not anything really spiritual at all. When a church-body begins to imbibe the idea that history is trending toward better things and that human perfection is achievable, something mischievous is at work between that church-body and the Word of Scripture. When the poison has taken its course, what was once a doctrinally faithful synod may become little more than a distinct bloc of voters in the spectrum of secular politics. I would almost rather see this song sung by Lutherans in the context of public persecution—except that Lutherans have their own songs of lamentation and resistance (cf. the "Reformation" section of The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941) that, in my opinion, will feed them much more richly in times of trial to come.

261 "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"—at the serious risk of being hissed out of all good society, including many dear departed souls in heaven—is, I'm sad to say, somewhat tacky. Though I've seen a hymnal set it to a tune other than golden-oldie CONVERSE by Charles Converse—indeed, a much better, brighter tune by Henry Smart, the composer of "Angels from the Realms of Glory"—to breathe a word against this hymn, or to suggest singing it to any tune but CONVERSE, is tantamount to mortal sin and heresy. And yet—and yet—there is absolutely no hymn-tune like this currently playing in wide release, and there hasn't been for a long time. It's a throwback to a style of religious sentiment so old-fashioned that the first-hand memory of its proper time (a time, moreover, when this hymn would not have been countenanced in an LCMS church) is utterly extinct. Not only can no one alive today remember the time when this tune flourished, but few can understand that time and even fewer would sympathize with it. So it is a strange, poorly understood tune that we value because of some notion that it is a golden oldie, which makes us blind to the fact that by any lights that we can now shine on it, it isn't all that good. And it's tricky, difficult to use, as a result of the wide range of rhythmic subdivisions arranged within this tune. Let the organist err by a hair in his choice of tempo, and disaster ensues. A tick too fast, and you're off to the races, after which some panting old lady will swear that if the organist at her funeral tries such a blasphemous joke on her favorite hymn, she will rise up and smite him. A tick too slow, and the organist may find himself backed into a corner after the service with the congregational chairman's finger in his face, demanding (the chairman, not the finger) to know what his problem is. I have had both of these conversations during my checkered musical career, and the chance of either experience being repeated the next time I have to play it is enough to make me a nervous wreck. Frankly, it's just not worth it. Not when the only payoff is a warm feeling that wears off long before the third stanza crawls to its deliberate close. Not when Joseph Scriven's text is little more than a persistent (not to say monotonous) appeal to "Take it to the Lord in prayer." No one whose livelihood depends on the goodwill of a few pewfuls of people who reason that if you mess with their Grandma's favorite hymn there isn't room in heaven for the both of you, wants to be judged on the ability to hit a range of tempi narrower than the eye of a needle, especially amid the blood-sugar fluctuations before and after between-services coffee hour. Folks, consider this an incentive to maintain a well-tuned piano in your parlor and at least one child per generation who can play it. Let this hymn be sung where it really belongs, in the family circle gathered around the parlor piano; and let Junior (who has mastered "Chopsticks," "Heart and Soul," and the first 8 bars of "Für Elise") take his chances.

264 "Whatsoever You Do" is Willard Jabusch's paraphrase of Jesus' "Whatever you do to the least of these" discourse: "When I was hungry, you gave Me to eat," etc. It quickly strays beyond the examples Jesus gave, adding lines about "Hurt in a battle, you bound up my wounds," "When I was little you taught me to read," and several more. What it never does, though, is frame these examples with the context of Jesus telling the story, and the story's conclusion. So it's unclear, from the words of the song itself, whether Jesus is talking to us or whether we're talking to Him; whether it's about what we're supposed to do, or what He does for us. And that's very strange. Possibly even disturbing.

267 "When in Our Music God Is Glorified" is a five-stanza hymn by F. Pratt Green, set to Charles Anders' tune FREDERICKTOWN, which is really quite a lovely example of modern hymn-tune writing. And I ought to be grateful to FPG for contributing to our hymnals this tribute to music itself. But, ingrate that I am, I can't help but observe that it's not really a hymn, as such. It's a nice poem that reasons passionately about the value and power of music in worship. I like sacred poetry and I think it has its place in a Christian's devotional life, but it needn't be sung in the divine service. And in my opinion, this hymn is just too "meta" for public worship. It recruits Christ as a witness in the defense of music, to be sure; but is Christ at the center?

268 "Who Was the Man (refrain: "Rise up and follow") is Katherine Davis' (1892-1980) folksy ballad about Jesus, who calls the fisherman to follow him (Stanza 1), teaches and heals many (Stanza 2), suffers and dies (Stanza 3), and rises from the dead (Stanza 4). Apart from the questions (1) whether Divine Service is the place for folk ditties and (2) whether this song fully succeeds at fabricating the effect of a folk song—neither of which I regard as a settled Yes—I wonder exactly what the singers and hearers of this song will take away from expressions like the end of Stanza 3 ("And when He was laid in a stony tomb, they seemed to hear Him still") and all of Stanza 4, in which the risen Christ is depicted as "here and alive today, like friends you could meet on a crowded street." I would be more comfortable with this hymn if it made a committed itself more clearly as to whether Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and whether His presence today is meant to be invisible (in spirit only), sacramental (bodily but hidden), or visible (without means). Because I'm quite sure this hymn would be acceptable to someone who didn't believe in Jesus' bodily resurrection, ascension, and presence in the Lord's Supper. And that doesn't sit very comfortably with me.

269 "Yes" (first line: "And God said Yes to you! He said Yes to me") is a Terry Dittmer ditty whose syncopated rhythms reminds me of Tom Lehrer tipping a wink to the audience during a mid-phrase rest: "When the baptism water flowed"—wink—"freely..." The refrain is another appeal to the popular idea of "journey" applied to baptismal life, sort of like the "Wet Saints" hymn of hideous memory, only instead of Wet Saints' lounge-lizard smarm, we get the super-cheerful youth pastor's attempt to combine sound theology with kid-friendly hipness. It's an earnest effort by a creative soul hampered by a lack of originality. Stanza 1 forgets itself and almost quotes a whole stanza of "Amazing Grace," before veering off into such mind-numbing banalities as "It's an awesome, lovely sound, It's the sweetest sound around." Stanza 2 takes a "Just say No" approach to resisting the devil, and a "prowl/devour" approach to rhyme. Stanza 3 concludes, "Each and every day is great, It's a day to celebrate," etc. Essentially Romans 6, victory over sin through Baptism stuff, which is all right. It's good material at bottom. But it deserves to be written by a hymn-writer with more of a sense of style.

271 "You Have Put on Christ" (in Him you have been baptized; Alleluia), with music by a certain Howard Hughes, is another tiny little piece that I have heard sung by a choir, as something between a vocalise and a round. Actually, I think I accompanied that choir. And other than its shortness and lack of consequence (unless chanted over and over until the group reaches a state of collective self-hypnosis), the only thing about it that I find tacky is the credit line for the text: "International Committee on English in the Liturgy, 1969." It took a committee of liturgical renewal experts to come up with this? Really?? I hate to complain, since half of the book's references to baptism are squeezed into the last handful of hymns, and this is proportionally the biggest starring role baptism receives in the whole book. But you have to go back one number, to 270 "You Are My Own," author unknown, for an example of a hymn that really proclaims baptism, with an original writer's intent to get through to someone about it in a persuasive and moving way. The "unknown" author of Hymn 270 knows something that all the king's horses and men at Vatican II couldn't work out between them: how to reach hearts with a teaching, preaching hymn.

2 comments:

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

My question is, when are you going to do this to LSB?

In the meantime, may I suggest hymn 436 in Lutheran Book of Worship? It's called "All Who Love and Serve Your City." It's by Erik Routley, who I thought had better sense than this.

Robin D Fish Jr said...

All in good time. ELW is on deck next. I need to give the LCMS a short break.