Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tacky Hymns 30

Continuing to poke irreverent fun at the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship/ELW (see previous posts in this thread for more details)...

332 "I heard the voice of Jesus say" is a hymn by Horatius Bonar (1808-89) that I have seen in many hymnals, set to several different tunes. ELW is not the first to use Thomas Tallis' THIRD NOTE MELODY, also known as the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which, in turn, is well known at least among fans of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Actually, THIRD NOTE MELODY is by far the least tacky tune of the many to which I have known this hymn. It's a poignantly beautiful piece of Renaissance-era music, full of objective merit and all the more moving for it; whereas most of this hymn's other tunes are tacky little pieces of bland drivel, notable mostly for being among the two or three hymns in a given hymnal to switch from a minor key to a major key halfway through. The reason that type of tune so frequently pairs with this text is built into the hymn itself, in which each stanza begins with Bonar relating something he heard Jesus saying, and ends with him reporting what he (Bonar) did and the result. What makes this beloved hymn tacky, even when it isn't set to a particularly tacky tune, is the fact that what we're singing is essentially Bonar's testimony of his personal experience, and not a proclamation of God's promises or saving acts, except to the extent that the things Bonar "heard the voice of Jesus say" are valid interpretations of claims Jesus actually made in the gospels. If you want to push your interpretation of Bonar as far as he pushes his interpretation of the words of Jesus, you might conclude that the experience he reports is a valid and necessary outcome of receiving these promises of Christ by faith, and so they go some way towards being a proclamation of divine promises; yet still, in form, they are a narrative of what "I" (Horatius Bonar) heard, did, and experienced as a result. And so, formally at least, putting Horatius Bonar's words in the mouths of everyone at worship—good, bad, or indifferent—is a bit like encouraging people to confess a pious fiction. Just a bit.

333 "Jesus is a rock in a weary land," (a shelter in the time of storm) is an African-American spiritual, the type with a refrain marked off for "All" to sing, and three stanzas marked "Leader or All." The refrain is somewhat repetitive, but the stanzas deliver a surprising amount of content. The first stanza relates the raising of Lazarus from the dead (application: "No one can do like Jesus"). The second depicts the weakness of Jesus, as manifested in his washing of the disciples' feet. The third points out, "Yonder comes my Savior, him whom I love so well; he has the palm of victory and the keys of death and hell." So, not bad, all things considered. But the rhythm of the melody makes the "Leader" option much more feasible than "All," not just for the verses, but also for the refrain; unless by "all" we mean a select chorus with experience in singing this style of music.

334 "Tree of Life and awesome mystery" has words and music by Marty Haugen, the Roman Catholic apostle of banality. There is a hymn called "The Tree of Life with every good" in The Lutheran Service Book/LSB which, in spite of a tune that irritatingly reminds me of Billy Joel's "And So It Goes," runs circles around this piece of low-taste doggerel. Its first sin, right at the top, is using the words "Tree of Life" as a personal name for Jesus, which can only be confusing to folks who have been conditioned to expect it to mean either a certain tree in the Garden of Eden or (by a carefully prepared analogy) Jesus' cross. Yet here, suddenly, without any preparation, we are expected to understand it as a name for Jesus himself. The hymn's second crime against good taste is rhyming "myst'ry" with "hist'ry," which sets a low tone for everything that comes after. Its third crime is waffling about the historicity of Jesus' death and resurrection, claiming that He dies (present tense) "in all of history," only to "rise with every morn." Huh?? And that's only the first stanza out of—well, I'm not sure how many stanzas to say this hymn has. There are three that you're supposed to sing any time that you use it, and then there are six different options for the final stanza, depending on whether you use the hymn for "general" purposes or for any of the five Sundays in Lent. Among those stanzas are lines that I respect, though to appreciate them fully you need time to think about them (such as Stanza 2: "Every person lost and broken wears the body of our Lord"—which, now that I think about it, might not be as great as I first thought). There are lines that frankly make me scratch my head (Stanza 3: "We the river, you the sea"). And there is the depressing prospect that at some church, somewhere, people are having to sing these dubious stanzas again and again, throughout Lent.

336 "Lamb of God" (first line: "Your only Son, no sin to hide") is a CoWo anthem by Twila Paris, also inflicted on the Missouri Synod via LSB. O ditty, how do I ridicule thee? Let me count the ways! One: It takes Ms. Paris only one line of lyrics to forget who the subject of the sentence is. Two: She makes "sod" rhyme with "God," and though it's a "guilty" sod, we're not allowed to snicker. Three: The refrain asks the Lamb to "wash me in your precious blood," yet I can easily imagine this hymn being sung with gusto by a group that denies the power of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Four: It's very much a solo torch-song to Jesus, not a congregational hymn. I forbear to discuss Stanzas 2 and 3 because—apart from understanding that they are an individual's anthem to Jesus—I find no cause of death in them. Let that at least stand as proof that I'm not just looking for ways to be mean. I have no interest in digging up buried tackiness. Why should I? Plenty of it is lying out in plain sight!

By this point in the book, I have skipped a couple of songs by Fanny Crosby because I already poked fun at them in earlier posts on this thread. Please do not assume that all of the hymns I am skipping over are free of tackiness.

341 "Now behold the Lamb" is by Kirk Franklin (b. 1970), the choir leader known for leading such "urban contemporary gospel" groups as One Nation Crew. This song's three short stanzas are arranged in close, three-part harmony, like a sort of gospel barbershop, and I think the harmony is more essential to the musical effect than the melody by itself. This, combined with the tricky pop-music rhythms, puts this song out of the reach of the average singing congregation and into the preserves of the choir or a trio of soloists. So why is it in a hymnal?

342 "There in God's garden" (stands the Tree of Wisdom) is a weird hymn, translated (I believe) from Slovak and set to K. Lee Scott's modern tune SHADES MOUNTAIN. The tree it describes sounds more like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil than the Tree of Life, the tree whose fruits Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat; yet it is this tree of which stanza 2 says: "Its name is Jesus." This tree is further described as scarred by suffering and fed upon by "the tendrils of our human selfhood"; its foliage tangled with "thorns not its own"; starved by our greed and choked by our despite; yet reaching toward us, offering to take our sickness into itself. Stanza 5 responds, "This is my ending, this my resurrection... This have I searched for... This ground is holy." Stanza 6 concludes with the song of all heaven, thanking Christ for offering us healing and pardon through His passion. Overall, this hymn is a painful spectacle, partly because some of what it does is excellent, but that is all muddled with twaddle growing out of the embarrassing choice of which Tree to personify as Christ.

348 "Stay with me" is another Taizé Community/Jacques Berthier product: brief, primitively simple, and severely limited in its range of usefulness. Its full text, including repeats: "Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray. Watch and pray."

350 "They crucified my Lord" is the African-American spiritual in which every other line of all five stanzas is "and he never said a mumbalin' word." A helpful footnote explains that "mumbalin' = complaining." There is also a refrain that adds, "not a word," three times over. Apart from that and the opening line, the sum total of the song's content is: "They nailed him to a tree, they pierced him in the side, the blood came streamin' down, he hung his head and died." So, in broad strokes, it depicts Jesus' suffering and death. But it doesn't say anything about its significance. From this, the only application one gathers from Jesus' passion is an emotional response to it, emphasized by the reflection that he didn't complain through it all. For the gospel, however, you must shop elsewhere.

354 "Calvary" (stanza 1: "Every time I think about Jesus") is another African-American spiritual whose refrain, for sheer bloody-minded repetitiveness, beats everything I have seen so far into a cocked hat. "Calvary," it says, "Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary"—and then at last—"surely he died on Calvary." Besides this refrain there are four stanzas, but you already know all the words to one of them; they all repeat one line of text three times before ending with, "Surely he died on Calvary." Stanza 2 asks, "Sinner, do you love my Jesus?" Stanza 3: "Don't you hear him say, 'It is finished!'" Stanza 4: "Jesus furnished my salvation." Based on these three lines, it actually proclaims more gospel than all five verses of "Were you there when they crucified my Lord" (hymn 353). But you really have to love this kind of thing to put up with it for the length of time it takes saying this much, especially when you factor in the refrain. I reckon that, in a full performance with all the repeats as marked in the book, you'll hear the word "Calvary" sung 35 times. Hear it, I say; because it's going to be sung not by the congregation, but by either a soloist or a select group of well-drilled singers.

358 "Great God, your love has called us here" is a fairly good, modern Holy Week hymn by Brian Wren (b. 1936), set to Norman Cocker's (1889-1953) beautiful tune RYBURN. I hate to bring it up, but some of this hymn's appeal to the specific needs of today's culture is based on imagery that, unfortunately, lets the air out of the sense of sacred space that mostly characterizes Wren's poetry. For example, in the middle of Stanza 2: "By social forces swept along, by pow'rs and systems close confined..." This is not the language of sacred poetry, but of newspaper editorials and bureaucratic reports. It's an almost perfect hymn, its depiction of Jesus washing the disciples feet so beautiful that it almost makes me want to cry, but for these two lines. It's the kind of thing that could be fixed if the author would take the text back and revise his work. He needed to spend more time on it. But ELW published it the way it was: a lovely picture with a smear of tackiness across it.

360 "Love consecrates the humblest act," by Silas McManus (1845-1917), begins with an example of the aesthetically questionable tactic of changing nouns into verbs that brings to mind a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon ("Verbing weirds language"). Line 2 of Stanza 1 says Love "haloes mercy's deeds." And lest you think McManus meant "hallows," he uses that word as well, in Line 4. Oh, well. Poeming weirds language too, I guess.

364 "Christ has arisen, Alleluia" (Mfurahini, haleluya) is an Easter hymn with five long stanzas and an equally long refrain, translated from Bernard Kyamanywa's (b. 1938) original Swahili and set to a Tanzanian folk melody. Musically, it is very much the kind of thing that has to be sung in parts, preferably by a choir trained to sing the way African choristers do, which is quite a different method of sound production than they teach in America. The text is solid in a rugged, rough-and-ready way. What sets off my tackiness alarms is the single stanza gratuitously included in Swahili: yet another symbolic celebration of our multiculturalism.

374 "Day of arising," (Christ on the roadway) is another Susan Cherwien/Carl Schalk piece of mildly creative, moderately meaningful, modern devotional poetry, riffing on Christ's Easter-evening appearance to the Emmaus disciples. Stanza 2 takes this story's application into our own life-journey, where "Christ walks with us, ever awaiting our invitation: Stay, do not part." Oh, is that what he's waiting for? And that's up to us, is it? Stanza 3 does nicely confess that Jesus has promised to be with His church gathered, in bread and wine. Stanza 4 then relapses into banal cuteness with such lines as "Grant us your vision..."

375 "Alleluia! Christ is Arisen" (¡Aleluya! Cristo resucitó) is a 1974 Easter hymn by Luis Bojos, about whom I can tell you nothing, not even what country he hails from. In this book, you can sing all four stanzas in either Spanish or English—if, that is, you can manage the very Latin rhythms of the Bojos' tune SANTO DOMINGO, whose name leads me to guess that the author may come from the Dominican Republic. It would really be a good, usable hymn in an anglophone context if the tune were replaced with something in a conventional 9.8.9.8. meter. But as it is, this "hymn" will actually depend on the talents of choir and band, probably relegated to special celebrations of the church's Hispanic outreach or partnership with Latin American churches—if the personnel best equipped to sing it can be spared from attending a church that actually has a Spanish-language hymnal. For, as I have pointed out before, a few hymns like this do not make this a bilingual hymnal.

376 "Thine is the glory," (risen, conqu'ring Son) is an Easter hymn whose French author and English translator both died in the 1930s, set to the tune JUDAS MACCABAEUS, which I believe was adapted from G. F. Handel's oratorio of the same name. Amazingly, I haven't heard that oratorio yet; but I've heard this tune played by electronic carillon systems whose selection of hymn tunes ran the full gamut from Lutheran chorales to "The Old Rugged Cross." So, in my mind, this hymn tune is indelibly marked by associations with vanilla Protestantism, riding a quaint tandem bicycle with the hymnographically dubious mania to baptize themes from classical music as hymn tunes. The third layer of association one finds, after peeling these first two back, is a strain of quintessentially British pomp and circumstance that makes this tune arguably the English counterpart to Haydn's Austrian Imperial Hymn (a.k.a. the Deutschlandlied). It makes one think of men wearing imperial mustaches and jackets bordered with gold lace, doing their bit for king and country.

377 "Alleluia! Jesus is risen!" is Herbert Brokering's Easter hymn, set to David Johnson's tune EARTH AND ALL STARS. It would have to be a spectacularly good hymn to efface the tacky memory of the hymn originally set to that tune; but the text "Earth and all stars" was also by Brokering, so there seems to be little hope of that. And no more should there be. Already by the midpoint of Stanza 1, Brokering has become so swept up in the enthusiastic spectacle of Christ's resurrected triumph that he can hardly put a coherent thought together: "Splendor, the Lamb, heaven forever! Oh, what a miracle God has in sight!" This alternation between sentences and overwhelmed half-thoughts continues through five more stanzas, which would give most people plenty of time to calm down and get their thoughts in order, unless it is Brokering's purpose to keep people excited to the point of babbling. Stanza 2 applies Jesus' Emmaus Easter appearance to our worship time: "Breaking our bread, giving us glory: Jesus our blessing, our constant surprise." Stanza 3 drives the vine/branches metaphor of John 15 to the conclusion: "Gift of the future now flowing to me." Stanza 4 loses control of the moods of its verbs: "Weeping be gone; sorrow be silent: death put asunder, and Easter is bright." Is?! Not be?? Most of Stanza 5 disintegrates into a flurry of sentence fragments depicting "city of God... golden Jerusalem" among other dazzling but confused images, concluding: "Sing with creation to God the I AM!" Like Jaroslav Vajda, Brokering seems to have tapped into a well of pure imagery and unleashed a gusher, making only feeble efforts to cap it or control it through definite assertions. I'm not saying the hymn is all surface with no substance underneath; but the substance is swirling around in disconnected fragments, leaving it up to the reader's, hearer's, and singer's imagination to organize them into a meaningful whole. JUST what Lutheran hymnody needs!

379 "Now the green blade rises" is John MacLeod Campbell Crum's (1872-1958) Easter text, set to the French carol NOËL NOUVELET. Refrain: "Love is come again like wheat arising green." For four three-line stanzas, Crum struggles to use the biblical image of the dead seed sprouting to new life as a metaphor for Christ's resurrection. Yet he fails to make use of a prime opportunity to describe Christ as the "firstfruits from the dead," etc. In fact, the hymn applies Christ's resurrection to our lives not in the sense "because He lives, we will live also," but in a touchy-feely, psychological way: "When our hearts are heavy... your touch can call us back to life again," etc. Each time I re-read this hymn I hope to find more in it than is actually there.

388 "Be not afraid" is another brief Taizé/Berthier piece, running twice through the words: "Be not afraid, sing out for joy! Christ is risen, alleluia!" Kids' stuff, and not much of it.

390 "The risen Christ," (who walks on wounded feet) is an Easter hymn by Nigel Weaver (b. 1952), set to Walter Greatorex's (1877-1949) interesting melody WOODLANDS. (Some in the Missouri Synod may know this tune, though perhaps not by name, from a worship-supplement setting of the Magnificat beginning, "Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.") I read most of the first three stanzas of this hymn with great interest, and saw a good deal of merit in its depiction of Jesus' wounded feet carrying him through the closed door of the room where the disciples waited in fear, his wounded side being used to breathe the Holy Spirit on them, and his wounded hand breaking the bread that revealed him to the Emmaus disciples. What confused me about the text was the way its present-tense depiction of these Easter appearances seemed to suggest a broader application to Jesus' activity in general. And yet at the end of the Emmaus stanza, Jesus "quickly disappears"—not exactly something you want to apply to His presence in today's church. And it bypasses opportunities to explicitly point out Jesus' presence and activity in the rite of Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar. Finally, in stanza 4, he adds insult to injury (the injury, that is, of saying nothing about Absolution or the Lord's Supper) by making the application of all Jesus' Easter appearances a matter of working for social justice. What a sadly wasted opportunity for a great modern Easter hymn!

396 "Spirit of gentleness" is a Pentecost hymn by James K. Manley (b. 1940). Stanza 1 tells the Spirit how He "moved on the waters... over the eons," suggesting a "theistic evolution" interpretation of Genesis 1 in which the second verse of the Bible describes an indefinite but vast length of time—contrary to the plain and simple sense of the words, "And the evening and the morning were the first day." In Stanzas 2 and 3 the hymn depicts the Spirit blowing through the Old and New Testament, in very general terms that stop short of, for example, naming Jesus. And then Stanza 4 rhapsodizes about the Spirit's present activity in the church: "Our women see visions, our men clear their eyes" (and that's why we have women's ordination); "With bold new decisions your people arise" (so ongoing inspiration is our excuse for rejecting the teachings of Scripture). It's a bizarre theology of the Holy Spirit, whose subject is not specifically breathed out by Jesus on the cross (a minor event in the scale of the hymn, compressed into half of a line), nor bound to work through divinely instituted means (which are never mentioned at all). It's as though anyone who chooses to feel inspired by the Spirit can teach or do whatever he wants, so long as it doesn't stand in the way of the bold new directions this church body's leadership wants to go.

397 "Loving Spirit" is a Pentecost hymn Shirley Murray (b. 1931), set to the early American shape-note hymn-tune RESTORATION. After Stanza 1 establishes that we are addressing the Holy Spirit, Stanza 2 begins: "Like a mother you enfold me" (because feminine imagery is obviously our opening move when discussing the work of a Person of the Trinity). It then prays that the Spirit would "feed me with your very body, form me of your flesh and bone." This sounds funny if you've been brought up on the idea that it is the Second Person of the Trinity, and only He, who has been made "flesh and bone" and who offers us His body to eat. Stanza 3 deepens the confusion by beginning, "Like a father you protect me." All right, it's suitably masculine imagery. But might it not be confusing to describe the Holy Spirit "like a father," when the analogy of fatherhood properly applies to only one Person of the Trinity (and guess which one)? The very next line, "teach me the discerning eye," is a prayer that, had it been granted to the author of the hymn, might have prevented this much from being written. Then it asks, "Hoist me up upon your shoulder, let me see the world from high." Ma'am, I suspect you were already high by then. The honor-roll of relationship-based metaphors continues with Stanza 4, "Friend and lover..." And Stanza 5 repeats Stanza 1 word for word. It's not that there isn't any merit in this hymn. But there is decidedly more mud than clarity in its waters.

399 "O Holy Spirit, root of life" is another Pentecost hymn that confuses me as to which Person of the Trinity it is supposed to be addressing. Jean Janzen (b. 1933) loosely based her text on 12th-century writer Hildegard of Bingen; it is set to the Reformation-era chorale PUER NOBIS. Stanza 1 is mostly notable for the phrase "with lustrous movement of your wings," which is pretty in an impressionistic sort of way. Stanza 3 is also mostly OK, though when it invites this winged Spirit to "carry us, encircling all above, below, and through the world," it sounds like a more wide-ranging thrill-ride than I signed up for. But the real trouble comes when Stanza 2, without a clear transition to addressing a different Person of the Trinity, informs whatever Person it is speaking to that "you free us by your living Word, becoming flesh to wear our pain." In my opinion, the comma in the middle of that excerpt is damnable. Delete it, and the problem (mostly) goes away. Punctuation matters!

So much for today's excerpt from ELW. Stand by for more hymnological bitchiness, coming up in the 400s range of hymns. Till then, Lutherans, resist the allure of tackiness wherever it may be found—but especially on holy ground!

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