Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tacky Hymns 32

Further to my ongoing mission to shine the light of sarcasm on Tackiness on Holy Ground, we continue to page through the hymns of ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship; Augsburg, 2006). You are welcome to flip backward through this thread for more information about what makes hymns tacky in my view. We resume our study of ELW where we left off, at about Hymn #425.

Lest anyone accuse me of attacking any and every new hymn that I haven't seen in print before, let me point out that the Angel of Death to Tackiness here passes over 426 "Sing with all the saints in glory" by 19th-century poet William Irons, set to W. B. Roberts' (b. 1947) touchingly lovely modern tune MISSISSIPPI1; 428 "Give thanks for saints" (Give thanks for those whose faith is firm) by Martin Leckebusch (b. 1962), set to the dignified tune REPTON by C. H. H. Parry; 429 "In our day of thanksgiving" by W. H. Draper (1855-1933), set to Richard Strutt's late-Romantic tune ST. CATHERINE'S COURT (a piece of music, however, not at all to my taste); and even 431 "O Christ, what can it mean for us" by Benedictine nun Delores Dufner (b. 1932), though I have lampooned her work elsewhere, and though this hymn is set to Henry Cutler's (1824-1902) mildly tiresome tune ALL SAINTS NEW ("The Son of God goes forth to war," etc.). And so today's first victim of my rapier wit will be...

433 "Blessing, honor, and glory" (to the Lamb), words and music by Geoff Bullock and David Reidy. Your first clue that we're pushing the boundaries of what is appropriate for Lutheran worship is the copyright notice at the bottom of the page, which lists (among two other organizations) Marantha! Music. Another thing that puts my nose out of joint is the sheer wastefulness of the layout of this song, which fills a whole page with its through-composed entirety (albeit with melody and lyrics only; for the harmony parts you need the accompanist's edition). Without any loss of clarity or completeness, or any confusion between lyrics (because they don't change from one repetition to the next), they could have saved at least a third of the space by using a repeat sign and first- and second-ending brackets. Why? Because the whole hymn consists of the same refrain repeated three times (with a slightly different ending the third time), followed by the same exact stanza after each of the first two refrains. The refrain says, "Blessing, honor, glory to the Lamb. Holy, righteous, worthy is the Lamb." The verse says, "Death could not hold him down, for he is risen! Seated upon the throne, he is the Lamb of God!" It actually makes me wistful for "This is the feast of victory." Meanwhile, the accompaniment would have to be spectacular to redeem the boringness of the melody. I have the accompanist's edition, but really don't need to look at it. I can confidently guess that it's a piano accompaniment of the rolling, broken-chord persuasion: useless on the organ, and so better suited for supporting an amplified soloist than a singing congregation.

437 "On Jordan's stormy bank I stand" is an old-timey altar-call anthem by Samuel Stennett (1727-95), set to a decorated arrangement of its own folksy tune. It's from approximately the same school of hymnody as "Leaning on the everlasting arms," if that helps you form a mental picture. Pretty enough, if a little sugary and underlaid by a stodgy, static harmony, the tune carries a text whose refrain is ever, "I am bound for the promised land. Oh, who will come and go with me?" The four stanzas only rise above the level of a rosy portrait of the painless beauty of heaven so far as to mention that "God the Son forever reigns" there, and that I shall "see my Savior's face" there. It's a pretty thin thread on which to hang the preaching of cross-shaped, vocational living in this world, inspired by God's incarnation in Christ, His redemptive work, and His benefits to us in Word and Sacrament. In fact, it's so thin that it probably snapped under the weight of my previous sentence.

438 "My Lord, what a morning" is an African-American spiritual that I once heard sung at a Roman Catholic funeral. It sounded all right then—but it was being sung by a soloist. And it really must be sung by a soloist, or by a choir, or by some combination of the two (perhaps with the choir humming in the background, only to sing out at one crucial moment in each stanza). Nearly the whole hymn is a refrain, with only one line of text specific to each stanza. So the entirety of its message is: "My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall. You will hear the trumpet sound, the sinner cry, the Christian shout to wake the nations underground, looking to my God's right hand." It's a gorgeous cultural artifact, but as a vehicle of Christian proclamation it is decidedly minimalistic.

447 "O blessed spring" (where word and sign) is Susan Cherwien's baptism hymn, set to R. B. Farlee's tune BERGLUND. Some of what I find tacky about this hymn may be a result of poetry straining the limits of language, but I don't know. To write publishable verse takes a great deal of work, self-criticism, and willingness to reconsider and revise. Since this verse was indeed published, it stands to reason that the author worked at it, looked at it critically, reconsidered it, and revised it; so if it doesn't say what she meant, it's her lookout. Stanza 1, however, says that in baptism, "Christ enjoins each one to be a branch of his life-giving Tree," which is a funny way of using "enjoins" if it is supposed to mean "grafts." Taken in the usual sense of the word, it seems to mean that in baptism, Christ commands us to join ourselves to Him; but the actual joining is our doing, not His. Honestly, the first half of the stanza ("where word and sign embrace us into Christ the Vine") is stronger, though still weirdly reminiscent of the clingy, Devil's Snare vines in Harry Potter. Verse 2 sounds like an excuse for letting kids run wild and fall away from the faith, because they will come back later. While this is a good argument for the validity of baptism even among those who fall away, it is far from being the kind of encouragement best given to the parents of a newly baptized child; they need rather to hear that this baby is their mission field, and since it is now God's child and they its guardians, they are accountable to God for bringing it up in the faith. Stanzas 3-4 continue the hymn's driving metaphor of "baptism through all four seasons of your life," and Stanza 5's confession that "word and water join us to your Tree of Life" is the strongest part of a hymn that gets better as it goes along. But it stumbles at the starting gate of its run around the whole circle of baptismal life. It could be so much better, so much stronger, without the weak word-choice in Stanza 1 and Stanza 2's fatalistic outlook on "training up a child in the way he should go."

449 "We know that Christ is raised" (and dies no more) is a baptism hymn by John Geyer (b. 1932), set to C. V. Stanford's (1852-1924) tune ENGELBERG. This is one of those modern hymn texts that doesn't bother with such old-fashioned nonsense as rhyming, and I guess that's all right. But I also guess that before an artiste has the right to tinker with the properties of his art form, he should prove himself to be their master. And this, alas, is not apparent from Geyer's text. Line 2 of Stanza 1 says, "Embraced by death, he broke its fearful hold." Did he choose the word "embraced" out of a thesaurus? Was it the only synonym for "seized" that fit the meter? I only ask because it is such a cuddly, affectionate word that it interferes with the violent imagery of the rest of the line. At the same point in Stanza 3, Geyer writes that "the Spirit's fission shakes the church of God," which is surely the first time I have seen the word "fission" used in a hymn. Does he really know what it means, though? For while splitting the atom does unleash an awful lot of energy, it is ambivalent as to whether this release of power will prove constructive or destructive. Stanza 4 talks about the new creation in which "Christ's new body takes on flesh and blood"—another strange statement whose intent is at best vague. And in the next line, just before the final Hallelujah, Geyer uses the word "universe"—which strikes me as being a too-prosaic, technical-sounding, profane alternative to "heav'ns and earth." This hymn is loaded with striking ideas, but some of the author's word choices should have been struck through and written over.

1To be sure, I was already familiar with this hymn via The Lutheran Service Book (LSB; Concordia, 2006).

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