Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tacky Hymns 36

Further to my last post on this thread, we continue chortling at the hymn selection of the "ELW" hymnal (always pronounced with a silent L)... Always with the reservation that what may be in perfectly good taste in a church that has no sacraments, no confessions, and no culturally and doctrinally rich heritage of hymnody of its own, may yet be mortal tackiness in a church that styles itself Lutheran.

Hymn 506 "The Word of God is source and seed" is a Catholic-Protestant crossover, authored by Benedictine Sister Delores Dufner, with a melody by Episcopalian musician David Hurd. The tune takes its title from the hymn's Latin refrain, Gaudeamus Domino, which has the option of being sung in its English translation, "In the Lord let us rejoice." The first line of each stanza promises something better than what the hymn delivers. Stanza 1 says God's Word is "source and seed," referencing Luke 8:11 and suggesting an application of Jesus' sower/soils parable, in which the Word planted in the heart grows into saving faith. But the stanza goes on to misapply that parable (as too many preachers do), calling on hearers of the word to "make [their] dark earth welcome warm; root deep the grain God bent to sow." Stanza 2 identifies God's Word as "breath and life," echoing Jesus' teaching in John 6:63 that His word is life-giving. Yet according to Sr. Delores, it's up to the hearer to "let the Spirit touch and mend and rouse your dry bones from their grave." Stanza 3 says God's Word is "flesh and grace," after John 1:14, in which the birth of Jesus is interpreted as the incarnation of God the Word. With this obvious opportunity to proclaim the redemptive purpose of this divine Person becoming a man for us, the hymn merely says that he "came to live and love and die," while urging us to "dare to be as Jesus was." From such an excellent beginning (or three beginnings), with so much potential to proclaim what God does, we get a slender crust of the gospel, filled with a Dagwood sandwich of law.

508 "As rain from the clouds" is another hymn by Dufner, set to Jonathan Edwards Spilman's (1812-96) tune AFTON WATER, a tune that my father remembers singing "Away in a manger" to when he was a small child; though I don't know how this could be possible, given that the tune is twice as long as the text. Again the hymn elaborates on Jesus' agricultural metaphors for the activity of God's Word. In stanza 1, the Word is described as rain softening the soil "that the good seed may grow." In the second stanza the Word is grain sown "on rocks and on roadways, in good earth and sand." In stanza 3, the metaphor for the Word is "rays of the sun," which also warm the land "that the good seed may grow." Far be it from me to stand in the way of a poet who bravely mixes a metaphor, but I can think of a clearer way to say that the Word prepares us to believe, enables us to continue believing, and is the message that we believe, all at the same time. Put less directly than that, the effect is rather sloppy and careless, so that wagging heads may wonder, "Is the Word the good seed, or not?"

512 "Lord, let my heart be good soil" is a Handt Hanson hymn that, again, turns all of the gospel content of the sower/soils parable (what God does to us and for us by the saving power of His Word) into law (worrying whether we have a right heart for receiving the Word implanted). What this brief ditty prays for is all right in its way. But what it ignores, in its anxiety about the state of one's own heart, is the unconditional promise of the gospel—which is more to the point of Jesus' parable.

513 "Listen, God is calling" (Neno lake Mungu) is a Tanzanian folk hymn presented with three stanzas in English and one in the original Swahili—because Swahili as a second language is such a big part of Lutheran education. Thank God Swahili-speaking Lutherans need not rely on this book to supply the place of a hymnal; they now have one of their own, and probably little of the thanks for it is due to the multiculturalist water-carriers who edited this book. Set to music of the "call and response" style characteristic of African music, this hymn says in few words what the previously noted hymns fail to mention in their many. The refrain points out that God gives "forgiveness, comfort, and joy" through His Word. The first two stanzas paraphrase Jesus' "Great Commission" in Matthew 28:19-20, identifying the gospel as the message "that he came to save us and set us free" and specifically describing trinitarian baptism. Stanza 3 asks God to keep us faithful in His Word. To the shame of the school of modern hymn-writing that prevails in this book, this hymn—though tacky in an American worship context because of its cultural awkwardness and its sense of being invited in only to stroke our pride in our inclusivity—is actually better than most.

518 "We eat the bread of teaching" (drink wine of wisdom) is a Word of God hymn by Omer Westendorf (1916-97), author of "Sent forth by God's blessing" and "You satisfy the hungry heart" (both of which I previously sprayed with my venom). The tune WISDOM'S FEAST by Jerry Ray Brubaker (b. 1946) sounds like a mash-up of a sentimental CoWo piano ballad and a number from an old-time musical comedy. The tune takes its title from a line in the hymn's refrain, where our worship reaches its goal as we unite in "Wisdom's holy feast." Stanza one depicts Wisdom calling through the city, inviting the hungry to the banquet of salvation. Thus Westendorf takes advantage of Proverbs 1:20 to indulge in a feminine metaphor for Christ. Then, in stanza 2, he depicts Wisdom as preparing "bread and wine," because as we have seen in his other hymns, this is as close as he can come to discussing Jesus' body and blood. Stanza 3 depicts this eating and drinking as a "joyous celebration." Yet without explicitly mentioning Christ, His sacrificial death, or His body and blood, this is only about equally likely to be about the Lord's Supper as Mary Lathbury's "Break now the bread of life" (hymn 515)—which, by the way, most clearly means "hearing the word of truth" when it talks about eating the bread of life.

519 "Open your ears, O faithful people" (Yisrael v'oraita) is a Hasidic traditional hymn, complete with a refrain that can be sung either in English or in Hebrew ("Tora ora, hallelujah!"). You know, in case we ever decide to hold joint services with the local Jewish temple. Until then, the modal inflections of the melody will sit uncomfortably with those members of your Lutheran congregation who happen to be of a Gentile persuasion. The lyrics are slender and repetitive, their main merits being the first stanza's interesting appeal, "Open your ears, O royal priesthood, God has come to you"—which, if it is really what the Hasidim say in their liturgy, has some remarkable christological implications. So also do the words of stanza 2, "They who have ears, now let them hear"—a formula used by Jesus himself. Other than spending a lot of time in proportion to the hymn's textual content urging people to listen to the Word—an injunction some in the ELCA could stand to take more seriously—the main purpose of this song seems to be to give us as little to concentrate on as absolutely necessary while we kick up our heels, celebrating our identity as the true Israel. Triumphalism triumphs again!

523 "Let us go now to the banquet" (Vamos todos al banquete) is Guillermo Cuéllar's text and tune, presented both in English translation and in all three stanzas of the original Spanish. So, again, in the context of this overwhelmingly anglophone hymnal, it's not only an anthem to our cultural diversity but also a testimony to the fact that some cultures are more equal than others. My Spanish is very mediocre, but as I try to compare the original text to the translation, I can't help but feel that something is lost, e.g. when "a la mesa de la creación" is rendered as "to the feast of the universe." Meanwhile, I sense that something not intended by the original author has been added when "Dios invita a todos los pobres a esta mesa común por la fe" becomes "God invites all the poor and hungry to the banquet of justice and good." Some of this material is aggressively banal, as when stanza one says, "With a spring in my step I'm walking." And the hymn concludes with stanza 3's appeal for Christian communism, seeming more concerned with sharing all that we have together, in this world, than with having a share of Christ.

524 "What is this place" (where we are meeting) is a hymn by Huub Oosterhuis (b. 1933)—though I notice it doesn't include any stanzas of the original Dutch. The melody is a 17th century Dutch hymn tune titled KOMT NU MET ZANG, which sounds catchy to me, though I've never heard it before now. The first stanza describes the church building with Dr.-Seuss simplicity, adding: "Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near." Stanza 2 makes a meal out of saying, in a poetic way, that we gather in church to hear "God's free redeeming Word." Stanza 3 then hashes it all up with a description of the Lord's Supper that never moves beyond bread and wine, shared as "a living sign." Of course, it picks up on the new fashion in thinking about the Sacrifice of the Mass when it adds, "We are each other's bread and wine." And it concludes with a perplexing two-point outline of "what we need to increase: our justice and God's peace." Our justice, eh?

525 "You are holy" (Du är helig) is a CoWo praise song by Per Harling (b. 1948), consisting of one long stanza divided into two sections that can be sung together as a canon. The text is given both in Swedish and in English, and my money is on the Swedish because the English version is so all-fired uninspired. And so is the tune. It's interesting to learn that the line "You are holy, you are whole" is a play on words in both languages. "You are present" is the most Lutheran thing this song says, in the context of a (possibly) eucharistic song (presumably) addressing Christ; that and "Blessed are you coming near, blessed are you coming here"—though I would also cite the latter passage as an example of the hymn's mediocre prosody. Where and how does He come? "To your church in wine and bread, raised from soil, raised from dead"—which compounds bad prosody with an at-best-ambiguous confession of Christ's bodily presence in the Lord's Supper. The hymn ends with several reps of "sing hosanna" (or "hosianna," in Swedish), finally making me realize that this whole thing has been a paraphrase of the Sanctus and Benedictus from the divine liturgy. Truly, I have seen this done better.

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