Friday, September 27, 2013

Tacky Hymns 38

I continue to be amazed at the hymn selection in the 2006 Augsburg-Fortress publication Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). It's as if there wasn't a vast and deep tradition of historic Lutheran hymnody to draw upon; it's almost as if there aren't a multitude of talented Lutheran hymn-writers working today. Almost anything in this book that isn't new to the literature of Lutheran hymnody, or included for inclusiveness's sake, is an "oldie" from a tradition other than Lutheranism. And many, perhaps most, of the new stuff comes from other spiritual orientations, as well. Behold what Lutheranism is being transformed into—at least the part of it represented by the largest Lutheran church bodies in Canada and the U.S. Whatever it is (and the full shape of it has yet to be seen), you may disagree with me as to whether it's tacky. But we might agree, sometime, that calling it "Lutheran" is tacky.

Hymn 551 "The Spirit sends us forth to serve" is another hymn by the much panted-after Benedictine sister Delores Dufner (b. 1939),1 this time drawing imagery from prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 61, the fulfillment of which Jesus proclaims in Luke 4. When Stanza 1 says, "We go in Jesus' name to bring glad tidings to the poor," etc., is it talking about the whole church's mission? Or is it, once again, hastily laying hands on everybody departing from worship and commissioning them individually as evangelists? Stanza 2 draws on biblical imagery of comforting those who mourn, setting the burdened free, giving sight to the blind; but it adds a new bit: "where hope is dim, to share a dream." Eh?? Stanza 3 makes us out to be the hands of the Sower scattering seed, but nowhere prays that God would cause the seed of His Word to grow in us; it also enjoins us "all our days, to cherish life, to do the loving deed"—which again seems to protest too much, given the ELCA's lukewarm commitment to the sanctity of life. (But then I remember that a Catholic wrote this, and all is well.) Stanza 4 says, "Let us go to serve in peace, the gospel to proclaim"—an expert-level feat of turning gospel into law, and of talking about the gospel rather than proclaiming it. The hymn's next-to-last line says, "God's Spirit has empowered us," baptizing a bit of new-age psychobabble and suggesting, at least to anyone who isn't convinced that this is connected to the seed of the word mentioned two stanzas earlier, the enthusiast's dream of an immediate operation of the Holy Ghost.

554 "Lord, your hands have formed this world" is a Filipino hymn, set to an interesting traditional tune. It eludes ridicule as a chit for cultural diversity by (1) being not bad, and (2) not including any lyrics in a language other than English, though it is a translated hymn. I only mention it here because it is an entirely First Article hymn, praising God for his ongoing creative work, and only lightly touching on anything specifically relevant to worship (i.e., the fact that houses of God are a "sign that you make all things new"). I regret that this hymn bypasses the opportunity to use the refrain just quoted to move beyond First Article matters. Mel Gibson put the words "Behold, I am making all things new" in the mouth of the crucified in his Passion of the Christ. Could the most embarrassing celebrity of the current moment be a deeper-thinking theologian than the authors and translators of this hymn?

555 "Oh, sing to God above" by Carlos Rosas is another First-Article hymn, with the added zest of a Latin-inflected rhythm and the option of singing both stanzas in their original Spanish.

556 "Morning has broken" is the reason the tune BUNESSAN grates on my nerves when I see it paired with any hymn text. Imitating Gaelic folk song, Eleanor Farjeon's (1881-1965) hymn waxes poetic about the joys of morning: "Blackbird has spoken like the first bird" (and me with nothing to throw at it but my precious cup of coffee). Stanza 2 turns the tackiness dial all the way to eleven with the rhyme "new fall/dew-fall," which itches the same spot as rhymes like "snowman/no man" in "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." This stanza then ends in a mortifying excess of cuteness, with a reference to "where God's feet pass," meaning I know not what. Stanza 3 has another comic rhyme with "sunlight/one light," then advises us to "praise with elation...God's re-creation of the new day." Elation? Me? I still haven't finished my coffee!

560 "Christ, mighty Savior" is an evening hymn paraphrased from the Mozarabic liturgy of 10th century Spain, set to Richard Dirksen's (1921-2003) tune INNISFREE FARM. I think it's a lovely tune. But I can say from painful experience that it isn't singable except by trained musicians. I once tried to lead a congregation in singing it during a "stump the organist" session before a Lenten midweek service. Never again! It wasn't that I couldn't play it; I just couldn't convince anyone else that I was playing music they could sing. With a few rehearsals, I could have gotten the choir to give a good account of it. But that's not what the pew hymnal is for, is it?

561 "Joyous light of heavenly glory" is another ancient evening hymn, this time paraphrased from the 3rd century Greek Didache. Both the paraphrase and the tune JOYOUS LIGHT are by Marty Haugen (b. 1950). Both the text and the tune are effective in their way, though I say this grudgingly of a piece of music that sounds to me like an unholy fusion of Celtic folk song and a heart-string-tugging CoWo anthem; but I also happen to know and love the pure, unadulterated Phos hilaron as I have sung it in other, non-paraphrased translations. Haugen adds too many cute things to a venerable old hymn that is wonderful enough as it is, and whose integrity should be respected. Instead of simply saying, "You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever, O Son of God, O Giver of light; the universe proclaims your glory," he pokes in some stuff about making us "shine with gentle justice" and "reflect your light." Can't we honor the light that comes from God, even for just a moment, without worrying about how we look in it?

563 "O Light whose splendor thrills and gladdens" is Carl Daw's (b. 1944) paraphrase of the same Phos hilaron, the third hymn in a row based on that canticle; and in my opinion, Marty Haugen's version puts it in the shade. First off, I can't stand the tune ST. CLEMENT (so named, for totally non-narcissistic reasons, by its composer Clement Scholefield, 1839-1904); it jingles in my memory as a regular part of the over-the-rooftops playlist of every mainline Protestant church's electronic carillon system, along with other pious chestnuts such as "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Garden." It's a stained-glass melody, suited to these stained-glass lyrics, such as Stanza 2's "lamps are lit, and children nod," and Stanza 3's "in all life's brilliant, timeless moments." It's like a Thomas Kincaid painting set to words and music. It's so sweet that I could puke.

566 "When twilight comes and the sun sets" is translated from a text by one Moises Andrade (b. 1948), and set to a nice folksy, minor-key tune by Francisco Feliciano (b. 1941). I'm no authority on this, but I think the hymn comes from a community of messianic Jews in the Philippines, or somewhere in that part of the world. Stanza 1 sets the scene with a long description of a mother hen cuddling with her chicks as the sun sets. Stanza 2 carries this imagery into an analogy of the way "the Rabbi, Lord Jesus" loved his disciples on the night of his last meal, when, "as the hen tends her young, so for them he spent himself to seek and to heal." Not altogether unscriptural, this gender-ambiguous description of Christ is nevertheless vaguely distracting. Oddly enough, even as the stanza continues to express the joy of that night when Jesus served His own, the hymn never specifies whether it is talking about the institution of the eucharist or the washing of the disciples' feet. Stanza 3 invites friends to gather around at evening, "and recount all our frail human hopes: the dreams of young and stories of old." It closes with the most blatant reference to the motherhood of the Triune God that I have ever seen (so far) in my lifelong study of Lutheran hymnals: "by a mother's love embraced in the blessed Trinity." I can't help twitching at the thought of how pleased the feminist theologians will be with this hymn.

570 "Now the day is over" is by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), set to Joseph Barnby's tune MERRIAL. Click that link to see what I thought of MERRIAL six years ago, and still think of it now. In spite of superior alternatives, ELW persisted in choosing the most obnoxiously dull and shmaltzy of the tunes associated with this hymn. Baring-Gould, who specialized in writing indigestibly precious hymns for little children, actually does well in this text. Except for a few touches of unnecessarily purple descriptiveness, it's basically the verse equivalent of Luther's evening prayer. I hope small children today are being taught to follow poetic diction, as they should; it would be a pity if, as I fear, this hymn goes over their heads. For it really is written in a way that can, should, and (in past generations) did appeal to the minds and hearts of itty-bitty Christians. If it doesn't prove that children are capable of imbibing stronger fluids than the pablum purveyed by All God's People Sing! (further back on this thread), then at least it shows how far we have to catch up in our duty to form their minds. It's only tacky because of the tune, and because the assumption that kids can't handle hymns like this is not only tragically self-fulfilling, but also historically tripe.

572 "Now it is evening" is by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), set to the uninspired tune BOZEMAN by Rusty Edwards (b. 1955). But don't worry! A footnote suggests the alternate tune BUNESSAN! (Groan.) Each of the four stanzas more or less fills in the blanks in the following Mad Lib: "Now it is evening: (noun) in/on/of the (noun) bid(s) us remember Christ is our (noun). Many are (adjective), who will be neighbor? Where there is (noun), Christ is our (noun)." Specifically? The lights of the city prompt us to care for the lonely, remembering that Christ is our light (Stanza 1). The food on the table prompts us to share with the hungry, remembering that Christ is our life (Stanza 2). The little ones sleeping prompt us to care for the neglected, because Christ is our peace (Stanza 3). And here in our meeting we welcome strangers, because Christ is our friend (Stanza 4). It's essentially a moralistic kiddie hymn that, like the advertising jingle about seeing Tootsie Rolls in everything, urges us to see Christ by example urging us to serve our neighbor. Folks, the assumption that moralizing ditties are the only way to reach children is a big part of the reason your kids stopped going to church as soon as they had a choice.

574 "Here I am, Lord" (first line: "I, the Lord of sea and sky") is the CoWo praise song by Daniel Schutte (b. 1946) that makes me glad that I can now slam this book shut in disgust, at least for today. Based on Isaiah 6 (where God commissioned the prophet Isaiah), the three stanzas put a loose paraphrase and expansion of God's words into the mouth of the congregation, who are in the best position to convince themselves that God is addressing them therein. The refrain responds in the character of the people themselves: "Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart." It's all so very tear-jerkingly effective that participants are apt to forget that this entire conversation grows from the fertile imagination of Dan Schutte—a guy whose best-known song appeals so strongly to the "everyone a minister" crowd of Evangelical Christians that they might be surprised to know that he's a Jesuit. Like the ditties of Marty Haugen and several other hymn-writers discussed in the past few installments, Schutte is part of the crowd that is leading the transformation of Christian worship that is trickling down from the Catholic Church to other denominations. And now, last as always, as to one untimely born, the drip has reached Lutheranism.

1Tune: CHESTERFIELD by Thomas Haweis (1734-1820), known to some American Lutherans as the tune to "Hark the glad sound!"

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