Friday, November 8, 2013

Tacky Hymns 41

Lest we never finish this labor of love (because of which we kid), we continue our kidding at the expense of Evangelical Lutheran Worship and those of its hymns that, when rubbed against Lutheran parish worship, produce a hair-raising potential for Tackiness on Holy Ground.

It may be a good sign that in the section of 25 hymn numbers starting with 626, there is nothing egregiously tacky until hymn 633. There is even a moving hymn translated from the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (626). But with 633 we get "We've come this far by faith" (Excerpt: "Oh, can't turn around, we've come this far by faith"). Albert Goodson wrote the words and music in 1956 for a Baptist church radio choir. It's a classic example of a modern African-American gospel hymn, perhaps even one of the handful of such hymns most closely identified with that slice of the cultural pie. My tired, disillusioned eyes read the words of the refrain (sung by "All") and see a story people tell themselves when they are tearing down traditions (good or bad) and setting a progressive course for the future (with or without a command from God). As one example, take the change this song's inclusion in a Lutheran pew hymnal represents: a turning aside from the tradition of hymnody sung by the congregation (the stanzas are so unequivocally assigned to "Leader" that the music is not even provided), and from lyrics that teach the message of the cross (while this song only preaches encouraging generalities). I pity anyone who comes away from the Baptist church, wanting to be Lutheran, and lands in a church that sings songs like this. It is a formerly Lutheran church that has come thus far toward becoming a Baptist church. The only difference is that the Baptists do it better.

After that the angel of sarcasm passes harmlessly over several more hymns, including one with music by Marty Haugen (635 "We walk by faith," 19th-century lyrics by Henry Alford), a Herman Stuempfle hymn contrasting the shortness of our lives with the eternity of Christ (636 "How small our span of life"), a Susan Briehl lyric set to music by Robert Buckley Farlee (637 "Holy God, holy and glorious"), none of which I can complain about, though I would like to. Honesty compels me to hold back my poison pen until 638 "Blessed assurance" by Fanny Crosby—but I have already been there, so I won't go there again. So the next righteous target of my wit is...

639 "When we are living" (Pues si vivimos), a three-stanza hymn available in both English and Spanish. The text is translated in part from a paraphrase of Romans 14:8, and in part from a hymn by Roberto Escamilla. The credits at the bottom of the page hint that this hymn comes to us by way of the Methodist tradition. There is little harm in the piece, though its strongest statement of the Gospel is "we belong to God," and it ends ends on a note of moralism (it is good to help and feed the poor and troubled). I don't see what's so great about it that it nosed past many excellent Lutheran hymns that didn't make it into ELW. Unless... could it be?... it's that Multiculturalism thing again!

641 "All are welcome" (first line: "Let us build a house where love can dwell") is a five-stanza Marty Haugen opus. Like many of his melodies, the tune TWO OAKS sounds like a compromise between chorale and pop song, oozing folk appeal. Meanwhile the lyrics smell of a long, luxurious wallow in the mud of ecumenism. Stanza 1 urges us to build a church where "the love of Christ shall end divisions," a safe and accepting place "built of hopes and dreams and visions." Stanza 2 comes close to a description of the church as one that hears God's prophetic word; but there is a gap between that and Haugen's language "prophets speak, and words are strong and true" (good for them), while "all God's children dare to seek to dream God's reign anew" (as if their dream is just as valid as the prophets' words). Stanza 3 is yet one more Marty Haugen lyric about the Lord's Supper that doesn't commit itself as to whether Christ's body and blood are taken by mouth—an omission remarkable in a Catholic author, unless he is really trying that hard to bridge the differences between all Christians. Stanza 4 is the social justice stanza, where we accept the outcast and stranger by "bring(ing) an end to fear and danger"—which only sounds like a Christ-like attitude until you reflect that when Jesus called sinners, he called them to repent; and when he welcomed them, it was with forgiveness of their sins. Call it an uncharitable doubt, but I feel it nevertheless: a doubt that this is the kind of welcome Haugen means. The concluding stanza is just too precious: "Let us a build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word." You know, a church that doesn't distinguish between the true faith and false doctrine. And its message (refrain after refrain): "All are welcome in this place." That's nice. But after greeting them with this warm hug, what is this place really giving them? What assurance, based on what authority? What blessing, directed by what power? Is the church to be nothing more than a spiritual sort of sonic shower, where we cleanse each other by the good vibrations emanating from our sanctified wills? If so, how do our wills become sanctified??

642 "Ubi caritas et amor" ("Where true charity and love abide") is a Taizé setting of a 9th century Latin antiphon that I like to associate with the gorgeous choral setting by Maurice Duruflé. Jacques Berthier's setting is pitifully thin, plain, and abrupt beside it—accessible to a church choir (singing in parts) or a congregation (singing in unison), but so short and of such negligible musical merit that one might ask why they would be interested. The English translation is presented as the alternative option. Maybe singing it in Latin makes it seem deeper or more significant. It's not that the words lack meaning. It's just that where there is time for a hymn in the service, much more can be done than this song does.

643 "We are all one in Christ" (Somos uno en Cristo) is translated from a Spanish ditty of unknown authorship, whose single stanza can also be sung in Spanish. Gerhard Cartford's translation actually flatters the original Spanish somewhat. Where a literal translation would get us no further than "We are one in Christ, we are one, we are one, only one," and repeat, the hymnal's translation adds, "We are one body, all one people out of many." Our passion for cultural diversity burns so warmly that we are now improving on Hispanic lyrics, so our people will appreciate them more than they deserve.

646 "The peace of the Lord" (La paz del Señor) is another three-stanza hymn, all of which can be sung in either Spanish or English. The original version is by Anders Ruuth; the English text, copyrighted by the Lutheran World Federation(!?), is by our old friend Gerhard Cartford. Each stanza begins with the lines "The peace of the Lord, the peace of the Lord, the peace of the risen Lord Jesus." Then they branch out into the following profundities: "The peace of the Lord is for you and for me, and also for all of God's children" (st. 1); "The peace of the Lord is among us right now, so open yourselves to receive it" (st. 2); and "The peace of the Lord kept within cannot live, so open yourselves now to share it." This is the message world Lutheranism is spreading, beginning from Jerusalem (by which I mean the Spanish speaking world), spreading to Judea (the English speaking world), Samaria (let's say, deepest darkest Africa), and the rest of the world. It's a message in which the peace of God is no longer a mystery passing all understanding, but an inert object that can and must be acted upon by our will, if it is to have any effect in us and on the world around us. Dear God, aren't you lucky that we believe in you?

648 "Beloved, God's chosen" is a hymn by Susan Cherwien, set to the tune ANDREW'S SONG by Robert Hobby (b. 1962). Of this tune I would say that, if Lutheran congregations can learn to sing it and like it, that encourages me that they will soon stop complaining about those awkward and angular tunes from the Reformation era. It has some tricky intervals, and whether it earns them by sounding particularly inspired is—ahem—open to debate. As for Cherwien's text... One of the first things I notice is that it has three stanzas, but stanzas 1 and 3 are identical. Again, is that earned?—debatable! Part of the debate (and this will count for half of your final grade) is whether there is any gospel in this hymn at all, and whether a certain sense of being a paraphrase of material from the Epistles section of the New Testament warrants that omission. Remember, we're talking about the context of Lutheran congregational hymn singing here! Does it not seem at all odd to have nothing but "be thus" and "do this" preached at you in a Lutheran hymn? And finally, there is a bit of verse-making awkwardness here too; such as the line "Let singing thanksgiving to God ever rise"—a "garden path sentence" if I ever read one.

649 "Behold, how pleasant" (Miren qué bueno) is a paraphrase of Psalm 133, in both Spanish and English, by Pablo Sosa. It's a text that I like so well that I once set it to music myself. There's nothing wrong with the text of this hymn. I just don't see what's so great about the setting that, etc., etc., etc., skip to "oh, yeah! cultural diversity!" and cut.

650 "In Christ there is no east or west" is an anthem to ecumenism by John Oxenham (1852-1941), set to the tune McKEE, derived from an African-American spiritual. I like the tune, as adapted by Harry Burleigh (1866-1949); it has a ruggedly American profile, a greater than typical melodic range, and more than its fair share of interesting surprises. This doesn't stop me from questioning whether it really gels with the musical spirit of Lutheranism, or whether it's fair to expect Grandma and Grandpa Smurf's congregation to throw their heads back and belt it out. And while there's some truth (from the standpoint of "I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic" etc.) in what Oxenham's text says, there's also a wide zone of potential interpretations into which one could stumble, in which it is at least mildly ridiculous to deny the existence of divisions between Christian communions, divisions that exist sometimes for important reasons. Understood from the perspective that there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, barbarian or Scythian, African or Indian or Chinese, or what have you, I'm totally with you. (Oxenham hints at this in stanza 3, "whate'er your race may be"). But then in stanza 4 we come to the phrase "All Christly souls are one in him." Christly? What do we have to do to be Christly? Come on, ELW! Where's a footnote when we need one?

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