Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tacky Hymns 45

More Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnody high jinks...

Hymn 726 "Light dawns on a weary world" is by Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953) and set to a contemporary tune by William Rowan (b. 1951). On first glancing through it, my sleepy eyes picked up on the final line of the refrain: "As all the world in wonder echoes shalom." One had better prepare the congregation ahead of time for that little Hebrew surprise. The real trouble, however, is in the verses, where we read (st. 1): "When eyes begin to see all people's dignity... the promised day of justice comes." Is that right? I thought the "promised day of justice" comes at the return of Christ in glory. Huh. Stanza 2 talks about feeding "hungry hearts... and children's dreams," which sounds a bit spiritualized to say the least. And finally Stanza 3 says, "When creatures, once forlorn, find wilderness reborn... the promised green of Eden comes." Who knew that environmentalism was so messianic? So sorry, but when I'm driving, the Lutheran worship bus does not stop at liberation theology.

727 "Lord Christ, when first you came to earth" is really quite a good hymn by Russell Bowie (1882-1969), set to the medieval chorale MIT FREUDEN ZART ("With high delight"). I appreciate the (for a change) Christ-centered lyrics that actually admit that God hates sin; though I have to accept an exclamation point at the end of Stanza 2 as an excuse for the whole stanza being one long, incomplete sentence. The grammar freak in me rebels against sentences of the "O awesome love!" variety, especially when it runs into multiple subordinate clauses; I cope, however, by blaming "alt." at the end of the text credit. As for why I even mention it in this hit parade of tackiness, I just wonder whether it's really fair for a fine Advent hymn to be stuck in the section on "Justice, Peace," where the overwhelming majority of hymns are tacky somehow or other.

The "Justice, Peace" department ends with 729 "The church of Christ, in every age" by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), set to the familiar 18th-century tune WAREHAM1. Green starts things off with a striking argument that, amid the changes from age to age, the church "must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead." Stanza 2 draws attention to the hungry and homeless "across the world, across the street," who "never live before they die." It gets down to the nitty-gritty in Stanza 3 where Green opines that "the servant church... longs to be a partner in Christ's sacrifice"—which again, like so many other texts in this book, suggests a new spin on the Sacrifice of the Mass that makes it all about us feeding the hungry. It takes opportunity from a few Pauline statements about becoming "co-workers with God" and "filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" (taken, I think, out of context) to put us on the cross next to Christ, if not instead of Him where relevance to today is concerned. Stanza 4 mentions that Jesus shed his blood and so "can cure the fever in our blood," but without more clearly articulating the gospel it goes straight on to sharing bread and feeding the hungry—an equivocal description that could be either (literally) about helping the poor or (figuratively) about spreading the gospel. Stanza 5 further muddies this distinction by claiming that our only mission is "to care for all, without reserve, and spread his liberating word"—which, for all this hymn tells us, could be the message of liberation theology. Caring for the poor is a Christian thing to do, but I ask you: is it necessary for the church to test its heritage so far as shedding the forgiveness of sins and the teaching of a kingdom not of this world, to which we are heirs in Christ? I believe a church that crawls out of its crypt on that basis becomes not the heirs of life, but the Walking Dead.

The next section of hymns is titled "Creation." It leads off with 730 "Lord our God, with praise we come before you," an 18th century Danish hymn set to the tune ROMEDAL, which I have seen elsewhere under the title DEUS FORTIS. In my opinion, this hymn is a historic artifact of how close Scandinavian Lutheranism veered to Calvinist thought. It was featured in the classic film Babette's Feast as an example of the hymnody practiced by a strict, pietist sect. Stanza 2 has always particularly astonished me with its argument that, even if God were to extinguish all human life, his sovereign majesty would still find itself reflected on the cold starry night of space. Eventually, after shaking heaven and earth off their foundations, Stanza 3 assures us that "Christ descending shall bring unending salvation." But until that line, the hymn majors in terrifying imagery of a God so remote from earthly concerns that He could seriously entertain the destruction of all life without changing His nature. And this, beloved, is why I can never be a Calvinist. Go and learn what this means: "God is Love" (1 John 4:8, 16; see also John 3:16). If love for mankind is not an essential attribute of God, then how do we answer our M****m neighbors who—if one with whom I used to discuss the faith can be taken as a representative—are offended by the idea that God would condescend to become a Man and die on a cross for mankind because, they inquire, what in His simple, unchangeable, impassive, divine nature could conceivably compel Him to do so?

732 "I was there to hear your borning cry" is a song by John Ylvisaker (b. 1937), set to his own tune that sounds like a contemporary ditty putting on airs of an early American folk hymn. All three stanzas, plus a shorter fourth stanza, are enclosed in quotes, in the hope that no one will be confused about the fact that we're singing in the character of God speaking to us. If the opening phrase can get past your throat without blocking the airway, you find God (so far as He is okay with the words we are putting in His, I mean your, mouth oh please my head hurts) talking about your baptism, your childlike faith, and how "in a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell." Isn't that sweet! Stanza 2 continues with God saying, "When you heard the wonder of the Word I was there to cheer you on"—because far be it from God to take a more hands-on role in your spiritual formation! Later He says that when you find the right person to share your life with (paraphrasing here), He'll "make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun" (giggle). Stanza 3 refers to "the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young" (also giggle-worthy), at which point God starts to pilot you through the encroaching night of old age and death: "I'll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise." It saddens me to think how many people must feel powerfully moved by this piece of banal tripe; otherwise it wouldn't be such a familiar fixture in worship literature. At times unintentionally ridiculous, at times suggesting really screwy ideas, and sustaining a self-indulgent tendency to role-play God throughout its verses, it finally doesn't offer us any significant knowledge about God except that, in some benignly observant way, He is There.

735 "Mothering God, you gave me birth" is by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen (b. 1933), based to some extent on Julian of Norwich (14th/15th century) and set to an original tune by Carolyn Jennings (b. 1936). Its three stanzas include one addressing each person of a feminized trinity ("Mothering Christ," "Mothering Spirit") and shakes its fist at the Bible's masculine depiction of God. You would think, though, that a consistent feminist would resist the characterization of birthing, feeding, and nurturing as particularly female traits. What next? A female body on a crucifix?2

736 "God the sculptor of the mountains" is by John Thornburg (b. 1954), set to a melody by Amanda Husberg (b. 1940) that does not impress me much. It's one of those hymns whose stanzas fall into a pattern of varied repetition. Each of the four stanzas begins with four descriptions of God similar to the opening line, quoted above. It then ends in a variant on the theme: "You are womb of all creation, we are formless; shape us now" (st. 1). Always "God the... God the... God the... God the... you are... we are... us now"—with different images and verbs in between. Some of these descriptions are eyebrow-arching, such as the "womb" one already cited. Stanza 2 calls him "the nuisance to the Pharaoh," stanza 4 "the unexpected infant." It sums up Biblical history through these images of God, and concludes each segment with a prayer like "Lead us... feed us... meet us now." While all this is somewhat effective, if perhaps a bit monotonous (especially given the tune), its most serious offense against good, Lutheran taste is its four-line summary of the history of Jesus, which touches on his infancy, his "calm, determined youth," his office as a prophet, and his "resurrected truth," concluding that he will meet us in our searching because He is "present every moment." Thus lightly do we pass over His sacrificial suffering and death, His promised bodily presence in the church and particularly in Word and Sacrament (as opposed to a broader, more spiritualized omnipresence).

737 "He comes to us as one unknown" is by Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), set to Hubert Parry's (1848-1918) tune REPTON. It's a nice, thought-provoking piece of poetry, but I really think it is too heavy to throw at a congregation that one expects to sing its sophisticated words and music on sight. The five-stanza lyric takes its sweet time working through a sequence of thoughts about the ever-present God who locates Himself for us personally in Christ, and sacramentally in His message proclaimed and believed. Without considerable time to mull it over, what are Grandpa and Grandma Smurf going to make of such lines as "a pulse of being stirred"?3

739 "Touch the earth lightly" is an environmentalist hymn by Shirley Murray (b. 1931), set to a modern tune by Colin Gibson (b. 1933) that reminds one of BUNESSAN ("Morning has broken"). Murray's lyrics put the onus on us to "nourish the life of the world in our care," accuses us of creating hunger, death, and disaster, and prays for environmental renewal. Its concluding (fourth) stanza asks Christ to "teach us, deflect us, (and) reconnect us." So firmly does the hymn cleave to the green worldview that it never seriously considers trusting God to preserve His creation for the benefit of mankind.

741 "Your will be done on earth, O Lord" (Mayenziwe) is taken from a South African paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer, combining words and music transcribed from the oral tradition by way of the Iona Community. The single stanza selected for this book can be sung in either English or the original (unspecified) African language. While all this is reasonably simple, it's a language (musical and otherwise) unfamiliar to the target audience of this book, and its most effective performance will be by a group that can sing it in four-part harmony. All this adds up to much more trouble than I think five repetitions of the same line (quoted above) really merits, in the time-scale of the holy liturgy.

Thanks in part to a stretch of rather good hymns (including one with a fetching tune from the Philippines, and another by Martin Luther himself), and in part to a few songs I have already savaged in this thread, this segment of "Tacky Hymns" comes to a surprisingly early close. The superior quality, on average, of hymns under the topic-heading of "Prayer" might also have something to do with this. Till next time, flee tackiness, ye who savor the good things of the Lord!


1My mnemonic for identifying this tune on a "drop the piano" hymnology quiz was to sing it in my head to the words, "This tune is WAREHAM. This tune is WAREHAM. This tune is WAREHAM," etc. In case that doesn't help you spot it, it's the tune The Lutheran Hymnal pairs with "Let thoughtless thousands choose the road."
2Oh, wait.

3Um...

2 comments:

Paul Lohman said...

Wow, amazed at your comments about "He Comes to Us as One Unknown." We sing this hymn frequently at my church (Plymouth Congregational in Minneapolis) and while it's not very Christian for us to believe that we are more sophisticated than other churches, you apparently leave us no out on that. It's a GREAT tune (Repton) and as John Holton writes, "The lyrics are some of the most amazing poetry I’ve read." (from his Thirty Songs Based on Thirty Questions" and the question for this song was: "A song that you think everybody should listen to:") I agree.
Paul Lohman - Minneapolis

Robin D Fish Jr said...

I guess it's a compliment to your congregation, then.