Monday, September 30, 2013

Heroes of the Valley

Heroes of the Valley
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

Halli Sveinsson's world has been shaped by heroes, but the time of heroes passed long ago. Still he yearns to be like his ancestor Svein, one of twelve legendary warriors who sacrificed their lives fighting off the Trows—a race of tunnel-dwelling, man-eating monsters who have not been seen since the slain heroes were buried with their swords. The cairns, or burial mounds, of these twelve mythical figures formed the beginning of a magical boundary that (so the legend says) confines the hungry Trows to the high moors outside the valley, so long as the people of the valley stay on their side of the line. As generation after generation of clan leaders have joined their forebears in the row of cairns, this protection—and the tabu against breaking it—has grown so strong that the valley doesn't need heroes any more. Disputes are settled through negotiation. Crimes are punished by fines that transfer valuable land from one family to another. And characters like Halli, who itch for adventure and can only seem to find trouble instead—well, they seem to have been born too late.

Halli doesn't look the part of a hero. Short, squat, swarthy, and none too handsome, he has little to look forward to but a lifetime of farming a swampy parcel of land as a tenant to his older brother Leif, heir to the House of Svein. Till then, he gets into enough scrapes, pulls enough pranks, and breaks enough rules to make some doubt he will get even that far in life. Halli's nurse warns him that he is fated, like many of his forebears, to lead a short and violent life. And while her stories of the days of heroism have always fascinated him—hers and the stories of his uncle Brodir, another ne'er-do-well spare heir who never amounted to much—still, he can't help wondering what else is out there in the world outside the valley. Influenced by a tough, free-thinking girl named Aud of House Arne, Halli begins to doubt whether the Trows even exist. Could the old legends be only a gimmick to keep people in line? Could the superstitious fear of trespassing beyond the cairns be just a spur to following the rules and staying where you belong? What if, like Halli and Aud, you don't belong?

When Halli witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his beloved uncle, he gets a chance to learn more about his world. He sees a great deal of it during his lonely quest for vengeance. He learns that there are bigger and grander places than the House of Svein. He learns things about the way different clans spin the legends of the heroes to favor their own ancestors, things that plant doubt in his mind about all that he has learned. But when he faces the test of killing a man, he learns more about himself. On the run, pricked by guilt, pursued by the Hakonsson clan, protected by Aud, he finally reaches home only to become the spark of a political crisis that threatens to fracture the peace of the Valley. And then the Hakons come a-feuding, threatening the lives of everyone Halli cares about, even if they don't care for him. Now he must put everything he thinks he knows about Svein, the heroes, and the Trows, to the test. And the truth turns out to be even more horrific than anything he or Aud imagined.

This book is a mighty piece of chest-beating, roaring, wise-cracking fun. It's like a double-shot of Viking heroism, with snippets of the legends of Svein alternating with chapters of Halli's thrilling tale. It's a glimpse of a fantasy world loaded with possibilities—sort of a lost tribe of Norsemen, isolated by barriers of mountain, sea, and (if you believe the old tales) monsters, oh my. It's spiced with humor, romance, rivalries and grudges stretching across generations, and grisly blood-and-guts, hewing-and-cleaving action. And even if you're not impressed by yet another world-building feat of conjuring a whole culture, complete with folklore, out of thin air, you may want to stick around anyway. Why? Because Halli's visits to the high moors are among the scariest two or three chapters I have read in the past year. They go quickly from deliciously creepy to bloodcurdling, and that's only about a quarter of the way to the awful, sickening terror that Halli, Aud, and you can enjoy together.

The feelings I felt as I read this reminded me of riding a big, wild roller coaster: each time you get on, there's a point when you wonder what possessed you to put yourself through this; yet when the thrill is over, you feel like getting on again. This seems to be a knack Jonathan Stroud has, judging by his Bartimaeus Trilogy and his other books that I have read, including The Leap, Buried Fire, and The Last Siege. So I am increasingly interested in seeing what else he has done. These titles include The Ring of Solomon (a Bartimaeus prequel), The Ghost of Shadow Vale, and The Screaming Staircase (the beginning of a new series titled "Lockwood & Co"). Don't be surprised if I post reviews of them soon.

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!"

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Feedback to ELDoNA on OJ

I'm a member of the Association of Confessional Lutheran Churches (ACLC). My very small church body consists chiefly of congregations and pastors that were involuntarily removed from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) in a dispute over the doctrine of church and ministry. The ACLC is in fellowship with another small group called the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA), whose pastors and parishes emerged from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), also following a struggle with the synod hierarchy's response to dissent. Though the two groups come from different backgrounds and are differently structured, they have—at least until now—worked together in mutual respect and harmony, recognizing each other's faithfulness to the same norms of doctrine and practice.

It so happens that, in common more with the background of ELDoNA than my own synod, I left the LCMS clergy roster. I have long-term friendships with pastors in both groups. I chose to join the ACLC, rather than ELDoNA, because the nearest ACLC church is one hour closer to where I live than the nearest ELDoNA congregation. I have been on friendly terms with several ACLC pastors since I was an undergrad at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, Minnesota. But I also count some of ELDoNA's pastors as dear friends since we together attended Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. So please believe me: which group I joined, rather than the other, was a matter of chance and convenience. And which group I stand with when a controversy arises between ELDoNA and the ACLC is a matter of principle, not denominational loyalty or blind cronyism. I love my pastoral fathers and brothers in both synods. And it wrenches my heart to see a rift now widening between them.

One of the stumbling-stones in the way of these two groups walking together takes the form of a document adopted by the pastors of ELDoNA, titled "Theses on the Article of Justification as Taught in Holy Scripture and the Confessions of Christ's Holy Church, with Special Attention to 'Objective Justification.'" This document was studied at ELDoNA's 2013 colloquium and synod, then approved by the pastors of ELDoNA. This is a very serious and important doctrinal statement because, as its Conclusion states: "We see [these theses] as defining the limits of our fellowship with regard to these issues until such time as we are convinced otherwise from the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions, or until further clarification is needed." Again the document explains its own significance: "These theses are not a declaration of fellowship. Those inside our fellowship voluntarily agree with these theses and support them, but we also wish to have these theses function as a marker of agreement between Christians who are not yet necessarily in fellowship."

So, while agreement with the ELDoNA theses on Objective Justification (OJ) may not by itself result in fellowship between it and another group, it will be understood as an important step on the way to a fellowship agreement. And conversely, if the ACLC cannot reconcile itself to a doctrinal statement that ELDoNA adopted without the ACLC's counsel or assent, the result may be a breaking of fellowship between ELDoNA and the ACLC. I would be sorry to see this. Having read the theses, I do not think this should be the result. If the leadership of both groups would discuss their concerns openly and with good will, I believe there may be a peaceful resolution satisfying both parties. But my impression of the language, method, and evidence chosen by the pastors of ELDoNA in these theses, does nothing to encourage me to believe such a resolution will take place. Indeed, my opinion of the quality of ELDoNA's leadership, scholarship, and theological insight has taken a beating during my study of these theses.

Another word of background is due. It is no coincidence that ELDoNA undertook this study of OJ at about the same time that it invited a former Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) pastor first to address them in a theological paper, then to join the ELDoNA fellowship. I met and spoke with Rev. Paul Rydecki in 2012 at a conference in Chicago. I felt sympathy toward him as he reported the progress of his removal from WELS over doctrinal concerns that he raised regarding the teaching of Objective Justification. I thought then, and still think, this is an interesting topic that deserves open discussion; and I was sensible of the disservice WELS did to the art of theology when it reacted so harshly to what Pastor Rydecki described as "simply asking a question," when at a WELS pastor's conference the keynote speaker took an extreme position on OJ and discussed it in terms not supported by the Lutheran Confessions or the writings of the "orthodox Lutheran fathers." Yes, I think Pastor Rydecki's concerns need some airing, and answers to his concerns should also be discussed fairly, openly, and with brotherly forbearance. But whatever credit I give to the reports of the ACLC representatives who attended the ELDoNA colloquium, the rapid-fire timing of Pastor Rydecki's acceptance into ELDoNA fellowship and the adoption of these theses suggests to me that this very serious matter was pushed through with unseemly haste, and without enough serious discussion and consideration of opposing views. And now the wind is alive with whispers of the type of charges from both sides that cannot be brushed aside lightly. In effect, I see a schism between ELDoNA and the ACLC swiftly approaching.

Insofar as I understand the basic reasons pastors and parishioners ventured to leave their established synods and start new ones—generalizing bravely but trying to put the best construction on things—it basically boils down to the hope that our new church bodies will provide better leadership than the old ones. Where ELS, WELS, and LCMS failed, we will learn to do better; etc. So I am upset by what I see happening here, first of all, because I do not see the quality of leadership members of both ELDoNA and the ACLC should expect and demand. While I have no doubt that the leaders of the ACLC have their shortcomings, what I particularly see is room for improvement in the way the ELDoNA's leadership runs things. But if either group hopes to grow by enticing other disappointed members of the LCMS, ELS, WELS, or other groups to join it, it is incumbent on both groups to avoid advertising itself as a moribund sect. And that is exactly what the whole world will see—or, at least, the small corner of the world that is interested in what we do—if ELDoNA and the ACLC continue to run plays out of the "tiny group of sectarian nuts tearing itself to pieces" playbook. To put it another way, having set out to do things a better way than LCMS and company, it behooves us to show that we (1) actually do things perceptibly better, and (2) exist for a better reason than to be whatever the LCMS (or ELS or WELS, etc.) is not.

The ELDoNA theses on OJ mostly seem fairly persuasive. But I do not think their pretensions to be self-evidently the position of Luther, the Confessions, the dogmaticians of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, or Scripture meets the test of explaining all of the evidence. Where the theses portray the rejection of OJ as the only reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, I think it is at least possibly shows a refusal or inability to deal with a paradox. While some of the extreme formulations by WELS and even LCMS theologians are perhaps rightly condemned, I reserve judgment, until more evidence has been aired, as to whether these quotes represent the real position of those theologians or are merely cherry-picked, straw-man arguments. (Easy on the mixed metaphors, self!) While I think the WELS may indeed have erred and/or sinned in its treatment of Pastor Rydecki—suggested by the language of Thesis 41, the ACLC's representatives have reported similar treatment in response to their concerns by ELDoNA's leadership.

The ELDoNA Theses on OJ briefly cite, and then tacitly brush aside, an alternate solution to the problem of Objective Justification (in a paper by the late Prof. Kurt Marquart), in which the justification of "Man" as a class, through Christ's acquisition of merit for all sinners, was distinguished from the application of Christ's merit to particular men, through faith in the Gospel. The theses then go on to reject any language that comports with the evidence in Scripture, to the effect that "all are justified." I do not think this is a valid and necessary conclusion from the evidence given; I say nothing of evidence the ELDoNA document chooses not to discuss.

The problem is indeed a poser. Separate the justification of sinners from faith in Christ and one could skid off the narrow way in the direction of universalism; deny that every sinner's justification is complete in Christ, prior to faith, and it loses the character of an unconditional (one may say, objective) fact that can therefore be an object of faith, with full assurance. Our faith, though a gift from God, is contingent; God's promise of justification is absolute. ELDoNA's theses shy away from this complex, paradox-ridden problem, condemning only the most blatant heresies at both extremes and then, unless I am mistaken, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I would expect people who pretend to have the scholarly credentials of ELDoNA's presiding bishop—Rev. James Heiser has husbanded the translation and publication of many serious works of Lutheran theology, and has written and spoken engagingly about the philosophy of history—to write in a more circumspect manner than the language to which he and his colleagues commit themselves in these Theses. Under Thesis 6, the phrase "Golden Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy" struck me as contrary to Bishop Heiser's view of the nature of human history; at least, it seemed the sort of clumsy editorializing than which better should be expected in a doctrinal statement as carefully worded as this should be. I perceived several other theses. A document like this is too serious and important to be written with haste and unconcern for clarity and precision.

Thesis 9 concludes, "As we are warned not to push a parable beyond its point/ground of comparison, even more we must remember that every illustration or analogy developed by Man will fall short and, while it may be helpful pedagogically, such language must not be made into a necessary part of our confession." I would add to this that ELDoNA should be careful not to do the very thing it chides (an)other synod(s) for doing; and that certainly nothing should be added to our exclusionary confessions without first holding it up to free debate and consent, if not consensus.

Thesis 11 makes an assertion about Christ to which I do not agree: "The fact that the Christ was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and bore our sins as His own (Psalm 69:5) does not require Him to be absolved, since, again, He was not forgiven for our sins," etc. This is easy to say, and seems reasonable, but it does not account for the fact that Christ submitted himself to rituals of repentance unto forgiveness, from the sacrifices given in his behalf to his baptism by John, all by way of fulfilling his office as the bearer of the world's sins. I do not have a full and systematic answer to this, but I think one is possible, and the pastors of ELDoNA may find they have overstepped themselves in this thesis.

I think Theses 13 and 14 are more clever than clear. 13 Says: "To make the 'justification of the Christ' in any way similar to our justification in connection with Christ is to cheapen the merit of Christ." The predicate, "to cheapen the merit of Christ," seems weak to me. It would have been better to say it is equivocal and have done. As for Thesis 14: "Again, to make the justification of the sinner anything less than the 'justification of the Christ' is to cheapen the merit of the Christ." Were it not for a footnote explaining, "Since what the justified have is the very righteousness of Christ Himself," this thesis would make no sense. A serious doctrinal statement is no place to be cute. There is also a footnote under Thesis 13 that redeems it somewhat. It's too bad the author(s) of these Theses chose to reserve the sense of what they were saying for the footnotes.

Theses 19 and 20 attack the extreme formulations of OJ that, if they are not "cherry-picked straw-men" (sigh), really deserve to be attacked: that OJ means "there took place a change in the heart of God" (whom nothing changes) or that God made a "pre-existing forensic declaration...about the world being without sin," even apart from the merit of Christ.

Footnote 39, under Thesis 24, takes a cheap shot at Walther—something the leaders of ELDoNA seem to think passes for a substantive argument. Their analogy to the historical development of Walther's position on church and ministry is not to the purpose. It is scarcely distinguishable from an ad hominem argument to the effect that, since Walther revived the language of "objective justification" for reasons ELDoNA is uninterested in considering, we may presume that his motives were impure. Hating C. F. W. Walther's guts is not a sound basis for a theological system.

Thesis 29 boasts: "The orthodox Lutheran position, as easily demonstrated from the fathers of the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy..." Should we accept a mere easy demonstration? How about something more in-depth and pains-taking? In the meantime, the word "easily" bears the odor of an arrogant sneer. Pride goeth before a fall.

Finally, the first paragraph of the Conclusion states that the teaching that "all mankind is sinless before God before and apart from faith in Christ" is "not only dangerous in its grossest abuse (crass universalism), but is itself contrary to God's Word and the exhibition of the same by the Symbols of Christ's Church." By dint of careful wording, this statement just avoids the indefensible assertion that the teaching it describes actually is, or necessarily leads to, crass universalism. I think it may be because of the word "crass"—a word that itself suggests a hostile exaggeration delivered in a bullying tone of voice—that I initially thought this was actually what the sentence meant. I am still not quite sure that such an hysterical overreaction does not lurk in the hearts of some who subscribe to these theses; but I admit it is uncharitable of me to say so. In charity, however, I again warn ELDoNA not to fall into the error for which they wisely reproach the WELS (only not by name) in Thesis 4. I think the conclusion they make here does condemn the intended sense of what Luther wrote in his Galatians commentary, a concern this document unconvincingly attempts to answer.

Again, more evidence on this (Luther on Galatians, etc.) needs to be studied. More exegesis of Scripture and more wrestling with the full testimony not only of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, but of the theological and historical reasons that have given the doctrine of Objective Justification the definition it has today, is not only desirable but necessary before the pastors of ELDoNA should do their "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me, Amen." Any less than that is not only cheap, but it could have dangerous consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, far into the future. It is that serious. More is at stake here even than the fate of two tiny church bodies that want other Lutherans struggling to confess their faith to know, "Here we are, and we're not sectarian nut-jobs." After the ACLC and the ELDoNA have both passed out of human knowledge, we will be answerable for pull we exert on the faith and fellowship of Lutherans yet to be born. Theses for debate and consideration? Bring them on! A line in the sand of church fellowship? It is too early for that yet. We need to study this more. And we need to do it in, dare I repeat myself, a spirit of peace, openness, and brotherly forbearance. God help us!


1Thesis 4: "It is unfitting simply to label one another as having a position identical to one in a previous battle [n.: Unless one can absolutely show such to be the case], though it may rightly be said that a position bears similarities or could lead to such a historic position [n.: If and only if it can be demonstrated that such is so.] That is, we must not condemn by the application of labels, but must address what is actually taught or not taught by any party."

Escape from Castle Cant

Escape from Castle Cant
by K. P. Bath
Recommended Ages: 11+

After I read this book, but before I started writing the review, I did a little research on the internet. Basically, I was looking for a link to the author's website (which doesn't exist). Only then did I learn that Mr. Bath was arrested in 2009 and sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison for possession of child pornography. So right off I am faced with the awkward question, whether or not I should recommend a book written for children by a man who exploited children. The librarian who wrote this editorial explored this question. It isn't a conclusive opinion, and it isn't necessarily mine, but it's a thoughtful piece. Instead of making this review about that question, I would like to refer concerned kids and their parents first to that article, and urge them to think about it, discuss it, and form their own opinion. Then you can decide whether anything else I have to say about this book is worth your time.

This book is a sequel to The Secret of Castle Cant, which I read many years ago. Like the sequels to many other books I enjoyed, I have had this one on my shelf for so long that I forgot what the original book was about and had to re-read my own review of it to refresh my memory. I understand there is a third book in the series, titled The Black Arrow of Cant, published in 2007. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in these books that would suggest anything off about the author's attitude toward children. There is perhaps a tiny hint of adult content, more implied than stated: the two young heroines, best friends Pauline Cant and Lucy Wickwright, know how babies are made. They learn, moreover, that they were both conceived through extramarital affairs. The only other surprises of a questionable or inappropriate nature are a couple of references to farting.

While we don't see adults exploiting children in these books the way their author did, we do see ambitious men trying to use the two girls' claims to the Barony of Cant to set themselves up in power, and people of all ages threatening the safety and freedom of these girls as they flee from their would-be regents. We see examples of orphaned children moving around freely with unrelated adults and, in some cases, forming warm friendships with them. I didn't see any harm in any of this while I was reading the books, but knowing what I know now... Use your judgment. It's up to you. You may also want to take into account how seemingly innocent books like this might have been used, in fact or fancy, to lure victims in, etc. Like the author of the essay previously cited, I revise my opinion on this every minute that I spend thinking about it. So don't rely on me to give you the answer.

Reading the book on its own terms, as my ignorance at the time allowed me to do, I thought a bit more highly of it than the librarian cited above. I was charmed by the whimsy of an isolated country, situated on the fold of everybody's maps, cut off by natural barriers from most modern progress and outside influence—a country capable of having a civil war over chewing gum—a country where references to present-day culture and technology ring like distant echoes into a time where vehicles are drawn by horses and mules, and battles are fought with swords and crossbows. It's a story full of humorous names such as "The Rev. Mr. Pius Frodd," where a tourism pamphlet can bear the incredible title: "VISIT FARAWAY BOONDOCK! 'The Tenesmus of Trans-Poltroon'." The adult world through which the hero girls move is both ridiculous and dangerous, and even the well-meaning grown-ups often make things worse for them through misunderstanding and failure to listen. But the girls make their share of silly, immature mistakes too, ensuring that their escape from the Barony of Cant will be as perilous, confusing, and full of setbacks as can be.

Pauline, believed to be the legitimate daughter of the late Baron of Cant, is supported by the Loyalist Faction; their leader, former Postal Commissioner Vladimir Orloff, proclaims himself her regent and plans to rule in her name. Meanwhile former lady's maid Lucy, who was raised by an adoptive family after being born to a servant girl in the castle, now turns out to be the Baron's acknowledged daughter. The Causist rebels, led by Oxford-educated firebrand Arden Gutz, mean to use Lucy as just such another figurehead—while, at the first taste of power, they prove to be no different from the old ruling class they mean to replace. You may think the resulting civil war is a meaningless trifle, but what it's really about is the gum trade. Whoever controls it, holds the real power in the Barony of Cant.

There is something sinister and wrong about how addictive this gum is, which is specially manufactured for import into the Barony. Ultimately Pauline and Lucy conclude that neither of them can rule securely until the gum industry has been cut off at the root. But to do that they must escape not only the castle, but the whole country. And that means surviving betrayal by gypsy-like Tinker children, an attack by pirates, a wilderness survival ordeal, and a hair-raising scene at a public execution. Meanwhile their allies, such as stuttering astronomer Luigi Lemonjello and poteen smuggler Lillian Lungwich, have adventures of their own that blend slapstick comedy and deadly menace with a surreal seamlessness.

It isn't perfectly done. At times the plot line seemed a bit slack and arbitrary. There were times when, for reasons I can't put a name on, my attention wandered. But the main characters share a warm friendship, and their vivaciousness and passion and willingness to grow makes their story quite effective. I guess the bottom line is that I read it, I enjoyed it, and I do not begrudge the time I spent with it; so I feel that I owe the book, if not its author, credit for that much. Whether, in light of facts that lie outside this book, I would recommend it to parents and children, is another question. I do try to uphold the principle of freedom from censorship, and that includes the soft censorship of consigning disgraced authors to the damnation of memory. But being so far from knowing my own mind in this case, I leave it up to you.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Recommended Ages: 12+

The title of this book varies from one edition to another. Sometimes it is published with a "The" at the beginning. Sometimes "Strange Case of" is omitted. Sometimes it is even given simply as Jekyll & Hyde. It's not as though the printer needs to save ink; it's a very short book, a novella really. There are even more versions of Stevenson's story than variants of its title. Next to A Christmas Carol, it has probably seen more adaptations for stage and film than any other work of English literature, including parodies and re-imaginings that (ha, ha) transform the original story almost out of recognition. I have seen and read several of these re-tellings, which share little in common except the essential concept of a man who, by taking a potion, transforms himself into another person—in most versions, an identity compounded of all the dark, evil parts of himself. And of course, the trouble that bad Mr. (or Ms.) Hyde gets into, always complicates things for Dr. Jekyll as well.

What I never realized until now, on finally reading the story as Stevenson wrote it, is how different his novella is from any and all of the dramatizations, abridgements, contextualizations, and "for dummies" versions on the market. The popular idea of what this story is about is also quite out of order. It isn't about split personalities or "dissociative identity disorder." It is about a man's struggle with the conflicting powers of good and evil within his one personality, and the tragedy that takes place when he experiments with a drug to separate the two. It is a story about the course of a life-destroying addiction, together with a man's losing struggle against moral corruption, guilt, and the terror of justice. It is a true tale of horror. It resembles nightmares I have had and—assuming that I'm not alone in this—explores something that troubles many people with a well-developed moral conscience and an understanding of the evil nature within each of us. And it does this in a story that combines shock, suspense, mystery, and a really chilling final confession, as only a master writer can. Here is a sample of the story you thought you knew, in case you've never read it:
This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life.
When I started reading this story, I thought the quote I was going to drop into my review was going to be, "'If he be Mr Hyde,' he had thought, 'I shall be Mr Seek.'" At first it doesn't seem to take the Jekyll/Hyde mythology as seriously as it ought to, judging from more recent redactions. Pretending that we don't know what the story hasn't openly revealed to us (though we do know, we do), we don't find out what's up with Jekyll and Hyde until almost the end of the story. We come at the truth slowly, through the investigations of a lawyer friend of Henry Jekyll's, named Gabriel Utterson.

Lawyer Utterson knows something fishy is going on between the good doctor and his bad protege. He worries that, by making his will in favor of the violent and amoral Edward Hyde, Jekyll puts himself in harm's way. But Jekyll tells him not to worry. Then Hyde is seen committing a notorious murder, and worrying is back on the menu. But the mystery only grows more perplexing as Hyde disappears and as Jekyll, after a season of unusually sociable behavior, suddenly goes into strict seclusion. A mutual friend of Jekyll and Utterson's, a physician named Lanyon, suddenly suffers a physical and mental breakdown and dies within weeks, leaving Utterson a sealed letter to be read only on the death or disappearance of Jekyll. The crisis finally comes when Jekyll's servants appeal to the lawyer for help, suspecting that Hyde has done away with Jekyll. They break down the door of the chemist's laboratory and make the kind of ghastly discovery that can only be understood after reading the last testament of both Lanyon and Jekyll. And the chill deepens the farther you read, all the way down to the bone.

This isn't about a man innocently, accidentally, and (at first) uncontrollably being split into two persons, one good and the other evil, and then having trouble keeping his double life from being detected. It is, rather, about a man who struggles with the spiritual duality within himself. He thinks he can create two persons out of one, and separate the bad from the good; but when he tries it, he discovers that he was wrong. The Jekyll part of him remains as he was before, with both the good and bad held in constant tension; the Hyde side, however, is deformed, stunted, and purely evil. Because of this imbalance in favor of evil, and the weakness of Jekyll's human nature, and the wicked abandon of Hyde, and the decreasing effectiveness of the drug, all working together, what starts as a weird experiment quickly becomes an addiction. And while Jekyll increasingly loses control, Hyde has become a hunted man, doomed to the gallows if captured.

Any civilized and decent person must be able to imagine and sympathize with the horror a man feels as he sees himself becoming a monster, and knows that his identity will soon be lost. The top horror fetishes of the moment—zombies, vampires, and werewolves—can also be understood in the light of losing yourself and becoming something monstrous. But Dr. Jekyll's situation is, if anything, even more cruel: he has, at least to start with, the ability to come back to himself at will. But through his own weakness, errors, and the biochemistry of addiction, he lives through the agony of losing that saving grace, bit by tiny bit. And all the while, he knows that he brought it on himself by choice; nothing bit him or scratched him to make him this way. This is what he chose, rather than having to struggle between his high aspirations and his low appetites. It's an instructive horror, then, for the rest of us who sometimes feel discouraged as we fight our own inner demons. But it's also a horrible horror, and no mistake. I, for one, will have something new to pray about tonight, after finishing this book. I might as well pray anyway, since I'll be lying awake!

Tacky Hymns 37

Moving on from where we left our snarky review of the hymn selection in "ELW" (silent L)... I've said it before: if you're not Lutheran, don't sweat it. But if you dare to call yourself a Lutheran, and you don't think these hymns are tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, prepare to tremble before my scathing wit!

Hymn 526 "God is here!" (As we your people) is a "Gathering" (for worship) hymn by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), set to Cyril V. Taylor's (1907-91) gorgeous high-Anglican tune ABBOT'S LEIGH. From one of the leading lights in recent Lutheran liturgical scholarship come four double-period stanzas of theology-of-worship-in-verse-form. The result is just a bit disappointing—a solid "Meh" on my three-point scale from "Oy Vay!" to "Shazam!" Stanza 1.0 prays that in worship, we may "find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share"—a strangely vague, uncertain-sounding phrasing. Stanza 1.5 opens a long series of "Here" statements with, "Here, as in the world around us, all our varied skills and arts wait the coming of the Spirit into open minds and hearts." This sentence, all at once: enshrines the ecclesiastical plague of "spiritual gift inventories" in the church's hymnody; makes the concept of God-given vocation seem subordinate to an enthusiastic spirit of "whatever I feel gifted by the Holy Spirit to do must be God-pleasing"; and leaves wide open the question of why, if it's the same deal in the world around us, we consider what goes on "here" to be special at all. Stanza 2.0 refers to table (sic), font, pulpit, and cross as "symbols...of our lifelong need of grace"—which, in the first place, could be read as a suggestion that the Sacraments themselves are symbolic only; and, in the second place, smacks of law rather than gospel. Stanza 2.5 says that the Spirit comes in "honesty of preaching" (which sounds more like "authenticity" than "faithfulness") and "in silence, as in speech" (which sounds like it means "without means"). Stanza 3.0 talks about "bread and wine" in a way that, by omitting mention of Christ's body and blood, further raises the likelihood that deniers of Christ's sacramental presence will find this hymn entirely to their way of thinking. Stanza 3.5 depicts worship as a time for "servants of the Spirit" (here meaning "everybody") "to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore," as though there isn't a right answer that should be taught to us; as though we are free to find our own answer to the question "What is the faith?" By Stanza 4.0's prayer to "keep us faithful to the gospel; help us work your purpose out" I'm no longer quite equal to putting the best construction on everything. F. P. G. could be trying to say that we offer ourselves in worship to be instruments of God's ongoing purpose in the world; but there's a certain tacky side of me that snickers at the impious idea that we're scratching our heads at what God is up to. Plus, I misgive that we tend to give ourselves too much credit for doing the work of God, when for all we know, He may be doing it in spite of us.

528 "Come and fill our hearts" is a Taizé/Jacques Berthier paraphrase of Psalm 136:1 which, with a brevity and simplicity that lends itself nicely to hypnotic repetition, says exactly the following: "Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone, O Lord, are holy. Come and fill our hearts with your peace. Alleluia!" You can also try this in Latin: Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus, Alleluia! Only to the extent that Lutheran worship is totally about altering the worshipers' state of mind so they can be toyed with, is this not tacky.

529 "Jesus, we are gathered" (Jesu, tawa pano) is a hymn by Patrick Matsikenyiri, a Methodist hymn-writer in Zimbabwe. His ditty has a simple charm, but there's no overlooking the fact that it consists entirely of the same phrase sung three times, followed by the concluding line: "We are gathered, Lord Jesus, for you." As sweet as this is, it doesn't really teach us anything, give us anything from God, or even build anything on the bare fact that we are present, accounted for, and ready to begin worship. Compare this to what "Dearest Jesus, at your word" (hymn 520) gives us. It doesn't even blow enough time to give the liturgist a chance to catch his breath. So what is its purpose?

530 "Here, O Lord, your servants gather" (Sekai no tomo to te o tsunagi) is a hymn translated from a text by Tokuo Yamaguchi, a Japanese Methodist; predictably, because Multiculturalism Is Our God, it includes one stanza in Japanese, in addition to four stanzas in English. There's a nice theme of "Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life" running through this hymn. But there are also some lines that ought to make us blush. For example, do we really mean it when, in Stanza 1, we claim to be standing hand in hand?

531 "The trumpets sound, the angels sing" (The Feast Is Ready) is a hymn by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950). It is an OK hymn on the theme of the invitation to the Lord's feast. My only complaint about the text, other than some mild reservations about the literary quality of such rhymes as "He'll fill you up with love divine, he'll turn your water into wine" and "applaud/God," is that it very pointedly avoids even the slightest suggestion of the warning side of Jesus' sayings about the great banquet—the perils of refusing the invitation, of trying to get in without the garments He provided, of slumbering rather than watching for the Bridegroom, etc. Minor quibbles, to be sure; but the music is where the tackiness comes into the foreground. Its lively Caribbean rhythm simply doesn't lend itself to being sung by a musically average American Lutheran congregation. A choir of musically trained amateurs or semi-professional singers could handle it; soloists from a culture where these rhythms are commonplace can handle it; but whether or not individual Lutherans can dance, Lutherans en masse do not calypso.

532 "Here in this place the new light is streaming" (Gather Us In) is by the already often-mentioned Marty Haugen (b. 1950). It combines a ballad-like tune with lyrics whose searching invocation of a vaguely identified God must appeal particularly to the flower-child generation. Stanza 1 describes worship as a place where "our fears and our dreamings" are brought to God. Stanza 2, which contains the dubiously tasteful rhyme of "myst'ry/hist'ry," toys with the idea that "we have been sung," then asks God to "give us the courage to enter the song." Stanza 3 throws more cold water on the teaching of the sacraments, repeatedly referring to wine and bread but making no mention of Jesus' body and blood; the closest it comes is "the bread that is you." It also muddles baptism and the eucharist, grouping "the wine and the water" in one phrase, then making a strange reference to "the bread of new birth." Stanza 4 takes away more than it gives in the lines, "Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away—here in this place, the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, now is the day." I get the whole "not in buildings made with stone" thing, but Haugen simply isn't clear about what he is denying in the first phrase, versus what he is asserting in the third; and I also get that the right hand of God isn't a point in outer space but wherever God chooses to be present, but is that all that "now is the kingdom" might imply? It isn't hard to imagine a believer singing these words and being disturbed by the idea that there isn't an afterlife, especially when the forgiveness of sins (in a word, the gospel) forms no part of this hymn's vision of worship.

We now move from the section of hymns tagged as "Gathering" (because ELW holds no truck with received terms such as "Opening of Worship" or "Hymns to Enter," and must introduce new language for everything), to the "Sending" section (i.e., "Close of Worship" or "Hymns to Depart"). I'm cool with the word "gathering" as a synonym for "opening" or "entering" worship. But I have a niggling doubt about the appositeness of "sending" for "closing" or "departing." To my fertile imagination, it suggests the idea that corporate worship is a sort of spiritual battery charger that juices us up so that we can go out in our personal lives and really serve God—rather than the key focus of Christian life, where God comes to us to heal, feed, cleanse, and serve us: a refuge apart from the world that tests our faith and burdens us with sin. I suppose not all will agree with me as to which emphasis is better for Lutheran Christians. But in the language of "sending" I also smell an idea that we are ordaining everyone to be a minister and commissioning them, week and week out, to evangelize the world. There is something vaguely arrogant about this. Perhaps I wouldn't be so concerned if I saw more evidence that the gospel (evangelion, the good news with which one is to be evangelized) is actually reaching the people who are being "sent" to proclaim it.

535 "Hallelujah! We sing your praises" (Halleluya! Pelo tsa rona) is a South African hymn whose refrain consists of the above line, plus "All our hearts are filled with gladness," repeated four times before, between, and after the two stanzas, each of which is also to be repeated. Stanza 1 says, "Christ the Lord to us said: I am wine, I am bread, give to all who thirst and hunger." Stanza 2 adds, "Now the Lord sends all out, strong in faith, free of doubt. Tell to all the joyful gospel." And that, except for repeats, is the whole hymn. It's all imperative to preach the gospel (i.e., all law) with no recital of the message to be preached (i.e., no gospel). This is combined with a tune whose rhythmic complications defeat the purpose of putting it in the pew hymnal (i.e., so that congregation can sing what is in it). It will only be within the reach of choir, soloists, groups steeped in African culture, and campus or town-gown congregations whose level of musical skill is unrepresentative of the wider church. When Grandma and Grandpa Smurf's church tries to sing it, the result will be mortifying. And lest I forget to mention it, this hymn includes a bit of the original-language text—but only the refrain, because our cultural diversity can only be pushed so far.

538 "The Lord now sends us forth" (Enviado soy de Dios) is a Sending hymn whose sole stanza is given in both English and the original Spanish, once again because of diversidad cultural. And the only gospel in this text is Social Gospel (which is no gospel, but law), bordering hard upon Liberation Theology. The opening section states that "the Lord now sends us forth with hands to serve and give, to make of all the earth a better place to live." Even the "everyone is being commissioned as an evangelist" folderol would be better than this; at least in concept, it includes the intention of proclaiming Christ. The second section goes on to add nothing but law, law, law. I do not object to Christians having a social conscience or caring for the needy. But the purpose of the church, as such, is to preach Christ.

540 "Go, make disciples" is another Handt Hanson (b. 1950) ditty, with a CoWo anthem rhythm that puts it firmly outside the range of hymns Grandma Smurf's home church can sing. If worship is a performance to be delivered by soloists and backup singers, well. Then there's the issue whether reciting the words of Christ's "Great Commission" in the context of a close-of-worship (or Sending) hymn is really the correct application of the words that give the church as a whole its mission—not individual Christians. Plus, such added formulations as "Go, be the salt of the earth. Go, be the light for the world. Go, be a city on a hill, so all can see that you're serving me" reinforce the sense that a Mission Paradigm that has first been forced into Jesus' mouth is now being used to club us with law and fear and guilt. That, at least, is my reading of the expectations this message sends people out of church with; and it contrasts miserably with the encouraging nature of the promises from which these commands are derived ("You are the salt of the earth," etc.).

541 "O Jesus, blessed Lord, to you" is the familiar two-stanza post-Communion hymn by Thomas Kingo, here set to a nice tune by Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), though most Lutherans are probably more familiar with this hymn from its setting to OLD HUNDREDTH. I have long been aware of two different translations of this text, one of which (cf. The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941) ends with the lines: "My Savior dwells within my heart; how blest am I! how good Thou art!" The other (cf. Lutheran Hymnary, 1913, and Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 1996) concludes: "My Savior dwells within me now; how blest am I! how good art Thou!" This very small difference in translation has produced many an interesting discussion as to which does a better job confessing the Real Presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. Your first homework assignment is to think critically about it and write a one-page essay explaining why the Hymnary translation is the right answer. (Now tell me I'm just a TLH repristinator!) Mind you, this is a case in which the Scandinavian Pietist forefathers of today's ELCA got something right that eluded the dead-orthodox Germans of the LCMS's heyday. So the fact that ELW regresses even further from the Lutheran verity by changing the words to, "My Savior dwells within my soul and makes my wounded spirit whole," cannot simply be put down to the influence of Scandinavian Pietism. Something else must be going on. Your second assignment is to tell me what it is. I really want to know.

546 "To be your presence" (is our mission here) is another hymn by Benedictine sister Delores Dufner (b. 1939), set to Charles Villiers Stanford's (1852-1924) attractive tune ENGELBERG, which has become a magnet for trendy new hymns over the past 30 years or so. This is another hymn that will appeal to the wedge of the church pie that appeals strongly for considering "mercy works" part of the mission of the church, if not its central focus. Feeding the poor, upholding justice, speaking for the voiceless—these are all good things in their way. But when this hymn uses the word "mission" to sum it up, I think it is mincing words. In the context of Christian theology, which should never be divorced from the church's hymnody, "mission" has a specific meaning, and it is not this.

548 "Rise, O church, like Christ arisen" is a post-Communion hymn by Susan Cherwien (b. 1953), set to the original tune SURGE ECCLESIA by Timothy Strand (b. 1958). (Are you suddenly noticing a prevalence of authors and composers with birthdates in the 1950s?) I read this hymn over and over, trying to like it, but it impressed me less with each re-reading. I would like it better if it mentioned the forgiveness of sins in clear, direct terms, rather than leaving it up to one's pious imagination to find it between such lines as "from this meal of love and grace" and "to release and to console." I think it is at least as likely that someone will interpret this hymn as though the Lord's Supper gives us power to work for social causes. Some of Cherwien's poetic decisions seem underpowered, such as Stanza 1's concluding line, "God, the wonder of our days." Others seem ill advised, such as Stanza 2's "Rise, transformed, and choose to follow" (why the emphasis on "choose"?) and "broken, shared, our lives are hallowed" (suggesting another plug for the new theology of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we are the bread given for the life of the world). Stanza 3 loses me entirely: "present by God's loving nurture, Spirited then let us live." Note the capitalization, which seems significant in a hymnal that pointedly does not capitalize the first word of each line: evidence that this is Cherwien's clumsy way of saying we have been given the Holy Spirit. Stanza 4 closes the hymn to the same effect as the redacted post-Communion blessing I have heard some pastors give ("Depart in peace and serve"), again making sure that the law has the last word, rather than the gospel. Don't give me your guff about the Third Use of the Law. That ordinal number ("third") is not meant to designate its chronological position after "Law" and "Gospel." It is nowhere written that we can't let people go free with the unconditional promise of forgiveness echoing in their ears. But where is that promise in this hymn?

549 "Send me, Jesus" (Thuma mina, Nkosi yam) is an eensy-weensy South African part-song, complete with off-the-beat rhythms and a bass-line tag dovetailing the end of Stanza 1 with the beginning of Stanza 2. Both stanzas are given in both English and the original language, which I lack the linguistic chops to identify (and ELW does not help). It doesn't take much expertise, however, to boil down this hymn's content to "Send me, Jesus; send me, Lord" (Stanza 1), and "I am willing, willing Lord" (Stanza 2). Not very specific, is it? I guess the context is everything. The context suggested by this hymnal, however, is a bunch of fair-skinned Americans of northern European extraction, making themselves look like fools in the service of the god Cultural Diversity. If they're lucky, it will only be the choir doing this, rather than the whole congregation; then at least the music may be almost recognizable. But the doubt that lingers is whether, on this basis, the song should be in the pew hymnal at all—a theme to which I find myself returning again and again!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Persuasion

Persuasion
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

The last novel completed by the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, was first published in 1818, the year after Austen's death at age 41. Yet though a wistful shadow lies across this book, perhaps in consequence of its author's failing health, it remains like all her novels a romantic comedy: romantic, because no subject drew on her experience more than the drawing-room society of well-bred and well-off men and women trying to catch wives and husbands; comedies, because she couldn't dwell long on the subject without an ironic laugh.

Anne Elliot, the middle of three daughters of the repulsively vain and blood-proud Sir Walter Elliot, has outlived the full bloom of her beauty, and so also any realistic hope of finding a husband. Sir Walter is equaled in snootiness only by his elder daughter Elizabeth, who is oblivious to the fact that her best friend is angling to become the next Lady Elliot. Youngest sister Mary married a moneyed gentleman, but she can't bear being second to anyone—even in her own family. Ever since their late mother's best friend, Lady Russell, persuaded Anne to break up with her first love—a dashing naval officer named Frederick Wentworth—she has lived only to be of use to her loved ones, who at times hardly seem to love her in return. But now, by a twist of fate, Captain Wentworth has returned with a large fortune and a brilliant career, and in spite of the evidence that he still resents her for dumping him, they can't avoid being in each other's company.

At first in the countryside, then in the off-season seaside resort of Lyme, and finally in the social whirl of Bath, Anne and Captain Wentworth's orbits cross and re-cross. But their chances of starting over as a couple are frustrated at every turn. First the dashing captain seems to be attached to one or the other of Mary's silly young sisters-in-law. Then it looks—at least, to everyone but Anne—as though her handsome cousin William, recently restored to Sir Walter's favor, may make a bid for her hand. Whatever surprises happen, whatever information comes to light, that may alter these ideas, they add texture to the heartaches and silences that keep the hero couple apart, that make their prospects together most delicate and vulnerable to mischance. Will the love that has made both Anne and Frederick unhappy for so long finally join them in happiness? The answer is slow in coming. Why? Because the worlds of men and women at that time were so far apart; because transportation was powered by horse, wind, and foot, and that made everything far apart; and because the standards of proper behavior (especially for high-society people) made it hard to say just what one meant to say to the person one meant to say it to. Or to put it in a nutshell, because of everything infuriatingly, absurdly, endearingly funny about the world as Jane Austen saw it.

A recent book on "twenty crucial puzzles" in Jane Austen's work asks, among other questions, why her romantic leads are always making mistakes and getting into misunderstandings. Anyone with any appreciation of romantic comedy, be it period or contemporary, knows one answer to this: it's because therein lies the essence of romantic comedy. Without the mistakes and misunderstandings, there would be no tension, conflict, or suspense—no story, even—and whatever would remain would be neither romantic nor funny. This theme coordinates particularly well with the attractive blush of youth. But seeing it, in this book, play out between a couple who have lived past that stage of life—who once had a chance at happiness together when they were young, and now find each other again eight years later, when the bloom of freshness has faded and hope has all but died—the comedy is seasoned with a special poignancy. For example, we read of this novel's heroine:
She tried to be calm, and leave things to take their course, and tried to dwell much on this argument of rational dependence:—"Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment's inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness." And yet, a few minutes afterwards, she felt as if their being in company with each other, under their present circumstances, could only be exposing them to inadvertencies and misconstructions of the most mischievous kind.
And so the crossed signals that make a romantic comedy both funny and charming, serve another purpose in the mind of an author who saw her own hopes for a happy ending fading away. They school the hero and heroine, and the author herself, and you and me, to be prepared to accept with patience any outcome, happy or sad. And if the right boy and girl do end up together—even eight years too late—the goofs and gaffes that kept them apart will also teach them to accept their happiness with the gratefulness due an undeserved gift.

This book is, in short, a mature romance. As comedy goes, it is not "ha-ha" funny. Its satire of the foolish nobility in its ridiculous pride and pretensions, of the selfish rich and their morally bankrupt social ambition, owes its gentle and tolerant tone to the sweetness of Anne Elliot's character. But pride on one side and ambition on the other lead her and her family to the brink of tragedy. And one senses a certain savage joy in the way Austen reveals what is really going on, particularly on the part of Mrs. Clay (Elizabeth's climbing friend) and Mr. Elliot (the kissing cousin). One of Anne's saving graces proves to be her friendship toward a sick and disappointed widow, who gives her the information she needs at the crucial time. Just think: this character, Mrs. Smith, gets a modestly happy ending of her own, just when Austen's sickness and singleness were reaching a point of no return. I think this expresses the basic optimism of Jane Austen's outlook on life: an optimism tried by experience and undestroyed by the approach of death. Together with the fragility of Anne Elliot's hopes and the lateness of their fulfillment, it makes this romantic comedy uniquely touching and bittersweet.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gifts

Gifts
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+

Life is harsh in the northern uplands where Orrec Caspro grows up. The climate is cold. The farmers and serfs scratch an uneasy living out of indifferent soil. The land-owning families that lead them are divided by vicious feuds. And the most powerful among them, honored with the title Brantor, wield terrible powers. One family's gift is calling to animals, which can be helpful when you're training a horse or a dog, but is oftener used to deadly effect—in the hunt. And that's one of the milder gifts. Other families' gifts include turning people blind or deaf, twisting their limbs, enslaving their minds, and afflicting them with a slow wasting death. Orrec seems to have inherited perhaps the nastiest gift of all: the ability to "unmake" anything he points at with his eye, his hand, and his will. Indeed, it may not even be as well controlled as that. Which is why, at age fourteen, Orrec decides to wear a blindfold.

He thinks this will protect his loved ones from being inadvertently struck down by his awful, wild gift. His father thinks it will terrify their stronger and more aggressive neighbors into leaving the Caspro lands alone. His mother, a gracious, well-educated woman from the lowlands, doesn't understand Orrec's need for a blindfold at all. And yet for three dark years he wears it, learning to get around with the aid of a stick and a faithful sheepdog. Kept in voluntary blindness by his own fear and the fear of others, Orrec misses many beautiful and painful sights—including the whole last year of his mother's life. And then his anger and despair push him into a darkness not of the eyes alone.

In this first book of a Young Adult trilogy that continues in Voices and Powers, multiple Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Ursula Le Guin writes with her usual lyricism, poignancy, and attention to world-building detail. Never more effective than when she is imagining the whole cultural background behind her characters and their motives, she here offers such a vivid portrait of a youth's struggle to understand his place in the world, such a deeply-felt narrative of grief, love, and healing, that her expertise in these things can only be explained as a result of personal experience. Or perhaps she just has a knack for telling stories that put a lump in your throat and a tear on your cheek.

Either way, Gifts was all that to me. I couldn't put it down even when a perfect blue-sky afternoon called me outdoors for a walk. I read half of this book on the hoof, and at one point struggled to control my emotions when they rose up in an embarrassingly public place. I don't know what those passersby thought of me. At one point I felt the narrator's grief so deeply that, like him, I wanted to be alone. Maybe it's because of the ring of truth in passages like this:
To try to tell it is like trying to tell the passage of a sleepless night. Nothing happens. One thinks, and dreams briefly, and wakes again; fears loom and pass, and ideas won't come clear, and meaningless words haunt the mind, and the shudder of nightmare brushes by, and time seems not to move, and it's dark, and nothing happens.
Or maybe it's because the gift of writing a beautiful story is a kind of magic all its own. Orrec seems to find this to be so. And if any proof of that is in order, let it be the fact that at the end of my walk, I found myself at the public library, putting a hold on the next book in this trilogy.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to Greywalker, Seattle-based private detective Harper Blaine takes further steps toward understanding her strange new ability to see, and move around in, the world of ghosts, vampires, and necromancers. Months after her cases start to get weird—thanks to a near-death-experience that gave her this unwanted talent—Harper gets called in to catch whoever is faking results in a college psychology experiment. The paranormal catch is that the experiment uses a group of volunteers to create a Poltergeist.

Nothing quite as flamboyant as Peeves, this byproduct of "psychokinesis by committee" shouldn't be doing much more than making a table shake and causing the lights to flicker—nothing that couldn't be faked, either on purpose or by accident. In this case, however, the apparent faker is putting out way too much power for the study's combination of psychobabble and high-tech fakery to explain. This means either someone is sabotaging the study, or something really weird is going on.

The research has to do with exploiting the tensions within a group of people, and giving them permission to do things as a group that they would never dream of doing on their own. Study protocols require the research team to be in control of what is fake and what is real. As knocks and rattles escalate to rampaging furniture and projectile jewelry, people start to get hurt. Harper suspects something really "Grey" may be happening, but she will have a hard time proving that to her client. She'd better hustle, though. Because no sooner does she take the case, than the entity created by the experiment kills one of the participants. So much for group-think phenomena!

Could the experiment have conjured up something really powerful? Obviously yes! The bigger question is whether the nature of the experiment, and the way it was run, might have turned loose a real, flesh-and-blood psychopath. As the answer to that question leans increasingly toward another Yes, Harper's problem becomes figuring out who the killer is and how to stop them, while keeping clear of a homicide detective who will never believe the truth. With the deadly entity drawing power from Harper herself (among others), and the group dynamics of the test subjects heating up like a pressure cooker, and her own client trying to frame her and her technical consultant for theft, Harper has no choice but to accept more of the paranormal gift that she never wanted. She will need the help of a witch and her parapsychologist husband, the advice of three pre-teen ghost whisperers, the expertise of the second-scariest vampire in the Pacific Northwest (hint: he doesn't sparkle in sunlight), and some new ghost-busting kung-fu moves to stop a rage-fueled thought-entity before it becomes a serial killer.

This is the second of (so far) eight books in the ongoing Greywalker series. It combines a touch of romance, a streak of warm family comedy (featuring a rambunctious toddler who thinks he is a rhinoceros), a tightly paced detective story cooked over-medium (if not hard-boiled), a glimpse into the dog-eat-poltergeist world of academic research, and a sometimes affectionate, sometimes heebie-jeebie-giving tribute to the city of Seattle, all in one thrilling tale of wicked weirdness. You won't blame Harper Blaine for being leery of getting more involved in the Grey, when you see some of the places it leads her to, the trouble it gets her into, and the company it forces her to keep. For example, Carlos the vampire has been on her side in both adventures so far, but he's still scarier than this book's bad guy and his pet poltergeist. It's enough to make me want to keep reading, just to see this nice young lady safely through the darkness. Beyond doubt, there will be plenty of darkness. After all, the next book on deck is titled Underground.

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.