Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hymn of Thanksgiving and Stewardship

song of thanks to God we raise,
Whose mercies span uncounted days,
For being One in unity,
Yet, all unchanging, being Three:
Who gets, is gotten, and proceeds,
Gives and is given for our needs,
Receives and is our paschal Lamb,
Hates sin yet, loath our race to damn,
Is born and dwells with sinful men
And draws man's heart to Him again—
Such is the God we praise!

He made all things, and still He works:
Protects and guides where danger lurks,
Sustains our soul and body's wants,
Gives flesh to beasts and fruit to plants,
Health, weather, parent, child, and spouse,
Shoes, clothing, body, mind, and house,
Peace, government, and work to do,
Our skills, our times, our sabbaths too:
All these are His, for which we must
Thank Him who gives us all in trust—
Such is the God we praise!

In Christ, He made our flesh His home,
His throne a while—the Virgin's womb.
Such dignity befell our race—
We may with God blood-kinship trace!
And so, as Kinsman, He redeemed
The house whose foreign bondage seemed
Beyond recall. Our jubilee
He bought with cost upon the Tree,
So that in Him mankind may be
Retrieved from hell eternally—
Such is the God we praise!

Now Mary's son, our flesh and bone,
Is seated on God's cosmic throne,
Whence He'll return one glorious day.
Yet though He seems so far away,
He knows how to be always near:
Food in your mouth, breath in your ear.
His body, blood, forgiving pledge,
Deflect the enemy's keen edge.
Baptized into one body, we
Rise daily with Him, cleansed and free—
Such is the God we praise!

For giving all we need and more,
What do we owe Him, owe the poor?
For shielding us from every ill—
Shall we not shield those weaker still?
For giving us of what is His—
Ask we not what our purpose is?
He who is All gave all—Himself—
So we return not merely wealth,
But all we have and are and do;
If we are His, He does them too.
Such is the God we praise!

Seawitch

Seawitch
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the first six books of the Greywalker series, Seattle-based private eye Harper Blaine uses her unique abilities to interact with such paranormal beings as vampires, ghosts, poltergeists, necromancers, zombies, Chinese demons, Native American monsters, Egyptian gods, and Thames riverspawn. Her cases have taken her underground, into the ivory tower of academics, back in time (sort of), into the wilds of Twilight country, and back from the dead. Now, finally, in Book 7 she fulfills the possibility inherent in a series by an author who lives on a boat, in a magical mystery involving the paranormal sea-life of Puget Sound.

In case your education has been sadly neglected, Puget Sound is the Pacific Ocean inlet that makes the map of Washington state look like somebody tried to rip it in half. Full of treacherous currents, rocks, sandbars, islands, and inlets, it has become home to fleets of ghosts—victims of shipwrecks caused by bad weather, navigation error, and sometimes more sinister things. Harper's latest case seems to belong in this last category. When a 90-foot yacht called Seawitch sails itself back into Seattle harbor, twenty-seven years after vanishing with all hands aboard, she gets hired by the insurance company to determine whether fraud is involved. Police detective Rey Solis, who has often observed that Harper gets all the weird cases, comes along to look for evidence of foul play. What they find out shakes Solis's beliefs about the nature of reality, and blows Harper's cover as far as he is concerned.

First of all, blood magic is involved—the evidence is splattered all over the cabin of the boat. Then there's the hint that someone was on board who was not listed among those lost when the Seawitch went missing, and a woman now living at the marina looks suspiciously like this mystery passenger. A survivor dies in mysterious circumstances... A bell belonging to another shipwreck turns up in the Seawitch's bilge... A boatload of ghosts and the guardian beast of the Grey both want Harper to do something... And both mermaids and shape-changing otter-men turn out to be dangerously real. A magical door is about to close for another 27 years, and hundreds of lost souls are counting on Harper to set them free before it's too late, and a rapist and/or murderer may still be at large, and... well, I think that's enough seriousness to go on with. Don't you?

Welcome again to the mysterious world of one hardboiled hottie, served with a side of magic. Unlike some ongoing series about detectives, wizards, etc., the scenery in this series constantly changes. Something spooky is going on in the life of Harper's soulmate Quinton. Her friends the Danzigers have moved on with their lives. Harper is rethinking old relationships and establishing new ones—including the unexpectedly interesting family of Detective Sergeant Solis. Not only has he gone up in rank, but his stake in things weird and woolly has increased as well. It will be interesting to see what comes of it. Perhaps we will find out in the next book, to-date the latest in the series, titled Possession.

Tacky Hymns 43

The Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymn hilarity continues...

Hymn 677 "This little light of mine" is an infantile Sunday School ditty (allegedly an African American spiritual, though I have also read that it was a children's folk song that only later found its way into African American culture). Even when my age was in the single-digit range, I found this song so precious that it made me want to puke. I once visited an LCMS church where this was one of the hymns sung by the entire congregation. Once, I say. Complementary hand-signs and all. But that was a situation where the words were printed in the service bulletin. Now that the song is actually in a pew hymnal, you're not safe from that mortifying experience even in a church that strictly adheres to hard-bound, synodically approved worship books. Hooray for progress!

All right, in fairness to ELW, the arrangement printed there stands closer to the African American spiritual than the heavily redacted, kiddified version I learned in Sunday School, back in the 1970s. Nobody inserted the word "Gospel" into the first line, lest a lack of specificity raise questions like, "Is this actually a Christian song?" (Of course it is, silly. Stanza 3 says, "Jesus gave it to me." And not much else.) The cutesie verses about not letting Satan wh it out, and not hiding it under a bushel, have not been added by a patronizing pedagogue with a glee in forcing children to look ridiculous in front of their adoring parents. But still, it's a tacky song in the context of Lutheran worship because it belongs more to the Civil Rights movement than to the church. And at bottom, it doesn't distinctly teach much, though it indistinctly teaches a number of things. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, I would rather hear 48 clear words spoken straight through than six vague words repeated eight times.

With 678 "God, whose giving knows no ending," ELW moves into a new section of hymns, grouped under the surprisingly familiar topic "Stewardship." With words by Rusty Edwards (d. 2006) set to the pomp-and-circumstance tune RUSTINGTON by C. H. H. Parry (d. 1918), it sets a predictable baseline for a message on stewardship: the idea that in our worship and lives of service, we respond to the great things God has done for us. As I begin my survey of this section, I wonder how many hymns will hit on the even deeper truth represented by the biblical concept of stewardship: that we really have nothing to give to God, because it is all His anyway; but since He has entrusted it to us, we glorify Him for the trust, feel the responsibility of using it on His behalf, and hope to render a good account to Him. Stewardship means that whatever we do in His name, and in faithfulness to His word, God is effectively working through us. Next to that terrible and wonderful truth, there is something watery and bland about such expressions as "Gifted by you, we turn to you, off'ring up ourselves in praise" (st. 1); "Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone" (st. 2); and "Open wide our hands in sharing... serving you by loving all" (st. 3); etc.

Most of what Edwards says is correct and even beautifully put—though one line(!) in stanza 2 sacrifices perfect clarity to squeeze in a plug for peace, health, freedom, racial integration, and ecumenism. This strain on the syntax, however, is not one of the top two reasons I number this among ELW's tacky hymns. Number one is the fact that it depicts stewardship essentially as our work, though one helped by God, motivated by gratitude toward Him, and funded (as it were) by His gifts to us. It is close, so close, to the kingdom of God; but I think the difference is a matter of Law vs. Gospel. Quibble number two is the line (in st. 1) enumerating God's gifts: "nature's wonder, Jesus' wisdom, costly cross, grave's shattered door"—which, in my opinion, makes Jesus' cross and resurrection sound like just another two examples of God's abundant goodness. I'm not saying there may not be a good way to interpret what Edwards writes here; but the perspective seems distorted. I wonder how differently this hymn would come across if at least one whole stanza of it focused on Jesus' death and resurrection, and its consequences for our stewardship.

680 "We plow the fields and scatter" is an old German hymn—well, not very old; the text is by Matthias Claudius, who died in 1815. Nevertheless, ELW throws this nod to Lutheranism's Germanic heritage under the wheels of its Cultural Diversity juggernaut, featuring not only a three-stanza Spanish translation (in addition to the English) but also a Hispanic tune (in addition to the Germanic tune WIR PFLÜGEN, set to the same English text in hymn 681). I still don't understand what these occasional demonstrations of bilingualism accomplish. In spite of them, this is no hymnal for an Hispanic congregation. The only explanation for these paltry little tokens of inclusiveness, that makes sense to me at any rate, is that they stroke our pride. Pride in what? In our patronage of a church or churches that, on some level, we expect will be shining their brightest after English-speaking Lutheranism has gone dark.

682 "To God our thanks we give" (Reamo leboga) is a short, single stanza from Botswanan oral tradition (words and music), transmitted by one Daisy Nshakazongwe—then translated into English and written down, in both languages, an activity about which I am ambivalent. I mean, it's either a violation of the very concept of oral tradition, or a timely act of preservation... possibly both. Apart from that and the difference in language, I would say much the same about it as I said about 680. And then I would add that the music has rhythms and decorative inflections that probably put it out of range of the average congregation, while the text ("To God our thanks we give" repeated four times) just isn't much to get excited about.

683 "The numberless gifts of God's mercies" is translated by Gracia Grindal (a leader in the ELCA's conservative Pietist movement that is planning its own hymnal as an alternative to ELW) from Carolina Sandell Berg (remember, the Swedish Fanny Crosby), set to a bland tune probably written for it during its author's heyday. It basically covers the same ground as "How Great Thou Art," only less memorably. Sung with an English text, the tune's rhythm brings out awkward effects and requires a repetition of the the first half of each stanza.

684 "Creating God, your fingers trace" is a mostly very effective poem by Jeffery Rowthorn (b. 1934), set to the Southern Harmony tune PROSPECT. It's nice to see the mysteries of creation displayed in a beautiful poem. But the poem has mysteries of its own. The first bit that raises my eyebrow is in stanza 2, where the lines "Let water's fragile blend with air, enabling life, proclaim your care" sounds a bit like a dry run at recruiting the four elements of medieval science for an explanation of how creation works. It's just a weird detail. Then stanza 3 makes the sweeping statement that God's "arms embrace all now despised for creed and race." In a hymn that touches on the "creating, sustaining, redeeming, and in-dwelling" aspects of God, this is the stanza on redemption—not at all concerned with the salvation of sinners, but with world peace and social justice. And the "all" in the quoted line could be read as putting all members of sectarian rivalry, including those of non-Christian religions, in the same divine embrace. It's such a nice, humanitarian sentiment, but in terms of Christian theology, it's a face-plant.

687 "Come to us, creative Spirit" is by David Mowbray (b. 1938), set to the tune CASTLEWOOD by Richard Proulx (b. 1937). It focuses on the "talent" side of the stewardship-message cliche "talents and treasures," going as far as to include a list of ways people with various gifts can contribute to worship: "poet, painter, music-maker... craftsman, actor, graceful dancer." To me it sounds like the thinking behind the "spiritual gift inventories" that some churchmen bandy about: the idea that anyone who considers himself naturally talented in some area can rightly feel himself called to serve the church in that area. I'm all for promoting artistic excellence in the church's ceremonial, but deep thought and painful experience compel to warn against letting anyone who thinks he is good at something relating to worship, or even better at it than the rightly called pastors, force his "services" on the congregation or the pastor. Feeling gifted is no substitute for a regular call. And a wish to use your talents to God's glory is not necessarily a good reason to introduce cute things like liturgical dance.

Stanza 3 of the same hymn prays that the divine Word would "in all artistic vision give integrity" and "kindle yearning" in us by "the flame within us burning." This has the ring of a hymn written to open or close a conference on hymn-writing or the liturgical arts. It may also suggest that the creative artist owes a debt of faithfulness more to the inner conviction of his artistic vision than to an external Word from God—which, silly as it may sound to you, is an idea I really see at work in many instances of "tackiness on holy ground." Finally, Stanza 4 begins as a nice, originally phrased, trinitarian doxology—only to end with: "In our worship and our living keep us striving for the best." Thematically and in practical terms, that's a good prayer; but in the thought-structure of a doxological stanza, I think it is a misstep. This is no place for another round of cheerleading or exhortation; say "now and forever" and have done!

688 "Lord of light, your name outshining" is by Howell Lewis (1860-1953), set to the fine Anglican-sounding tune ABBOT'S LEIGH by C. V. Taylor (1907-91). One immediately perceives what Lewis is about when he prays, "Use our talents in your kingdom... use us to fulfill your purpose" (st. 1). One of the most difficult things a talented person may have to cope with (I know I have) is the possibility, seemingly ignored by this hymn, that God's answer to this prayer may be "No." Again, it's partly a problem of understanding holy vocation, and partly the harsh reality that even when one has a regular call to serve in the church, one's specialized talents may not be wanted or appreciated. Perhaps I would be more willing to accept this stanza (with its "Thy will be done" refrain) as a humble prayer that God would help us with these problems, rather than a confident assertion of one's right to consider his God-given talents a free pass around them, if it weren't for the tune's air of noble piety and pomp. Stanza 2 focuses on the service of God through labor and suffering; stanza 3, on enlightening knowledge ("lift the nations from the shadows..."); and stanza 4, finally, on the ministry, the peace-bringing cross of Christ, and the love of God. Each of these stanzas improves my impression of this hymn after an opening stanza that struck me, and still strikes me, as presuming too much on our talents and powers.

689 "Praise and thanksgiving," by Albert Bayly (1901-84), suffers from the special sort of tackiness that frequently afflicts hymns written to fit the Gaelic tune BUNESSAN. To wit: Stanza 1 rhymes "sown fields" with "mown fields," to comic effect. The other rhymes aren't so bad, but between them are such sentiments as "bless the labor we bring to serve you... we would work with you" (st. 2), which sounds more like "we'll do our part if you do yours" than it really needs to. Stanzas 3 and 4 are full of nice lines about learning to share with each other and making sure that no one goes hungry. It doesn't ask anything that isn't quite appropriate to pray for. But the drift of the hymn, from one stanza to another, seems to move away from really praising or praying to the provider of all things, and toward dropping hints about what we should be working for.

690 "We raise our hands to You, O Lord" is translated from a text by Svein Ellingsen (b. 1929) and set to music by Trond Kverno (b. 1945). I think it's going to irritate some folks, because although its five stanzas follow the same meter (albeit an unusual one), they have no rhyme scheme. The effect is like discovering by surprise that what you thought was a piece of prose is actually poetry.

691 "Accept, O Lord, the gifts we bring" is by Rev. Beth Folkemer (b. 1957), and set to an Alice Parker arrangement of the folk tune BARBARA ALLEN. In my opinion, a hymn is not the right way to deploy an Alice Parker folk-song arrangement, which my mind's ear refuses to hear otherwise than sung by a choir with the original lyrics. (I have a special love for this particular folk song. Don't ask why.) Folkemer's text begins by touching the idea of the sacramental wine and bread being placed as gifts from us on the Lord's table—an interpretation of the offertory that Luther and the Reformation rejected because of its connection to the "sacrifice of the Mass." Lest you guess this is only talking about the collection baskets being set on the altar, read stanza 2, which makes it clear that we're talking about grapes and grains being grown and made into common food, which now becomes "holy treasure." (What isn't clear is any idea of Jesus' body and blood being taken by mouth.) Stanza 3 talks about hopes and dreams being lifted up to God, similar to an obnoxious post-Communion canticle I have discussed before ("Let the vineyards be fruitful"). The concluding lines, "Lord, by your grace now come to us," etc., could be interpreted as a prayer for a spiritual visitation, rather than Christ's bodily presence in the Sacrament. The weaknesses of this hymn as a song for between the offering and the Sacrament may be slight (and owing to the slightness of the hymn itself), but they are also endemic to the entire hymnal, as this thread has repeatedly shown.

692 "We are an Offering" (first line: "We lift our voices") is a CoWo anthem by Dwight Liles (b. 1957) in which we offer God our hands, lives, voices, all that we have, all that we are, all that we hope to be, all while basking in the thought that we are an offering. Some may call this total commitment. Others might point out that, given the shallowness of this hymn, it rather sounds cheap and easy. It presupposes that what we have is worthy to be given to God, or accepted by Him; yet it doesn't state why this is a safe assumption to make.

695 "As saints of old their first-fruits brought" is by Frank von Christierson (1900-96), set to the English folk tune FOREST GREEN (known to many of my generation as "the other tune to 'O little town of Bethlehem'"). Stanza 1, naturally, emphasizes the giving of first-fruits to God, which is all right. Stanza 2 speaks of dedicating ourselves to the mission of "a world redeemed by Christ-like love"—which, you'll note, isn't precisely the same thing as "a world redeemed by Christ." Are we talking about proclaiming the Gospel, or working for social justice? The hymn isn't bothered to make this clear, while it is busy directing us to "make our life an offering to God, that all may live" (more of this new language of sacrifice in which we are the bread given for the life of the world) and to hear "the church... calling us to make the dream come true" (again, throwing around "calling" language in disregard of the clear meaning of Christian vocation). Stanza 3 talks about sharing God's love and, in response to Jesus' giving Himself to us, giving "ourselves each day until life's work is done." Nothing wrong with that stanza, as such; but in the context of Stanza 2's assault on Christian vocation, it lacks a certain something. Like, for example, an assurance that giving ourselves to God each day really means receiving His gifts faithfully, and doing whatever we do (according to our station in life) to His glory.

696 "Jesus calls us; o'er the tumult" by Mrs. Cecil Alexander (1818-95) is a nice little hymn stressing the First Commandment aspect of loving Jesus above all things. It would make a fine hymn for St. Andrew's Day (Nov. 30), since that apostle is discussed in Stanza 2. And I like this hymn best when it is set to the tune given here, GALILEE by W. H. Jude (1851-1922). But there's no denying that it has a few things against it, from the standpoint of what is in the best taste for a Lutheran house of worship. First, it is an artifact of a distinctly un-Lutheran, Protestant culture. Second, it has a very moralizing tone, exhorting from start to finish without so much as a drop of Gospel. It's all about us and what we're supposed to do, and it blows more than one golden opportunity to say anything about what Jesus does for us. It mentions our cares and sorrows, but tenders no comfort. It gives us instructions, but adds no reason to consider them doable. It doesn't even specify how (by what means) Jesus is calling us and talking to us. It leaves an awful lot to the pious imagination.

697 "Just a closer walk with Thee" has words and music credited to "North American traditional," which presumably means "we could trace it as far back as Bluegrass Country, but we can't get any closer to finding out who wrote it." It doesn't have the character of a folk song. Rather, it sounds like a sentimental, old-timey, religious country-and-western song of the kind apt to appear between "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Garden" on some pre-stereo crooner's album of Christian covers. That's where it should stay, too. I never heard this song in my life until, several years after entering the ministry (and mere weeks after exiting it), I visited a congregation whose Communion distribution was accompanied by songs out of a booklet titled "Your Favorite Hymns" (or something like that). Suddenly, old folks who couldn't sing "A mighty fortress" above a quiet mumble, even if you held a gun to their head, were belting this song out like they wanted the whole street to hear it. Edifying I'm sure, but I repeat: I had never heard this song before. One generation's old favorites is another generation's "What in the name of glory is that awful racket?!" And the generation that favors this hymn is on its way out. There can't be many reasons to perpetuate hymns like this, and their content isn't one. The music oozes smarm, and the refrain talks vaguely about walking closely with Jesus, and the verses clarify this only to the extent of suggesting that it has to do with avoiding wrong behavior (st. 1), carrying a burden (st. 2), and going to heaven when we die (st. 3). And it has one of those lines that, read out of context, could strike the ear of today's generation as unintentionally funny: "If I falter, Lord, who cares?" No, really: Who cares?

The above hymn inaugurates a new section of the book, titled "Lament." It's interesting to see a hymnal being so up-front about this. I have often said that the best "Reformation" hymns are hymns of lament, praying for deliverance from spiritual foes. I've gotten the impression, lately, that today's worship leaders want to avoid hymns of lament, leaning more toward triumphalism and enthusiastic praise. How well does this section of ELW do the lament thing? In the next installment on this thread, we'll see. For now...

698 "'How Long, O God?' the psalmist cries" is by Ralph Smith (1950-94), set to the early American tune LAND OF REST. And while the hymn admits that we make this cry our own, as we suffer a whole list (five stanzas worth) of fears and troubles, the solution or medicine it offers is rather weak. It doesn't, in fact, promise much comfort, or relate our sufferings to a fellowship with Christ. It merely offers a pop-psychology panacea ("name the sorrows, name the pain") and finally, after leaving us "lost, alone, afraid," it abruptly ends with this good news: "Our God will lead us home." In terms of sounding lament-like, A+. In terms of directing those who lament to a specific hope or reason to take encouragement, D-.

699 "In deepest night" by Susan Cherwien (b. 1953) suffers from an aggressively uninspired tune by Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962). I like most of what Cherwien says in this hymn, though I think she muffed it when she concluded stanza 1 with "yet sounding in us quietly there is the song of God." Song isn't quite the right word to convey the Spirit's groaning within us, when our agony runs too deep for words. But it's her poem, so...

700 "Bring peace to earth again" (first line: "Where armies scourge the countryside") is by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923), set to a contemporary tune by Perry Nelson (b. 1955). I'm not particularly attracted to the tune, but it's got more going for it than that of 699. The text, however, is brutal in its depiction of brutality, like a newsreel of horrors set to verse: people fleeing, sirens screaming, flaming nights, troubled streets, anger and terror, families torn apart by conflict, "deeds of hurt and shame" taking place in the home... It's the kind of hymn that sings itself in your heart when you read the headlines many a morning. But it's a bit disturbing to think about putting this highly specific, nasty imagery in the mouths of people you want to comfort and edify. I can't think of many worship contexts where this wouldn't be, quite simply, in bad taste.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Causes the Church?

This evening, at the beginning of a choir rehearsal at the chapel of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I leaned over to a younger guy—a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod seminarian—who had worn his hat into the rehearsal, and I said something to the effect, "Hats off, boyo. This is church." He scoffed, "It's not a church. It's a chapel."

Later, during a break in the rehearsal, we continued our discussion with this very brief exchange:

ME: "So a chapel isn't a church?"

HE: "Of course not. Where's the congregation? Where's the called pastor?"

ME: "What about the altar where the sacrament is celebrated?"

That's about as far as our actual conversation got. Though I noted, later in the rehearsal, that Sunny Jim had taken his hat off, I spent the rest of it distracted by a desire to pull him aside and disabuse him of some of the Waltherian poppycock to which I no longer have to give lip-service. Since I couldn't actually button-hole the kid during or after the rehearsal, all I can do is imagine how our conversation/catechism might have gone...

ME: Are you saying it only qualifies as a house of God if it belongs to a properly constituted congregation with a called pastor?

HE: Yes.

ME: So it stops being the house of God during a pastoral vacancy?

HE: Of course not.

ME: So then it can be the house of God even if there isn't a called pastor?

HE: Er.

ME: Never mind about that. What constitutes a properly constituted congregation?

HE: (Probably some fiddle-faddle boiling down to the sovereignty of the voters' assembly.)

ME: So man creates the church? By a resolution moved, seconded, and passed by a majority vote?

HE: Er.

ME: Don't the Lutheran confessions teach that God creates the church, using the preached Word and the Sacraments as His means to do so?

HE: Yes.

ME: So isn't it true that Word and Sacrament cause the church?

HE: Yeah, but no one has the right to preach the Word or administer the Sacraments without already being rightly called.

ME: Granted.

HE: Called by the church.

ME: Called by God, through the church.

HE: So the church causes the office of the keys, or the ministry, which proclaims the Word and administers the Sacraments.

ME: Which cause the church.

HE: No, God causes the church. The sacraments are only God's instruments.

ME: God causes the office of the keys, too, and calls the pastor. The external structure and ceremonies by which pastors are assigned to congregations, such as the voters' assembly—to name just one example—are likewise only instruments God uses. The specific form of these structures and ceremonies is determined by human right, not commanded by God. But the pastoral ministry, the Word, and the Sacraments come directly from God, in Christ.

HE: God gives them to the church.

ME: For the church to be the church, it must have them. The preached Word, the Sacraments, and the Office of the Keys are the marks whereby the church can be seen to exist. Where God gives them, there He creates the church.

HE: But there has to be a church to call a pastor. And since no one who isn't called to serve as pastor should regularly preach or administer the sacraments, the church must come before the sacraments. And I'm sorry, but a campus chapel isn't a real congregation. It doesn't have a right to call a pastor.

ME: So we're back to the original question: What causes the church? How does a "properly constituted congregation" come into existence, so that it has a right to call its own pastor?

HE: (Probably more sovereign-voters'-assembly claptrap.)

ME: Show me where this is written in the Bible.

HE: Er.

ME: How about the Lutheran Confessions?

HE: The Confessions don't answer every question that has arisen since 1580.

ME: You have to be getting this from somewhere. Where is it coming from? Who sold you this bill of goods?

HE: It's the doctrine of church on ministry on which the Missouri Synod was founded. You don't like it, you can worship elsewhere.

ME: I already do. So do you mean to say that the Word and Sacraments require validation from the congregation, however it may be structured? Even though that structure exists by human right only?

HE: Hey, take it up with God. He works through means.

ME: Exactly. And through the means of Word and Sacrament God calls people to faith, gathers believers together into the church, and prompts the church to maintain places of worship and the office of pastor to keep them in Word and Sacrament. God is present in the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the altar where His sacrament is celebrated. He speaks in the sermon, the liturgy, and the hymns. Where these things are, God is present, and is calling the church into being.

HE: These pastors don't spring up out of the ground. They come from within the church. The liturgy and hymns, likewise. Even the Bible and the Confessions were written by people of the church, for the church.

ME: By the same reasoning you could also say that seminaries are built by the church, and the chapels in which their faculty, staff, and students worship are an artifact of the church.

HE: You're just bandying words. There is no church here. No one worships in this building on Sunday morning. No one belongs to a congregation that regularly worships here.

ME: What about the people who attend chapel services here?

HE: I mean belong as actual members. Those people are all members of other congregations, and they worship somewhere else on Sunday.

ME: So the day of the week where all this happens must be pretty important. And official membership, which naturally has to be granted by the voters' assembly...

HE (ignoring me): No one is called to be the head pastor here, responsible for all the preaching and teaching and liturgy that go on here. Even the sacraments that they celebrated here have to be sponsored by a local congregation.

ME: Because it isn't the Word of God, but the decree of a voter's assembly, that ratifies the Sacraments.

HE: Tsk! I know it doesn't have to be a voter's assembly, but there has to be some entity, some organization, something with a Constitution or a charter...

ME: Really? So are you saying it isn't the Word of God that causes the sacraments, but the constitution or charter of a corporate entity?

HE: Er.

ME: Doesn't the Seminary have a charter?

HE: The Seminary is not a church. It's an educational institution that belongs to the Synod.

ME: OK. So doesn't the Synod have a constitution?

HE: Yes, but the Synod isn't a church. It's a voluntary association of congregations, which are the church.

ME: OK, but didn't you say that the church has the authority to ratify the Word-and-Sacrament ministry? There you are. If they ratify the chapel as a house of worship...

HE: Ha, ha. The Synod isn't a house of God. The individual congregations are.

ME: The house of God is where He is present. Jesus promised to be present wherever any number of people are gathered in His name. That sounds awfully like the idea that wherever the Word and Sacrament are, is the tabernacle of Christ's presence. I don't remember Jesus adding a clause about this only applying to Sunday morning.

HE: But the Bible also says to do all things decently and in order.

ME: Yes.

HE: No one has a right to go set themselves up as a pastor without being called by the church.

ME: Right.

HE: So also, no one has a right to go set themselves up as a church, without...

ME: Without what? Without a majority vote? Who gives them a right to put it to a vote? How do they ascertain that it is God's will? Where is the line between "doing everything decently and in order" and "everybody doing what seems right in his own eyes"?

HE: Er.

ME: How did Christians get along before there was such a thing as the sovereign voters' assembly, anyway?

HE: Now look here. The apostles elected Matthias, then they chose the seven deacons...

ME: They cast lots. That's not the same thing as taking a majority vote. It was like putting a bunch of names in a hat and pulling out one, or seven. In effect, God had the only vote.

HE: Still, they selected the names that went into the hat.

ME: Who did? The nominations committee? The council of apostles? Or the general assembly of believers, taking nominations from the floor?

HE: Cute.

ME: Does Robert's Rules of Order validate the existence of the church?

HE: You're a real treat to talk to.

ME: I know. You should have heard me when I was arguing your side of this, half a lifetime ago.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Britten!

Friday, November 22, marked the 100th anniversary of composer Benjamin Britten's birth. That evening I had the great privilege to be part of a performance of Britten's operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall. I sang as a member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, joining the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a fantastic principal cast, and conductor David Robertson in a performance that got rave reviews and a rowdy ovation.

This being my second time on stage at Carnegie (after joining the SLSO, the chorus, and Robertson in John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls and Brahms's German Requiem in April 2006), it would be less than accurate to say this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the thrill of being on the spot when such an amazing account of that opera is given, of being at the center of the cultural universe to honor its composer on his 100th birthday, is well nigh unrepeatable.

Some time when I'm not rushed to get ready for work, etc., I may add to this post. I would like to share some of my impressions of the music, of the cast, and of the differences I noticed between performing it at St. Louis's Powell Symphony Hall (the previous weekend) and at Carnegie. For now, I just wanted to mark this milestone in my blog. Being in New York for only my second brief trip was, of course, fun and exciting. Getting to know my friends in the Symphony Chorus in a more intimate way was delightful. Making great music in a great space, with great artists all around me, and being even a small part of an event that was so well received, makes it a memory to cherish. I promise not to boast about it... much... after this. But for just one minute, let me soak in it!

The Automatic Detective

The Automatic Detective
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

I have a couple of friends with whom I like to discuss books. Our taste in fiction overlaps significantly, yet we somehow seem to have read entirely different things. One example is the work of this author, among whose books I have already read Too Many Curses, Gil's All Fright Diner, Monster, Chasing the Moon, and In the Company of Ogres. My friends, on the other hand, always mention this book when Martinez comes up; and it's almost (but not quite) the only book of his that I hadn't read... until now. Now I understand exactly why The Automated Detective came up in conversation after my friends read my review of The Manual of Detection. The mash-up of sci-fi/fantasy and hard-boiled detective fiction really is an up and coming genre. If my review of Manual gave the impression that it controls that territory unchallenged, I apologize. On the other hand, The Manual of Detection thrives in a world completely different from this book. The one is a straight-faced cocktail of period detective story and surrealist dream sequence; the other, an outrageous spoof of the era of pulp-fiction that scatters its in-jokes, machine-gun style, across both genres indiscriminately.

In Martinez's Tomorrow Town, also known as Empire, weird science is the basis for a whole city's way of life. People have grown used to strange mutations, resulting from the toxic runoff of all the mad experiments and attempts to take over the world. People with extra limbs, animal-human crossings, and humanoid robots are accepted more or less as the equals of "normal" human beings. Technology has leapt forward to include flying vehicles, cars that walk on mechanical legs, zero-gravity elevators, ray-guns, and holograms. Yet all this progress is clothed in a campy-chic style that suggests that a setting in the 1940s, when pulp magazines sported such imagery on their covers. And once you brush past all the far-out gizmos and freaks, you find yourself reading the very human story of a sentient robot working his way toward citizenship. His name is Mack Megaton, and as the book's back-cover blurb says, "Some bots just can't catch a break."

As I read this book, my mind's ear heard it being narrated by a voice midway between Humphrey Bogart and Rod Serling: crisp, flat, understated, self-possessed. When the world has gone mad around you, what could be better than a cool voice reporting the grim, unvarnished facts? Mack's facts have to do with the family next door, whose sudden disappearance interrupts his plans to put his sordid past (being built for world domination) behind him, and to move forward with a socially productive career (driving a cab). Julie and her kids are the closest thing Mack has to a family of his own, and he refuses to give up even when the cops say, "Meh." An attempt by attack droids to send Mack to the scrap-yard only pushes him to dig deeper. Before long, he begins having to correct people who mistake him for a private eye. Then he realizes they may not be mistaken after all.

But first, Mack must track down a four-armed ne'er-do-well, overcome a bug planted in his programming, accept the romantic feelings that a brainy dame has for him, and fight off machines, mutants, and goons from outer space in a crescendo of violence like the ascending levels of a video game. At the end of the final level, he faces the decision whether saving an innocent child or not serves the greater good—and whether it matters to him.

To appreciate the humor in this book properly, you should familiarize yourself somewhat with the types of magazines that carried mysteries by Raymond Chandler and the "astounding science fiction" that featured flying Studebakers in a Jetsons cityscape. Half of the laughs come from the inexhaustibly silly juxtaposition of these two worlds and the resulting, rib-tickling friction between past and future, sparkling optimism and brooding realism. Whether you read it for the aliens, robots, talking gorillas, and colossal explosions, or for the gritty mystery and suspense, the constant thread of wise-cracking humor is a delightful bonus. And the final, skyscraper-demolishing battle does not disappoint.

Books by A. Lee Martinez that I still have to read—and I mean that imperatively—include A Nameless Witch, Divine Misfortune, Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain, and Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Drowned Vault

The Drowned Vault
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the second book of the Ashtown Burials, Order of St. Brendan journeymen Cyrus and Antigone Smith have survived the test that determined their right to seek shelter in the Order's sanctuary at Ashtown, somewhere on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. But they have also earned the distrust and resentment of many other members of the order, by losing the Dragon's Tooth.

Now the whole transmortal (or immortal) community is in an uproar, vulnerable to the Tooth's power to give or take their life. Transmortals are dying and disappearing around the world. The nefarious Phoenix seems to be using the tooth to advance his evil plan to take over the world. The surviving transmortals, led by the one and only Gilgamesh, come to Ashtown with a blood vendetta against the young Smiths and a demand to un-bury the worst of their kind, monsters who had been put away for the good of mankind. And with a change in leadership, the Order is fast changing from a sanctuary to a hotbed of danger. All the old treaties that protected mortals from transmortals, and civilization from chaos, are fraying to pieces. A blood-drinking dragon, long thought to have been destroyed, has staged a comeback. And so, once again, Cyrus and Antigone must go on the run.

But now they can do much more than flee and hide. After a little training and some deft reweaving of their bodies by an immortal named Arachne, the two siblings can stand more pain and strain than ever. Enabled to breathe underwater by a mouthful of live squid—a type of squid that farts oxygen(!)—Cyrus sets free a buried transmortal whom others of his kind hate and fear. Then, with a small team of allies and friends, the kids only have to get the tooth back—even if that means luring Gilgamesh and his forces into a battle with Phoenix. More is at stake than the threat of an army of undead stooges, or the release of a few criminally insane transmortals. But I don't have room to explain the abomination Phoenix has in mind, nor do I want to spoil for you the creepy surprise of who the Dragon is. When you feel that tingle of horror upon discovering it for yourself, remember that I told you about it.

When N. D. Wilson's wife contacted me with an offer of a free copy of the third Ashtown Burials book, I realized that I had missed Book 2. So she kindly agreed to send me this book as well. As I write this review (belatedly) on Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful not only for the free book, but also for the entertaining diversion that occupied my mind during the tedious bits of a round-trip flight from St. Louis to New York. The thrilling action of the book helped warm me up after a cold, dark walk in the rain. And the book's understated resonances with a Christian worldview softened a side of me that has grown calluses from most popular entertainment's low-yield bombardment against my faith. Its depiction of a brash, headstrong hero, seconded by his brainy sister and backed up by a support network of diverse and interesting characters, fills a hole that has been vacant since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Its blend of references to classical myths, medieval legends, American history, and present-day people and places, make it a feast for the mind that bright young adults will find especially nourishing.

To be sure, it's a middle book. If you want to be properly introduced to the characters and situation of the Ashtown Burials, you'll have to go back to The Dragon's Tooth; and if you want a satisfying conclusion, you must read further through Empire of Bones. I will do the latter as soon as my schedule is clear of the post-Thanksgiving insanity. Don't thank me; thank Nate Wilson!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tacky Hymns 42

Still working our way through the tacky hymn selection of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a little at a time... because too much Tackiness on Holy Ground can be toxic!

Hymn 651 "Oh, praise the gracious pow'r" continues the section of hymns devoted to the topic "Community in Christ," which is ELW's fancy way of saying "The Church." (We have already remarked on the pattern of re-inventing terminology for hymn topics in this book.) The words are by Yale Prof. Thomas Troeger, whose CV bewilderingly lists his denominational affiliation as "Presbyterian and Episcopal." The music is by Dr. Carol Doran, an authority on church music in (I believe) the Episcopal Church. With these credentials, it's hard not to interpret this hymn as another anthem to ecumenism, not to mention that bugbear of confessional Lutheranism—unionism. The gracious power praised in Stanza 1 "tumbles walls of fear and gathers in one house of faith all strangers far and near"—which could be coded language for the sentiment that only bigotry prevents disparate religious groups from joining in full fellowship. Stanza 2 praises the "persistent truth that opens fisted minds and eases from their anxious clutch the prejudice that blinds"—which is interesting imagery, though one usually thinks of truth as something that adds to one's knowledge, rather than something that takes it away. Unless, again, this is coded language for disabusing people of long-held beliefs that only(?) cause needless(??) division. Stanza 3 praises "inclusive love," which is oblivious to (among other things) gender—one in the eye of all those poky folks who haven't yet jumped on the women's ordination bandwagon. After a good stanza about the "word of faith that claims us as God's own," we come to Stanza 5 praising "the tide of grace" whose effect, for this hymn's purposes, is to bring about world peace. Peace with God goes without saying, evidently; it probably also goes without saying, whether evident or not, in a church that no longer rebukes sin. Stanza 6 gathers up all these praises in the list "the pow'r, the truth, the love, the word, the tide"—a strange choice of "tide" rather than "grace," which at least can be excused by the fact that it rhymes with "Christ the crucified." But that doesn't excuse the fact that each stanza of the hymn culminates in what the seventh stanza calls "the gospel": "We praise you, Christ! Your cross has made us one!" Is it only an effect of the limited purpose of this hymn, or should I gather from this that "making us one" is the main thing about Christ's cross?

Hymn 659 "Will you let me be your servant" is not tacky the way you think it is (assuming that anyone still reading this thread by now is a confessional Lutheran who appreciates fine, orthodox hymnody). Judging based on the first line alone, you probably think this hymn is addressed to God, like the Christian pop classic "Make me a servant." But if possible, Richard Gillard's (b. 1953) text1 is something even tackier: a song for parachurch conferences in which participants build each other up, or practice Christian reconciliation, etc. Stanza 1: "Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too." The only time I have seen an exercise like this presented as a liturgical text without tackiness was in the Compline liturgy, in which the participants confess their sins to each other and absolve each other, turn and turn about. There is something awfully therapeutic about this hymn's language—and I mean that not as a compliment, but as a contrast to the Compline service's emphasis on confession and forgiveness. Stanza 2 says "we are here to help each other...bear the load," which is all right; but is it all? Stanza 3: "I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear." How? Could the hymn be more specific? "I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear." Is that supposed to mean God's forgiveness? Or are you just OK with me imagining it is, if that keeps me quiet? I like Stanza 4's bit about weeping with those who weep, etc. Stanza 5 adds nothing new (it's just a repeat of Stanza 1). So I'm left in conflict. Maybe it's a poem that says good things about how Christians are to serve each other. But it barely has Christ in it, or God doing anything for us; it's all about what we're doing for each other. So, even apart from the faint odor of a glad-handing song of the "Circle of Friends" type, it's all Law and no Gospel.

Next comes a section of hymns titled "Witness," which in the terminology of previous hymnals might have been described as "Mission." Under this heading are several hymns whose tackiness I have already extolled, including "Lift high the cross," "I love to tell the story," "O Zion, haste" (same link), "What wondrous love is this," and "Christ is the King." The next bit of juicy news is hymn 664 "Heaven is singing for joy," with words and music by Pablo Sosa. Again, all three stanzas can be sung in either Spanish or English—so it's another paean to multicultural tokenism, among many already poked by my ridicule. Besides the opening line (repeated at the beginning of each stanza) and several Alleluias, the entire content of the hymn is compressed into three lines: "for in your life and mine is shining the glory of God" (st. 1); "for your life and mine unite in the love of our God" (st. 2); and "for your life and mine will always bear witness to God" (st. 3). So, it's also pretty light on content. And what content there is, focuses mainly on what you and I do with our lives. God is not the doer or the giver, but the beneficiary of the good we achieve. Lutheran? I think not.

665 "Rise, shine, you people" is all right as these things go, but even after belonging to a church whose hymnal (The Lutheran Service Book) also contained it, and no doubt having played and sung it in church, I still don't quite get what puts this hymn in the same class as some of the masterpieces of Lutheran hymnody that were squeezed out of ELW by it and its like. Ronald Klug (b. 1939) wrote the words, Dale Wood the tune, and it is very simple, singable, teachable material, yet without a single spark of originality in it. In that respect, I think more of 651 with its "fisted minds" than of this hymn. Klug is forced by an awkward meter to say of Christ that "God in him is centered," which is such poor stuff that it truly makes me sad. He earns points for trying to deal with the incarnation of God and the forgiveness of sinners. But by Stanza 3 he has worn out his inspiration so far as to rhyme "unfurling" with "hurling," never a good sign for a poet aspiring to anything like originality. The same stanza also rhymes "story" with "glory," which makes me yawn so hard that I hurt my jaw. And Stanza 4 proves by experience that a hymn stanza can mention all three Persons of the Trinity without being a doxology ("Tell how the Father... Tell of the Son... Tell how the Spirit..."). Come on, Ronald! Take it back and give it some more work! And think about either addressing the Father, Son, and Spirit, or simply telling us about them (rather than telling us to tell about them). As it is, the hymn does not sound finished. It sounds like an early draft of a B+ project in a college class on hymn writing.

669 "Rise up, O saints of God" is by Norman Forness (b. 1936)2. Everything it says is an appropriate word of admonition to Christians. It just hits me as a downer because it's just about all Law, with the only hints of Gospel (such as "Christ rose triumphant" in Stanza 1) serving as a rationale for the ethical demands it places on us. I think the tone could stand to be softened to more of a "God has so loved us, let us likewise love" kind of thing. Instead we get the whip cracked over our heads as we are sent forth on a crusade to right all wrongs in the world. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that having their ears filled with this type of message leads Christians to become more, rather than less, obnoxious to the rest of the world.

670 "Build us up, Lord" (words and music by Mark Glaeser and Donna Hanna, b. 1956 and 1952 respectively) and 671 "Shine, Jesus, shine" (by Graham Kendrick, b. 1950) are so self-evidently artifacts of the Baby Boomer generation's efforts to win the world through sanctified pop music—more or less an endlessly repeating loop of Richard Marx's Greatest Hits, with names of God dubbed in over all the romantic endearments—that I prefer not to waste any more of your time, or mine, discussing them.

672 "Signs and wonders" by Susan Cherwien3 leads off with a line so perplexing that I had to read the whole stanza and wrack my brain for a minute or two before I realized that it was about the annunciation to Mary. Behold: "Signs and wonders lead the dancing from the heart God frees from fear." I was actually thinking more about Mary's visitation to Elizabeth until I got to the line, "Wings of angels greet the maiden, and God finds a dwelling here." In line 3 Mary models for us a godly attitude to the Word of God—"bow the head, and voice Amen"—but that advice is easier to take when you understand what you're being told. Then the stanza concludes with some goofy twaddle where "open hearts invite the starlight." A Mary is actually named in Stanza 2, but it's Mary Magdalene (meeting the risen Jesus in the garden), and by now it's evident this hymn is hitting the highlights of women in the New Testament. Application: "Boldly may we... step beyond the garden wall" and proclaim, with beautiful feet, the "good news of death's defeating." All right, but still the "garden wall" bit is on the same level of goofiness as the starlight line in Stanza 1. Likewise, in stanza 3, "hand in hand we dance the round." The finishing touch is a prayer that our holy lives may "dance signs and wonders" in the sight of those hungering for God. It gets full points for creativity; but it's goofy with it, to the point of distinct tackiness.

674 "Let us talents and tongues employ" gets its first blush of tackiness from the tune LINSTEAD, adapted by Doreen Potter (1925-80) from a Jamaican folk tune. The Divine Liturgy can only endure so much calypso, and this tune exceeds the limit. Then you notice that Fred Kaan's text isn't all that hot either, from the point of view of Lutheran worship. Stanza 1 says, "Bread is broken, the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard"—but it does not actually claim that Christ is eaten and drunk. What a blown opportunity! Stanza 2 skews the theology of the Sacrament even further, saying of Christ: "At the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and indeed express." So in our recital of the benefits of the Lord's Supper, we've skipped right over the forgiveness of sins. The third stanza and the refrain both leave one with the impression that "bread" means the Word that Christ gives us to share. After two stanzas specifically discussing the Lord's Supper, this is the kind of waffle that smacks of an intentional denial of Christ's promise that "this" (the bread eaten, the cup drunk) "is My body/blood, given for you for the forgiveness of sins." The Lutheran eighth-commandment ethic of "putting the best construction on everything" would ordinarily constrain me to assume that all this was an excusable weakness in style rather than a damnable error in substance; but the cumulative effect of so many nearly identical weaknesses is rubbing that patch of my Lutheran ethics to the nub.

O Lord, how long? How many more units of this ELW (silent L) tackiness must we endure? Well, remember: the hymn numbers in this book go up to 893. And there is plenty of tackiness to come. Like it, lump it, and (please, for all love) LEARN.


1Set to an original tune by the same author, an Anglican from New Zealand.
2Tune: William Walter's (1825-93) FESTAL SONG.
3Tune: FREU DICH SEHR (Geneva, 1551).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

Some trilogies are open-ended. When the author decides to add a fourth book to it, we start to call it the So-and-So Quartet. Since fans of a series are unlikely to regret the arrival of a new installment, this sort of thing is usually embarrassing only to publishers who have invested money in packaging the first three books as the So-and-So Trilogy, and to unsparingly critical readers who notice (sometimes) that the fourth book isn't quite as good. But what do we do when a trilogy comes to a very definite, final end—like, for example, the Bartimaeus Trilogy, whose human protagonist John Mandrake made the final sacrifice at the end of book three? (Oops. Spoilers!) How does the author get away with adding a fourth book to the series? It's easy, actually. He makes it a prequel. And he makes it good.

The Ring of Solomon rewinds the series' alternate history of the world to the time of—you guessed it—King Solomon, of biblical fame. (Proverbs, anyone? Ecclesiastes? Song of Songs? The building of the first temple to the God of Israel? That guy.) This is, of course, long before the magically-enhanced version of our present day in which the original trilogy takes place. It is even before the time of Ptolemy, the young Egyptian prince whose memory the older Bartimaeus revered. It's a magical adventure in ancient history, with the charming difference that all the great achievements of mankind have been carried out by magicians, aided by demons summoned from the Other Place. And one of the most enterprising, clever, and sharp-tongued of these bound spirits is a certain fourth-level djinni whose name you already know.

Since the dawn of civilization, Bartimaeus has been grudgingly doing the bidding of those magicians skilled enough to bend him to their will—though they have never been able to stop him complaining and wise-cracking about it. As for those magicians without the needed skills, let's just say Bartimaeus found them delicious and move on. We find one of the latter kind summoning Bartimaeus in the opening pages of this book. As punishment for snacking on one of his court magicians, Solomon orders an Egyptian wizard named Khaba to discipline the djinni. So Bartimaeus finds himself on an all-demon work crew, building Solomon's temple and hunting bandits. At the site of a battle with those very bandits—some magicians and their captive afrits—Bartimaeus first crosses paths with a girl named Asmira, who has traveled from a distant Arabian kingdom on orders from her queen, the Queen of Sheba, to assassinate King Solomon.

What? Why? Didn't the Queen of Sheba like Solomon? Well, in our world, yes. But in Bartimaeus's world, the Queen of Sheba has been ordered to pay an expensive yearly tribute to King Solomon, on pains of seeing her kingdom destroyed. And Solomon could do it, too. He wears a ring on his finger that can instantly call armies of djinn, afrits, and marids to his command—each level of demon more powerful than the last. Plus, he has a council of seventeen wizards in his service, each able to summon any number of demons, from imps and foliots on up. Khaba is only one of them, though perhaps the most evil and ruthlessly ambitious among them. His very shadow is a marid that (yuck) loves his master, and the two of them together enjoy torturing spirits who look at them the wrong way.

So, when Khaba and his marid minion decide Bartimaeus deserves to be imprisoned in a bottle... and when Solomon's would-be assassin breaks the bottle and summons Bartimaeus to assist her... history's drollest djinni finds himself in a tight spot indeed. Now he has to help a clueless Arabian girl elude layer after layer of magically enhanced security to face off against a king who, at one turn of the ring on his finger, can destroy spirits far more powerful than Bartimaeus himself. He must also risk the servants of the other seventeen mages, including Khaba and his marid who have already proven too strong for him; and even if they get the ring away from Solomon, what then? What if the power of the ring proves too much for Asmira or even Bartimaeus to hold? What if the wise king really isn't the villain who threatens Sheba and its queen? What if succeeding in her mission no longer matters to Asmira? And what if an even greater danger threatens them all?

To answer these what-ifs, you'll just have to read Jonathan Stroud's latest installment in the adventures of Bartimaeus. It won't be hard to keep the pages turning. The adventure is so straightforwardly thrilling, and the bits narrated by Bartimaeus are so deliciously loaded with gruesome shivers, biting sarcasm, colorful boasts, and self-referential comedy, that even the footnotes won't slow you down. (You may want to skip the footnotes if you don't have a stomach for, say, a recipe for lightly grilled human marrow, pickled magician, etc.) Consider the whole book a proving ground for a "what-if" scenario: What if King Solomon's relationship with the Queen of Sheba was less a case of mutual admiration and respect, and more of a diplomatic crisis? What if, while serving the one God of Israel, Solomon retained the services of spirits such as Bartimaeus, and wizards like Khaba? What would happen at a meeting of the wise-cracking and the wise? And if a ring like Solomon's was ever in the world, how could there still be a world for Ptolemy and John Mandrake to live in?

I was going to call this Stroud's latest book, but more recently (in 2013) he came out with The Screaming Staircase, Book 1 of a new series titled "Lockwood & Co." For more information on this fresh start, visit his website.

Downpour

Downpour
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sixth Greywalker novel, Harper Blaine—a private eye who has one foot in the world of magic—is doing a little pre-trial footwork for a Seattle attorney when a ghost hires her to solve his murder. Joined first by her pet ferret Chaos, and later by her techie-spook boyfriend Quinton, she spends this book investigating two cases in the Olympic Peninsula, a region of Washington state that may already seem familiar to fans of the Twilight series. Lack of sparkly vampires notwithstanding, it proves to be a mystery fraught with darkness, danger, encounters with otherworldly beings, and a war between mages over control of the energies welling up from a lake full of ancient ghosts.

Some of the persons, places, and things Harper meets in this book are flat-out freaky. There are these white deer sort of things, that are actually demons from Diyu, the Chinese version of hell. A related demon likes more human, and shows a child-like love for shiny toys and pretty clothes. They go almost to your heart... until you realize that they eat people in order to gain enlightenment, hoping eventually to become wise enough to escape from Diyu. Then there is this life-form called the Ley Weaver, who possesses a ghastly facsimile of a human body and, aided by giant spiders in the form of human hands, creates living art-works out of pure magic, memories of the past, and the lingering spirits of the dead. And all that is besides magicians known as the Puppet Master (specialty: zombies), the Rogue (specialties: hiding in the woods and commanding an army of bears), the East (specialty: getting people to do what she wants, and wanting all the power for herself), and the Child (specialty: murder).

While her corporate-lawsuit case seems to be getting nowhere, Harper chases down these leads and more. At first she only wants to find out who caused the fiery crash whose ghostly victim visited her on the side of the road. It's tough to prove who murdered a man when no one knows a murder took place. So that means finding out why nobody reported Stephen Leung's death, who stood to gain from it, and where they hid the body. Don't ask how she finds the body, inside the charred wreck of a car sunk at the bottom of a thousand-foot-deep lake; that's a magical secret you'll have to learn by reading the book. But when that five-year-old cold case leads to the death of a police officer, things heat up quickly.

Suddenly the suspects include a federal officer, the surviving children of the first victim, and other people and things too weird to mention. And Harper's job has grown beyond her original plan to solve a murder. She must also put back an anchor that is supposed to hold the magic of Lake Crescent in its rightful place. She must face a roomful of power-crazed magic-users in a classic "whodunit" scene straight out of Agatha Christie, only with a battle against Native American storm spirits at the end. And she must do it without getting killed again, because she has bonded with Quinton in a spookily close way (ahem—Adult Content Advisory). Now if she gets hurt, it could really hurt him too.

Not content to let each book in her series of paranormal mysteries re-set to the same pattern as all the previous ones, author Richardson continues to let her tough heroine change and evolve. Harper has died twice so far in this series, and with each death comes a different set of powers and vulnerabilities. Her supporting cast is also growing dynamically, as it looks like the Danziger family (her original mentors in all things Grey) may be moving away, and several other recurring characters have already been killed off. It's not the sort of series where you can skip a book or two and know exactly what's going on when you tune back in. But on the plus side, you never feel like you're reading the same book two or three times in a row. And that's encouraging as there are at least two more books in the series so far: Seawitch and Possession.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Album for the Mature 5

Now I come to an album of piano pieces that I acquired fairly recently—within the past year or two. Nevertheless, I have been playing a lot out of it, and I really enjoy it. My warmest recognition goes to...

Lyric Pieces
by Edvard Grieg
Recommended Ages: 14+

All right, so some of these pieces are obviously suitable for an "album for the young." Many of them turn up in anthologies of classical pieces, graded by difficulty, for intermediate-level learners on the piano. This is how I first became acquainted with several of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, and aware of the collection as a whole. It took an adult impulse to find my own not-too-difficult piano masterpieces to explore (without a teacher telling me what to pick), and a bit of online research, to flush out a Schirmer Edition of the Complete Lyric Pieces (vol. 1989 in Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics).

Who was Edvard Hagerup Grieg? He was a pianist and composer who lived from 1843 to 1907, and who is the first representative of Norway appearing on the list of "worldwide classical composers in order of greatness." A lot of his music was influenced by nationalistic feelings; even if it isn't actually based on Norwegian folk melody, its rhythms, phrasings, harmonic patterns, and textures are often inspired by characteristic inflections in his native culture. He wrote a vivacious, popular Piano Concerto, the incidental music to an Ibsen play from which the well-known Peer Gynt Suites were extracted, some songs, and other chamber, choral, and theater music. Most of his work, however, was for piano, including the original version of the Holberg Suite, four Symphonic Dances, the Peasant Dances (op. 72), and many other pieces, some written for children. Besides the present album, many of these pieces are collected in another book that I have, and that may be featured later in this thread. Suffice it to say, Grieg specialized in piano music, much of which is both accessible and attractive to a amateur player like me.

What are the Lyric Pieces? The largest part of Grieg's compositional output, the Lyric Pieces are relatively brief, single-movement works whose varying titles, moods, and textures suggest a variety of characters—which is why "character pieces" would be an equally apt name for them. They are lyric in the sense that they express feelings, such as melancholy and nostalgia. Many of them are picturesque, conjuring imagery of landscapes and rustic communities, such as a peaceful forest or a village wedding. Some of them evoke the magic of fairy tales, such as dancing elves and marching trolls, or of myths and legends, such as sylphs and phantoms; some are expressly nationalistic, written at a time when Norway was emerging as a distinct identity; some (in their titles, at least) evoke broader traditions such as Waltz, Berceuse, Canon, and even a French Serenade. At least one piece is a memorial to a friend who had died recently. Their variety as a set, more than their strength as individual pieces, makes this album a great pleasure to play in, either starting at the front and working one's way through to the end, or poking around at random for a few quarters of an hour.

There are sixty-six (66) Lyric Pieces, divided between ten opus numbers. These groups of six to eight pieces each represent sets that were originally published together, starting with op. 12 in 1867 and ending with op. 71 in 1901. The Schirmer Edition fits these pieces into 209 pages of music, which is a bit thick for a piano album, but not awkwardly so. Trees could have been saved by using repeat signs, or Da capo and Dal segno notations, rather than fully writing out note-for-note repetitions, often of pages of music.

Other than that, my only protest about this album is that I don't really want to write a lengthy description of all 66 pieces in it, especially since I am still growing familiar with the material. So apart from a listing of the pieces, with a brief remark on each, let me add once again that the time I have spent with this book has been all pleasure. With that recommendation in mind, make what you will of:

Op. 12—8 Pieces
No. 1 Arietta
A sweet, delicate, single-page melody over a rolling, middle-part pattern.
No. 2 Waltz
Typical Grieg mannerisms set this A minor waltz apart from the Chopin and Brahms specimens we have lately discussed. Note the dramatic gestures, the folksy inflection of the grace-notes, the mildly chromatic harmony: hallmarks of Grieg.
No. 3 Watchman's Song (from Macbeth)
Grieg uses something akin to Brahms's "ballade" register to give this piece a sense of nobility, antiquity, and dramatic gravity.
No. 4 Elves' Dance
I first played this piece in my early teens; it was one of the pieces that got me interested in looking for this album. Its tinkly staccato chords sparkle with magic, while its louder, lower passages in octaves thrum with menace.
No. 5 Popular Melody
This C-sharp minor piece reminds me somewhat of a Chopin Mazurka.
No. 6 Norwegian Melody
This fast and forceful piece begins and ends with a skirling, bagpipe-like tune, while something more accordion-like runs through its middle section.
No. 7 Album Leaf
The melody in this E minor piece alterantes between the top voice and a middle part, while the accompaniment rocks under or around it in a sort of "oom-pah, oom-pah" pattern.
No. 8 National Song
This one-page piece should be familiar to many young piano students with classical leanings. It combines warm romantic harmony with a stately, majestic bearing.

Op. 38—8 Pieces
No. 1 Berceuse
Pieces with this title often feature a melody that seems to float dreamily over a harmonically static background. This piece does break away from its G major pedal point at times, but it wants a wide-awake pianist to subdivide the beat into 2:3 cross-rhythms with one hand.
No. 2 Popular Melody
Obviously, when Grieg says "popular melody," he doesn't mean a pop-song so much as a folk tune. This one again evokes a bagpipe-like instrument, with a melody that curls above a somewhat droning accompaniment.
No. 3 Melody
This warm, tender, romantic melody needs to flow freely—which is the main challenge in a piece that also features 4:3 cross-rhythms, rich chromaticism, and some surprisingly dissonant chords.
No. 4 Halling
This title designates a traditional Norwegian dance typically described as rapid and acrobatic. This one flits up and down between high and low registers of the piano, requiring hand-crossing agility.
No. 5 Spring Dance
The melody dances at first in a high register, then low down in a middle voice over an increasingly drone-like accompaniment. Be prepared to execute wide-spread chords and characteristic grace-notes.
No. 6 Elegy
This piece features some of the most daring harmony so far in the album. Be awake not only to chromatic motion and dissonance, but also to cross-rhythms that sometimes divide one hand against itself.
No. 7 Waltz
Grieg's E minor Waltz is light-textured but, thanks to its many tempo changes, undanceable. Dancing it isn't the point; the mood of cultured melancholy is.
No. 8 Canon
This is an amazing romantic notion of a musical styling that goes back to Bach's time and beyond. The melody in the left-hand part copies that of the right-hand part, while lagging behind by a given time-interval: a full 3/4 bar at first and during the contrasting middle section; only one beat during the portion of the A section that is immediately repeated. What adds a layer of Romantic color is the accompaniment, including harmony notes in both hands which ensure that even the immediate echo of the melody heard only a beat or three ago, seems to mean something different now.

Op. 43—6 Pieces
No. 1 Butterfly
This light, graceful piece specializes in wide left-hand arpeggios (sometimes crossing into the right hand) supporting a melody that bobs and sinks like a floating butterfly. The final note is the lowest key on the standard piano keyboard, 3 octaves below the A below middle C.
No. 2 Solitary Traveller
This gentle, melancholy number sounds like the quintessential Grieg, blending some features of Scandinavian folk melody (such as hemiolas1) with progressive art-music touches (such as a touch of bitonality2).
No. 3 In My Native Country
This slow, almost hearbreakingly tender piece begins in D-sharp minor in a high register, and ends with an F-sharp major cadence in a middle-to-low register. So, work on playing in six sharps, with plenty of accidentals (including double-sharps) and more of Grieg's characteristic grace-notes.
No. 4 Little Bird
This quick number will require you to master a series of unusual, rhythmic trills, reminiscent of the twittering of a songbird.
No. 5 Erotik
One of the first pieces in this album that I fell in love with, this slow, richly textured piece aches with romantic passion. Watch for a number of rolled chords in which the left hand crosses from bottom to top.
No. 6 To the Spring
At first this passionate melody, accompanied by a throb of repeated chords, is mainly challenging because of its F-sharp major key signature, a few chromatic tweaks, and an occasional 2:3 cross-rhythm. Things get a bit nuts when, for the last two-and-a-half pages, you find yourself having to play three staves of music with only two hands. Luckily, all of the notes are reachable; it's just a matter of spotting where they fit in time.

Op. 47—7 Pieces
No. 1 Valse Impromptu
This E minor waltz is on the kinky side, with a rocking rhythmic pattern in the left hand and a relentlessly dissonant, almost atonal melody in the right. Again, promimently featured are rolled chords where the left hand crosses from bottom to top.
No. 2 Album Leaf
Grieg finds himself in a Tchaikovskian mood, though his melodies and harmonies are always his own. The passages where the right hand delicately accompanies a left-hand melody look more difficult than they are.
No. 3 Melody
The melody frequently repeats the same two-bar rhythmic pattern, while both hands play a rhythmically throbbing accompaniment. The effect of this combination of simple parts is surprisingly lyrical, full of tender feeling.
No. 4 Halling
This rustic dance consists mainly of a skirling melody over a bass throb of droning fifths (D and A, with a G-sharp grace-note).
No. 5 Melancholy
The main G minor melody of this piece seems to rise in sobs from somewhere deep and dark. A second idea, like a cruelly brief glow of consolation in A-flat major, is one of the moments from this album that haunts the back of my mind.
No. 6 Spring Dance
Again, Grieg appears in his rustic mode, with bass drones, a merry melody fluttering up and down in parallel sixths, and frequent hand-crossings.
No. 7 Elegy
Here is another piece that I first met in an anthology of not-too-hard piano classics, either in my boyhood or during a spell when I worked in a piano shop and had spare time to pound the sheet music. Its chromatically sinking left-hand melody, accompanied with off-the-beat chords in the right hand, has an eerie, macabre effect that Kevin Junior will love.

Op. 54—6 Pieces
No. 1 Shepherd's Boy
A lonely melody is punctuated by plunging pairs of chords. In the more full-textured middle section, mastery of 4:3 hemiolas will be an important skill to work on.
No. 2 Norwegian March
As marches go, this one has more than its share of brightness and sweetness. It makes a great deal out of a minimum of melodic material, particularly in a long sequence descending from a delicate high register to a rich middle-register climax.
No. 3 March of the Trolls
Here's another staple of the teen recital circuit. Rapid note accuracy at a brisk tempo, delicacy of touch in a chromatically evolving series of staccato chords, and a counter-intuitive accent on the first note of a series of quick five-note scales, will be the challenges for Kevin Jr. to tackle.
No. 4 Notturno
The middle-voice accompaniment throbs on the "and-a" of each beat, while the right hand often crosses the left to play both the bass line and the melody. A secondary idea adds a bird-song-like trill to the top voice; still later there is a faster transitional section whose dynamics include a four-bar crescendo from ppp to ff.
No. 5 Scherzo
Besides playing Prestissimo leggiero (very fast and lightly), the challenges in this piece include frequent 2:3 cross-rhythms, rhythmic diminution of part of the melodic pattern, and making the "more tranquil" middle section fit into the whole.
No. 6 Bell Ringing
I think this set has a weak ending in this game, or experiment, in imitating church bells. Both hands play parallel fifths, the left tolling back and forth, the right pealing up and down, exploring different facets of bitonality. Be sensitive to the dynamics, and to the contrast between phrases with and without grace-notes.

Op. 57—6 Pieces
No. 1 Vanished Days
Both the melody and the left-hand part have wide leaps. Playing these accurately while remaining sensitive to the delicate dynamics is one of the challenges of this piece, along with frequent cross-rhythms and alternating subdivisions of the beat.
No. 2 Gade
This sweetly sentimental number seems to have been written in memory of Danish composer Niels Gade, whose death in 1890 preceded the publication of this opus number by three years. There is some drama at the heart of the piece, some nice echo effects, and a coda that tries out much of the range of the keyboard.
No. 3 Illusion
Marked Allegretto Serioso (moderately fast and serious), this study in sequences3 has a brooding quality. The descending sequences convey a sense of stifling discouragement; the ascending bits, of frustrated effort.
No. 4 Secret
This moderately slow, richly expressive piece, very definitely for Kevin Senior, is marked by chords so wide that they require finger-crossings (unless you have a third hand). Be prepared also for a central passage of unaccompanied, instrumental recitative—vocal writing for the piano!
No. 5 She Dances
The marking "Tempo di Valse" makes this virtually a Waltz in C major, with a fluttery rhythmic figure (at first in the right hand) that needs to be played ever so lightly. The effect is diaphonously delicate, if done well. Put enough work into the piece to achieve that, and the rest will be easy.
No. 6 Home Sickness
The A section of this piece features a melody in E minor that seems to turn over the same thought again and again, varying only the harmonic color beneath it. The addition of a left-hand countermelody only adds to the obsessive effect. But the most profound homesickness is expressed by the E major middle section, a passage of idyllic sweetness played in a very high register (ledger-line alert!), as though filtering one's memories of home through the eyes of childhood.

Op. 62—6 Pieces
No. 1 Sylph
Wide intervals, dotted rhythms (made extra-crisp by a sixteenth-rest break between the notes), chromatically sliding sequences, and gentle dissonances challenge Kevin Jr. or Sr. to keep this pieces sounding as delicate as can be.
No. 2 Gratitude
A bright, gentle melody leads to a passage in which fragments of the tune alternate with low octaves, building to a warm rich climax.
No. 3 French Serenade
French though the lilt of this graceful, playful, nimble piece may be, in concept, it still bears the unmistakeable stamp of Grieg's Norwegianism.
No. 4 Brooklet
The trick with this piece is keeping fast, light runs of sixteenth-notes rhythmically together in both hands at once. For much of the piece, the brook burbles in little spurts; but when it really gets going, be awake to subtle, chromatic chord-changes and unexpected harmonies.
No. 5 Phantom
This expressive, light-textured piece sneaks in moments of daring harmony and interesting cross-rhythms. When the right-hand melody breaks into octaves, keep it light and clear.
No. 6 Homeward
Here's a piece of rollicking fun, full of interesting harmonic quirks and unexpected twists. Don't worry about the crispness of the staccati, since the pedaling will blur them together anyway; just enjoy the lightness and energy of it!

Op. 65—6 Pieces
No. 1 From Early Years
The main theme progresses from gentle melancholy to theatrical brilliance. A new theme in the middle section is very spry and folk-dancelike. Watch for passages in parallel (and almost-parallel) octaves, and a particularly challenging passage of flowing sixteenth-notes in the right hand.
No. 2 Peasant's Song
Grieg gives a simple folk melody (or facsimile thereof) a movingly expressive treatment, full of modest nobility. It sounds like a vocal piece transcribed for piano solo. Look for wide-spaced cords, drawing rich sonorities from the instrument.
No. 3 Melancholy
A cello melody in the right hand, with even deeper and darker accompaniment in the left, sets the mood early; be alert to a wide variety of rhythmic subdivisions within one phrase. In spite of tricky cross-rhythms and changes of register and texture abound, the bleak mood is relentless.
No. 4 Salon
This is another of the first pieces I played out of this album. For all its veneer of culture and style, there is something strangely sad, and sadly strange, about it.
No. 5 Ballad
Romantic tragedy oozes from this gentle, low-key piece, written in the "ballad register" of which I have already written—a style intended, I think, to conjure imagery from a bygone age of heroes.
No. 6 Wedding Day at Troldhauen
Innocent joy and festive excitement combine in this piece that is equally a march and a dance, with hints of folk instruments contrasting with hurrying passages, difficult to play with the restraint needed to build to the correct climax—where the music becomes downright virtuosic. The middle section is a slower, more tender theme in which the two hands respond back in forth, perhaps like the happy couple repeating their vows. The coda winds the piece down in a striking way.

Op. 68—6 Pieces
No. 1 Sailor's Song
Here's another piece that I seem to recall seeing or hearing in a youth-recital context. Simple almost to the point of chorale, it has the charming swagger of a lighthearted fellow who believes his appearance should inspire awe.
No. 2 Grandmother's Minuet
Crisp, delicate, with a whiff of starched lace contradicted by an athletic second theme, this piece will give Kevin a gratifying feeling of making great progress as he finds the rapid eighth-note runs and flouncy grace-notes falling naturally under his hands.
No. 3 At Your Feet
A slow, tender, ardent melody over a rolling left-hand pattern, moves through a variety of expressive permutations before closing with what sounds like a promise of unwavering devotion.
No. 4 Evening in the Mountains
The first page of this piece is remarkable for being one long, lonely, unaccompanied melody. It gets a dark, ominous accompaniment on the second page.
No. 5 Cradle Song
Though one of Grieg's particularly gentle melodies, this piece also makes beautiful use of his distinctive style of dissonance. It seems to fall asleep in the middle of (yawn) zzzzzzzz...
No. 6 Melancholy Waltz
Unlike your typical Chopin or Brahms Waltz, this piece is less about melody and more about harmony—again, particularly the use of dissonance to establish mood. In this case the mood is the kind of "erotic sadness" that I like to think of as the proper preserve of the tango. Unlike some other Waltzes by Grieg, I think it might be beautiful to see a couple dance to this piece.

Op. 71—7 Pieces
No. 1 Once Upon a Time
Again with the "ballad register"—but who's complaining? Grieg seems at home in it. A subtitle to the opening tempo marking claims that the piece is in the "Swedish folk tone," whatever that means. The main material is serious but not uncheerful; the middle section is contrastingly brisk, brilliant, and rustic sounding.
No. 2 Summer Evening
Slow beauty, strange colors, and a conclusion in which darkness settles without losing warmth, combine in this piece to paint a very effective tone-picture. And even while edging close to the limits of functional tonality, Grieg manages to sound exactly like himself.
No. 3 Puck
The kid who plays this for his fifth- or sixth-grade recital will be the reason a lot of other kids quit playing the piano. It's a madcap piece, full of virtuosic vivacity and off-kilter, weird touches.
No. 4 Peace of the Woods
The subject of the picture this piece paints is not far different from that of Summer Evening, but it is painted in an altogether different style: conventionally romantic, with wide-spaced broken chords rolling back and forth in the left-hand and the lower voice of the right, beneath a melody of wholesome sweetness. Only occasionally does the harmony surprise one's expectations.
No. 5 Halling
The opening outburst foreshadows strange surprises to come. Then begins another version of the traditional Norwegian dance seen earlier in this album. It progresses from good-natured sprightliness to athletic machismo, finally concluding with an extra-fast tempo that finally fulfills the twisted promise of the opening bar.
No. 6 Gone
Grieg again tests the stability of the tonal system with a theme whose chromatic progressions twist the ear's expectations. Maybe these drooping lines suggested grief to Grieg, but to my twenty-first-century ears, it is the piece's abrupt ending that suggests a sense of loss.
No. 7 Remembrances
The album closes with this piece in a Tempo di Valse—which is to say, a Waltz. Its pale, plaintive, almost consumptive-sounding melody floats over an orthodox Waltz rhythm, which only becomes interesting when Grieg threads it through some unexpected harmonic progressions—such as from E-flat to D major, then B-flat, and then by a deceptively chromatic transition back to E-flat. Ironically, given its title, the theme of this piece reminds me of another piece I think I remember playing, but which piece and by what composer? The remembrance eludes me...


1e.g., alternating 6/8 and 3/4 rhythmic patterns.
2e.g., simultaneous E and B major chords.
3i.e., similar material repeated at progressively higher or lower pitch levels.