Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tacky Hymns 49

Finally wrapping up the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship!!

826 "Thine the amen thine the praise" is a popular Herbert Brokering (b. 1926) hymn, set to the catchy tune THINE by Carl Schalk (b. 1929). I think the tune deserves better than the associations of banality it takes from this hymn, which looks even more tohu wa vohu1 than strictly necessary under this hymnal's editorial guidelines banning unnecessary capitalization and punctucation. The word "thine" prefaces 5 stanzas worth of words and phrases, offering to God the whole series of images and concepts without more meaningful comment than "Thine (is)..." And some of the phrases make me want to hide my face in embarrassment. Stanza 1: "Thine the glory, thine the story"—a phrase so precious that it is repeated in Stanza 4. Occasionally "gone" replaces "Thine," as in Stanza 2: "Gone the sighing gone the dying," etc. Face it, it's just plain gone. Sometimes "then" replaces "Thine," as in Stanza 5: "Then the holy holy holy celebration jubilee"—a line that wouldn't sound out of place in a book of Shel Silverstein poems. Stanza 3 warps out into an even higher orbit above the gravity well of meaningful language, with statements as opaque to grammatical analysis as "thine the truly thine the yes." And of course, with "table" and "cup" and other imagery harkening to the sacraments, some Lutherans will go ape over it without stopping to ask whether it asserts anything really significant about them, like "This bread is Thine body." Suckers.

827 "Arise, my soul, arise" (Nyt ylös sieluni) is a stirring Finnish hymn dating to the 18th century, set to its own tune. In addition to two stanzas in English, the first stanza in the original Finnish is also provided. So, once again, space in the pew book is invested in a text that very few people using this book will ever sing, and whatever the reasons for this decision may be, there is a stench of triumphalism about it. Add to that the inequality with which these "celebrating the cultural diversity of the church" moments are applied—only one stanza of the Finnish, versus whole hymns in some other languages that have less historic connection with the Lutheran church—and we behold a multifaceted gem of hymnal tackiness. Still, I would recommend getting to know it—in English, mind you—not just because it is a valuable piece of our diverse religious heritage (which it is), but because of its time-proven quality, its strength, and its distinctive beauty.

829 "Have you thanked the Lord?" is a ditty by Bill LaMotta (1919-80), a composer from the Virgin Islands (which sums up all the information I can find about him). In fine revival-meeting style it harangues the listener (or allows the congregation singing it to harangue themselves) with a sort of "worship guilt-trip." As I write this in the middle of a Saint Louis snowstorm, I wonder whether such lines as Stanza 2's "Paradise we taste where we are" don't apply too specifically to their author's homeland. Certainly the next line's reference to "winter warmth" has a very Caribbean ring to it, unless we're to praise God for central heating. Which suddenly inspires me to volunteer a new stanza for Brokering's "Earth and All Stars": "Ductwork and pipes, loud banging boilers, sing to the Loooord a new song!" Sorry. I know it's next to blasphemy to make fun like this. But I have to do something to raise my spirits after being browbeaten by a praise hymn: "Have you knelt in prayer, and rejoiced that, rain or shine, our God is there?"

I only want to take a poke at the tunes of the next two featured hymns: 832 "My Lord of light"2 and 836 "Joyful, joyful we adore thee"3. The former is set to the tune of the English folksong "Barbara Allen," in an arrangement by the great choral arranger Alice Parker (b. 1925). In my opinion, even quite a good hymn is a waste of a significant work of art like this, which should be left alone to be what it is. I raise a similar objection to the latter hymn's use of a smoothed-over and squared-in arrangement of the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, only with the added reason that the hymnal arrangement strips the melody of some of its strong character. Would I still object to the forced baptism of secular tunes, even those of the richest cultural pedigree, if there weren't so many brilliant tunes written specifically to fit texts like these? Probably. If another nearly-as-good tune didn't exist to fit the words, I would either write one or commission someone else to do so. Mixing up a hymn with the tune best left to Schiller's paean to humanistic ideals only creates confused associations that, in my view, harm both the hymn and the symphony.

837 "Many and great, O God, are your works" is a paraphrase of a hymn first published (and probably written) by a French Bible translator and missionary to the Dakota Indians, named Joseph Renville (1779-1846). Admirable as this document is, and credible as its excuse may be for having parallel fifths in its harmony (an indulgence usually denied to composers in our culture), I can't help but notice that it doesn't have Christ in it. It wouldn't be the only hymn in this "Praise, Thanksgiving" section of the hymnal to focus mostly on God's "First Article" gifts (the beauties of creation, etc.). But when this hymn goes as far as to ask God to "come unto us and dwell with us," for with Him "are found the gifts of life," there seems to be no excuse for going all the way and mentioning Christ and the cross.

844 "Praise to the Lord, all of you" (Louez l'Eternel) is a remarkable instance of a hymn written in English, which the hymnal editors went to the trouble of having translated into French so they could print it in both languages. In an anglophone hymnal, I needn't remind you. The text and tune are by Ron Klusmeier (b. 1946), who was apparently going for something like the style of an African-American spiritual, complete with rhythmic complications and textual irregularities that might frustrate attempts to sing it as a congregation.

846 "Amen, we praise your name, O God" (Amen siakudumisa) joins the hit parade of cultural diversity tokens, with a South African text and tune recorded from oral transmission through the same Gobingca George Mxadana whose strains have been heard before in this hymnal. Again, there is one stanza in English and one stanza in the original language, ready-fit for Multicultural Pride Sunday and requiring a soloist ("Leader") to sing in alternation with the choir or congregation ("Assembly"). Again, we'd best leave it to the choir, what with the distinctive rhythms and textures of African music in it. And again, neither the length of the hymn nor the content of the text offers much of an inducement to choose this song to serve the purposes of a hymn in public worship, in preference to many other hymns that have so much more to say.

849 "Yours, Lord, is the glory" (Tuya es la gloria) is a four-stanza hymn, authored by "traditional," and presented in full in both English and the original Spanish. Ditto everything I customarily say about hymns fitting this description, and move on...

852 "Golden breaks the dawn" (Qing zao qilai kan) is a Chinese hymn, paraphrased in English, with one of its three stanzas added in a Chinese transliteration. Even printed in Roman letters, however, it probably isn't safe to assume you can pronounce it correctly without guidance from an expert, or at least a native speaker. It's a pretty tune, in a stereotyped Chinese way; and the text is a nice morning prayer. It seems very appealing until you ask whether you would choose this text over others on the same subject, on its merits as a text, without any knowledge of its cultural background. After running that test on it, you tell me whether this hymn isn't really about pride in our Chinese connections. Because, face it, your Chinese sister church has its own hymnal—or it should.

857 "Lord, I lift your name on high" is the chorus, and maybe one stanza, of a popular Christian soft-rock song by Rick Founds (b. 1954). Even if you're going to spiritually poison your parishioners (and especially the youth) with songs like this, you might as well admit that you're going to do it with a soloist or a select group of singers, and drop the pretense of expecting the congregation to sing it. What I'm trying to say is: It doesn't need to be in the pew hymnal.

859 "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"—wait for it—is a "composite" translation of the Joachim Neander classic, printed alongside Catherine Winkworth's translation of the same hymn as #858. Why would the hymnal editors bother? Again, it's sinful to speculate about other people's motives. Therefore, I sin boldly by speculating that it has something to do with gender-inclusive language. This is the only explanation my puny mind can come up with for such alterations as changing "if with his love he befriend you" (stanza 3) to "infinite Love here befriends you." So also in Stanza 1, instead of saying "O my soul, praise him, for he is your heatlh and salvation," the new translation goes, "My heart is longing to offer up sweet adoration." The reference to "his temple" a couple lines later is drowned out in a list of musical instruments in the new version; the examples could go on and on. I don't think it's an accident that the focus of the updated translation seems to be less on God and more on Me. After all, it's bound to happen when we set about re-shaping God in our image...

860 "I'm so glad Jesus lifted me" is an African-American spiritual which, uncharacteristically for this book, appears with its melody only. This only accentuates the tune's challenging rhythm, without grounding it against a steady throb of harmony. Like many other examples of this type of hymn that I have picked on in this survey, it has very little to say, and it takes a lot of time saying it through relentless repetition. As an art form and a piece of history, I give it an A plus. As an alternative to singing a hymn full of rich biblical teaching, I give it an Incomplete. And finally, why is it in the pew book? So people can follow along as the soloist or choir sings it?

861 "When long before time" (a.k.a. "The Singer and the Song") by Peter Davison (b. 1936) is a cute poem about creation built around a running metaphor of singing. Stanza 2: "The silence was broken when God sang the Song..." Stanza 3: "The Singer was pleased as the earth sang the Song..." Stanza 4 argues that "down through the ages the Song disappeared," which is hard to interpret specifically as a reference to man's fall into sin. Likewise, then, when "The Singer comes to us," it is hard to say exactly what biblically revealed event is in view. When the last line of the stanza mysteriously hyphenates "Our God-is-with-us in the world now as then," it sounds just as likely to be teaching some general notion of divine immanence as to be confessing the incarnation of Immanuel. Sure, Stanza 6 comes out and says "Song Incarnate," but the damage has been done: the hymn has proven that a running metaphor can only go so far before it opens up vistas of interpretation that, surely, a Christian hymn writer would not intend.

862 "Praise, praise! You are my rock" is a mediocre Herbert Brokering text set to a tune by Rusty Edwards (b. 1955) that, for all its genuine merit and appeal, is not structured so as to make friends with the average congregation—what one may call the musical laity. They will try to sing it, but fail as the tune loses them in its challenging intervals and chromatic surprises. But let's get back to the text. Like many Brokering hymns, it irritates me. "Praise, praise!" rubs me one way. The repetitions at the end of most of the stanzas, such as "have met, have met" or "are healed, are healed," rub me another way. The lack of a clear confession that when "we break the bread, we drink the cup," it is Christ's body and blood, rubs me in still another way that this book has rubbed me so many times already, and all these ways I am being rubbed are the wrong way. And the hymn's reliance on suggestive imagery to carry weight better handled by clear and direct statements, exasperates me as only Brokering can. Stanza 5: "The Easter grave is sealed; you roll the stone—you, God, alone—then sin and death are healed" only suggests, but does not assert, that the man Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Stanza 6: "You stood high on a hill. A holy cloud; you are on high." This bit of nothing functions in lieu of an Ascension narrative. The reader's, hearer's, singer's imagination is left to connect what dots it will. Pointillistic hymnody!

864 "Praise, my soul, the God of heaven," is the late Walter Bouman's (1927-2005) rehab of the classic hymn on the facing page, 865 "Praise, my soul, the King of heaven" by Henry Lyte (1793-1847). Because, don't you know, 19th century English is so impenetrably ancient that we can't understand what the language is talking about! With all due respect to an author who also notably translated C. F. W. Walther's Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, I cry Phooey (because this is a family site) on his alterations to a blameless hymn by a poet who can no longer speak up for his own work (though neither can Bouman, for that matter). Again, sinning boldly, I opine that the only conceivable rationale for Bouman's tampering is Gender Inclusive Language. So "King" becomes "God" in the first line; "To his feet your tribute bring" becomes "Joyfully your tribute bring"; "God's" replaces "his"; and the problem of what to rhyme with "sing" is solved by changing "Praise the everlasting King" with "Praises everlasting ring!" And that's just Stanza 1. The other three stanzas contain much more of the same, and a blow-by-blow would be everlastingly dull and discouraging. Stanza 3 is all but unrecognizable; the whole thought had to be approached anew with words entirely of Bouman's making. Boo! Hiss! Can God not be "He" and "King" any more? Is His revelation of Himself no longer the first and last word? And if there's nothing wrong with a hymn, but it needs to be changed to suit us, doesn't that suggest that there's something wrong with us??

866 "We are marching in the light of God" (Siyahamba) is another piece of South African traditional song, propelled into our cultural consciousness by the 1980s struggle against Apartheid. As some have argued of the African-American spiritual, one could argue that this song is relevant mainly as a political symbol. The present book permits it to be sung either in English or in its original language, and provides a separate line of text for the harmony parts, which often move while the melody is holding a long note. After one long stanza repeats the above line of text at least six times (not counting fragmentary repetitions), the note at the end of the two-page spread suggests adding stanzas ad lib.: "We are dancing... We are praying... We are singing..." So it could go on, like, all afternoon!

869 "We have seen the Lord" (Niwemwona Bwana) is a Tanzanian traditional hymn; which, though this hymnal frequently omits to name the language the hymn was translated from, means that in this case, the italicized text is in Swahili. It's call-and-response music, with a Leader's part singing antiphonally to the Assembly, and characteristically African rhythms and part-singing, combined with another text that has very little to say other than "God is powerful, God is merciful, God is wonderful," and "Lord, God with us, Jesus Christ." Again, it will probably be sung by the choir rather than the congregation. Again, the gratification one gets from demonstrating this bit of cultural diversity must be weighed against the investment of time and energy that could be directed toward a hymn that more deeply and richly teaches the faith.

872 "Praise ye the Lord" is a modern gospel anthem by J. Jefferson Cleveland (1937-86). Essentially a paraphrase of Psalm 150, it assumes that the effective performer(s) will be proficient in singing the rhythms of gospel music. In the context of mostly white midwestern Lutheran parishes, that means the choir or the Sunday school will present it, with or without a flair for the culture it derives from. In some areas, the sad results may provoke thoughts like, "Gee, the Baptists do this better."

875 "Praise, praise, praise the Lord!" is a Cameroon traditional hymn. Besides the usual rhythmic wrinkles that put it well across the line between congregational hymnody and music best left to the choir, it actually has a descant part written in small notes above the melody line—just to strike a death-blow to any real chance of getting the congregation to sight-sing it. No worries, though. All they're missing is four repetitions of "Praise, praise, praise the Lord! Praise God's holy name. Alleluia!"

878 "Soli Deo gloria" (first line: "O God of blessings, all praise to you!") is by Marty Haugen (b. 1950), and has five stanzas in English concluding with the Latin refrain meaning "To God alone be glory." I think there is something awkward about Haugen's musical setting, especially where the rhythm of the stanza connects with that of the refrain. I also sniff disdainfully at such phrasings as "to preach and witness with hearts on fire" (Stanza 2), which emphasizes something much less important than the inspired content of the prophets' message; and "May we live your gospel call" (also Stanza 2), which muddies the sense of the gospel call as the invitation to believe and, potentially, perhaps, the distinction between law and gospel. Stanza 4's description of Jesus being given "in bread and wine" still does not satisfy hunger for a clear statement about what the Lord's Supper is; its depiction of him as "priest, teacher, prophet in time and space" sounds a bit Star Trekkie. I guess no contemporary sacred poem is going to be without its perilous points, where the line between affected antiquarianism and the banality and barbarism of modernity is whisker-thin; but after looking at loads of material by Haugen, I am inclined to be ruthlessly wide awake to his slips. And while "time and space" is only a problem if you're looking for one, the other glitches I pointed out are more troubling.

880 "O God beyond all praising," by Michael Perry (1942-96), is again set to Holst's tune THAXTED, about which I have previously held forth with eloquent bitchiness. When I discussed it as a monument to British nationalism, I meant to refer to the text most people associate with the tune: "I vow to thee, my country," a patriotic anthem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, inspired by the British losses in World War I. Several people have mentioned to me that this is the text this tune always brings to their mind. Me, I'm still hung up on it being the chorale theme from "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," Movement 4 of Holst's The Planets—not merely a classic work of secular art, but actually an evocation of astrological spirituality. I have often argued with my colleagues about the fitness of this tune for worship, particularly when those same colleagues would object to hearing the wedding marches by Wagner or Mendelssohn played in church. Their answer is that the music of Wagner and Mendelssohn is much more widely known than that of Holst. I beg to differ. Times have changed. Holst's Planets is one of the most frequently performed and popular pieces of orchestral fine-art music today. I see Mendelssohn losing favor with the public, and Wagner increasingly becoming the acquired taste of a select few; but Holst's orchestral showpiece plays to sold-out houses everywhere, all the time. When someone gets the bright idea of setting the Te Deum to the tune of In taberna from Orff's Carmina Burana, my disgust will only be of the same order of magnitude as what I feel on seeing this tune in a Lutheran hymnal.

881 "Let all things now living," by Katherine Davis (1892-1980), is set to the Welsh folk tune THE ASH GROVE. In the unlikely event that I haven't mentioned it before, this tune also has its drawbacks. One lady of my acquaintance told me that whenever she hears it, she is reminded of girl scout campfire singalongs. In my recollection, its use (in another hymnal) for a post-Communion hymn lent an atmosphere of glib indifference to the end of the holiest of Christian rites.

882 "My soul does magnify the Lord" is a gospel-style setting of Mary's Magnificat, paraphrased and composed by Grayson Warren Brown, a "liturgical composer, author, recording artist, and speaker" who (according to his online bio) travels the country, promoting an "authentic and spirit-filled experience of worship." For what it's worth. Expect gospel rhythms and a few ossia notes (where the number of syllables per line varies from one stanza to another), challenges that may force this song across the line between congregational hymnody and the choir's repertoire. I welcome debate as to whether his paraphrase of the text is of the best quality. I see a number of weak points in it. If I had to choose between the many hymnal-style settings of the Magnificat, I can think of several that I would choose before this one.

885 "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow" is an updated-language redaction of the "Common Doxology" by Thomas Ken (1637-1711). The original version is printed separately as Hymn 884. Holding them up side by side, it isn't difficult to make out the difference. In lines 2 and 3, the altered version changes "Praise him" to a second iteration of "Praise God." You would think, if they were just modernizing the language, the redactors would do something about the word "ye"—but no. Their only concern is to eliminate masculine pronouns referring to God. If they were consistent about it, they would have to do something about the words "Father" and "Son" in the last line. Let's call that a preview of things to come in the next hymnal.

887 "This is my song" is the first hymn in a new section of the book titled "National Songs." The tune is FINLANDIA by Jean Sibelius, about which enough has already been said. The text is an amalgamation of stanzas by Lloyd Stone (1912-93) and Georgia Harkness (1891-1974), which one would think is a strange thing to set to a musical symbol of Finnish nationalism. But this hymn is so far from being an American or Canadian nationalistic song as to admit in Stanza 1 that "other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine." So it's sort of an anti-nationalistic song. Stanza 2 develops this idea further into a prayer for world peace, and in Stanza 3, for world unity under God. It's a patriotic anthem for a post-patriotic age.

At this point I am inclined to consign the whole topic of National Songs to the scrap-heap of tackiness. One of my rules of thumb for evaluating the spiritual value of a hymnal has long been to consider it in inverse proportion to the number of nationalistic songs stuck on at the end. The present book shrinks not from 888 "O beautiful for spacious skies" (America the beautiful), 890 "Mine eyes have seen the glory" (the Battle Hymn of the Republic), 891 "God bless our native land" (God Save the Queen warmed over), and 892 "O Canada." There is also a hymn by Francis Scott Key (893 "Before you, Lord, we bow"), author of The Star-Spangled Banner; and 889 "The Right Hand of God" with words by Patrick Prescod and music by Noel Dexter, copyrighted by the Caribbean Conference of Churches. Unsurprisingly, this last number includes rhythmic and textual references to "these Caribbean lands," so celebrants in the U.S. must be careful not to pick this hymn at a causal glance for Memorial Day weekend services, etc. Setting these songs apart from hymns per se is a sense, which I think even the editors of ELW acknowledge, that they belong more in the sphere of civic religion than in the Christian church. Hail Caesar! and whatnot.

And so we come to the end of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Thank you for your time. Next hymnal on deck: the Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, 2006). Because not all tackiness comes from the far left wing of American Lutheranism! Or perhaps, because the wing represented by ELW isn't as much farther to the left as we think...

1Formless and void; Genesis 1:2.
2Text by Christopher Idle (b. 1938).
3Text by Henry van Dyke (1852-1922).

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