Thursday, June 9, 2016

'Useful Hymns' and Tradition Criticism

I've been reading Horace Hummel's excellent textbook on Old Testament introduction, The Word Becoming Flesh, the last few evenings. Part of the process of studying the isagogics of the books of the Bible is coming to grips with the whole tradition of criticism, including one particular branch that becomes important when the ancient manuscripts bear witness to different versions of a book - for example, that of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah's material is arranged one way in the Hebrew text on which our English translations are based (MT=Masoretic Text); but the Septuagint (LXX="The 70") offers a quite different arrangement, an extreme example of the LXX's tendency to deviate from the MT; and certain Hebrew manuscripts discovered in the mid-20th century seem to support the LXX reading. Tradition history, or tradition criticism, struggles with these problems of textual transition, asking (and perhaps never convincingly answering) how the book reached its final form, or (as in Jeremiah's case) which textual variant is the final form. It raises interesting ideas, even from the viewpoint of someone like me, who is committed without qualification to the doctrine of the Bible's verbal inspiration. It suggests there is some validity to the critics' speculated world of oral traditions and/or documents being redacted together over a period of time.

Another interesting example is the Book of Psalms, which the biblical text itself divides into five "Books of Psalms" - Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. The way psalms by particular authors, or of particular types, are distributed among these five sections, or sub-books, suggests interesting things about how the book was collected and organized in the first place. It wouldn't take anything away from their verbal inspiration to suppose that, for example, each of the five sections represents a different point in history when material was added to the collection by different editorial hands, each new layer arranged according to its own distinct purposes.

All this may sound just a bit like jiggery-pokery to a newspaper writer and novel-reading slob like me. Authors, sometimes many times in a career, routinely send out into the world units of literature that rival and often greatly surpass the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or the book of Jeremiah in length; books of fiction as well as nonfiction; and except for minor editorial emendations or the compilation of an omnibus edition, their work mainly stays as it is as long as it remains in print. We may second-guess Dickens' judgment in changing the end of Great Expectations (indeed, I do); but that doesn't alter the final text of his book one bit. People like George Lucas try to retroactively rewrite some of their great contributions to our culture, but they don't get away with it unnoticed ("Han shot first!"). But mostly, one would think my writerly experience would hold: what I write in the newspaper, once the ink hits the page, is there to stay as long as copies of that issue exist. I may have to answer for it later, but once copies land on the newsstands, there's no taking it back.

But then I realized, tradition history describes exactly what's going on with my own book of devotional poetry, Useful Hymns. Consider these stages of transmission and redaction:

1. Sometime in high school, I wrote a few miserable early attempts at hymnody, and shoved them into a binder where I have kept most of the poetry (sacred or secular) that I wrote from that time through my college years. I even set a few of them to equally miserable pieces of original music. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had to start somewhere. I now shudder to recall that at least one of my very early hymns was even performed by a church choir (not when I was present). Those poor people! Apart from that, those "hymns" just stayed in that binder which, until recently, lived on a shelf in my dad's study.

2. During college, I studied writing and music theory, and spent a lot more time trying to write both poetry and music. It was still pretty immature stuff. There was one year, somewhere around 1993 I think, when my production of hymns (texts, tunes, and fully harmonized arrangements) spiked due to the slight chance that I might get one of them into a new hymnal that was being edited at about the time and place where I was studying. None of them, thank God, did get into the book, which is greatly to the credit of The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary and its prudent editors. After my disappointment at that time, my production of hymns dropped off and I turned my creative energies toward other projects, except at wide intervals.

3. After completing my undergraduate degree in music, I attended the seminary and spent a lot of my time immersed in sacred music. All this time, by the way (and going back to my undergrad studies), I was pouring over hymnals and analyzing what made hymns tick, or fail to tick as the case may be. Now and then, through my seminary years and down into my brief ministry as a parish pastor, I would write a tune for an existing hymn that I thought deserved a better one, or a choral arrangement of a hymn with its existing tune, or an organ prelude on a hymn tune, or other sacred musical settings (choral arrangements of introits, a mass setting, a choral anthem on a psalm, a set of Easter Vigil pieces, etc.). I sometimes got to perform them in public, or hear them performed by others; recordings of one or two of my compositions have even been published. The coolest part about all this is that at some point, after lots and lots and lots of agonizing effort with uneven results, I broke into a groove where I could very quickly write music that consistently sounded exactly the way I meant it to; I believe this is what they call artistic maturity.

4. The same thing happened just a bit later with my writing of hymn texts. I did this only occasionally, sometimes writing two or three hymns in one year and then going through several years without writing another. After leaving parish work, I served as an assistant to the editor of a Lutheran theological journal, who sometimes involved me in his research of biblical and doctrinal topics. At times, I attempted to explore the ideas I encountered by writing hymns about them. I didn't get much encouragement from my boss, but I kept at it. I also served several years as the choir director and organist of a church in St. Louis that offered some fine opportunities to explore my creative side; I got to play some of my own chorale preludes on the organ, and heard the choir sing some of my original hymn tunes and choral arrangements. All this time, instead of adding to that binder of high school and college poetry, I was keeping up a book of my "mature" poetry in the form of a Microsoft Word document, divided into topical sections, one of which was sacred poetry.

5. Unfortunately, my dual gig at the Lutheran magazine and at the musical reins of that St. Louis church came to an end, one job ending within months of the other. It took me the better part of two years to find another full-time career. Meantime I had tons of disposable time, some of which I spent reconsidering my book of poetry. By this time, the sacred hymns were a disproportionately large part of the total work. I decided to take out the ones that were of a hymn-like character and start a separate book with them. That was when Useful Hymns started to take shape. Mind, the hymns in it were again arranged topically, without regard for when they were written. There were ones that corresponded to Sundays, seasons, or feast days of the church year. There were ones that paraphrased parts of the liturgy or of the catechism. There were hymns meditating on specific Bible passages, hymns that tackled doctrinal problems, and hymns that applied Christian comfort or encouragement to issues in every-day life.

6. At a certain point, I decided I had collected enough original hymns to make a serious attempt to publish them. So I made sure there was an appropriate tune to go with each text, and I made sure there was a harmonization to go with each tune, and I added some indexes, and came darn close to publishing an initial collection of 53 hymns on

7. Before I pulled the trigger, however, I went back to that old binder of immature poetry and decided to give my earlier efforts at hymn-writing a second chance. I spent weeks revising, rewriting, deleting, adding, mostly tightening up the verbiage, sometimes making more sweeping changes. By a funny coincidence, I counted up these "scratched and dented" hymns, after repairing them as best I could, and realized there were 47 of them - expanding Useful Hymns to exactly 100 hymns. Then, I just had to massage them into the topical structure of the book, reconsidering the location of entire sections, dividing one section into two, and placing hymns written decades apart right next to each other while, at times, two hymns written in the same fit of activity ended up at opposite corners of the book. I also added a bunch of brand new tunes, and revived some old ones I had buried with my hopes of getting them published in that mid-1990s hymnary. When all that was done, I did publish Useful Hymns, and it even sold a few copies. They're out there somewhere, bearing witness to a distinct stage in the book's redaction history. But it wasn't done yet.

8. I still had some hymns in me, waiting to come out. So, immediately after publishing U.H., I began work on a second volume of original hymns that I meant to call, ahem, "Useful Hymns: Volume II." As this project developed, one of the goals I set for myself was to fill in the gaps in my "hymns for Sundays of the church year" - which, at that point, meant writing most of them.

9. I can't remember exactly when or why I changed my mind about "Volume II" and decided to combine the two volumes into one book, a Second and Expanded edition of U.H. But once I made that decision, I immediately had to reorganize the whole book, inserting the hymns I had written since publishing the First Edition into the topical and liturgical order among the ones that were already in print. That meant not only re-numbering hymns that had already seen the light of day, but also sticking place-holder hymn numbers into the sequence where I was putting hymns that I hadn't written yet. And as that plan evolved, as plans will do, I had to re-number and re-number the hymns again. I developed marvelous automated processes for doing this, by necessity. And at a certain point, when I was still a couple dozen hymns short of my new goal of at least 200 original hymns, I actually had a table of contents featuring the titles of all the hymns I intended to write. I had tunes picked for some hymns before I started writing their lyrics; though sometimes these choices changed later. And before I finished the 200th hymn according to this premeditated scheme, I had actually written a "201st" hymn that was surplus to my plans - necessitating another fit of re-numbering.

Now the book is almost ready to go up on Lulu again, more than twice its original size (more, because I also decided to include a handful each of my translations of other authors' hymns and of other authors' hymns (translation included) with my original tunes. To make the redaction-critical outlook even more confusing, I invited some other hymn-tune composers to contribute their original tunes to some of my hymns, with results that I find really exciting; among them was the last piece of text or melody to fall into place for this edition of U.H.

The upshot of all this is an arrangement of sacred poems that would surely be very confusing to somebody who came upon them and wanted to know why they were arranged as they are. If the Table of Contents were lost and the section headings were left out by, say, a pirate hymnal publisher, you might have nothing to go by except the words themselves, and maybe the melodies. Would you assume they were written in the sequence in which they appear in the book? Would you find the transitions between topical sections bizarre and abrupt? Would the "hymns for every Sunday of the church year" (historic one-year series) seem arbitrarily arranged to someone unfamiliar with that lectionary? Would the fact that most of the "heroes of faith" hymns actually were planned and written within a narrow time-span be as evident as the fact that, in other sections of the book, hymns written throughout a 25-year period, with gaps of several years between some of them, are jumbled together with no semblance of chronology? Even given a look at an extant copy of the 100-hymn First Edition, would anyone reading the Second Edition ever guess the 101 added hymns, spread throughout the whole book, were all written during approximately one year of almost obsessive-compulsive activity?

Some of my original tunes have dates on them. None of my individual hymn-texts do. The variation in literary quality and spiritual maturity may be all the tradition-historical critic has to go on as he tries to date the writing (and in some cases, redacting, or rewriting) of each poem. And I'll admit right here, while none of my earliest attempts at hymn-writing were masterpieces, and the scratched-and-dented specimens could only be improved to a degree, even some of my latest and most "mature" poems landed a little sideways of the mark I was aiming at. One can't sustain the creative drive to write 201 hymns in 25 years, especially when 101 of them are written in the 25th year, without daring some risky experiments now and then. You would burn out sooner. You would go insane. Or you just wouldn't get very far, especially through that awful Year 25. It's the kind of effort that makes me wonder whether I shouldn't just quit the hymn-writing racket for good - though it's also possible that I simply can't, now. But I can guarantee, based both on first principles and on personal experience, that even a very prolific and mature writer can creatively misfire at times, and there's no help for it.

So, when you buy the Second Edition of Useful Hymns, you'll just have to wonder: "Does this hymn's outstanding lousiness owe itself to an early or late date of composition?" You'll have to wonder and wait for the Third Edition, which will just make matters worse. Welcome, my friend, to Tradition History!

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