Sunday, May 31, 2020

Tacky Hymns 64

Just one more on the 1999 Wisconsin Synod hymnal supplement, Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook. See the previous eight posts under "Tacky Hymns" for background info. It's a longer post than some, but I want to finish with LAPPY so I can move on to a book where I won't feel like saying something about every single song. But on we go...

(270-272) Shine, Jesus, shine (first line: "Lord, the light of your love is shining") is another CoWo song that I previously passed over without really saying anything specific about it. Graham Kendrick's composition was a big Christian pop hit in the late 1980s and by the time I made it to the seminary a decade later, it had become the musical equivalent of the 2009 movie Avatar (or rather, the film became the movie equivalent of the song): something I would cross a busy street, on foot, to avoid having to sit through. I once got in very deep trouble, also at the seminary, for allowing a fellow student's satirical cartoon based on this song to appear on the back page of a long-running annual lampoon publication that I edited to distribute at a campus kegger. One of our profs apparently felt that "burn, Jesus, burn" could be interpreted as blasphemy. Go figure.

Now that I've shed all credibility as a judge of good taste in an ecclesiastical setting, here's why I think it's in bad taste to print this hymn in a Lutheran church songbook: (1) It's the ultimate example of commercial pop music taking its place among pieces of devotional art dedicated to proclaiming the truth. (2) Though the lyrics are not without merit – stanzas 2 and 3 touch on themes of entering God's brightness through Jesus' blood, sanctification, being transformed into Christ's image, etc. – I think many people get swept up in enthusiasm for this song for reasons other than its best points. (3) The long refrain includes such language as "Blaze, Spirit, blaze," which members of certain Lutheran bodies (cough Missouri cough) may still associate with a sometime synodical evangelism campaign that often came across as more of a corporate marketing stunt. (I don't blame Kendrick for this, but it does reflect on the good judgment of those choosing it for Lutheran worship.) But ultimately, this song blasting from the PA system of the church's sacred karaoke system, or its lyrics scrolling on a screen above the heads of the parish rock band, are a symptom of the church's rejection of the predominantly congregation-sung hymnody that played a key role in forming, spreading and preserving the Lutheran reform through many difficult passages. I think that once we let songs like this in, it's just about all over for us.

(273) Soon and very soon is one that I've previously commented on.

(274-275) The snow lay on the ground (refrain: "Venite adoremus Dominum"), a "traditional Christmas carol" with a descant by Leo Sowerby, is one of those pieces that, in one's mind's ear, one hears the choir singing (maybe with a soloist doing the descant). Its arrangement is rather choral; for example, the left-hand piano part seems to have been designed with the choir's bass section in mind. Alternately, you might detect a certain flavor of the type of folk hymn designed to be sung outside of church. Whatever you feel about the music, however, the text has some issues. It's one of those carols that isn't too bothered about telling the Christmas story accurately. Its first line is one of several carrying information not revealed by the biblical account. We don't know that there was snow on the ground when Jesus was born; we don't even know that it was December. We also don't know (stanza 2) that "sheep and oxen shared the room with them" when Mary and Joseph laid the baby Jesus in the manger. Stanza 3 places the angels at the manger scene and puts the words of the refrain in their mouths. I do like stanza 4's bit about the manger becoming a throne, but I think the song's lack of care about staying true to the supporting story undercuts its impressiveness.

(276-277) Softly and tenderly (Jesus is calling) is another one I have done before.

(278-279) Some children see him (lily white) is by Wihla Hutson (words) and Alfred Burt (music). It consists of three double-period stanzas about how children of different races imagine Jesus as looking like themselves (and love him), concluding, "Lay aside each earthly thing, and with your heart as offering, come worship now the infant King. 'Tis love that's born tonight." In my opinion, the duration of this song is an awful long time to spend making a point that, when it's all over, doesn't strike me as requiring that much discussion. Among so many other things to dwell on as themes of a 10-minute-long Christmas hymn – really? This?

(280-281) Somebody's knocking at your door is a setting by the marvelous Richard Proulx of an African-American spiritual, which I think would be an excellent choice for a choir concert. With a refrain and five stanzas (careful, the first refrain is different from all the others – or maybe it's a condensed stanza?) it spends a lot of its run-time repeating that first line – ultimately singing those words 18 times. Most of the residue consists of the short phrases "Knocks like Jesus, Can't you hear him? Answer Jesus. Jesus calls you. Can't you trust him?" – each repeated twice – and "O sinner, why don't you answer?" – which occurs just six times. I detect a whiff of decisionism in this song's interpretation of Revelation 3:20. But mostly, my reason for considering this a tacky choice for Lutheran worship is its slow-drip approach to delivering a minimum of content.

(282-283) Someone special (I know who) is one that I've already done.

(284-285) The Spirit of the Lord (fills all the world) is a CoWo piece by a Jeanne Sittler, arranged with guitar chords and rolling piano accompaniment by Carl Nolte. I feel almost certain I was made to sing it in some youth choir sometime when I was going to a Lutheran school somewhere. Its off-beat accents and through-composed setting (i.e. the music is different for each stanza) definitely militate against asking the congregation to sing it. The lyrics, based in part on a couple verses of Psalm 68, are again representative of CoWo's minimalist approach to paraphrasing psalms. I don't think the refrain is a paraphrase of anything.

(286-287) Standing on the promises (of Christ my King) is one that I've already derided, but in this case the Spanish stanzas are omitted. 𝄋 Also, its inclusion in this (albeit anomalous) book from a previously conservative Lutheran body makes one question what heritage WELS means to conserve. The heritage this tedious piece represents is subsequent to the golden age of Lutheran orthodoxy and a side-channel off the stream confessional Lutherans have historically tried to say within. (2nd time Al coda)

(288) Steal away (to Jesus) is another African-American spiritual that I first learned to respect and love as a member of the chorus in a performance of Tippett's A Child of Our Time. But I don't think it has much to offer the worshiping Lutheran congregation, other than the sentiment "I practically hear the last trump calling me home right now." It should, rather, be reserved for a choir and/or soloist's art music program.

(289) Still, still, still is another one that I've already done.

(290-291) Swing low, sweet chariot is an African-American carol that, again, I'm amazed to find in a Lutheran church's songbook. Amid eight repeats of the slave dialect phrase "Coming for to carry me home" it doesn't give the congregation much, apart from somebody's (the prophet Elijah's?) personal testimony of a vision of angels coming for him across the Jordan. Application 1: "If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I'm coming there too." Application 2: "Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down. But still I know I'm heavenward bound." Jesus has practically nothing to do with this. It's Steal away's "I ain't got long to stay here" but with more cheek. It's the song some people just had to have in their pew book because it resonates with them culturally (or they fancy pretending that it does), or because it touches them somewhere sentimental; but spiritually, it doesn't carry much sand.

(292-293) Tender Lord, by your Word is a children's bedtime prayer song by Kenneth Kremer, but sounds like it could have been sung by Bing Crosby.

(294-295) Thanks be to God (oh, give him praise) is a German hymn translated by Daniel Reuning, who was a dear professor and music director under whom I studied, sang and made many fond memories, set to a tune by Heinrich Schuetz which, I think, makes this about the boldest and most historically Lutheran addition to the English-speaking church's repertoire so far in this book. Fair play, the rhythm of the last phrase is a little tricky, in an early Baroque period way. (To paraphrase a line about TV and books in The Princess Bride, when Baroque music was a kid, Bach was called Schuetz.) It also bears admitting, for what it's worth, that Reuning's poetry doesn't rhyme. Otherwise, it's a piece that would take some effort to teach to a congregation, but with the support of the choir it could be done and I think it would be worth it.

(296) There is a green hill far away is one that I've already done.

(297) These things did Thomas count as real, likewise.

(298) They'll know we are Christians by our love (first line: "We are one in the Spirit") is as well.

(300-301) This is he (first line: "In a lowly manger born") is one to which I gave a glowingly positive review, back here. However, in this book it is set to Richard Gieseke's tune WOODRIDGE, which strikes me as doable.

(302-303) This is my Father's world has already taken a direct hit from me, not to mention a glancing blow.

(304-305) This is the day that the Lord has made is another Natalie Sleeth number that, again, shows a tendency to use this book to save the congregation the additional expense of ordering sheet music for the kids' choir. Its lyrics, particularly in the two stanzas that counterbalance the full-page refrain, are a nice Easter text that, nevertheless, doesn't say anything you can't get from a longer and richer Easter hymn by, say, Charles Wesley. (Behold, what this book has led me to: holding up one of the fathers of Methodism as a superior example.)

(306-307) This is the day that the Lord has made is the Les Garrett version with perhaps catchier, CoWo/pop music (complete with rhythms Grandma Smurf is going to struggle with), whose lyrics only cover as much ground as the refrain to Sleeth's version while sprawling across two whole pages, without adding the nice Easter stanzas. (Behold, what this book has led me to: holding up Natalie Sleeth as a superior example.) Anyway, I've covered this song before.

(308-309) This is the day when light was first created is a "Lord's Day" hymn by Fred Kaan, set to NORTHBROOK by the early 20th century composer Sir Reginald Sparshatt Thatcher (I just love that middle name). The hymn is a conversation starter, no mistake. Stanza 1 links the first day of the week with the creation of light; stanza 2, with Easter; stanza 3, with Pentecost; and stanza 4 calls it "the day of recreation," in the sense of re-creation, designed by God to "hallow all the week that is to come." The conversation will probably focus on Stanzas 2 and especially 3. In the former, Kaan uses striking poetic language to discuss Easter – "the day of our complete surprising ... the feast of love's revolt and rising against the rule of hell and death and grief." I think this merits comments of unmixed approval. Stanza 3, however, depicts Pentecost as the "great birthday of the church," which I feel is one of those trite commonplaces about Pentecost that perhaps glosses over the existence of a church prior to the 50th day after Jesus' resurrection. Also, the language of "worship and of vision" and the prayer to heal Christians' "sad division" is all very well, but meanwhile the stanza blows its opportunity to say anything explicit about the Holy Spirit and his work.

(310-311) Thy holy wings, O Savior is one I've done before.

(312) This touch of love (this taste of peace) is a Jaroslav Vajda text with Carl Schalk tune which, typical of its composer's work as far as my experience runs, welds modern art music style to a touchy-feely, easy listening sensibility. Overall, however, the effect is hymnlike and I don't think it would be too hard for a congregation to learn to sing. Meanwhile, Vajda's text (also somewhat typical of him, I think) processes religious experience in a pretty subjective way. "How can it last and still increase? I cannot bear to have this air of wonder cease," etc. It seemingly describes the Lord's Supper as "this surge of power" (stanza 2) and concludes that Christ, who is "the Bread and Wine on which I feed," is "what I need." Viewed as a post-Communion prayer, it improves throughout its four stanzas. Coming upon it cold, it starts off with a negative impression and, in spite of everything, still seems too personal, too specifically Jaroslav Vajda, to put into the mouths of the entire worshiping congregation.

(313-314) Thy Word is a lamp is another one that I've already done.

(315) To every generation (first line: "You have been a shelter, Lord") is a little micro-psalm paraphrase ditty by Bill Batstone, with rhythm that you can frankly forget about getting the congregation to sing as one voice.

(316-317) Unto us is born a Son is a G.R. Woodward translation of a fine Latin hymn, Puer nobis, arranged by David Willcocks. Zero tacks.

(318-319) We see the Lord is a 1970s gospel song by Betty Pulkingham, which includes an optional descant. Think choir and/or soloist(s), not congregation. Also, its lyrics (paraphrasing Isaiah 6) are somewhat repetitive; I'd recommend devoting the time, and a little extra besides, to learning Luther's paraphrase ("Isaiah, mighty seer") instead.

(320-321) We walk by faith (and not by sight) is one that "the angel of sarcasm passe(d) harmlessly over" on a previous occasion, in spite of being implicated in Marty Haugenism. Nevertheless, having spared it once, I'll refrain from belaboring it now.

(322-323) We will glorify (the King of kings) is a Twila Paris CoWo anthem that I've actually had to play (with a super-challenging piano arrangement) with my church's choir. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have. The less difficult setting used in LAPPY does, nevertheless, include an optional version of the fourth (and last) stanza that modulates from the starting key of D to E-flat, in keeping with Twila's original dramatic design. Even tamed and gentled as it is here, it still carries pretty strong associations with that flamboyant choir piece, and should perhaps be left to them.

(324-325) We'll understand it better by and by (first line: "We are often tossed and driv'n on the restless sea of time"), is by C.A. Tindley, a Methodist preacher and prolific hymn writer who flourished around the turn of the 20th century. Here's a long list of his titles that have made it into American hymnals. His music in this piece has a derivative, folksy quality and, as printed in this book, calls on Grandma Smurf and the congregation whose Hammond she plays to navigate a "D.S. al Fine" situation – a concluding strain, after the third stanza, that skips back part way through the original strain before ending at "Fine." I hope they've all brushed up on their musical notation and, maybe, heard an announcement before starting the song, pointing out where to look and when. The whole burden of this two-page hymn, comprising three stanzas and a chorus that you're apparently only supposed to sing once, is "We don't understand why God leads us the way he does, but we will in heaven." For a general comment about what I think about retrieving this cultural artifact for future generations of Lutherans, D.S. al coda.

𝄌 (326-327) What does the Lord require is by Alfred F. Bayly, set to the tune SHARPTHORNE by Erik Routley – both highly prolific hymn writers who died in the 1980s. The tune has a second ending that pretty much only changes the harmony of the concluding phrase. Routley's tune is one of those beautiful, modern art hymn tunes that might, this time, be within the reach of a singing congregation, if you don't mind a few people grumbling about being forced to learn new stuff. Bayly's text is an exhortation for social justice based on Micah 6, with the refrain "Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God." I was wondering if it was going to be all Law, but then my ears perked up (figure of speech) as stanza 4 began, "How shall our life fulfill God's law so hard and high? Let Christ" – and then they drooped again as it continued – "endue our will with grace to fortify." Oh! Jesus will give us the power to do the Law! That's true, and that's great, but it's not the Gospel. Even Micah got there, albeit in his next chapter. This would have been a better hymn if Albert F. had gotten there too.

(328-329) While by the sheep we watched at night is a different translation (by Theodore Baker) of a hymn I learned, many years ago, as "During their watch of flocks by night," more or less. I remember the refrain was "O carol-O, carol-O! Sing for joy, O, O, O! Benedicamus Domino!" I thought it was a lot of fun. Baker's version of the refrain runs "How great our joy! Great our joy! Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy joy! Praise we the Lord in heav'n on high!" Maybe it's just my conservative streak, which is probably wide enough for a Chinook helicopter to land on, but I think there's more fun in the older translation. Still, I approve of the effort LAPPY makes to introduce an underrated children's Christmas carol to the church's repertoire. Whether it really needs to be in the congregation's songbook, however, I dunno.

(330-331) Who is he in yonder stall is by B.R. Hanby, a 19th century United Brethren minister and prolific hymn writer whose titles include "Jipidee, jipidee, blithe and gay." For what it's worth. I just couldn't not mention that after the title hit my eye. He also wrote the Santa-and-reindeer jingle "Up on the housetop," the sentimental song "Darling Nellie Gray" and the cutsie kiddie hymn "Little eyes." Like this last example, this hymn is an old-timey sentimental hymn with static harmony, gushing melody (particularly in the chorus, "'Tis the Lord! Oh, wondrous story," etc.) It delivers a montage of scenes from Jesus' life, death and resurrection, couched in repetitions of "Who is he," only to re-answer the question ('Tis the Lord! Crown him Lord of all!) Points given for covering the content of the gospels, as if from 10,000 feet overhead. Points taken back for weak application; the fifth stanza carries the most of it, noting that Jesus rose from the grave "to heal and help and save" and now from on high "rules all the world alone." And of course, that "crown him" stuff. It's really up to you and me to figure out how this helps us.

(332-333) Yes, he did (first line: "He took my feet from the miry clay") is an African-American spiritual with guitar chords, tricky rhythms. Again, I'd probably vote to reserve this cultural treasure for a special concert, with choir and/or soloists, rather than have the congregation try to sing it during worship. However, I'll concede that if there's one spiritual in this book that I would chose to exhibit during the worship hour, this is probably it.

(334-335) You have made us one (first line: "Because you loved us first, O Lord") is a very 1970s CoWo song by Doris Novak-Guggisberg, with guitar chords and an optional descant over the refrain (unfortunately printed as ossia notes rather than on a separate staff). It's a nice little sacred pop song about loving one another and seeing Jesus in each other and asking Jesus to "take our love ... and make it right," but I can't help thinking this is a message the congregation had better have sung at it than shoved into its mouth.

(336) The Word (is living), marked "slowly," is a song by Michael Card that says a lot about what the Word does and, pleasant surprise, turns out to be talking about Jesus. The third stanza ties it up in an altar call kind of bow, which lets a little air out of my pleasure up to that point, though again I concede that the voice of Jesus does exhort us, "Do not be unbelieving, but believe." I don't think Card's musical setting is very successful. I've gotten dinged for writing parallel perfect fifths (even when, on an occasion or two, I did it on purpose) but here goes Card, getting away with it in a published work. Also, the rhythm of the final phrase sticks out of the piece a bit. I think it could have used a little more work.

And lo, this is the end of LAPPY! On deck: the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod's 2008 follow-up, Christian Worship: Supplement. For now, having actually made at least a passing observation about every single song in this book (not my usual practice, and not what I'll probably do re CWS), I feel like I can sketch out a couple of conclusions. I'll start with one that I hinted about at the end of my previous post, based on my sense that this book was primarily aimed at a group within WELS that was hot to hop on the Contemporary Worship bandwagon. There are wonderful hymns in it, but they are the exception rather than the rule and some of them are pretty challenging, so I think that LAPPY's core audience won't care for them and those who would won't care for LAPPY.

Second, there's a minor theme in this book of repristinating artifacts of American cultural religion – including spirituals, gospel songs and old-timey sentimentalia – that I consider tacky in the context of American Lutheran congregational worship because they pale to nothing alongside the rich treasure of historic Lutheran hymnody.

But finally and primarily, the beef I have with this book is exactly what I said about it being a leg-up onto the CoWo bandstand, to which conservative Lutheranism is coming (as it often comes to movements throughout American Christianity) just as most everybody else is jumping off. It's not going to have the result the people who advocate for it claim to expect. It will, if allowed to move ahead, end Lutheranism in these parts and accelerate the decline of church bodies that would be better served by holding fast to what they have.

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