Monday, June 8, 2020

Equal Opportunity Tackiness

I've previously made mention of a tendency of critical hymn-singers to be extra critical of hymns that a later hymnbook presents differently from the hymnal they grew up with. Like the lady I know, bless her, who grew up in the now-defunct American Lutheran Church (since then mostly absorbed into the Ev. Lutheran Church in America) and who, upon encountering a hymn in worship at her current church, always comments wistfully about the tune out of Service Book and Hymnal (SBH), which nobody else in the congregation ever sang out of but which everyone (she feels certain) must agree is the right tune for that hymn. The oddness of her preferences stands out in sharp relief against the balance of the congregation, which mostly comes from a The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) background with a dash of the old Lutheran Hymnary (LHy) and a pinch of the newer Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy) thrown in for flavor.

I've also told the tale, I feel sure, about the congregation (50 percent TLH and 50 percent LHy) whose adult Sunday School class once deadlocked in a vote – they actually had a vote – over whether to close a study of, I believe, 1 Peter with the EIN FESTE BURG (isometric) setting or the REUTER setting of the hymn "God's Word is our great heritage." The vote split down LHy/TLH lines, respectively. I don't remember what the result was – maybe everybody sang it to the tune of their choice, like the Hogwarts fight song.

This illustrates several principles that should serve as an irritant to devoted, but critical, students of hymnody. First, you're probably not going to dislodge anyone from the opinion they already hold, no matter what reasons you put forth. Second, you may be blind to your own bias in favor of the way things were in the hymnal(s) that influenced you early in life. Third, you'll likely make enemies for life just by bringing up the subject, because people are that emotional about it.

I flatter myself that I'm a little more objective than average because I witnessed the rollout of a new hymnal at a pivotal point in my mental and musical formation – right about the time I became a proficient enough pianist to play any hymn or piece of liturgy by sight. Also, as a pastor's kid and later a student, a ministry student in particular and (for a short while) an actual minister, I moved around a lot and even changed church bodies once or twice. In doing so, I was exposed to even more hymnals and hymnal supplements, regularly worshiped out of several of them, began to study them in detail, and began to mine them for both good and bad examples of hymns both new to me and of long, intimate acquaintance.

So, I haven't just been stamped the image of TLH and conditioned to object to any way the next hymnal(s) deviated from the pattern. I've tried to put TLH, and quite a few other hymnals, in their place in the context of the theology and cultural history of American Lutheranism. I can appreciate ways that I think the Missouri Synod's Lutheran Worship (LW) improved on TLH – that's the new book that rolled out when I was a kid – and I even miss some of those things that didn't survive into the more recent Lutheran Service Book (LSB). I've called the Wisconsin Synod's Christian Worship (CW) a clone of TLH that suffers a bit from genetic fading, but I don't let its similarities to and differences from TLH determine which parts of it I approve or disapprove of. I haven't given the ELCA's (or its ancestors') Lutheran Book of Worship the full treatment – generally, I think of it as the template off which LW was struck, with some differences to the advantage of each book. Then there is the whole complex question of what to make of LHy, ELHy, the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook (ELHb), and a bunch of other books from wider (and earlier) American Lutheranism over which I've poured during many long, lonely hours. And a couple Australian ones, too.

Basically, I'm a hymnal nut. I think there's always room to add to the rich body of hymns that Lutherans have at their disposal to read, sing, hear and meditate on. I'm crazy about their tunes, to the extent that at times I only cared about the words as far as understanding what the melody "means" in the hearts and souls of the people who know them. But I've swung the other way, as well, writing hymn texts wholesale and only worrying afterward about what tunes to pair them with. If I know that a hymn has a bad (like, doctrinally compromised) text, its tune has to be extraordinarily beautiful to convince me it deserves being rescued and paired with something better. It's much easier to transfer an OK hymn text to a better tune. So, my criticism extends to both hymn texts and hymn tunes, but I'm not dogmatic (usually) about which tune and which text go together.

So, in a future post on "Tacky Hymns," I plan to go back to where it started (for me) and prove that I'm not one of those people to whom the old home pew book is all that a hymnal can or should be. I've got my reservations about the book that was the only hymnal in the pews of the churches I attended until LW came out, when I was about 10 years old. I've also, as I said, got opinions about LW to share one of these days, some of which may not play well with the set that welcomed LSB as a modified return to the glory days of TLH. And there are many other hymnals to fit into the story of hymnody in English speaking Lutheranism. If God gives me enough time and I'm not crushed under the weight of the labor, I hope to analyze them as well.

Whatever impression you may pick up as I comment on them, however, please remember and believe that I am not out only to take a dump on other people's well-meant works of piety, poetry and musical composition. I intend to raise up principles of analysis that can be objectively applied. I intend to take a stand for what is truly good and to suggest improvements for things that fall short of the best we can do. I intend to be open to a range of opinions (such as which tune to sing "O little town of Bethlehem" to, etc.) and to go to bat for underappreciated treasures. But I won't be sparing even of hymns that I myself, at times, have personally loved. Certainly, I will not shrink back from saying what I really think, even when it's about everybody and their grandma's favorite hymn. I might be wrong, but so might they. And this is where I get to say my piece.

So, with that "coming attraction" put out there, have a musical day.


David S. said...

Can't wait. LSB came out when I was turning 9, and though I loved it for many years and still appreciate it in many ways, it has its faults in spades. But I'm no TLH purist by a long shot. I look forward to seeing your opinions on these hymnals, as your writing has in the past shaped some of my own thoughts about hymns and hymnody in general.

RobbieFish said...

Wow! Now I feel so much responsibility! Thanks for the encouraging words.