Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tacky Hymns 5

One of the crassest examples of old-time revival music snaking its way into Lutheran worship is Hymn 548 in The Ambassador Hymnal, published in 1994 under the auspices of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (successors of a group of Norwegian-American pietists who held themselves aloof from the synodical merger mania of the 1960s). With gorge rising I give you "In the Garden," words and music by C. Austin Miles (1868-1946):
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
And He walks with me, etc.

I'd stay in the garden with Him
Tho' the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go - through the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling,
And He walks with me, etc.
All I want to know is: Where did anyone get the idea this was a hymn? Based on Mary Magdalene's encounter with the risen Christ, it doesn't even accurately portray that; and I daresay most people who enjoy this song aren't even conscious of that much.

In what sense are we participants in Mary's alleged experience? How are we meant to relate to the experience described in this hymn? I never heard a voice from heaven while walking alone in a dewy rose-garden. I don't look for it to happen in the future. I wouldn't trust anyone who claimed to have received a direct, unique, verbal revelation from Christ - even if it was such a waffly, vague revelation as the one described here.

So why should this be the congregation's sung confession? Why should it be our message - and what is its message, anyway? What we are saying, as we croon these words, is neither truthful from a narrative standpoint nor faithful from a theological one. We are describing events that never happened and suggesting a form of spirituality that flies in the face of God's will. It's hardly more than a wallow in self-indulgent fantasy, a view of a romantic tête-à-tête blurred by its own rosy effusion. We might as well sing John Masefield's "Sea-Fever," or Rudyard Kipling's "If," either of which brings a catch to my throat every time I recite it, though neither is actually relevant to my life. "In the Garden" is no more a Christian confession than these.

Musically, all I can say is: Eurgh. Tacky! I suppose it's all right when Homer Rodeheaver does it, but what is a Lutheran congregation supposed to do with this music? I'm too rotund to hide under a hassock, but when I hear a churchful of indifferent singers bellowing this tent meetin' aria in unison (accompanied, one often finds, by a Hammond organ con tan vibrato come possibile), I feel an urge to try. The effect is altogether mortifying - and not only to the flesh.

No comments: