Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Norwegian-Style Tackiness 4

As I noted in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC) published the Ambassador Hymnal (AH) in 1994. If it seems conservative, even dated, it is. AH is a throwback to a style that prevailed in the late 19th century, and that was already tackily passé by the early decades of the 20th - a spiritual fusion of Scandinavian pietism with British-American evangelical revivals. This age, when most of American Lutheranism surrendered its distinctives and merged with mainstream Protestantism, is the "golden age" that AH attempts to preserve.

This "low-church tackiness" is no different from the enthusiasm (historiolatry?) of the liturgical movement. Both sides want to dial the church back to some historical "restore point." They only disagree about which century, or which corner of the church, to identify as the ideal moment to repristinate. For the low-church guys the "restore point" is often some time after American Lutherans gave up doctrines for which our forefathers faithfully fought. For the high-church guys, it is way earlier, often before the Reformation; with the result that their leaders always seem to be edging toward Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy (if not tipping over the edge). Now I wouldn't become a Catholic, Orthodox, or anything but Lutheran for all the cheese in Wisconsin; but it astounds me that there is always a huge scandal when a Lutheran pastor or theologian converts to Rome or Constantinople, or even (now and then) Canterbury, but never for apostasizing in the opposite direction. Where is the outcry when Lutheran leaders, often followed by entire congregations, become Methodists, Pentecostals, and the like?

The fact that they usually remain (nominally) in the Lutheran Church is a partial explanation, but that just makes it more disturbing. It means, in the first place, that Lutheran families looking for a new church home, Lutheran college kids looking for a church near campus, etc., may be drawn into a church-within-the-church that sets its face against Lutheran teachings. In the second place, it means that new members drawn into these churches (often from other denominations) are not catechized as Lutherans, thus widening the theological split within our church. It means, in the third place, that congregations ashamed to identify themselves openly as "Lutheran" - congregations that give casual visitors and readers of their billboards no clue that they belong to, say, the Missouri Synod - can continue to enjoy the financial benefits of LCMS membership (such as borrowing from LCEF, participating in Concordia Plans, etc.). The leaders of the Missouri Synod aren't doing much to discourage these folks. In fact, they hold them up as examples for the rest of us to follow.

The AFLC is only a bit farther long the same road the LCMS is on. Perhaps it begins with an intolerance of everything that smacks of Roman Catholicism (where lie the roots of the Lutheran Church), coupled with a tolerance of, and even a wish to connect with, the Protestant culture prevailing in America. How does this impact hymnody? Simple. We sniff at historic, Lutheran hymns that clearly second Jesus' teaching of Baptism and the Sacrament, constantly wary lest they go too far; but we uncritically accept decadent ditties riddled with receptionism, decisionism, moralism, holiness theology, and pentecostal enthusiasm because the assumption that they have "gospel" in them puts them above scrutiny.

That this happened to the AFLC is evident from the AH. That the LCMS is flying on a similar trajectory is evident from the Lutheran Service Book (LSB). So the tackiness you are about to witness is where we Missouri Sinners are headed. God have mercy on us and our children's children's children.

Hymn 303, "O Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling," owes its first impression of triumphalistic hamminess to the tune Angelic Songs by James Walch. Mary A. Thompson's missionary text begins with some promise (though one may well roll one's eyes at words like "darksome"). Stanzas 4 and 5, though arguably a message the church needs to hear, have the effect of ending the hymn on a note of threat or warning: Do this mission work, lest Jesus return and find some of his redeemed people, "thro' thy neglect, unfit to see His face." I suppose it is valid to warn the church lest, by our lack of missionary activity, we be responsible for the damnation of souls who did not hear of Christ. But what a downer of an ending! Here is an example supporting Walther's contention that, in an evangelical sermon, Law must not follow Gospel. So with nit-picking care I can find fault with Thompson's hymn, but what really nails the coffin shut is the tune. Nevertheless, this text-tune pair figured in at least half a dozen Lutheran hymnals throughout the 20th century.

Hymn 304, "I love to tell the story," struck me as a nice song when I was in Kindergarten. Each year I grow more ashamed to own that I liked it, even at that unformed stage of my life. William G. Fischer's tune Hankey is very pretty and has the mild sentimentality of an alma mater. The lyrics by Catherine Hankey blather on and on about how "I love to tell the story," without actually telling the story. The song is ultimately in praise of "my" emotionally fulfilling habit of telling others about Jesus, rather than anything Jesus has done. And I would bet real money that most of the Baptist Bible campers who sing this song (in full harmony, just before retiring to their cabins at night) don't really mean it. So why is this a hymn we should sing?

Hymn 307, "So send I you to labor unrewarded," sounds like something a soloist would warble into a microphone at a Billy Graham rally, backed by a full orchestra and maybe a choir humming in full smarmony. John W. Peterson composed the music for this cloyingly sentimental gospel ballad, with words by Margaret Clarkson in which Jesus appears to be commissioning each individual Christian to go out as a barefoot, wandering missionary. Problem 1: Taken literally, this hymn would empty the church. Problem 2: It's not really addressed to the church, but to the individual believer. Problem 3: It doesn't make the Lord's work sound like a good career choice, especially as it omits the more upbeat stanza Clarkson added later. Problem 4: The curiously phrase "So send I you" is repeated so many times, it begins to sound like an invocation of some forever-lost homeland: Sosendaiyu (possibly in the neighborhood of Kubla Khan's Xanadu). Finally, the last stanza is followed by a brief coda quoting the words "As the Father hath sent Me, so send I you." Musically, this line is like a finger down the throat after a stomach-upsetting binge. Only a Lutheran church that has abandoned the biblical doctrine of the ministry can sing this crap with a straight face.

For hymn 308, "We've a story to tell to the nations," author-composer H. Ernest Nichol is entirely to blame. It is so exquistely shmaltzy that, as I played it on the piano in my thin-walled apartment, I worried what my neighbors would think of me. Hearken to it! This hymn is the sound of a spiritual culture in the final stages of decline. God save the nations from hearing the story "we" have to tell! The refrain speaks of darkness turning to dawning, "and the dawning to noon-day bright" - but this is music for the twilight of a religious empire. Plus, its final line, "And Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth," betrays a whiff of postmillennialism: the idea that, when we do all this, when we bring enlightenment to the nations and cleanse the world of darkness and evil, Christ will return and establish his millennial reign on earth. Luther and the Confessions have little time for this "Jewish opinion." Its presence in a "Lutheran" hymnal can only mean the church has little time for Luther and the Confessions.

Hymn 315, "Lost in the night doth the heathen yet languish," comes to us from a Finnish folk-song by way of a Norwegian translation, translated in turn by Olav Lee. In the awkward, prolix fashion made necessary by the tune's unusual meter, Lee's missionary hymn revolves around imagery of light penetrating darkness. Unfortunately it expresses itself in a whiny, tragedy-queen manner: yet another missions hymn clubbing us over the head with guilt, or at least threatening us with its club until we turn out our pockets.

Hymn 323, "The vision of a dying world," also titled "Macedonia," is a mission hymn with words by Anne Orlund. After a couple of stanzas begging Christ to revive, awake, arouse, and equip His church to reach out to those in need, Orlund says: "O, clothe Thy Word in bright, new sounds...empower us To preach by every means!" I have already said what I think about this use of 1 Corinthians 9:22. The final lines of the hymn pray: "O Lord, constrain and move Thy church... Begin within my heart." Putting these words in the church's mouth is like telling your child, while saying his bedtime prayers, to repeat after you: "Lord, help me to be nicer to my little brother." If the congregation had no interest in mission work, having them sing these words would be practicing upon them. Plus, the usual way faith is transmitted is that the church passes on to its members what we are to believe and how we are to live; but this hymn asks God to make a direct address to one member and let the change spread from there. If this is an admission that the church is apostate and needs a reformation, maybe it would be best to leave proselytizing to other groups.

Hymn 324, "O happy home, where Thou art loved the dearest," is a C. J. P. Spitta hymn of characteristic, Romantic-era prolixity. Grammatically, the first four stanzas are nothing but exclamations like: "O happy home, where ev'ry wounded spirit is brought, Physician, Comforter, to Thee!" One could argue that this is the grammar of the beatitudes: "O the blessedness of this! O the blessedness of that!" The beatitudes, however, make bona fide assertions: "...for they shall be called the sons of God," etc. The hymn's lack of assertions may only irk a few formalistic sticks-in-the-mud, but I think it shows a lack of clear thought. Instead, the text conjures images of what a pious family would be like if we could manage to make it thus, and wraps up with a fifth stanza ("And when at last all earthly toil is ended...") that draws a lovely conclusion from all these ifs, but without ever explaining how we poor, weak, fallible, flesh-and-blood people are to find strength to carry out all the moral advice on which this end depends. Spitta's writing style lacks concision. In keeping with this is the tune One Radiant Morn: a piece of syrupy sappiness that thrives on the appeal of hymns like "How Great Thou Art."

The scat is flying thicker and faster in this part of the hymnal. I give up for now. IMAGES: A billboard from one of the LCMS churches that doesn't wear Lutheranism on its shirtsleeve; Catherine Hankey; Margaret Clarkson; Philipp Spitta.

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