Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NST 10

Further to "Norwegian Style Tackiness No. 9," we continue with our hit parade of spiritually and artistically questionable hymns from the nominally Lutheran Ambassador Hymnal. Today's laugh-attack is limited to hymns 501-525...

This segment gets off to a tacky start with Hymn 501, I have decided to follow Jesus. I don't think any song in Christendom says "decision theology" with more shrillness than this hymn, attributed to an Indian prince and arranged (by Norman Johnson, b. 1928) from an Indian folk melody. We're talking about Indians from India, now, just so we're clear. The part-song music presupposes a congregation (or choir, or solo quartet) singing in none-too-sophisticated four-part harmony, particularly where the tenors have an echo effect at the words "no turning back." The text consists of three very repetitive stanzas and a short refrain which amount to a very simple expression of discipleship--with the fateful difference that it all starts with the individual's decision for Christ. If what this hymn says is true, what need have you of church or ministry, sermon or sacrament, forgiveness or fellowship? It's all on you, and there's no turning back! (Or is there?)

502 is I'm pressing on the upward way, with words by Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856-1904) set to the tune "Higher Ground" by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). The part-songy music is a truth-in-advertising fail, occupying the middling ground between "tooth-gnashingly tedious" and "nothing special." The lyrics, meanwhile, focus relentlessly on sanctification. And though they thoughtfully mention several realistic obstacles to one's heavenward hike, they don't offer any serious help. Sure, there's the prayer that God would "plant my feet on higher ground," but how do you think He'll do it? Then there's the part that says "Faith has caught the joyful sound, the song of saints on higher ground..." Exactly how has "faith" managed that? I can't help but wonder if the author is serious when he asks God to lead me to "heaven's tableland, a higher plane than I have found," when he seems aware of no means of doing so.

504 is Jesus only, with words and music by Samuel M. Miller (1890-1975). The musical arrangement is peculiar in that the melody is hidden in the bottom note of each chord in the right-hand part. At least it seems to be an actual melody for once: a melody set to an inordinately pianistic accompaniment in the six-flat key of G-flat major. Other than keeping Grandma Wurlitzer on her toes, I can't think of one reason the key with C-flat in it (!) would be preferable to good old one-sharp G major, one half-step higher and written on the same lines and spaces; but smarmy hymns are often perverse that way. The words are a little perverse, too. "Jesus only on the mountain" makes sense, in reference to the aftermath of His Transfiguration; but the first stanza follows this with a long string of "Jesus only here" and "Jesus only there" phrases culminating in the line, "All things else are empty dross." Dross, mind you: because it rhymes with "cross." And of course Jesus was alone on the cross; that's sort of a two's-a-crowd situation. Stanza 2 starts talking in full sentences. One thing I'll say for this text is that it nails the "Christ alone" concept--or rather, pounds it into submission. That it does so to music that sounds like it came from the saloon scene in an old western movie is just weird enough to make the experience worthwhile.

505 is Even me, also known by its first line "Lord, I hear of show'rs of blessing." The words are by Elizabeth Codner (1824-1919), the tune "Even me" by the frequently-mentioned William B. Bradbury. The opening stanza carries imagery of sprinkling the thirsty ground (Refrain: "Even me, even me, Let Thy blessing fall on me"). After that it's another round of "Pass me not" sentiments. Stanza 3 coins the incredible word "Witnesser," but then it goes on to ask the Spirit to "speak the word of pow'r to me"--veering surprisingly close to a theology of the efficacious Word. When stanza 4 includes "Blood of Christ so rich and free" among the things of which we pray, "Magnify them all in me," somehow I doubt that we're talking about the Lord's Supper. No more am I convinced that stanza 5's "While the streams of life are springing, blessing others, O bless me" was intended as an allusion to Baptism. Rather, I am dumbfounded that a spiritual tradition that draws its hymnody from the Baptism-soaked and Eucharist-stuffed Scripture can, at the same time, remain oblivious to the Biblically-revealed power of the sacraments!

506 is Living for Jesus, with words by Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960) and the tune "Living" by C. Harold Lowden (1883-1963). I'm simply speechless. I know: you can't tell the difference. But since I'm writing this, and not talking aloud, I stand by my word: speechless! The music is nothing if it isn't a piano rag, particularly during the refrain. I haven't the heart to pick on the lyrics, which express devotion to Christ in response to His atoning work. But a ragtime hymn!! Don't that just beat all?

509 is To God be the glory, another Fanny Crosby/William Doane double-act which, without a doubt, you'll recognize from the daily recitals of the neighborhood church carillon. There's nothing particularly pernicious about this classic hymn. I just include it on this list because, without any particular claim to musical or poetic inspiration, it shows up a great host of nondescript mediocrities and paler imitations. Someday I would like to listen to a panel debate the merits of Stanza 2, which emphasizes that Christ's atoning work applies "to every believer the promise of God; The vilest offender who truly believes That moment from Jesus a pardon receives." Does this make one's faith a cause of salvation? To what degree does this imply limited atonement and/or synergism? I love stirring up hornets' nests like that. What better to poke it with than this overrated artifact of American quasi-folk art?

510 is How great Thou art, translated from Carl Boberg's (1850-1940) Swedish original and set to the Swedish folk tune "O Store Gud." I haven't been able to listen to this hymn with a straight face since someone pointed out its similarity to the Horst Wessel song of Nazi Party fame. Yes, indeed: speed the Swedish folk-tune up to a brisk marching tempo, and it's virtually indistinguishable from the Third Reich's heroic hoopla! Lyric-wise, it's mostly a "First Article" song of praise, particularly when sung by memory (since most people don't remember more than the first stanza or two). There is a decent confession of Christ's atoning work in stanza 3 before the last verse's climactic ascent toward heavenly glory. But the shmaltziness of the hymn is far from the sort of awe these considerations ought to inspire; and what's more, the music exacts rhythms from the singers that are difficult for a congregation, accompanied by a keyboard instrument, to pull off accurately.

511 is Blessed assurance, with words by Fanny Crosby and music by Phoebe Knapp (1839-1908). This hymn is the reason my flesh crawls whenever I hear a Lutheran pastor play the "blessed assurance" card out of his never-full deck of stock phrases. To me, that phrase carries all the baggage of this hymn, a portmanteau crammed with religious catch-phrases, all juxtaposed in an impressionistic way that seems to make more sense while you're caught up in singing it than when you read it seriously. Stanza 1 doesn't have a full sentence until the Refrain ("This is my story, this is my song..."), whose words are repeated twice per stanza and thus, in four stanzas, a total of eight unbearable times. Stanza 1 wraps up with "born of His Spirit, washed in His blood" but doesn't assert that this took place in Baptism. Stanza 2 admits that "Visions of rapture now burst on my sight" in which "Angels...bring from above Echoes of mercy, whispers of love," but doesn't explain the context in which this happens. Stanza 3 depicts "I and my Savior" as a happy couple, just married; but then, in a textbook example of "misplaced modifier," it goes on without an explicit change of subject to say: "Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love." Who, both of us? Or just me?

513 is Jesus! what a Friend for sinners, J. Wilbur Chapman's (1859-1918) rip-off of the "greatest hits" of American Evangelicalism's "old-time religion" label. Stanza 1 is a riff on "What a Friend we have in Jesus"; stanza 2 echoes "Rock of Ages" ("Let me hide myself in Him"); stanza 3 steals from "My Anchor Holds" ("While the billows o'er me roll"); stanza 4 epitomizes "Jesus, Savior, pilot me"; and stanza 5 rhymes "More than all in Him I find" with "I am His and He is mine." As to what the hymn says, it's all right though it's been said better (and more originally) elsewhere. I find it odd to hear some of these lines with a third-person pronoun referring to Jesus -- "Him" instead of "Thee," etc. And, of course, there is a possibility that today's young scamps may read this hymn's frequently repeated theme of "Jesus! what a..." in an impious manner. It's amazing this hymn's popularity has endured for so long.

514 is Wonderful words of life by Philip Bliss (first line: "Sing them over again to me"). It's another one of those hymns that talk endlessly about the gospel, but hardly proclaim it at all. The last stanza does mention "pardon and peace," but other than that it's a lot of empty talk about "wonderful words of life" that doesn't actually tell you what those words say. Or else, perhaps, it's confused about the difference between the real wonderful words of life (the forgiveness of sins) and a moralizing message of sanctification: "Teach me faith and duty... Sanctify forever...." As for the music... it has two chords in it. Enough said?

515 is Room at the cross for you by Ira F. Stanphill (1914-93), a multi-talented musician whose instruments included ukelele and accordion(!) and whose songs were performed by no less than Johnny Cash(!!) and Elvis Presley(!!!). Musically, "Room at the Cross" would fit right in with a playlist of country-pop-gospel standards of the 1940s or '50s. Full of sticky sentimentality and a style of harmony that I like to call "smarmony," it goes perfectly with Stanphill's lyrics. These, meanwhile, are full of head-scratchers, such as the idea of the cross (made out of solid wood) containing "a shelter in which we can hide" and a "fountain as wide as the sea." There's an inappropriately whimsical quality to such phrases as "the sins they have sinned." And the whole concept of coming to the cross, and staying there, is sufficiently fuzzy that it can fit into anyone's ideas (or lack of ideas) about where one locates Christ and the benefits of His cross.

516 is There shall be showers of blessing, with words by Daniel Webster Whittle (1840-1901) and the tune "Showers of Blessing" by James McGranahan (1840-1907)--an evangelistic songwriting team associated with Dwight L. Moody. Musically, this hymn is a mediocre part-song. Spiritually, it serves mainly as an invocation for a tent revival. "Mercy-drops round us are falling, But for the showers we plead"--Come on, God! Hose us down! Don't just tinkle on us! Super-soak us with your blessings! It's the kind of hymn that would probably work in the context of a charismatic/neo-Pentecostal church. Why is it in a Lutheran book?

The streak continues with Hymn 517, Trust and Obey, with words by John H. Sammis (1846-1919) and music by Daniel B. Towner (1850-1919), the composer of "Standing on the Word of God." Towner's tune dares to reach for a slightly higher level of musical subtlety than the average part-song of its species. Sammis's lyrics, on the other hand, succeed mainly in carrying off five stanzas in an AABCCB rhyme scheme and turning Law into Gospel. Which is not really the Gospel, by the way. Even if you know only the title of this song, you probably have its number. Sammis evidently wrote numerous hymns which were collected, after his death, into two groups: "Song of Trust" and "Songs of Obedience." This hymn must have been his theme-song.

519 is Fanny Crosby's Redeemed--how I love to proclaim it, with the tune "Redeemed" by William Kirkpatrick. The part-songy music is notable mainly for the shlurpy "scoops" on the word "redeemed" in the last half of the Refrain. The text has its awkward phrases, such as "His child, and forever, I am." And though the hymn repeatedly mentions (in exactly the same words) that one is "redeemed by the blood of the Lamb," it dwells more on one's personal feelings it than on the fact itself or its implications. So, when it finally describes Jesus as "the King in whose law I delight," it tips the balance of the hymn away from depicting Jesus the Savior who brings us forgiveness and toward the moral example who "guideth my footsteps." Hmmm. Is that Law or Gospel?

519 is For God so loved the world, a one-stanza paraphrase of John 3:16 by Frances Townsend (b. 1906), with music by Alfred B. Smith (b. 1916). Since you only get to sing it once at a sitting (unless you choose to do the whole thing over and over), it's sort of a hit-and-run tackiness. The music is pure, matching-blazers-wearing glee-club material, with barbershop harmony transposed into SATB. And though it borders on unforgivable to criticize John 3:16, I have to say this isn't a very faithful paraphrase of that well-loved verse. For starters, it dispenses with the universal language of "all who believe in Him" and makes it all about "me."

520 is Jesus saves (first line: "We have heard the joyful sound"), with words by Priscilla J. Owens (1829-1907) and music by William Kirkpatrick. The music has a certain part-songy quality to it (e.g. extremely static harmony, essentially consisting of three chords and their inversions), but Kirkpatrick blows several opportunities to insert choral echo effects, say, during the numerous repetitions of the words "Jesus saves!" Except for that motto, most of the hymn is in the imperative mood: "Climb the steeps... Waft it on..." Stanza 3 at least has a little comfort in it: "By His death and endless life Jesus saves! Sing it softly thru the gloom, When the heart for mercy craves; Sing in triumph o'er the tomb--Jesus saves!" Other than that, it is musically and poetically of the character of a triumphal march that instills more of a sense of patriotic duty than of comfort and assurance.

521 is Thank you, Lord by Bessie Sykes (b. 1905) and Seth Sykes (1892-1950). Their lyrics almost make it sound wrong or at least wasteful to thank the Lord for "friends and home, for mercies sure and sweet... for the flow'rs that grow... for the stars that shine," etc., when--in the words of the Refrain--I "thank the Lord for saving my soul." The music is part-songy with a music-hall twinge.

522 is Grace greater than our sin (first line: "Marvelous grace of our loving Lord"), with words by Julia H. Johnston (1849-1919) and part-song music by Daniel Towner. Again, Towner draws on a wider musical vocabulary than the typical composer in this genre, but that doesn't prevent the piece from coming across as a light-weight, sentimental ditty. The text has the merit of stressing forgiveness that "exceeds our sin and our guilt," but it frames it in such a way that there seem to be strings attached. For example: "Whiter than snow you may be today"--may be, mind; that depends entirely on you. Or how about this line: "Freely bestowed on all who believe"--which, though not far from the truth, seems to backpedal from the brink of unconditional forgiveness and, in the space of six words, make it contingent on faith. And so, finally, it comes down to a personal decision: "Will you this moment His grace receive?" Well? Will ya, punk?

523 is Wounded for me, a one-stanza hymn by W. G. Ovens (1870-1945) combined with four additional stanzas by Gladys Westcott Roberts (b. 1888). The music, besides being smarmy and having an atrociously uninspired opening phrase, is simply, mercifully, forgettable. The five stanzas reduce Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and expected return to the main points of a simplistic, Sunday School ditty. And in at least one case, they miss the point: "Living for me, living for me, Up in the skies He is living for me..." Is that where Jesus is since His ascension? And is praying on my behalf all He does for me? Anyone who has reflected for any length of time on the distinctive teachings of Lutheranism will want to hear something a bit more encouraging than this caricature of the ascended Jesus lighting a candle for us in some side chapel off the Dwingeloo 2 galaxy.

524 is I will sing of my Redeemer, a hymn by Philip Bliss with the tune "My Redeemer" by James McGranahan. The music is an extreme example of part-song harmony, with ridiculously extended echo effects in the men's parts and such a variety of note-lengths (tied notes included) that you can't seriously expect Joe & Jill Sixpack to sing it with any approximation to rhythmic accuracy. Set to another tune, it might actually be a good hymn, focusing on the atonement.

And finally (for now), Hymn 525 is I know whom I have believed (first line: "I know not why God's wondrous grace"), another Whittle hymn with a McGranahan tune (named "El Nathan" in honor of Whittle's pen-name). The text, which the previously cited Wiki quotes in part as a sample of Whittle's work, actually has some merit--the refrain is even a quote from 2 Timothy 1:12--though the hymn does not provide much help in interpreting what Paul means by "that which I've committed unto Him against that day." The key phrase "I know whom I have believed" makes a very powerful counterweight against a laundry-list of things that the hymn's five stanzas correctly confess that "I" know not, such as why God chose me and redeemed me, how He created faith in my heart, how the Spirit goes about "revealing Jesus thru the Word," what's going to happen to me in this life, and when Jesus is going to return. All this is good. But for all the positives about this hymn, I still suspect that it's persistent "I" language suits it for someone's private devotions (perhaps a minister's in particular) rather than corporate worship. And the music is definitely not something I would want to hear in church. It sounds like something that would be sung into a microphone at the type of dance where at least one member of the band is playing an accordion.

I don't have any general observations to close this epic chapter of "Norwegian Style Tackiness." I'm just exhausted. The tackiness wouldn't let up!

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