Friday, August 30, 2013

Tacky Hymns 34

Resuming our snarky survey of the hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), numbers 475-499...

477 "I received the living God," with words and music by Anonymous, is really a nice little ditty. Its refrain boasts, "I received the living God, and my heart is full of joy." The four stanzas very simply and briefly apply Jesus' statements, "I am the bread of life," and, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I have only two eensy-weensy quibbles with the text as such. In Stanza 1, the words "kneaded long" are really a strange thing to insert into Jesus' bread saying. If Anonymous tried a little harder, (s)he might come up with a more apposite image that fit the meter of the line. Quibble #2: in Stanza 2, where "Jesus said: I am the way," the stanza doesn't say anything that really touches the significance of Jesus' self-identification as the road that leads to God. "I come to bring you home" is as close as it gets—but strictly speaking, a road isn't known for coming to collect people; it just is. Be that as it may, there's nothing wrong with this song—except that it's in the Holy Communion section of the hymnal. As a communion hymn it has the merit of saying, yes, that "I received the living God" and of making use of Jesus' "I am the bread" sayings. But it has the demerit of not saying anything explicitly about the Lord's Supper. And what it says about receiving Jesus could be interpreted (like Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6) as a spiritual reception that does not necessarily involve the bodily eating and drinking of the Lord's Supper.

479 "We come to the hungry feast", with words and music by Ray Makeever (b. 1943), is a three-stanza communion hymn that, again, does not name the sacrament it is supposed to be about, except by a novel poetic description of it as "the hungry feast." In its four five-line stanzas, it spends six lines saying "We come to the hungry feast." Only three lines do not mention the word "hunger" or "hungry." So it has the poetic virtue of being intensely focused on one image or metaphor. But it has the poetic vice of talking around what it has to say, rather than saying it outright. In Stanza 1, "Hungry for a word of peace" could mean "seeking God's forgiveness," and so "To hungry hearts unsatisfied the love of God is not denied" could be interpreted as a very fine statement of the gospel being applied to conscience-stricken sinners. But is that clear enough for Grandma Smurf1 to understand? On the other hand, is that the only message people could read out of these lines? How about the message, "If you're looking for a church where everybody is accepted without question, where doctrinal and even moral differences are overlooked for the sake of peace, why, here we are"? Stanza 2 is a little weird, perhaps because of a bit of awkward phraseology: "...hungry for a world released from hungry folk of ev'ry kind..." The "from" is what throws me. Are we looking for salvation from the foes in this world who would eat us up like bread? Or does this mean release from being poor? The stanza goes on to mention the "poor in body, poor in mind"—so we've already moved beyond the "poor in spirit" into the realm of social justice and serving the needy. How quickly the law rushes in to disturb the peace given by the gospel! Stanza 3 expresses a sort of eschatalogical hunger "that the hunger cease, and knowing, though we eat our fill, the hunger will stay with us; still we come, we come to the hungry feast." Again, this could be read in a good way or otherwise. We hunger for the sacrament, receive it and are satisfied, though we know we will hunger for it again and again until we pass over to the endless feast and eternal repletion of heaven. On the other hand, the way this is phrased could also be taken to mean, "We know this meal will not satisfy us, yet though we expect to go away still hungry, it's the best we have." Which isn't exactly a glowing food review.

482 "I come with joy" (a child of God) is a text by Brian Wren, set to the early American tune DOVE OF PEACE, which requires the last line of each stanza to be repeated. It's another example of the type of communion hymn that interprets "communion" as the bond that unites Christians. An interesting characteristic of this school of interpretation is that it has plenty to say about the the "bread," but not so much about the "wine." I'm not sure why this is, because the wine (being made of many grapes) is susceptible of the same type of metaphor as bread (made from many grains of wheat). But even where that metaphor of many grains being united in one loaf is not explicitly stated, it seems to be freighted into such lines as "the new community of love in Christ's communion bread" (St. 2). Maybe the reason the wine is so inconvenient to this line of interpretation is that we can think of ourselves as communing together as so many members in Christ's one body, but when you start to talk about blood it becomes very hard to avoid the concept of substitutionary sacrifice. No matter, this hymn doesn't strike the "one body" note either, because it never mentions Christ's body (let alone his blood). Its outlook on the Supper is: "As Christ breaks bread, and bids us share, each proud division ends" (St. 3). Whatever communion we have in the Supper, according Wren's thinking, doesn't seem to have any bodily dimension to it. It's spiritual only, as evidenced by Stanza 4, which emphasizes the Holy Spirit's unseen work of binding us together in friendship. And though Christ's laying down his life for me (St. 1) seems to be the message of "all that God has done" (St. 5), which we are to go out and proclaim to the world, Wren's hymn says nothing to suggest that the eucharist bodily unites us to His sacrifice, or that the sacrament is itself a proclamation of this gospel. In short, it is by every reasonable measure an un-Lutheran communion hymn.

483 "Here is bread," with words and music by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950), is another example of a communion hymn that seems to say the minimum that a communion hymn should say, but only if you don't look at it thoughtfully. "Here is bread, here is wine, Christ is with us" (St. 1) is nice and whatnot, but it doesn't actually claim that Jesus' body and blood are taken by mouth. Stanza 2 says, "Know his grace, find his peace, feast on Jesus here"—but for all we know, we could be talking about a spiritual eating. "Here we are, joined in one, Christ is with us... We'll proclaim till he comes Jesus crucified" (St. 3) doesn't really say any more than Brian Wren's text in 482. The refrain has an opportunity to make all things clear: "In this bread there is..." But then, instead of saying "Christ's body," it says "healing." "In this cup is..." It could say Christ's blood; instead it says "life forever." And the refrain concludes, "In this moment, by the Spirit, Christ is with us here." Again, Christ is present in Spirit; whether in body and blood, it doesn't say. All that this hymn says is true. But what it very pointedly omits to say is much more important.

484 "You satisfy the hungry heart" (Gift of Finest Wheat) is a communion hymn by Omer Westendorf (1916-97), set to Robert Kreutz's (1922-96) tune BICENTENNIAL. The opening refrain already sets my heart a-sinking: "You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat. Come give to us, O saving Lord, the bread of life to eat." Again the emphasis is on bread; no commitment is made as to the presence of Christ's body. Do the hymn's five stanzas correct this impression? Stanza 1 doesn't; it talks about sheep hearing their shepherd's voice. Stanza 2 doesn't; it only thanks Christ for counting us worthy "to share this heav'nly food." Stanza 3 does, sort of (DING!) when it says, "Is not the cup we bless and share the blood of Christ outpoured?" But the second half of the stanza relapses into the Wren/Kendrick interpretation of communion: "Do not one cup, one loaf, declare our oneness in the Lord?" Stanza 4 mentions the mystery of Christ's presence, but rather than talking about his body and blood in the sacrament, it relates this to how he "comes in our hearts to dwell." Stanza 5 says, "You give yourself to us, O Lord" in a way that could as easily mean spiritual as oral reception, and without ever once relating the sacrament to the forgiveness of sins (i.e., the gospel), it goes directly back to law: "then selfless let us be, to serve each other" etc., etc. Is that what the heart is hungry for? Really?

485 "I am the Bread of life" is a hymn based on John 6 by a Canadian nun named Suzanne Toolan (b. 1927). It consists of 5 stanzas to be sung by a soloist ("Leader or All," but let's be realistic; the text fits the tune so irregularly that it's only ever going to work as a solo) and a refrain to be sung by "All" in four-part harmony. The refrain says, "And I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day." Just in case you want to start rehearsing your part now. Most of the hymn quotes or paraphrases Jesus speaking to us along the lines of his bread of life discourse. The last two stanzas paraphrase Jesus' words to Martha in John 11 ("I am the resurrection...") and her/our response ("Yes, Lord, I believe..."). It is awesome to see these texts applied so confidently to the Lord's Supper, although its use as a basis for the doctrine of the sacrament was shown to be very shaky by the eucharistic debates of the Reformation era. This is hardly the place to go into all that. I'm just going to call this hymn tacky because the music, though quite uninspired, requires expert singing that simply isn't to be expected of the average congregation. It won't be sung as a hymn, though it could be sung by the choir. So again, why should it be in the pew hymnal?

486 "God extends an invitation" (Nuestro Padre nos invita) is a one-stanza communion hymn by Miria Kolling, which is printed in both the original Spanish and in Gerhard Cartford's English translation. So, both musically and textually, it is another triumphalistic demonstration of the church's multiculturalism. Apart from that, it doesn't offer much. God invites us to "the table of creation" (the Spanish has, literally, "the table of life"). On the table, in either language, we find "wine and light and bread," and I suppose the light is there because of the candles on the altar. What do we get from this spread? The English version says "the feast of life," but the Spanish only says "the communion." I'm always looking for a specific assertion that Christ's body and blood are there; but in this case, no joy. The rest of what the Spanish version says is that "we meet together and share it." The English version uses the same two lines to stress what we offer there: our thanks and our lives of service. So, to say the least, the gospel isn't proclaimed very richly in this hymn.

487 "What feast of love" (is offered here) is a three-stanza communion hymn by Benedictine Sister Delores Dufner, set to the English ballad GREENSLEEVES ("What child is this"). Supposing that a Catholic lady will have a high view of the Lord's Supper, I read the text looking for the usual signs thereof, such as specific mention of Christ's body and blood. Stanza 1 calls the sacrament a "feast of love," a "banquet...from heaven," "food of everlasting life," and a "gracious gift," and it speaks of Christ as "bread come down from heaven" and "sweet...manna." Stanza 2 repeats pretty much the same material with only slight changes: "light of truth... covenant from heaven... hope of everlasting life... wondrous word... sun come down from heaven... Word of God," etc. Stanza 3 then does it again with "wine of love... crimson drink from heaven... stream of everlasting life... precious blood"—AHA! Something you can actually recognize as relating to the cross!—"sweetest wine of heaven... Son of God," etc. So in 3 tediously similar stanzas, you get one brief glimmer of Jesus' sacrifice for sins, which the Lord's Supper was given to proclaim. What's sad is, this is actually an improvement over the past handful of hymns!

489 "Soul, adorn yourself with gladness" really shouldn't be on this list. But it's not my fault that it is. Hymn 488 broke the almost continuous streak of communion hymns by post-Lutheran-Orthodoxy hymn writers with another setting of this hymn, words translated from Johann Franck's (1618-77) original German, music a beautiful and well-known chorale by Johann Crüger; on the next page you find this version of the same hymn, set to a Hispanic tune, and with all three2 stanzas presented in both English and their Spanish translation. The way it is laid out on the page makes it abundantly clear that the editors had a realistic understanding of which language it was more likely to be sung in. So the question remains: Why did they bother printing the Spanish text? Oh! Of course! How could I forget?—Cultural Diversity!3

491 "Come, let us eat" (for now the feast is spread) is by a Liberian hymn-writer named Billema Kwillia. It is odd, therefore, that her text isn't given in its original Loma language; how multicultural that would be! Kwillia's tune A VA DE is patterned according to the "call and response" tradition of African music; which is to say, each line of text and music is sung first by a soloist ("Leader or All"), then repeated by the group ("All"). Even without the opportunity to try to sing it in an African language, it is still somewhat of a sop to cultural diversity. And yet, to the shame of many other modern communion hymns quoted up to this point, it actually does a reasonably good job of saying what should be said. Stanza 1 says, "Our Lord's body let us take together." Yes! In Stanza 2, where the wine is poured, it says, "Jesus' blood poured let us drink together." Awkward, but faithful! And so when stanza 3 says, "In Jesus' presence now we meet and rest," it is actually saying something of sacramental significance. And when stanza 4 tells us to "spread abroad God's mighty word," the part of that word that will make the most difference has just been given to us. Plus, it ends on a note of proclamation rather than exhortation: "Jesus risen will bring in the kingdom." Tacky by some standards (because of the whole cultural-diversity thing, which encourages parishioners to feel a warm glow of self-congratulation whenever they struggle lamely through a piece of cross-cultural hymnody), it is finally the hymn's comparative excellence that makes the tackiness of so many of the above-spoofed hymns stand out all the more. They didn't have to be that bad. It wasn't as though their authors were at such a socio-economic disadvantage that they couldn't be expected to do better. Here we have a Liberian convert to Christianity, constrained by a culturally-shaped form of poetry and music that drives toward simplicity and repetition, and yet writing circles around them!

492 "Eat this bread, drink this cup" (not to be confused with hymn 472) is a four-stanza communion hymn, with refrain, by Jeremy Young (b. 1948). It is set to Young's own tune STONERIDGE, which is about as uninspired as a tune can be without being generated by a computer. The refrain, after the line quoted above, says: "Taste and see the goodness of God. Bread of life, cup of love, we rejoice in your presence." The stanzas are a paraphrase of Psalm 34 which, apart from one line that says, "Taste, and have your fill," appears to have no direct relevance to the Lord's Supper. There's nothing bad about it (unless you count the tune). There's just nothing particularly eucharistic about it either.

493 "Taste and see" is another Psalm 34 paraphrase, only with words and music by James Moore (b. 1951). It has a refrain for "All" to sing, perhaps in four-part harmony, though again, it's not particularly interesting music. The three stanzas are apparently so rhythmically irregular that they had to be laid out in sequence, rather than with three lines of text under each staff of melody. The rhythm ensures that "Leader or All" will, in virtually every case, be the former. In other words, it's not a congregational hymn. So (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), why is it in a hymnal?

494 "For the bread which you have broken" is a communion hymn by Louis Benson (1855-1930)4, with "alt." added at the end of the text credit line, by way of acknowledging that the editors did their best to spruce it up. It's a good thing they included that, because otherwise it would be hard to tell whether they were making any effort at all. Stanza 1 thanks Jesus for the bread He broke, the wine He poured, and the words He spoke; but it's up to you to conclude whether he actually meant it when He said, "This is My body." Stanza 2 asks Christ to hallow our lives through His promise of love, gift of peace, and call to heaven. Stanza 3 asks God to "keep love's tie unbroken" between the saints in heaven and "the church still waiting for you." Stanza 4 concludes: "In your service, Lord, defend us; in our hearts keep watch and ward; in the world to which you send us let your kingdom come, O Lord." All very fine stuff. But no body or blood. No sacrificial cross of Jesus. At most a vague allusion to forgiveness ("gift of peace restored"). So not really very eucharistic, and for all its prayerful appeal, oriented more on sanctification than justification. A church denying the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Supper, and taken captive by the law, would not have to alter much to make this hymn fit their tastes. I wonder, though... exactly how did the editors of ELW alter it? And why? And while they were at it, couldn't they have done a bit more?

495 "We who once were dead" is a communion hymn translated from a Dutch text by Muus Jacobse (1909-72), and set to Rik Veelenturf's (b. 1936) modern chorale MIDDEN IN DE DOOD. Taking its departure from Jesus' Easter-evening appearance to the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24), the text really does a fine job of connecting the Lord's Supper to Jesus' death and resurrection, and our own cross-bearing and resurrection. Whether the hymn really implies that we take Jesus' body and blood by mouth in the Lord's Supper is a matter for interpretation; Lutheran ears will probably hear it as though it did, in such lines as "He became our bread... On him we are fed, eating what he gave us"; "Jesus, you...made yourself our bread"; and "In this meal we meet you. Be our bread and wine." I suppose the hymn's restrictive meter ( makes it hard to get any clearer than that, though I can't help suspecting that another interpretation is possible, if not likely, given the Reformed provenance of the text. What's going to push this hymn across the tackiness threshold is, finally, Veelenturf's rhythmically asymmetrical, melodically "meh" tune.

496 "One bread, one body" is a soloistic, Christian-contemporary ditty by Jesuit composer John Foley (b. 1939), who teaches liturgics at SLU, right here in town. The opening refrain takes the Lord's Supper as its starting point, but moves from there to an interpretation of "communion" that abolishes all distinctions. Stanza 1: "Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more." That's the whole stanza! Stanza 2: "Many the gifts, many the works..." Stanza 3: "Grain for the fields," etc. Conclusion: "We are one body in this one Lord." Evidently one of the things the Jesuits (who now have a guy pretty high up in the church hierarchy) mean to do through their liturgical leadership is lead Catholics away from their church's old emphasis on blood and retribution and atoning sacrifice, and more toward something to do with human brotherhood and mutual sympathy. If that's really true, this song could be part of that strategy.

497 "Strengthen for service, Lord" comes from the Syriac Liturgy of Malabar, and is set to a modern tune by Robert Hobby (b. 1962). I find BUCKHURST RUN to be a pretty banal piece of music, in contrast to the dignity of the text. But as communion hymns go, this one leans heavily on the note of law. Stanza 1: "Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken; and let the ears that heard your word to falsehood never waken." There are two more stanzas like this, turning every aspect of worship into admonition (against deception, to sharper perception, against wandering). It finally returns to a hint, a microscopic hint, of the gospel in the eucharist: "Lead the faithful nourished here to journey on in splendor." I mean, at least it says "nourished." Anything about forgiveness would be an improvement, however.

498 "United at the table" (Unidos en la fiesta) is another Hispanic hymn, with all three stanzas presented in both English and Spanish. So ditto all the ridicule I have heaped on similar misplaced anthems to our church's multicultural righteousness. The refrain describes communion as a joyful uniting in praise of God. Stanza 1 is a nice generic song of praise to God for His love. Stanza 2 calls communion "the bountiful table of life and grace" which grants us "communion with ev'ry race." Stanza 3 calls for rhythm instruments and dancing, but otherwise adds nothing. So again, concluding this 25-hymn chunk of ELW, we have a communion hymn that makes no explicit reference to Christ's self-offering on the cross, or the forgiveness of sins, or our communion with Him through his body and blood, which he gives us to eat and drink. It's just a nice piece of festive praise music with a Latin lilt.

At this point what depresses me about this hymnal is not so much the large amount of tackiness that it has paraded before my incredulous eyes, but the thin representation of historically and spiritually important Lutheran communion hymns, such as 499 "O Lord, we praise you," and only a handful of others. It has made me wonder, not for the first time, why the publishers thought it was worth the expense to include the word "Lutheran" in the title. I wouldn't expect to find fewer truly Lutheran hymns in a hymnal of any other denomination, Protestant or Catholic.

1A name, not originally mine, for a hypothetical entity that many pastors and church musicians have met in concrete reality: a being that sits in a pew during church services, more or less good-naturedly bemused by the intellectual banter flying high over its head. When perched on an organ bench, rather than a pew, I like to call this creature Grandma Wurlitzer. I don't think I mean anything disparaging by this—but if I do, it is not Grandmas Smurf and Wurlitzer I mean to demean, but those who talk over their heads. Including, at times, myself. God made them the way they are; we're not going to change them; but if we're going to serve them, we need to learn to communicate on a level they can understand. To the extent that we struggle to do this, they may actually be smarter than we are.
2Because nobody would ever, ever, ever want to sing, or even just read, all nine stanzas of this hymn!
3Note the capitalization of the divine name.
4Tune: OMNI DIE, a relatively simple 17th-century German chorale.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 14+

Winner of the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel, this book by the author of A Wizard of Earthsea more than deserves to be in the company of such books as Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, Foundation's Edge, Ender's Game, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It packs a powerful impact on both mind and heart. It is rich both in world-crafting inventiveness and in human detail. It is—it is, straight-up, devastatingly beautiful.

It takes place in a far future, when Earth has joined an Ekumen of over eighty worlds, all inhabited by human cultures that, at some earlier date, were planted by a power known as the Hain. By the time Genly Ai comes along, the Ekumen has almost completed its mission of reuniting the scattered races of mankind. But as the First Mobile, or Envoy, to the planet Gethen, the young Earth-man faces an unusual challenge. On an ice-bound world so hostile that its other name is Winter, Ai's mission is to persuade a culture to join the Ekumen—a culture that somehow, perhaps through a genetic experiment, has done away with the difference between male and female—a culture to whom Ai, and every other human being he represents, must be viewed as a freak and a pervert.

All right, so I've over-simplified a bit. I haven't Ursula Le Guin's gift of delivering material of Lord of the Rings magnitude on a Hobbit word-budget. Who does? That's one of the reasons she has won two Hugos, and probably deserves to have won more. She is a literary-quality author devoted to creating science-fiction masterpieces. Her work is one of the reasons sci-fi novels will endure when the pulp fiction of the last century has returned to the pulp from whence it came. It isn't so much that the Gethenians don't have two sexes. Rather, each Gethenian has the potential to be both sexes. But apart from four days out of every twenty-six, their sex drive goes into latency, along with all specifically male or female characteristics. Only during those four days, known as kemmer, do they develop sex organs—sometimes male, sometimes female—and a randy sex-drive to go with it. The same person can be a mother and a father to different sets of children. The same monogamous couple can have kids both ways. And the number of ways this affects their society will amaze you. Which is another way of saying this book will amaze you.

Genly Ai, the envoy of a great interstellar civilization, is not always very wise, tactful, or strong. Sensing early on that he has failed to get through to the tradition-bound kingdom of Karhide—perhaps because the prime minister who believed in him has been banished for treason—Ai makes his way across the border to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn, which is run along bureaucratic principles, like a totalitarian utopia. But this proves to be his biggest mistake, as he learns when he finds himself being interrogated to death in a labor camp. Past all hope, he is suddenly rescued by the last person he expected to trust again—the former prime minister of Karhide, Therem Harth. The long, gruelling journey these two men make over the northern ice-cap proves to be more than a test of survival. It becomes, for Genly Ai, the center of time: the most important moment of his life. A moment of joy. And in a uniquely non-sexual way, he finds in Therem Harth the love of his life.

But as you find out for yourself what is so special about this book, be warned. It may test your heart as sharply as it does Genly Ai's. And even in the final success of his mission, you may join him in feeling a desolation that is, most truly, to know Winter.

This is only one of eight "Hainish" novels that Ursula Le Guin wrote between 1966 and 2000, another of which (The Dispossessed) also won a Hugo. Besides five Catwings novels, many short stories, half a dozen Earthsea books, and several other series of novels, her books include Always Coming Home, Changing Planes, and the Hugo-nominated The Lathe of Heaven. Among her most recent books are the "Chronicles of the Western Shore" trilogy of Gifts, Voices, and Powers, and two volumes of stories titled The Real and the Unreal.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Punnish Tackiness

Remember the Lutheran Church of the Tacky Lighted Sign Message? It's close to my neighborhood, but in a direction that I haven't gone in for a while. Today I walked past it on my way home from the public library. Its current slogan of Christian outreach:


Ha, ha. Very polyphony.

Tacky Hymns 33

Continuing with our ongoing cackle at the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW; Augsburg, 2006)...

451 "We are baptized in Christ Jesus" is a baptism hymn by John Ylvisaker that comes so close to being excellent that it hurts. I'm not one to criticize a poem for using slant-rhyme (e.g. rhyming "death" with "life"), because I often use it myself and wholeheartedly approve of it as an alternative to hackneyed and obvious rhymes. In my opinion, the first of this hymn's three stanzas does an excellent job of summarizing Paul's argument in the first half-dozen verses of Romans 6, only to let the concluding line fall flat: "And if we have been united in a dreadful death like his, we will all be reunited, for he lives." It was almost good, but it forgot to complete the thought specifically that we will be raised from the dead! Stanza 2 uses phrase "the water and the witness" as an acceptable but weak alternative to "water and the word"; and while it arguably makes a good case for the promise of forgiveness fizzing through the waters of baptism, again its concluding line wimps out: "In the losing and the winning we hold fast." Stanza 3 is a very appropriate Trinitarian doxology, which leaves only one more thing for me to complain about: Ylvisaker's tune OUIMETTE, which, for all its noble attractiveness, reminds me of the jingle for an insipidly nice 1970s propaganda piece promoting something like UNICEF or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

453 "Baptized and set free" (first line: "We are people created, chosen by God") is a modern baptism hymn by Cathy Skogen-Soldner (b. 1956). The first of its four stanzas is only not-bad, though its language leans more toward simplicity than clarity. Stanza 2 makes the strange observation: "We are fed and we're nourished, filled and refreshed. Then our hunger returns and again we are blessed." This is strange in part because the "fed and nourished" imagery would seem more appropriate in a hymn on the Lord's Supper than one on baptism, and in part because the remark about hunger returning—while true in the sense that we must keep returning to the fountain of grace to heal our daily wounds and remove our recurring stains—also, again, carries imagery of food rather than drink (hunger vs. thirst), and could be interpreted as contradicting Jesus' promise that those who come to Him will drink such water that they will never thirst again. I don't think the poem's author means that you need to be baptized over and over, but once again, her lack of clarity in proportion to the simplicity of her language could make the hymn confusing. Stanza 3 carries the food/drink confusion further: "We are nourished by water, all living things, and by life that the Spirit abundantly brings." Wait. What? All living things are inspired by the Holy Spirit? Where is that written? Or are equivocating between the "breath of life" and renewal by the Spirit?

455 "Crashing waters at creation" is a baptism hymn by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-93), set to the well-known chorale STUTTGART. At first as I read it, I became quite excited by its great potential. Stanzas 1 to 3 echo Luther's Flood Prayer, drawing baptismal imagery from the waters at the creation of the world, the waters of the Red Sea that divided to let the children of Israel pass through, and the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Up to the end of Stanza 3, my only regret is that Dunstan did not include a stanza referencing the Flood, which the apostle Peter showed to be rich in baptismal significance. But the concluding Stanza 4 disappoints me. Without specifically naming baptism, it speaks only of "living water"—a choice certain to please people who deny the connection between baptism and God's promise to save us through water and the Spirit. And while this spiritual water is supposed to "quench the thirst and flood the soul... drench our dryness, make us whole," it also falls short of specifically offering forgiveness and creating faith. You can read these ideas into the text, if you want to. But why should your pious imagination do all the work? It's an especially pointed question when experience shows what strange ideas come forward when even seemingly obvious conclusions have been left for the reader to draw for himself.

457 "Waterlife" (first line: "Before I can remember the covenant was sealed") is a CoWo pop song by Handt Hanson (b. 1950), set to his own tune SPIRIT LIFE, and copyrighted by Changing Church, Inc. Its three stanzas make a fairly decent case for infant baptism and the faith-creating power of baptism, which is more than you would expect of CoWo. Credit where due, and whatnot. But the refrain is too cute to be endured: "They were singing waterlife, beginning life, waterlife all my life, waterlife, Spirit life, waterlife." And the tune's pop-music rhythms and inflections are inappropriate for congregational hymnody. I do not mean that its style is out of place in the Divine Service (though I am also of that opinion). I only mean that it's a solo piece from start to finish; and though the stanzas are assigned to "Leader or All" and the Refrain emphatically to "All," it is actually the refrain that would be least conducive to congregational singing. If by "All" you mean "the backup singers" or "the gospel choir," that's another matter; but the question remains: Why is this in the pew book? What congregation will actually be able to sing this?

458 "Praise and thanksgiving be to God," set to the fine worshipful tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM, is a collaboration between Francis Yardley (1911-90) and Frank Whiteley (b. 1914), with the added "alt." meaning that the hymnal committee stuck their own spoon into the stew-pot. The first thing that tripped me up when reading through it was a line in Stanza 1 which addresses God as "prodigal creator." I am aware that the word "prodigal" can mean "profuse, lavish" in a positive sense, but most people understand this word in either the negative sense of "extravagantly and wastefully profuse, lavish" or, through a fallacious analogy to the story of the Prodigal Son, as a description of one who selfishly runs away from his proper station and later repents. So although the hymn uses the word correctly, it fails to account for John Pew Public's ignorance. The hymn's second misstep is a metrical miscalculation that puts the word "and" on a strongly accented note ("with" falls on the same note in Stanza 2). This is a verse-making error that I must frequently watch for in my own hymn-writing. I won't be mean and point out any other flaws in this otherwise reasonably good baptism hymn. It just seems odd that after passing through the hands of two authors and an editorial entity whose blue-pencil activity merited a type of co-author credit, such easy-to-fix missteps made it into print.

459 "Wade in the water" (God's a-goin' to trouble the water) is an African-American spiritual which, if what I've read about it is true, was originally a set of coded instructions for escaping slaves. Apart from frequent repetitions of the text quoted above, its four stanzas deliver the following content: (1) "See that host all dressed in white, the leader looks like the Israelite." (2) "See that band all dressed in red, looks like the band that Moses led." (3) "Look over yonder, what do I see? the Holy Ghost a-coming on me." (4) "If you don't believe I've been redeemed, just follow me down to Jordan's stream." And yet, somehow, this hymn meets ELW's requirements for a baptism hymn. I'm gobsmacked. I mean, apart from an apparent insistence on the Holy Ghost coming on me and the imagery of a riverside baptism-by-immersion meeting, there's hardly anything in it to do with baptism. There is something fanciful, perhaps even awesome, about its account of some kind of vision of a white-robed host, etc. But for the preachment of the gospel, or for a catechetical presentation on baptism, more is needed.

460 "Now the silence" is a communion hymn by Jaroslav Vajda and Carl Schalk that I have mentioned before, though I'm not sure I've given it the full treatment yet. Let me start by repeating what I said about 459: "More is needed." The hymn asserts nothing. It does not complete a single thought. It does not deal in concrete realities. It does not attempt to teach or confess any proposition regarding the Lord's Supper. Instead, it gambols about like a newborn lamb, each bounce of its springy legs powered by hypnotic repetitions of the word "Now"—"Now the hearing Now the pow'r Now the vessel brimmed for pouring." This impressionistic flow of experiences in thin slices is so hard to grasp as language that the editors of ELW went against their policy of not capitalizing the first letter of poetic lines except to start a new sentence. There is no sentence, not even any punctuation, merely a succession of moments arranged like bullet-points, with the word "Now" as the bullet. And when it finally flat-lines with three consecutive repetitions of "Now," you sense that the bullet has penetrated the brain and done what in it lies.

461 "All who hunger, gather gladly" pairs the early American shape-note tune HOLY MANNA with a communion hymn by Sylvia Dunstan that plugs in the words "holy manna" as early as its second line. It's a nice attempt to give a eucharistic spin to the Exodus account of the miraculous feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness. But it won't make folks like us, who are interested in the history of hymnody, forget that in the "Methobapticostal" revivalist camp-meeting hymn originally set to this tune, the phrase "holy manna" was used only as a euphemism for the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit, except in the last stanza when it looks forward to the feast that Christ will serve us in heaven. Evidently, there isn't anything of a meal-like persuasion that Christ serves us in this life... But never you mind. As to the merits of this hymn (apart from the tune's anti-sacramental associations of anxious-bench weeping and praying), I'm well satisfied at least with Stanza 1, where the words "You that yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food" could be read as an admonition against abandoning Word and Sacrament in the desperate quest to make the church grow. But Stanza 2 spoils that impression with its line: "Seeker, be a welcome guest" (translation: We're not like those mean Missouri Sinners who won't give communion to anybody who shows up). From the stanza's further argument, it appears that this "seeker sensitivity" is a necessary consequence of the fact that we all "once were lost and scattered." Sure, this may be reading a bit too much between the lines. But the lines I'm reading between come from a church body whose most conservative rump-group wouldn't join the LCMS because (among other reasons) it couldn't accept closed communion.

462 "Now we join in celebration" continues the tackiness streak with a communion text by Joel Lundeen (1918-90) set to the fine chorale SCHMÜCKE DICH by Johann Crüger. Already in Stanza 1, Lundeen borrows the imagery of being " joy and wonder" from the hymn most commonly associated with that tune, "Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness." Ordinarily, I would be in favor of such a hymnological cross-reference. But already in the next line, Lundeen begins to stray into some doubtful christology, characterizing Christ as "the Lord of all existence, putting off divine transcendence." Clothing it in flesh, yes; making less than full use of its powers and perquisites, certainly; but shedding it like a garment? I'm not so sure. Can we run this one past the department of systematic theology of a really solid Lutheran seminary? I'd like their opinion on this. For now, let's call it poetic license and move on to the third and last stanza (because Stanza 2 is actually quite good). After the first half of the stanza sets up the perfect premise for a confident prayer for forgiveness to be applied through Jesus' body and blood, the second half of Stanza 3 veers instead into another example of this hymnal's thematic emphasis on serving one another, seeking justice in this life, etc. In itself what it says is good and true; it's mostly the proportions, the weight of emphasis, that feels off to me. Plus, after such a convincing feint toward real gospel, this return to harping on the "third use of the law" could cheat some poor afflicted soul out of the comfort it craves.

463 "Lord, who the night you were betrayed" is a lovely eucharistic prayer for Christian unity by William Turton (1856-1938), set to Orlando Gibbons' renaissance-era tune SONG 1, which deserves to be more popular than it is. I only wish that in his zeal for uniting the church, Turton might have put more stress (or any, really) on the removal of error and the healing of doctrinal schisms, through agreement on the truth. I suppose this is a lot to ask of a church body whose very existence is predicated on a merger between groups with unresolved doctrinal differences between them. It is easy to wish for "our sad divisions soon to cease," but in reality it will take more than a love of peace to accomplish it.

466 "In the singing" is a communion hymn by Shirley Murray (b. 1931) with music by Carlton Young (b. 1926). Again, please note that in my ruthless witch-hunt to exploit any sign of weakness in hymnody, I passed over a poky little ditty by Ray Makeever and Rusty Edwards (464) and a Marty Haugen setting of lines from the second-century Didache (465), the latter of which misses most of the notes that I want to hear in a eucharistic hymn. But they simply don't meet my current criteria for tackiness, such as "Dear Lord, help me! I'm still 10 hymns away from 475 and I've been at this for two hours!" Nevertheless, I couldn't pass by this hymn, with its refrain: "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, be the wine of grace; Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, be the bread of peace." It isn't that I object to what the refrain says or doesn't say, as such; what troubles me is that these are the best lines in the hymn. The rest of it—two short stanzas worth—reads as a pale imitation of "Now the silence": pale because not quite as single-mindedly committed to not committing itself. Stanza 1: "In the singing, in the silence, in the hands expectant, open," etc. Stanza 2: "In the question, in the answer, in the moment of acceptance," etc. You get the idea, or lack thereof. If I ever want a hymn that could make me nostalgic for "Now the silence" (where at least I can be somewhat sure of what the imagery is meant to suggest), I now have its address.

467 "We place upon your table, Lord" is the communion hymn by M. F. C. Wilson (1884-1944), set to the early American tune DISTRESS, in which this hymnal finally achieves the goal implicit in its liturgical portion: dialing up the sacrificial (versus sacramental) emphasis in Lutheranism's eucharistic thinking. In Stanza 1, we sing about the bread and wine of the eucharist in terms of gifts we bring to the Lord. In Stanza 2, we meditate on the significance of bread and wine for us (apart from their consecration in the Lord's Supper). Stanza 3 concludes with this tour-de-force of sacrificial thought: "Accept them, Lord; they come from you; we take them humbly from your hand; put these your gifts to higher use: the holy meal that you command." Hey presto! A Lord's Supper hymn with absolutely no gospel!

469 "By your hand you feed your people," by contrast, delivers a solid gospel-rich presentation on the Lord's Supper. With words by Susan Briehl (b. 1952) set to Marty Haugen's tune CAMROSE—and so, ironically, a hymn borrowed from the Roman Catholic church—it says no less of the Sacrament than: "For these gifts we did not labor, by your grace we have been fed." It clearly states that the bread and wine are Christ's body and blood, and connects them to His work of redeeming and restoring the world. I would be even happier if it came right out and said, point blank, that we receive forgiveness in this Supper. But once again, where I would expect that stanza to be, I find one that asks God to send us "to the hungry, lost, bereaved." At least it does this well, its final line of stanza-text transforming the meaning of the refrain: "In our living and our dying, we become what receive: Christ's own body," etc. As modern communion hymns go, it's just OK (including Haugen's vaguely pop-sentimental music). But I can't help noticing that I've gotten a fair way into the Holy Communion section of this hymnal, and I still haven't seen any of the classic Lutheran chorales for the Lord's Supper. What gives, ELW?

470 "Draw us in the Spirit's tether" by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), set to Harold Friedell's (1905-58) haunting tune UNION SEMINARY, is a communion hymn that, in a test for clearly and distinctly proclaiming a Lutheran theology of the Lord's Supper, fails on every count. The presence of Jesus that Stanza 1 appeals for is His spiritual presence within the church. The significance of Stanza 2's review of the church's history of gathering for meal fellowship proves to be the prayer: "So now bind our friendship up." And after hardly describing at all the Supper that Christ specifically instituted, and not even mentioning the chief gifts we seek of Him there, Stanza 3 asks Him to make "all our meals and all our sacraments of you, that by caring, helping, giving, we may be disciples true." Worse than the adulterated post-communion blessing that adds "and serve" after "depart in peace" (thus ensuring that, after the gospel, the law gets the last word), this hymn is all thankful response with no saving act to respond to; again kicking the horse's ribs with the spur to serve your neighbor, without any feedbag of gospel or forgiveness. To which I say, neigh!

472 "Eat this bread" is a Taizé/Jacques Berthier communion hymn whose original text, in full, says: "Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you will not thirst." I apologize in case this two-sentence quote of a copyrighted text exceeds fair use, but my purpose is two-fold. First, you have to see to believe how little there is to this hymn; and second, this puts in perspective how much is lost by using the alternate lyrics ELW provides: "Jesus Christ, bread of life, those who come to you will not hunger. Jesus Christ, risen Lord, those who trust in you will not thirst." Now, I ask you: why would the folks behind ELW want to change such a simple little hymn so radically? What do they gain that might be better served by not including the hymn in the book at all? Other than changing the conceptual direction of the words from "Christ speaking to us" to "us speaking to Christ," the only difference is that the ELW revised lyrics drop all reference to eating and drinking; i.e. everything that distinctly makes this a communion hymn. This is the classic case of hymnal editors' tampering with a hymn so that any incentive to use it is lost. And just to show what world-class asses they are, the ELW committee allows us to glimpse this "before and after" picture.

473 "Holy, holy, holy" (Santo, santo, santo) is the Argentine traditional ditty that says, in its entirety: "Holy, holy, holy, my heart adores you. My heart is glad to say the words: You are holy, God." And it says this in both English and Spanish, not because this hymnal could adequately serve a bilingual Hispanic church, but because, in the algebra of today's Lutheran worship culture, Cultural Diversity = Catholicity.

474 "Bread of life from heaven" completes today's torture with a communion hymn by Susan Briehl, its refrain set to the same Argentine folk-tune as 473, and the music for its stanzas freshly composed by Marty Haugen. I appreciate what Briehl is trying to do in her text, but something is wanting in the execution. In Stanza 1 she tries to tie in the miraculous feedings of the four thousand and five thousand with the all-sufficient "bread of Christ's sacrifice," only seem to suggest that the Lord's Supper should continue until everyone has eaten his fill. The other four stanzas all say excellent things, but in a rhythmically awkward way that promises to be tricky for the congregation to sing. And while an admirable pattern is evident in the poem's composition, there is something not quite satisfying about its overall structure—as though Stanza 5 were originally meant to be Stanza 2, perhaps. It's enough to distract me from some of the merits of this hymn which, after all is said and done, is just one more mildly appealing, artistically ankle-deep lure to replace all vestiges of Lutheranism's distinct heritage of sung worship with the Pius-come-lately strains of post-Vatican II Catholicism. So even while I recognize some good points in this hymn, I will tend to avoid it (and most other things with the words "GIA Publications" and "Marty Haugen" printed under them) on the principle that I don't want to wake up one day and discover I've been replaced by one of the Pod People.

Monday, August 26, 2013

First Lord's Fury

First Lord's Fury
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Five books ago, Tavi of Calderon was an active, resourceful, good-naturedly trouble-prone farm boy whose prospects in life were dimmed by the fact that, unlike everyone else in Alera, he had absolutely no fury-craft—that is, no control over the spirits of air, water, wood, metal, earth, and fire. While others had these powers to a greater or lesser degree—and those with the most fury-craft tended to rise to the highest positions in society—Tavi couldn't even turn the lights on or off without help. Nevertheless, we watched him grow into an admirable young hero, thanks in part to the unique approach to problem-solving that his disability forced him to develop. Later on, he found out that he was the only grandson of Alera's First Lord, and that his supposed Aunt Isana was actually his mother, who had kept his identity a secret and held back his fury skills in order to protect him from ruthless rivals. As Tavi's skill as a military leader grew, so did his late-blooming fury-craft. And now, in the sixth and last book of the Codex Alera, he comes into his full power, right on time to claim his throne and save his world from a threat to its very existence.

At the end of Princeps' Fury, Tavi was in command of a fleet of ice-ships, returning to Alera from the former homeland of the wolf-man warriors known as the Canim. After forming a temporary alliance with the Canim who had previously invaded Alera, Tavi had tried to sail them home in time to fight the all-devouring, insectoid Vord. But they had arrived too late and only just escaped with the last remnant of Canim resistance.

On their return to Alera, they find the realm overrun by another Vord horde, its surviving forces massing for one last desperate defense. Only by joining forces with all their ancient enemies, changing the way warfare is waged, and beating overwhelming odds can the survivors of Alera hope to stop the Vord advance. For the forces massing in the Calderon Valley, this will mean exploiting resources that Tavi's uncle, Count Bernard, has been building up in secret over several years. At Tavi's end, it will mean finding a way to move a combined Canim and Aleran army across an entire continent at a speed never before dreamed of. When the two forces finally meet, they must face an enemy outnumbering them by thousands of times over, an enemy that fights without fear of death or instinct for self-preservation, an enemy guided by an increasingly powerful but insane Queen who is linked to Tavi in a disturbing way, and who may already be impossible to defeat. All this to save a world that, afterward, can never again be the same as it was—or, failing that, the end of everything that isn't Vord.

In the midst of huge and grisly battles, stunning displays of magical skill and ingenuity, duels, assassination attempts, political maneuvers, deceptions, betrayals, shifting allegiances, and long-simmering crises finally coming to the boil, there is somehow also room to squeeze in an interspecies love story (Tavi plus Kitai sitting in a tree, etc.), a story of personal redemption (with the interesting twist that the man is saved from crucifixion), a rival heir to the throne (who, in an interesting ambiguity, helps save the realm while threatening Tavi's claim to it), a rampaging great fury who makes the rock giants in The Hobbit look like cuddly little fellas, and the surprise return of places, things, and tactics last seen several books ago. It ties up an amazing number of plot threads and, for once, only occasionally makes one impatient to get back to Tavi's storyline. For he is an appealing character, one who holds together an uneasy alliance of (nearly) equally strong-willed people; and much of Alera's fate depends on his fate.

Though one is sorry to see the saga coming to an end, it is a most satisfying end. And to think that I wouldn't have read even the first book if I had known, at the time, that Jim Butcher (author of the Dresden Files) wrote it to prove that he could bring a brilliant story out of the collision of two stupid ideas—specifically, "lost Roman legion meets Pokémon." By the end, I was actually thinking how cool it would be to see an anime series based on this sextet of novels—anyone? Studio Ghibli? Anyone?—though no film production could surpass the production values of the movie that played inside my head while I listened to Kate Reading read this complete series on CD. She is awesome. Penguin Audio is awesome. Jim Butcher is awesome. And now that I've actually caught up with his published novels—for the first time ever!—I can look forward to reading his next book as soon as it becomes available. Unfortunately for fans of this series (which, alas! is over), but still good news for me, it's rumored to be a Dresden Files book titled Skin Game.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anne's House of Dreams

Anne's House of Dreams
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 12+

Near the beginning of the fifth of eight novels featuring Anne Shirley, she stops being Anne Shirley and becomes Mrs. Dr. Gilbert Blythe. And so the series that began with Anne of Green Gables turns another corner in her journey from childhood to maturity. Little Anne, whom generations of readers still best remember as the first novel's talkative redheaded schoolgirl with a rich imagination, has already finished college and spent several years as a schoolmistress. Now the love of her life has earned his medical degree and is ready to set up practice in the Prince Edward Island coastal community of Four Winds Harbor. And so, at long last, Gilbert and Anne get married.

For Anne, the first home of her married life is everything she cherished in her girlish, romantic dreams—short of being a castle in Spain, at least. A snug little cottage within sight of the sea, it is surrounded by lovely trees and flowerbeds, and filled with the memories of two previous happy couples. The garden gives Anne an outlet for her love of natural beauty, and the shore a place to dance and dream. Plus, the neighborhood, though sparsely populated compared to the other side of the cove, is home to a handful of interesting characters who soon adopt Anne and Gilbert into "the race of Joseph," as they call it. There's Captain Jim, the old mariner who takes care of the lighthouse on the point, when he isn't telling tales from his thrilling life at sea. There's Miss Cornelia Bryant, a spinster lady whose gossip is laced with biting comments about the male sex ("Isn't that just like a man!"). And there's even a whimsical fellow who swore he wouldn't cut his hair or beard until his party regained control of the government—and who has thus gone unshaven for eighteen years!

This book, as I have described it so far, could be in danger of becoming a collection of quirky incidents in the lives of a group of nice, perky people, set against the beautifully-described background of a quaint Canadian village. In other words, it could easily become a lightweight, plotless, aimless bore. But just when a lack of conflict, drama, or (let's face it) story threatens to make the book a disappointing collection of sweet nothings, Anne gets to know her next-door neighbor, the beautiful but tortured Leslie Moore. And although a hint of tragedy enters young Mrs. Blythe's life from other quarters, it is around Leslie that most of what makes this novel a novel revolves. Because of Leslie, there is actually a plot in this book, and an effective one (though it may be a bit predictable). Because of Leslie, this ends up being a better book than the previous book in the series, which, in spite of a few unifying threads of plot, is mostly a collection of colorful episodes. Because of Leslie, there is a passionate love story in this book, even as Gilbert and Anne start to become an Old Married Couple. And though a beloved character's death is mourned in this book, and though Anne's vivacity receives a serious check when her firstborn child dies (poor little Anne!), it is the tragedy of Leslie Moore's life, and the cruelly tempting possibility of happiness that enters it, that holds this novel together and enables it to touch readers' hearts to this day.

Leslie's ability to feel happiness began to be tested when she was a mere girl, witnessing the death of her beloved brother in a horrible accident, and then finding her father's body after his suicide. But her real trouble began when, at age 16, she accepted an offer of marriage from a man she didn't, couldn't love. Dick Moore soon went off to sea, leaving his bride alone and in charge of a struggling farm. When Dick didn't return as planned, Captain Jim retraced his route to Cuba and found him there, reduced to a simpleton by a head injury, without any memory of his previous life. For the twelve years since Captain Jim brought him home, Dick has been in his wife's dutiful care, like a big mischievous child who never grows up, while any possibility of a better life passes Leslie by.

Many of today's folks might have a hard time understanding why Leslie doesn't simply push Dick off on a nursing home, divorce him, and move on with her life. This gap in understanding is partly the result of Leslie's time, over a hundred years ago, being so different from ours. (The parliamentary election described in this book seems to be the one that took place in 1896.) It is also partly down to Leslie being a special type of person—we could use more people like her today—though the result is rather tough on her, for a while. While Leslie's sense of honor and duty are very admirable and worthy to be studied and imitated, these traits are set alongside a streak of bitterness and jealousy that makes her relationship with Anne surprisingly complex—like Leslie herself. And most amazing of all is the fact that she finally finds happiness—after making the most selfless and painful decision of her entire life.

This decision is forced on her by the advice of Dr. Gilbert Blythe, dutifully following his conscience even when it means quarreling with his beloved wife. And just as dutifully, against her own feelings and interests, Leslie dares a medical solution to her husband's disability—a solution that may bring the one result even worse than her current situation: having her husband back the way he was. I have already spoiled too much by telling you this. But when you see it, you'll know that this is not just a naive novel about nice people enjoying a nice life. It puts your guts through the wringer, and finishes with a joyful surprise.

Three more books remain after this in the "Anne" series. Anne of Ingleside, next after this, is really the last book in order of publication, as well as the last book in series order which has Anne as its main character. Published before this, but taking place sequentially after it, are two books focusing more on Anne's children: Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside. Lucy Maud Montgomery also wrote a number of short stories featuring Anne and her circle of family and friends. Montgomery's other works, less well-known today, include a similar (but less romanticized) trilogy about the life of an orphan girl named Emily; several other novels for children and adults; and many short stories.

Friday, August 23, 2013

13 Curses

13 Curses
by Michelle Harrison
Recommended Ages: 12+

In 13 Treasures, a silver bracelet strung with thirteen charms serves mainly as a link between twelve-year-old Tanya and a tragically short-lived ancestor who shared her gift, her curse: the second sight, or the ability to see faeries. But other than that, the book wasn't really about the thirteen magical objects that gave it its name. The treasures were then little more than a talisman representing the harsh reality of dealing with faeries. Faeries persecute people who can see them. They have no morals, no compassion, no limits on their behavior but a twisted sense of fair-play. They steal human children, sometimes swapping them with faerie substitutes (changelings) that only look human while their glamour lasts. And if you think the Seelie Court faeries who rule over the seasons of spring and summer are a rough crowd, just wait until Samhain (Halloween) when the Unseelie Court takes over for the fall and winter.

In this sequel, Tanya comes back to spend the October holidays at her grandmother's rambling rural estate of Elvesden, near the Essex market town of Tickey End. And so she gets to be a part of an adventure in which the charm-bracelet is much more central. If her summer was perilous and dark, the weeks leading up to Samhain will be even more so. For when she was last at Elvesden, another girl—calling herself Red, but really named Rowan—took Tanya's place in a magical trap and was swept into the faerie realm. And now Warwick, grandmother Florence's trusted caretaker and the father of Tanya's friend Fabian, has been swept up after her. Brought together by an evil witch, Red and Warwick travel to the faerie court of Avalon (parallel to our world's Glastonbury) to bargain for the return of Red's faerie-napped brother James and their return to the human realm. Since they make it to Avalon just in time for the changeover from Seelie to Unseelie, their bargain must be struck with both courts. And that is why, as the price for getting James back, Red must search the real world for the lost charms from Tanya's bracelet, while Warwick remains a hostage. If Red fails, none of them will ever go home.

Naturally, Tanya and Fabian instantly agree to help Red with her quest, even though Fabian lacks the two girls' gift of the second sight. But the search for the tiny silver charms becomes increasingly dangerous, because each charm is impregnated with an evil, upside-down form of the magic it represents. The blood-dripping dagger that can heal any wound causes, instead, a wound that will not heal. The staff of strength becomes a point of weakness in the walls of a crumbling building. A candle of light gives off radiant darkness. A sword of victory gives off feelings of defeat. Even the platter of plenty turns an ordinary dog-food dish into a potentially deadly over-abundance of food. Each time the kids find one of the charms, and neutralize its curse-like power by re-attaching it to the bracelet, the power of the next curse grows stronger and more difficult to overcome... until, finally, Red realizes that the faeries have rigged the game so that she cannot win.

The outcome is a decision so heartbreaking that almost any reader must be moved. The whole story, drawn from its author's study of faerie lore, is a bracing reminder of what faeries and their magic were originally like—not the sweet, cute, innocent beings whose flight is accompanied by jingling bells and a trail of sparkly dust, but deceptive, dangerous creatures. Adventures with them may be darker than you expect, more tinged with sadness and horror—but perhaps more thrilling too. And this adventure is not altogether over. The trilogy concludes with 13 Secrets.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tacky Hymns 32

Further to my ongoing mission to shine the light of sarcasm on Tackiness on Holy Ground, we continue to page through the hymns of ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship; Augsburg, 2006). You are welcome to flip backward through this thread for more information about what makes hymns tacky in my view. We resume our study of ELW where we left off, at about Hymn #425.

Lest anyone accuse me of attacking any and every new hymn that I haven't seen in print before, let me point out that the Angel of Death to Tackiness here passes over 426 "Sing with all the saints in glory" by 19th-century poet William Irons, set to W. B. Roberts' (b. 1947) touchingly lovely modern tune MISSISSIPPI1; 428 "Give thanks for saints" (Give thanks for those whose faith is firm) by Martin Leckebusch (b. 1962), set to the dignified tune REPTON by C. H. H. Parry; 429 "In our day of thanksgiving" by W. H. Draper (1855-1933), set to Richard Strutt's late-Romantic tune ST. CATHERINE'S COURT (a piece of music, however, not at all to my taste); and even 431 "O Christ, what can it mean for us" by Benedictine nun Delores Dufner (b. 1932), though I have lampooned her work elsewhere, and though this hymn is set to Henry Cutler's (1824-1902) mildly tiresome tune ALL SAINTS NEW ("The Son of God goes forth to war," etc.). And so today's first victim of my rapier wit will be...

433 "Blessing, honor, and glory" (to the Lamb), words and music by Geoff Bullock and David Reidy. Your first clue that we're pushing the boundaries of what is appropriate for Lutheran worship is the copyright notice at the bottom of the page, which lists (among two other organizations) Marantha! Music. Another thing that puts my nose out of joint is the sheer wastefulness of the layout of this song, which fills a whole page with its through-composed entirety (albeit with melody and lyrics only; for the harmony parts you need the accompanist's edition). Without any loss of clarity or completeness, or any confusion between lyrics (because they don't change from one repetition to the next), they could have saved at least a third of the space by using a repeat sign and first- and second-ending brackets. Why? Because the whole hymn consists of the same refrain repeated three times (with a slightly different ending the third time), followed by the same exact stanza after each of the first two refrains. The refrain says, "Blessing, honor, glory to the Lamb. Holy, righteous, worthy is the Lamb." The verse says, "Death could not hold him down, for he is risen! Seated upon the throne, he is the Lamb of God!" It actually makes me wistful for "This is the feast of victory." Meanwhile, the accompaniment would have to be spectacular to redeem the boringness of the melody. I have the accompanist's edition, but really don't need to look at it. I can confidently guess that it's a piano accompaniment of the rolling, broken-chord persuasion: useless on the organ, and so better suited for supporting an amplified soloist than a singing congregation.

437 "On Jordan's stormy bank I stand" is an old-timey altar-call anthem by Samuel Stennett (1727-95), set to a decorated arrangement of its own folksy tune. It's from approximately the same school of hymnody as "Leaning on the everlasting arms," if that helps you form a mental picture. Pretty enough, if a little sugary and underlaid by a stodgy, static harmony, the tune carries a text whose refrain is ever, "I am bound for the promised land. Oh, who will come and go with me?" The four stanzas only rise above the level of a rosy portrait of the painless beauty of heaven so far as to mention that "God the Son forever reigns" there, and that I shall "see my Savior's face" there. It's a pretty thin thread on which to hang the preaching of cross-shaped, vocational living in this world, inspired by God's incarnation in Christ, His redemptive work, and His benefits to us in Word and Sacrament. In fact, it's so thin that it probably snapped under the weight of my previous sentence.

438 "My Lord, what a morning" is an African-American spiritual that I once heard sung at a Roman Catholic funeral. It sounded all right then—but it was being sung by a soloist. And it really must be sung by a soloist, or by a choir, or by some combination of the two (perhaps with the choir humming in the background, only to sing out at one crucial moment in each stanza). Nearly the whole hymn is a refrain, with only one line of text specific to each stanza. So the entirety of its message is: "My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall. You will hear the trumpet sound, the sinner cry, the Christian shout to wake the nations underground, looking to my God's right hand." It's a gorgeous cultural artifact, but as a vehicle of Christian proclamation it is decidedly minimalistic.

447 "O blessed spring" (where word and sign) is Susan Cherwien's baptism hymn, set to R. B. Farlee's tune BERGLUND. Some of what I find tacky about this hymn may be a result of poetry straining the limits of language, but I don't know. To write publishable verse takes a great deal of work, self-criticism, and willingness to reconsider and revise. Since this verse was indeed published, it stands to reason that the author worked at it, looked at it critically, reconsidered it, and revised it; so if it doesn't say what she meant, it's her lookout. Stanza 1, however, says that in baptism, "Christ enjoins each one to be a branch of his life-giving Tree," which is a funny way of using "enjoins" if it is supposed to mean "grafts." Taken in the usual sense of the word, it seems to mean that in baptism, Christ commands us to join ourselves to Him; so the joining is our doing, not His. Honestly, the first half of the stanza ("where word and sign embrace us into Christ the Vine") is stronger, though still weirdly reminiscent of the clingy, Devil's Snare vines in Harry Potter. Verse 2 sounds like an excuse for letting kids run wild and fall away from the faith, because they will come back later. While this is a good argument for the validity of baptism even among those who fall away, it is far from being the kind of encouragement best given to the parents of a newly baptized child; they need rather to hear that this baby is their mission field, and since it is now God's child and they its guardians, they are accountable to God for bringing it up in the faith. Stanzas 3-4 continue the hymn's driving metaphor of "baptism through all four seasons of your life," and Stanza 5's confession that "word and water join us to your Tree of Life" is the strongest part of a hymn that gets better as it goes along. But it stumbles at the starting gate of its run around the whole circle of baptismal life. It could be so much better, so much stronger, without the weak word-choice in Stanza 1 and Stanza 2's fatalistic outlook on "training up a child in the way he should go."

449 "We know that Christ is raised" (and dies no more) is a baptism hymn by John Geyer (b. 1932), set to C. V. Stanford's (1852-1924) tune ENGELBERG. This is one of those modern hymn texts that doesn't bother with such old-fashioned nonsense as rhyming, and I guess that's all right. But I also guess that before an artiste has the right to tinker with the properties of his art form, he should prove himself to be their master. And this, alas, is not apparent from Geyer's text. Line 2 of Stanza 1 says, "Embraced by death, he broke its fearful hold." Did he choose the word "embraced" out of a thesaurus? Was it the only synonym for "seized" that fit the meter? I only ask because it is such a cuddly, affectionate word that it interferes with the violent imagery of the rest of the line. At the same point in Stanza 3, Geyer writes that "the Spirit's fission shakes the church of God," which is surely the first time I have seen the word "fission" used in a hymn. Does he really know what it means, though? For while splitting the atom does unleash an awful lot of energy, it is ambivalent as to whether this release of power will prove constructive or destructive. Stanza 4 talks about the new creation in which "Christ's new body takes on flesh and blood"—another strange statement whose intent is at best vague. And in the next line, just before the final Hallelujah, Geyer uses the word "universe"—which strikes me as being a too-prosaic, technical-sounding, profane alternative to "heav'ns and earth." This hymn is loaded with striking ideas, but some of the author's word choices should have been struck through and written over.

1To be sure, I was already familiar with this hymn via The Lutheran Service Book (LSB; Concordia, 2006).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tacky Hymns 31

If you're tuning in late, flip back through this thread for the background of this ongoing sneer at the hymn selection of a recent major addition to anglophone Lutheran hymnals: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg, 2006), recommended for use in the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America and Canada.

Hymn 400 "God of tempest, God of whirlwind" is a Pentecost hymn by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923), set to the tune CWM RHONDDA by John Hughes (1873-1932). It is by no means a bad hymn. But it may serve as a typical specimen of a trend in the "modern classical" school of hymnody. It heavily stresses an idea of Christian discipleship centered on missionary outreach and social justice—as though one's regular vocation at home and at work does not go far enough in serving God and one's neighbor. In fact, such intentionally "ministry" oriented activities seem to be regarded as so superior in their holiness that in this hymn, for example, we are directed to pray that God would "drive us out from sheltered comfort" and "into costly service" (Stanza 1); "shake us loose from lethargy" so that we may work "for earth's healing" (Stanza 3); "stir in us love's restlessness" and "claim us for your kingdom's work" (Stanza 4). If it meant to despise the humble role played by all Christians' faithful performance of their everyday duties, it wouldn't need to express itself much more strongly. Nor does it suggest that it is a God-pleasing work to receive His gifts regularly in the Divine Service, much less the acme of God-pleasing works. The only hint that the Holy Spirit uses means to reach the Church is in Stanza 2, which offers the interesting prayer: "All that blocks your purpose, purge! Through your church, Christ's living Body, let your flaming Spirit surge! Where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!" This stanza immediately struck me as an excellent prayer for the good confession to overcome the error and abuse of power that now run unchecked throughout the church's hierarchy. Ironically, such an interpretation must be far from the mind of the church bodies responsible for this hymnal. To my mind, it's a prayer that God would frustrate the ends the church leadership is pursuing, and would raise up prophetic voices to expose them as false shepherds. To their minds, no doubt, God's purpose is identical with their own, and the injustice they would address lies in the politico-economic realm. The context bears that out, alas.

401 "Gracious Spirit, heed our pleading" (Njoo kwetu, Roho mwema) is translated from a Swahili text by Wilson Niwagila, and set to his own tune. It's really not a bad text, as hymns to the Holy Spirit go. Nevertheless Howard Olson's English translation fails to avoid the snare of banality, with lines like: "It's your leading that we're needing." Another line whose intended meaning I just can't figure out is: "Motivate all in their seeking." Even in the context of Stanza 3, its meaning isn't clear. But while the lyrics are mostly sound, the hymn trips the bad-taste alarm on two counts: first, packaging Egil Hovland's Taizé-simple arrangement as a congregational hymn, when (outside of a few congregations whose leadership may passionately champion it) it will most likely be used mainly as a choir piece, perhaps for children; and second, including a single stanza of the original Swahili version, in case somebody feels brave enough to attempt it as a musical diversion on Multiculturalism Sunday.

403 "Like the murmur of the dove's song" is Carl Daw's original text, set to the modern hymn-tune BRIDEGROOM by Peter Cutts (b. 1937). Its three four-line stanzas all end with the refrain "Come, Holy Spirit, come." The first iteration of this follows a string of similes describing the manner of the Spirit's coming (the dove's song, the dove's flight, the wind, the flame). Stanza 2 is mostly devoted to specifying the destination the Spirit is to aim for ("To the members of Christ's body, to the branches of the vine, to the church in faith assembled"). Then it adds the odd touch, "to our midst as gift and sign." Sign! Sign? Of what is the Spirit a sign?! Finally in Stanza 3, Daw gets around to stating what the Spirit is desired to do: healing division, prompting prayer, enabling us to "love and witness," giving us peace. What ever happened to the emphasis, so typical of classic Christian Pentecost hymns and especially of the Lutheran Reformation's doctrine of the Holy Spirit? Where is Luther's own emphasis on the Spirit's gift of faith in Christ, on His giving life to the spiritually dead, on His shining the light of blessing on all our daily pursuits, on His operating on us through Word and Sacrament and, finally, on His leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to life eternal? Eh? Where??? In a stanza, maybe, that got squeezed off the bottom of the page below a 2.75-stanza-long simile and metaphor extravaganza?

406 "Veni Sancte Spiritus" (Holy Spirit, come to us) is Jacques Berthier's setting of the Taizé Community's Pentecost sequence. It provides the option of singing it in English, but (here's the unusual touch) the Latin version is presented as the main event, and the vernacular translation as the sop to cultural diversity. While it's actually fun to see this book's theme of multiculturalism flipped upside-down, one has to marvel at the efficiency of a monastic community that can generate an entire sequence hymn out of one line (in either language), repeated twice to the same monotonous alternation between two chords. Moreover, the song's willingness to end on an unresolved dissonance (in music-theory terms, a last-inversion ii7 chord) will hit your organist, and anyone else who suffers from a bit of musical OCD, right where it hurts. Maybe the idea is to sing it over and over while everyone is leaving the church, so everyone can enjoy the fade-out effect. This seems to be the intention behind the performance note "Ostinato (repeated continuously)," the first confirmation I have seen of a theory about Taizé hymns that I have been toying with. They're not short; in fact, they're long—but their length is not like the length of a medieval sequence hymn, whose text leads you ever deeper into the meaning of (for example) Pentecost, but like the purring of a machine that becomes a sort of white-noise canvas against which some other content (an improvised solo, a melodramatic piece of oratory, an altered state of consciousness, etc.) can be projected. If that seems like a weird concept, even among all the weird developments in Christian worship since the 1950s, it may be simply because it goes against everything the liturgy is for.

407 "O living Breath of God" (Soplo de Dios viviente) is a Pentecost hymn by Osvaldo Catena (1920-86), with all three stanzas presented both in their original Spanish and in Gerhard Cartford's English translation. The tune is a Swedish folk melody I feel certain I have seen before, though I can't remember where. It's not a bad little hymn. But, again, I think there is something tacky about this hymnal's conceit of including the lyrics of some entire hymns in Spanish, while most other languages only rate one stanza at most. It's evident that the hymn-selection committee knew which side of the Cultural Diversity Sunday cake is frosted. And though no non-anglophone culture is equal to English in this book (to the extent that it would be a worthwhile book to have in, say, a Hispanic congregation), some cultures are clearly more equal than others.

412 "Come, join the dance of Trinity" is a Holy Trinity hymn by Richard Leach (b. 1953)1 where I started to groan already in the first line. Not another hymn that mangles the entire Christian faith through the metaphor of dance! (See my remarks on AGPS #170). Stanza 1 admits that "the universe of space and time did not arise by chance," though in terms that leave the door open to the preposterous theory of theistic evolution; it also describes the Trinity as "Three" (but never "One") interweaving in the steps of "their" dance (never "His")—so it could be interpreted as teaching tritheism, three gods. Stanza 2 describes Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection with such economy of words that it has room for the bizarre observation that "the dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone"—though the catholic faith stresses that only the Son, not the Father or the Spirit, was made man. Stanza 3, which depicts the evangelistic outreach made possible by the Holy Spirit since Pentecost, is really the high point of the hymn in faithful novelty of expression. But with two opportunities to rhyme with the phrase "Father, Spirit, Son," this originality (as exampled by avoiding the obvious rhyme with "One") has the side-effect that after four stanzas, the hymn still hasn't specifically confessed the Unity of God. This Unity (in paradox with His Trinity) is essential to the catholic faith to which we Lutherans re-pledge ourselves each Trinity Sunday. And though some preachers and writers today err on the side of confessing God's Unity without Trinity, it is no more correct to err in the other direction.

418 "Rejoice in God's saints" (today of all days) is Fred Pratt Green's (1903-2000) hymn for All Saints' Day, or for saints' days in general.2 I like much of what Green says in this hymn, including the oft-quoted line: "A world without saints forgets how to praise." While he makes a memorable and effective argument in favor of remembering past heroes of the faith, he overlooks a key reason, really the key reason, their example is worth following: namely, that they too received salvation by God's free grace, for Christ's sake, through the same holy means that even today pour God's gift on us. Everything this hymn says about saints is positive, true, and well-said if perhaps a bit prosy; but it is not complete, because without Christ (who is hardly mentioned in this hymn's four middling-long stanzas) there would be no saints.

419 "For all the Faithful Women" by Herman Stuempfle3 is a nice addition to the body of hymnody commemorating specific saints—in this case, specifically female ones. Between two unvarying stanzas, the hymnal allows you to insert one or more of nine alternate stanzas honoring (respectively) Miriam, Hannah, Ruth, Mary (mother of our Lord), Mary and Martha (of Bethany), the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Dorcas (an early Christian lady mentioned in Acts 9), and Eunice and Lois (mother and grandmother of Timothy). There is also a "general" stanza that can be used instead of these. All this is very praiseworthy and whatnot, but one cannot help but ask when these commemorations are supposed to take place. The very hint that the church might expect to sing all these stanzas, sometime over a year or a handful of years, suggests in turn that the church's liturgical calendar is about to fill up with exceedingly fiddly little commemorations (which does seem likely based on this hymnal's already-remarked-on calendar, pp. 14ff). Or, alternatively, it may suggest that a long series of sermons and special services is in planning, perhaps for the summer months. Either of these possibilities could spell doom for catechetical preaching based on the liturgical cycle of Bible texts, and in my opinion, that's a serious reason to reconsider whether this hymn really serves any good purpose. If the commemmoration can be squeezed into a few minutes out of a Divine Service otherwise following the pericopal cycle, well. If not, then say goodbye to the Nth Sunday after Trinity; you may never meet again.

420 and 421 "By all your saints still striving" is Horatio Nelson's4 hymn that does for the apostles and a few other male saints what 419 does for the female ones. Though it takes two whole two-page spreads (and hence, two hymn numbers) to get through them all, the saints' days it represents are mostly ones that have been more traditionally observed in Lutheran circles. Each stanza helpfully identifies not only which saint it honors, but also his role in the story of the church and the date of his commemoration (and they are listed in the order they occur during the Church Year). The hymnal committee tampered about with Nelson's text, altering some lines (including the first line, formerly "By all your saints in warfare") and inserting some entirely new stanzas (Stephen and Joseph in 420; Barnabas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of our Lord in 421). Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is listed as "Apostle," a rise in her status of which I don't remember being informed. The reason I reckon this hymn belongs on the "bad taste" list—though "poor judgment" may be more apt in this case—is pretty much the same as what I pointed out about 419—only, proportional to 20 stanzas, not counting the unvarying Stanza 1, Stanza Last, and general-purposes Stanza 2. Arguably, if we're serious about having these commemorations on our Church Year calendar, we really should have at least a hymn stanza appointed for each of them. On the other hand, if you seriously mean to go through all of them, at least when they fall on a Sunday, besides the effects discussed above, these three hymns (and the two tunes shared between them) could become monotonously familiar to your parishioners. You might call that effective catechesis; but I would reply that your catechetical priorities leave something to be desired. Better idea: pick a different hymn to be the appointed "chief hymn" for each saint's day on the calendar, a hymn thematically connected to the readings even if it doesn't specifically allude to the saint in question.

423 "Shall we gather at the river" is, words and music, altogether the work of Robert Lowry (1826-99), an arch-sentimentalist whose works include several that I have previously remarked on5. This is his magnum opus, the piece for which he is best known today. It's one of those old-style part-songs that brings one's imagination alive with images of women in frilly bonnets and petticoats all sitting on one side of the church, opposite the men. In my mind's ear, they have an inclination to slide between pitches and to sing the American r at the end of the word river in a tightly closed manner. I don't know where this strong imagery comes from. Maybe it's a racial memory born of the Jungian collective-unconscious shared by all American (cough) Protestants, or maybe it was planted there by a scene in a spaghetti western that I've forgotten I watched. Whatever the explanation may be, it gets on my nerves. On its own merits, the text delivers four stanzas of rosy riverside views of heaven (based, I guess, on Revelation 22:1), taking consolation from the fact that we will someday gather there. It doesn't specify why, or how, or when, or what we must endure until then, or who (other than a general reference to "God") is responsible for bringing us there. It doesn't, in fact, proclaim the gospel. But that's just nitpicking. The real sin of this hymn is Lowry's tune HANSON PLACE, which apart from a few passing-notes and smarmy chromatic neighbor-tones, consists entirely of four chords (IV, V, and I), always in root position, in a part-song texture that apportions nearly all of the gratification to the female singers. Is there a commandment against being boring, you ask? I answer, Yes: "Thou shalt not kill."

1Tune: the English folk tune KINGSFOLD, lately heard in the Missouri Synod to the text "No tramp of soldiers' marching feet."
2Tune: LAUDATE DOMINUM by C. H. H. Parry (1848-1918), a very respectable high-Anglican melody.
3Tune: the Finnish folk tune KUORTANE.
4Not the one you're thinking of. The other one. Tunes: English folk tune KING'S LYNN (420) and KUORTANE again (421).
5Cf. The Ambassador Hymnal Nos. 111, 449, 464, 469, and 557.