Monday, August 5, 2013

Tacky Hymns 22

I feel guilty about how long I have been remiss in posting on tacky hymnody. I am especially conscious of the fact that I have received my warmest feedback (by some definitions of "warm") on this thread. So today's update on this excellent topic, sure to get me in trouble with lots of people and earn me tons of ex-followers and ex-friends, is tacky hymns included in the 1992 Concordia Publishing House book All God's People Sing! The book's preface says that it was targeted toward kids between the ages of 9 and 14, but I have seen this book in the pews of LCMS churches.

I will try to streamline my comments below by skipping over hymns I have previously snarked at. All the same, it will probably take me several posts to get through the book. From the beginning I have made here, I anticipate that my overall conclusion will be that this book functions—note, I do not say "intentionally"—as an act of sabotage against the transmission of the Lutheran heritage of hymnody and hymn-singing. It may do this either by modeling songs that subvert that tradition and the theology behind it, or by forcing kids to learn patronizing ditties that will make Lutheran worship obnoxious to them even before they've really encountered it. Maybe both.

The hymnal gets off to a strong start with two settings of Luther's "A mighty fortress is our God," hymns 50 and 51. (I gather that this unusual start for numbering the hymns is designed to eliminate confusion with the numbered pages at the front of the book; this also explains why the hymns in The Lutheran Service Book start with No. 331.)

But already by hymn 53 there is an undated text by Robert Baden, titled "A Time to Serve," and set to the familiar tune of "Children of the heavenly father." It begins with the lines, "Jesus hears his children crying, Sees them hungry, lost and dying; Who will comfort all their sorrows? Who will brighten their tomorrows?" In five subsequent stanzas, Baden urges Christians to work for social justice. Stanza 3 says in part, "Since He gave His life to save us, Let us share the lives He gave us." Stanza 6 rouses the reader (singer, listener, etc.) to follow Jesus' example all the way to heaven. Apart from those gossamer-thin hints of the gospel, the hymn is pure law. What it says has merit, but what it doesn't say makes the difference between true Christian sanctification and man-driven moralism, tarted up with a few cleverly placed mentions of Christ.

Hymn 58, "All Things Work Out for Good" by John W. Peterson (n.d.), is set to a tune many Lutherans may associate with "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds." Its four stanzas of encouragement in life, "no matter what the test," base their argument entirely on divine providence. Amazingly, for a hymn that some hymnals would probably categorize under "Cross and Comfort," it never mentions the name of Christ and makes no allusion whatsoever to the cross.

Hymn 59 is "Alleluia," words and music by Jerry Sinclair (n.d.). This ditty may be familiar to members of my generation, who were led to sing it around the campfire at Bible camp and on other such occasions. The first and last of its six stanzas consists entirely of the word Alleluia, repeated over and over. The middle four stanzas take their sweet, repetitive time declaring, "How I love Him, blessed Jesus, My redeemer. Jesus is Lord." Other than confessing Jesus' lordship and our devotion to Him, its entire content is packed up in the word "redeemer." All the time we spent singing it would have been better used unpacking that.

Hymn 61 is "Alleluia to Jesus," a traditional song also known as "Jacob's Ladder." Its opening line, "As Jacob with travel was weary one day," lays the foundation of the story in Genesis of Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Although the song's refrain gives props to Jesus, "who died on the tree, and hath raised up a ladder of mercy for me," the language of stanzas 2–4 focuses on the believers' activity of climbing that ladder. Stanza 3, for example, says: "Come let us ascend! all may climb it who will." This contrasts vividly with classic Lutheranism's emphasis on faith as passively receiving the gifts of God.

Hymn 64 is "Amigos de Cristo," a bilingual hymn with words and music by John Ylvisaker (b. 1937). Two versions of the refrain are given: one in English except for the repeated words "Amigos de Cristo," the other entirely in Spanish and with slightly more content owing to fewer repetitions of those same words. The refrain mentions forgiveness and the stanzas mention baptism, so it isn't a lack of gospel content that makes this hymn tacky. It's simply that the poetry achieves unbelievable levels of banality. "Baptized and lovin' it," it croons, adding, "Gift of the dove is ours forevermore." I'm not sure that bad taste in the service of sound theology isn't in some ways worse than tackiness in a heterodox ditty. At least in the latter case, the feeling of having your intelligence insulted might work to a good purpose.

Hymn 69 is Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," a marching song whose biblical imagery lent a tint of religious crusade to the Union cause in America's Civil War. It's all militarism and judgment and wrath and the ecstasy of righteous warfare, with a well-aimed hint that it would be wise to answer the tocsin while the troops are still being mustered. Apart from making only one vague feint at the gospel (something about the lily-born Christ transfiguring us), the only problem this hymn has is that it is open to such a wide range of interpretations, including secular ones. So it hardly qualifies as a hymn. And since it can be used to rally pep for any purpose consistent with the imagery of a religious crusade, the question must be asked: does it distinctly mean anything in particular?

Hymn 71 is Patricia Van Tine's song "Behold, What Manner of Love," in which the first half of 1 John 3:1, with repeats, is set to a simple little ditty. I'm all for chanting lines of Scripture, but there really isn't much to this example. Over almost as soon as it has begun, it adds no commentary or gloss on the text (which might be useful) and doesn't stand up well alongside many of the richly devotional, doctrinal hymns in this book and others.

Hymn 72 is Dennis Ryder's setting of 1 John 4:7, 8: "Beloved, Let Us Love One Another." I think I learned this song for a parochial-school musical, and the version I remember singing actually included the Bible verse citation, recited on the final note of the song. What I said about Hymn 71 goes for this one too. Plus, it's a little harder to find gospel in this particular text. And the vague hint of a calypso beat lowers the effect of using it in church from merely patronizing to downright silly.

Hymn 73 is "Best of All Friends" by H. C. A. Gaunt (1902-83), with music by K. Lee Scott (n.d.), beginning with the line, "Jesus, my Lord, let me be near You." It's a child's prayer to be guided by Jesus. Again, everything the hymn says is OK, as far as that goes. There's a line about "hearing Your words, learning your story, bearing Your cross, sharing Your glory." I'll even grant that the tune has merit. My only concern is that the gospel—which, in a word, is forgiveness—isn't mentioned anywhere in the song's three stanzas. Everything the hymn says would be an appropriate part of a Christian child's prayer, but what is essential to being Christian is left out.

Hymn 74 is "Blest Are They," the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) as adapted and set to music by David Haas. Words alone cannot convey my reason for including this song in a list of tacky hymns. If you hear it, you will understand. Choose the most frequently quoted words of Jesus—words quoted so frequently, indeed, that any relevance to His gospel is strictly optional—add shmaltzy piano ballad, stir, strain, and serve with a twist. Enough said.

Hymn 76 is "Books of the Old Testament," a five-and-a-half-stanza mnemonic ditty, versified by J. M. Tabor and set to the tune of the folk song "Did you ever see a lassie." Each stanza begins with its own refrain whose tedious repetitiveness makes up for it never being the same twice. Stanza 2 (the historical books) requires a "dal segno" repetition of the stanza segment (without repeating the refrain) to get through all the books. And the number of notes wasted on filler material bears unflattering comparison to Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements," which squeezes the entire periodic table into a tune from The Pirates of Penzance without adding much more than a few There'ses and ands. I just hate to see authors of goofball secular parodies make Christian hymnwriters look bad. And I also squirm to see a Sunday School classroom gimmick placed where it could be used as a hymn in the Divine Service. If you think I squirm for no good reason, you haven't been to some of the churches I have visited.

Hymn 78 is "Brothers and Sisters" by Terry K. Dittmer, an LCMS pastor who once served a parish in the same circuit as my first parish—though we weren't there at the same time. One place where we were at the same time was the district youth convention I attended as a 12th grader, where Rev. Dittmer was a musical guest, and where I learned this song (whose opening line is "Sing Alleluia! Amen!"), among others by its author. That experience, which culminated in the first time I ever saw teens and grown-ups doing the Hokey Pokey at Communion, was if not the initial trigger, at least one of the experiences in my life that fuel the present crusade against Tackiness on Holy Ground. So, allowing for the possibility that my judgment may be colored by that context, I have only a few things to observe about this particular song. First, I disagree with its author's commitment (embodied in the style of this song) to reaching teens through the medium of Contemporary Christian Music. Second, I find his particular idea of CCM (words and music) to be disappointingly trite and derivative. And although there is some gospel in this hymn, my third and final remark (for now) will be to find that it is mostly freighted with the sentimental camaraderie of church youth conventions, which exist more to build emotional bonds than to build young believers up in knowledge and faithfulness. And so, unsurprisingly, the mention of the gospel (i.e., forgiveness in Christ) nestles like one tiny glimmering jewel in the midst of a big, elaborate setting, with a major in "Here we are all together, isn't it great" and a minor in "Lord, help us to be your witnesses."

Hymn 79 is titled "Calypso Doxology," with a tune by Lord Burgess, a.k.a. Irving Burgie, who wrote "Jamaica Farewell" and co-wrote "Day-O." It's a hymn to a banana-boat beat. Seriously. It shouldn't be necessary to say much more than that. Stanza 1, repeated as stanza 3, is the "common doxology" by Thomas Ken ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). Stanza 2, by Deanna Wheeler, says: "Hallelujah! Got the victory over Satan and over sin. Jesus Christ is alive today and He leads and guides me all the way." Is it just me? Or is there a certain dissonance between the high-culture tone of Ken's doxology and this bit of popular enthusiasm by Wheeler? Whatever you want to call it, it's definitely tacky!

Hymn 86 is "Come, Let Us Worship" by Jamee W. Wetzel. The second half of this one-stanza ditty more or less repeats the words, "Alleluia, hosanna to the King!" The first half, where the meat of the hymn lies, says: "Come, let us worship the Lord together, let us sing His praise forevermore." Basic call-to-worship stuff. Then it adds, "When the family of God comes together, we love to sing His praise forevermore." And that's it. That's the whole thing. Apart from the fact that I have never seen an opening-of-worship hymn that isn't at least five times as rich in content, the aura of tackiness that radiates from this example is almost disabling... with laughter. It sounds like every time the church gets together, we like to spend the rest of eternity singing hymns together. In every reality I am aware of, the object foremost in the average worshiper's mind is to reach the end of the service within 45 to 75 minutes of the starting gun. And while some congregations are more tolerant of endless hymn-singing than others, I have a misgiving that an eternity singing the likes of this hymn would fit into most people's concept of aitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks.

Hymn 89 is "Do Lord!"—a paraphrase of Psalm 27 by John Ylvisaker, who also altered an American folk-song to fit his words. This song figures in some of my earliest memories of learning Sunday School ditties whose meaning flew over my head by a considerable clearance. First you sing, "Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh, do remember me" three times, adding "Way beyond the blue!" That's the refrain. Then you get four stanzas, which are surprisingly like hymn stanzas in the unrepetitive density of their content. It's a hymn that I think could be vastly improved by simply deleting the refrain. But that would never happen, because the refrain is the only part that anybody cares about or remembers.

Hymn 91 is "Easter Song" by Anne Herring, which begins with the lines "Hear the bells ringing, they're singing," etc. Members of my generation and my parents' ditto may know this song from the version recorded by Keith Green, whose album played in the parsonage where I grew up and formed the only temptation I ever felt to like CCM. I don't mean to speak evil of the dead, but Keith Green was no Lutheran and the lyrics of his songs, likeable as they are, make that painfully evident to a music nerd who loves Lutheranism. The only harm in this particular song is that it has absolutely no business being sung by a group. To be sung properly, it requires a high A; even the F written in as a more realistic option is beyond the range of two-thirds of your church choir, let alone the congregation or the Sunday School kids. Face it, this is a vocal solo. In my opinion, it's of a style that is more at home in the parlor after Easter brunch, than in the worship service. But that it is a solo number, and not a hymn, is a simple fact.

Hymn 92 is "El Shaddai" by Michael Card and John Thompson, a CCM hit best known from the version recorded by Amy Grant in 1982. It takes its title from the Hebrew phrase meaning "God Almighty," and throws in a couple more Hebrew phrases meaning, "Most High God, Lord" and "I love you, Lord." Considering the brevity of the piece as printed in the hymnal, it's astounding to reflect that Amy Grant's version plays for over four minutes. To make it last longer than a minute or so, even with repeats, would require more mastery of musical improvisation than most church musicians come packaged with. So putting this hymn in the pew is a bit like lacing the worship service with an advertisement for getting rid of the humble volunteer musicians, who rise up within the congregation and do their best to accompany the church's sung proclamation and confession, and for replacing them with hired professionals who sell mesmerizing imagery and emotional effects.

Hymn 93 is "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," an Afro-American spiritual whose refrain says: "Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray." Whereas Scripture enjoins Christians to pray at all times, and promises that the Spirit groans within us even when we cannot feel the words within us. As for this song's three stanzas—they're just weird. As a work of art expressing the spiritual consciousness of slaves in the old American south, it would be interesting to study and even to perform, in a cultural-studies context. As a hymn for worship and/or the training of the young, it lacks the minimum of merit we should require of all our hymns: that it make sense. "Upon the mountain my Lord spoke, out of his mouth came fire and smoke"—that's Stanza 1, and it's the clearest of the three. Stanza 2: "All around me looked so shine" (What?), "Asked my Lord if all was mine." (When?) Stanza 3: "Jordan river, chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul." (Oh, that's all right, then.)

Hymn 94 is "Father, I Adore You," by Terrye Coelho. It has three stanzas. First, there's "Father, I adore You, lay my life before you. How I love You!" The second is the same, except it begins with "Jesus." The third begins with "Spirit." I've heard it sung as a round, with pleasant effects. But there's certainly not much to it, and what there is goes entirely from us to God and not the other way, which is the direction most characteristic of the Lutheran theology of worship. It's a ditty that testifies that we love Jesus, but it doesn't have even as much gospel as the first line of "Jesus loves me." And it is so short and simple that it could probably be transmitted through oral tradition. So why does it have to be printed in a hymnal?

That pretty much covers hymns 50 through 100. Perhaps it's not as much tackiness as one should allow for, given that it's meant to be a children's hymnal. But compared to some Lutheran children's hymnals I have seen, tackiness has been fairly prevalent so far. And to see it in the pew racks of Lutheran churches alongside, or even instead of, grown-up hymnals—and to hear songs out of it sung by the entire congregation in regular Sunday worship—is somewhat embarrassing. How embarrassing has yet to be reckoned up. There are still another 171 hymns to go through.

1 comment:

Simbelmyne'sSilverRain said...

I just ran across your blog. I'm really really shouldn't comment before reading the entirety of your post, but I just wanted to let you know that this tacky hymn book has not made me loathe worship! I attended a Lutheran elementary school in Missouri that used this hymnal during Wednesday chapel (even though I was raised Baptist and still am....)

I was just seeking some comfort when I looked at my book shelf to find a real Lutheran hymnal. I haven't looked at this in over a decade. I suddenly remembered this was NOT the one I used as a kid and have been looking all over for this hymnal when your blog picture popped up in google images. Thank goodness because I never would have remembered the name of that book.

THANK YOU. This first-year teacher in the Lone Star state needs some of these tacky hymns on a quiet Easter night (except for "Do Lord" **shudders**) LOL. I know there are some that I loved, but the only one I could remember off the top of my head was "Brothers and Sisters". I know there are some other (better) ones in the hymnal so hopefully I can find them somewhere online! Hats off to the Lutherans for teaching me my traditional hymns because by the time I grew up hymnals were gone from most Baptist churches (bad choice, if you ask me).