Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tacky Hymns 23

Holding our nose, we continue our investigation of the 1992 Missouri Synod Lutheran youth hymnal All God's People Sing!—starting with hymns in the 100's range...

101 "Go into the World" and 103 "Go Now in Peace," both by Wesleyan composer Natalie Sleeth (1930-92), are key examples of the exact kind of music that I was forced to sing throughout my Christian Day School and Sunday School student career. Such simplistic, gruel-thin ditties are too often served instead of the real, nourishing, substantial meat—speaking in terms of both musical style and textual substance—that young people have repeatedly proven themselves capable of digesting and enjoying.

104 "Go tell it on the mountain," an Afro-American spiritual with stanzas added by John Work (1871-1925), has no particular harm in it, and can really be an enjoyable number in the right context. I just wonder whether that context is in the time and space that could, with more profit, be spent teaching the children to sing and understand a Lutheran Christmas hymn that delves deeper into the meaning of Jesus' birth than the bare statement that "God sent us salvation."

107 "God Is So Good," with words by an unknown author and a traditional African melody, is a preschool song. Which, I suppose, is all right if this book is going to be a Sunday School or Vacation Bible School teachers' manual of musical teaching aids. But as one of 271 numbered songs in a book that, again, I've seen used in regular Sunday services of Lutheran churches, it seems a bit out of proportion.

109 "God Loves Me Dearly," with words translated from the German text by August Rische and set to a German folk tune, is again a nice little children's hymn with no harm in it. But I think I say only what thousands of others brought up in the Lutheran school system would say if they only dared, when I opine that the sound of a choir accompanist introducing this piece with spun-sugar piano figures, while everyone's adorable little angels process to the front of the church, is a sound that raises gooseflesh on the backs of one's neck and arms. It's a learned reflex, like feeling slightly nauseous when you smell wintergreen.

110 "God of the Sparrow," with words by Jaroslav Vajda and music by Carl Schalk, revisits the impressionistic aesthetics of the Communion hymn "Now the silence" and its seldom-used post-Communion sequel, "Then the Glory"—both tacky because they suggest a lot of feelings and ideas without ever completing a single thought. This song's six stanzas follow exactly this pattern: "God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars: How does the creature say Awe, How does the creature say Peace"—only excepting the punctuation, which I've added to help you make sense of the text. The words of stanzas 2-6 are exactly the same, except the very end of each line, where the concluding words are different. Also, stanza 6 changes "the creature" to "Your children." It's all done with imagery and suggestion, implied questions left open, and subtle variations of an otherwise monotonous pattern. Instead of teaching anything or confessing anything, it contents itself with letting kids create their own story, guided only by the lightest touch of emotional manipulation. In a word, it's postmodern.

114 "Hallelujah! Praise Ye the Lord!" says not one word more than its title, repeated over and over. Frequently, it says less than a word—for it takes several repeats of "Hallelu!" to work up to a full "Hallelujah!" Yes, kids, it's that song. Fun to sing, full of praise, but empty of anything specifically identifying the Lord we are praising and what He has done for us. Its usefulness in waking up the energy and enthusiasm of the kids is the only thing that can be said for it. Used instead of songs that really teach the faith, it comes across as the resort of desperate teachers who have given up on doing anything except being seen as doing something.

117 "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," an American spiritual, is the epitome of all songs taught to children in Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools of all denominations, and especially of non-denominational churches (and I know this from experience). And in four verses it doesn't say anything but what the first line tells you, or a few specific refinements thereof (the wind and the rain, the tiny little baby, and you and me, brother/sister). It doesn't bother to name who "He" is or suggest what His hands are doing or have done with, to, or for us all. For one of the few songs that virtually all American Protestants my age or younger can sing by heart, it's amazing how little it contains of a specifically Christian message, or how many of the kids brought up singing this ditty are no longer practicing Christians. Or maybe it's not so amazing, after all. Maybe the amazement we feel is simply an artifact of our misguided expectations of the efficacy of people-friendly hymnody that doesn't make trouble even across sectarian lines—expectations which should have been reexamined long ago. Now would be good, if it isn't already too late.

118 "His Banner over Me Is Love," anonymous words and music nominally based on Psalm 40:2 and John 5:5. The opening line, "I'm feasting at His banqueting table," ought to prompt thoughts of the Lord's Supper, yet I doubt that a confession of the miraculous power of the Sacrament is anywhere near the thought of most people who sing it, let alone whoever wrote it. With six long, repetitious stanzas, this song runs the risk of becoming an interminable ordeal, livened up only by such ear-catching phrases as "He lifts me up to the heavenly places" (When? How?) and "One way to peace through the power of the cross" (Applied where? And is there another way?).

121 "Hosanna, Hallelujah" is a funny little Palm Sunday piece by Richard Avery (b. 1934) and Donald Marsh (b. 1923). And by "funny" I mean downright comic, with a lyric pattern that suggests music theater—including such rhymes as "lyrical, miracle" and "How very odd, the Son of God." It's just goofy. And in my opinion, it's a matter of random chance whether the kids take to its goofiness with hammy good cheer, or sense that they're being patronized and rebel against it.

122 "How Majestic Is Your Name" is Michael W. Smith's Christian-radio-hit setting of a couple lines from Psalm 8. You know, the Christian pop star. Just so you know what we've come to.

124 "I am a 'C'," words and music by anonymous, is more of an energy-building musical game to see how fast the class (or cast of the school musical, etc.) can sing it before everyone ends up doubled over with laughter. After a couple of false starts, the singer demonstrates that he can spell "Christian," "Christ," "heart," and "live eternally." Very educational. Not exactly Divine Service material.

129 "I Love You, Lord," words and music by Laurie Klein, looks on paper like another CCM piano ballad; perhaps a full orchestra would make the emotions gush even more. Its text, meanwhile, raises more red flags in fewer words than a semaphore station. "I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice To worship You, O my soul rejoice." Who are we talking to? The Lord or my soul? "Take joy, my King, in what You hear, May it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear." Whose word is supposed to bring joy to whom??

130 "I Shall Not Be Moved," an Afro-American spiritual best known for its adaptation to civil protest purposes in the era of hippies, the generation responsible for editing this book. It's got marching crusaders stamped all over it. The singers invite you (and each other) to join their marching army while "fighting sin and Satan," and "when my burden's heavy," etc., and while the one thing Jesus gets credit for is being our "King" and "Captain." In other words, it's all law and no gospel. It's all about what we do, and not what Christ has done or does for us.

131 "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," with words by Lesbia Scott (b. 1898) set to the tune GRAND ISLE by John Henry Hopkins, and all of it sounding like a number edited out of the final draft of a music drama by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Actually, the lines, "One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green" made me think of Dominique, the Singing Nun. The banalities of the text are many-splendored, from a line that breaks off to say "—and I mean" to another (exactly one stanza later) that insists, "no, not the least—" until finally it informs us that we can find saints "in trains, or in shops, or at tea... and I mean to be one too." Bully for you! Do let us know how you get on!

132 "I Was Made a Christian" is a baptism hymn by John Samuel Jones (1831-1911), set to the plainchant tune ADORO TE DEVOTE. My suspicions of what this hymn does and doesn't believe, teach, or confess about baptism arise in the very first line: "I became a Christian when my name was given"—an allusion the euphemism "christening" often used in place of the word "baptism." The latter term does turn up at the end of the first stanza, in the phrase "Evermore remember my baptismal vow." It's almost as though baptism was chiefly a civil ordinance in which a child is registered by the authorities with respect to his legal name and religious affiliation, after which the burden is on him to fulfill the duties thereunto appertaining. Stanza 2 is all about what I must do as a Christian, and "seek for His (the Lord's) assistance" is only one of several duties I am pledged to perform. In stanza 3, "All a Christian's blessings I will claim for mine," but while your heart is still warming with hope that a little gospel is about to come into all this law, the next line elucidates: "Holy work and worship..." Only the last two lines ask anything of the Triune God, namely: "Give me grace that I now may live a Christian, and a Christian die." Far better, from a Lutheran perspective, would be a baptismal hymn that opens with the concept that I've already died in the font, and the life I will henceforth live is the gift of God.

133 "I Will Sing of the Mercies" is an anonymous ditty adapted from Psalm 89:1. Repetitions aside, the full text reads: "I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever. With my mouth will I make known Thy faithfulness." Funnily enough, it doesn't ever sing anything about those mercies of the Lord, except the fact that one will sing about them forever. Sort of like how the song "I Love to Tell the Story" (#128, but skipped because I had previously commented on it) talks so much about sharing the gospel, but never actually shares the gospel. The annals of Sunday School ditties are full of similar ironies.

139 "I've Got Peace Like a River" is another Afro-American spiritual that, through repetition, stretches very little text to fill a lot of music. In the three stanzas printed here, it says that I've got peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and love like an ocean in my soul. Why this necessarily has anything to do with the Christian religion must be a matter of context, since it surely isn't explicit from the text.

140 "I've Got the Joy" (joy, joy, joy, down in my heart) is another "traditional" song, with four stanzas of which the fourth is identical to the first. Besides joy, I've also got the love of Jesus (love of Jesus) and the peace that passes understanding down in my heart, down in my heart to stay. And it's the greatest, grandest feeling, etc. The tune sounds like it would make a great piece for a high school pep band. And the genius of the whole thing is that it says nothing that isn't about one's own (alleged) feelings—and only when they're the best possible feelings that a Christian can experience. Nothing about the source of those feelings, or the reason for them, or their uncertainty or changeability, or what a Christian should think or do when those ideal religious feelings aren't there. Nothing about what God does or has done, promises or gives. Nothing about a God who cares for people who don't feel good all the time. And yet it seems to think this message (about good feelings) needs to be revealed, proclaimed. What a sad substitute for the gospel!

141 "Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love" is a Ghanaian folk-hymn translated and adapted by Tom Colvin (b. 1925). I once played the piano for a church choir singing this song, complete with bongo drums. It was very awkward. Gray-haired, German-American Lutherans can't do justice to a song like this the way a church in West Africa might. Also, we're talking about bongo drums in an American Lutheran church. And lastly, the hymn is all about how we should live. All that we ask from Jesus is that he fill us with love so we can serve our neighbors. Riiiight?

143 "Jesus in the Morning" is another "traditional" song that identifies three Jesuses in the first stanza alone: Jesus in the morning, Jesus in the noon-time, and Jesus when the sun goes down. Or maybe it's one Jesus. It isn't until Stanza 2 that the hymn starts saying anything about Him (or them). Then it takes four more stanzas to say as much as "Love Him, Serve Him, Thank Him, Praise Him," at all the aforementioned times of day. By about Stanza 3, any sane adult has either glanced at his watch, rolled his eyes, sighed loudly, recrossed his legs, or prayed for the ceiling to fall in and crush him to death, if not all of the above.

145 "Jesus, Name Above All Names" is a three-stanza torch-song by Naida Hearn and Patricia Cain, listing a bunch of names that the New Testament attributes to Jesus. It's like a long, elaborate introduction to a prayer, descriptively naming Him to whom we pray—but then it ends without asking for anything.

146 "Jesus, Remember Me" (when You come into Your kingdom) is a setting of those exact words, exactly twice, by Jacques Berthier of the Taizé Community, an "ecumenical monastic order" in France, whose worship is characterized by extreme minimalism both in music and in lyrics. There's certainly not much to get out of this itty-bitty piece, unless you repeat it with hypnotic persistence.

148 "Just as I Am" by Charlotte Elliott, sung to the tune WOODWORTH by William Bradbury (a text-tune marriage popularized by Billy Graham rallies), is the quintessential altar-call song. The text has many excellent merits. It confesses to the Lamb of God that I am "without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me." It expresses trust in Jesus' promise to "pardon, cleanse, receive" and acknowledges that "Thy love...has broken ev'ry barrier down." But all this wonderful, divine-monergistic, saved-by-grace reasoning comes back, stanza after stanza, to the conclusion: "I come." Because the event of all events in the methodistical mind is when the sinner accepts all this and, by his own choice, comes to Christ at the altar. Whereas the event of all events in the catholic mind (in the sense that ought to include Lutherans) is when at the altar, by His own free choice, Christ comes to the sinner.

150 "Kids of the Kingdom," with words and music by Ralph Torres, has much of the charm of the theme song of a clubhouse-centered program on educational TV. Stanza 1 says, "Kids of the kingdom, that's what we are," and says it with a pop-music rhythm that puts the lie to the mortifying squareness of the entire activity. Stanza 2 says, "My name is ________, I love the Lord." Twice. Presumably this would be a good place to have everybody in the youth room sing a solo, one at a time, until they've all been humiliated in front of the entire group—an excellent incentive, in my book, for never coming back. Stanza 3 is the same as Stanza 1, which is a funny way to use the resources of a church publishing house, but I suppose after hearing everybody's attempt to sing his/her own name, a bit of a reminder may be in order. Stanza 4 is a nice Trinitarian doxology, which actually places this hymn theologically in the top 5% of the hymn texts sampled so far in the book. And of course there's a refrain, which makes the phrases "We love Jesus, we love the Lord" start to feel like the forced speech of a victim of religious OCD.

And so ends tonight's opportunity to wax sarcastic about your church's youth director's favorite songs. God bless, and good night!

1 comment:

Cuda said...

Cranky, Cranky! ;-)

Thanks for the comments about Vajda and Schalk. I have found their hymns tedious and meaningless - and yet so many seem to hold these yahoos in some sort of reverence.