Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tacky Hymns 25

Excuse me for being in such a hurry to get through All God's People Sing!—the Missouri Synod Lutheran youth hymnal of 1992—but I want to get through it so I can tear apart another sacred cow. And so, we resume our regularly scheduled programming in the 200's range of kiddie ditties...

202 "Promise Fulfilled" (first line: "The King shall come") is a 1989 song by James Fritsche. I was about 17 years old in 1989 and writing stuff no worse than this, but since then I've correctly judged that the world need not see those crude, juvenile efforts. It isn't that there's anything wrong with this hymn per se. It is simply awkward, uninspired, amateurish, and derivative. Nothing about it cries out to be used in preference to any similarly-themed work.

203 "Rejoice in the Lord Always" (and again I say rejoice) is Evelyn Turner's setting of a single sentence from Philippians 4. Like #151, it can be sung as a round—though, again, it would probably work even better if the two halves of the round weren't repeated. Like many other songs sampled so far, it disappoints by not giving more than a single, fragmentary thought, and one that cries out to be "unpacked."

209 "Shalom, My Friends" is the Israeli ditty "Shalom, chaverim" translated into English by Theodore Wuerffel. It can be sung as a four-part canon. As such it's a nice musical exercise, but as a faith-building instrument for kids it doesn't offer much. There's so little of it, and none of it is distinctively Christian.

212 "Silver and Gold" (have I none) is an anonymous, three-stanza hymn that begins by quoting the words of Peter when he healed a lame man in Acts 3. Strangely, however, it doesn't explain the context of those words (who spoke them, whom he spoke them to, etc.), except where the refrain says, "He went walking and leaping and praising God... In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk." Stanzas 2 and 3 talk about things Jesus has done for me (taking fear and hate out of my heart, giving sight to the blind, giving me life and happiness, etc.), which is good, but at the same time it muddies the context of Stanza 1 even further. Plus, the tune is uninspired and slightly smarmy.

213 "Sing a New Song to the Lord" is a relatively undistinguished effort by the very distinguished Anglican hymn-writer Timothy Dudley-Smith, author of "Tell out, my soul." Perhaps David Wilson's tune CANTATE DOMINO is partly to blame. With a dignified, high Anglican hymn tune it might sound spectacular. But with Wilson's consciously spectacular modern stylings upstaging it, it comes across as flat and overexposed.

216 "Somebody's Knockin' at Your Door" pushes me, finally, to disclose the true depths of my frustration with the Authorities on Lutheran Church Music, especially when, in their ex cathedra opinions on what songs are best to teach to kids, they show themselves to be head-over-heels in love with the Afro-American spiritual. It doesn't just irk me to see them sweeping aside excellent, spiritually rich, yet conceptually simple, hymns of teaching and devotion, and replacing them with repetitive ditties that say one-tenth as much, and say it one-tenth as clearly. It doesn't simply vex me to see parts of Lutheranism's priceless cultural and spiritual treasure of timelessly excellent hymns replaced with artifacts from an entirely different cultural background (and it certainly isn't because I'm allergic to anything that isn't German), relevant to one very distinct page of history. It isn't even merely that I'm embarrassed to see mostly white folks, whose life experience contains no analogy to what the African slaves went through, doing a ghastly, limp-wristed imitation of something that can be beautiful in the right place and context. What really makes the steam toot out of my ears is the racism implied by the idea that black Lutherans (and there are plenty of them) can't be expected to "get" Lutheran hymnody, but can only be reached through stuff like this: "Oh, sinner, why don't you answer? Somebody's knockin' at your door." The four verses, besides many repetitions of what I just quoted, say no more or less than the following: "Knocks like Jesus, Can't you hear Him? Jesus calls you, Can't you trust Him?" And after all, it's up to you to open the door, right??? (For Biblical evidence on the burning question whether or not God knows how to open doors, cf. Luke 13:25; Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3; Revelation 3:8; 4:1.)

217 "Someone Special," another collaboration between J. Vajda and C. Schalk, is almost a good children's hymn, if a certain coy cuteness can be forgiven it. My only serious objection is the way each and every stanza begins by calling God "Someone Special" and concludes that "Someone special I must be." Don't you think pre-schoolers might find this a bit confusing?

218 "Soon and Very Soon" is another Andraé Crouch classic, a piece that I learned to play out of a book of TV series themes, movie soundtrack highlights, commercial jingles, and pop hits when I was twelve or thirteen years old. Which, incidentally, says a lot about where the music of Andraé Crouch belongs. It's not church music; it's popular music with religious themes. And while the text makes its case very simply and directly—"Soon and very soon we are going to see the King! No more crying there, no more dying there, Hallelujah!" and repeat—it behooves a hymn to go into at least a few more specifics about the who, what, when, where, why, and how.

219 "Soul's Celebration" (first line: "God is my strength, He is my salvation") is another Terry Dittmer ditty that I learned at the youth conference I previously described. For a hymn in the register of praising God for his greatness, providence, and protection, it isn't exactly bad. But there isn't anything especially terrific about it either. Both text and melody are marked by agreeable generality, with no striking merits and only one real demerit against them: a want of good taste.

220 "Standin' in the Need of Prayer" is an Afro-American spiritual I have been wanting to bitch about since I was a little kid, forced to smile like a good boy and sing it loudly in Sunday school. The most obvious thing to bitch about it is the fact that instead of asking God for anything, it makes me spend four long stanzas (including the refrain) complaining about how much I need to pray. The second thing that strikes one about it is the stark, staring egotism of it. "Not my brother, nor my sister, but it's me O Lord... Not the preacher, nor the deacon... Not my father, nor my mother... Not the stranger, nor my neighbor"(!!). And thirdly, a fact covered up by the present book, is the unwritten tradition of pronouncing "It's me" with an extra vowel, "Itza me," like a fake foreign accent put on for fun. If I only knew what ethnic group was being lampooned in this, I would tell them so that they could file hate-speech charges. That's how much I think of this song.

221 "The Fruit of the Spirit is by Brian Casebow. Setting aside my personal taste and sense of propriety as to what range of musical styles is truly at home in worship, I'll grant that it's a nice, creative, decently written tune, and I was encouraged from the start by the opening refrain's simple recitation of Galatians 5:22-23. But my grudging admiration turned into an exclamation of "Ick!" as I read the three stanzas. Stanza 1: "Have you seen my Lord on the cross so high?" etc. It's like "Were you there when they crucified my Lord" all over again. Stanza 2 has Jesus turning toward the repentant thief and changing the words previously addressed to "Father" to "Sinner, here's my love. Sinner, take my love, as the tree bears fruit for you." Stanza 3 adds the decisionistic, man-driven-sanctificationistic cherry on top: "Can we answer Him? Can the heart reply? How to follow Him as we live and die! 'Jesus, here's our love. Jesus, take our love, as the tree bears fruit for You.'" And all God's people said, "Ick!"

229 "The Lamb" is Gerald Patrick Coleman's text and tune. I find it irritating, but only because the tune has a moaning, one might almost say baaing, lilt to it, and the accompaniment has a certain "okey-dokey" ambling quality, and the text is full of dubious thoughts such like "as wayward sheep their shepherd kill" (only in Black Sheep, brother) and "on our behalf the Law to fill" (which, in the context of animal husbandry, sounds graphically nasty; but once over my giggles, I'd suggest that the author was looking for the word "fulfill"). There are five stanzas of this miserable, mopey-sounding hymn! I get depressed just thinking about singing all of them, even (perhaps especially) the Easter-themed fifth verse. What will people with mood disorders do? Churches should print a warning on the cover of their service folder before using this hymn!

231 "The Lord Is My Light" (and my Salvation) is Heinz-werner Zimmermann's metrically unusual text and tune, through stanza 1; Marjorie Jillson contributed stanzas 2-4. I think I may have seen this hymn set to a more effective tune. As it lies here before me, I don't think it would be practical to use with either congregation or students, but only with a select choir (youth or adult) made up of auditioned and well-drilled singers. It's the rhythm, you know.

232 "The Lord Is Present in His Sanctuary" by Gail Cole is another example of the same kind of rhythmically tricky song, probably undoable except by a select group, and perhaps not worth their doing anyway, because its textual content is thin to the point of being seen through.

237 "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" (first line: "We are one in the Spirit") is another song I have bitter early memories of singing, memories made especially bitter by the fact that—for various reasons including being a seminarian's and then a pastor's kid, often moving from one town to another, having a funny name and being weird—I was never free of the consciousness of being an outsider in every social group, including Sunday School classes. For me the acme of hypocrisy came when a girl who had mercilessly persecuted me for two years assured me, on my last day at one Lutheran school, that she loved me—"God's way." In my imaginative memory, I seem to see her add "God's way" after a pause made awkward by my wince, early evidence (if true) that I had a nose for Tackiness on Holy Ground at an early age. Later, to honor a seminary professor who used to hum this tune ironically during rancorous doctrinal discussions, I composed a setting of the Nicene Creed in Latin using bits and pieces of tacky hymns, and put this one where it says "et in unum spiritum sanctum." But all of that was prologue to a part of my life that is now closed—the Ministry—and that I would gladly forget, if only doing so didn't make my entire life pointless. After what I have seen in Lutheranism, and particularly in the corner of Lutheranism that published this book, the words "We will walk with each other hand in hand," and "We will work with each other side by side," protest too much, methinks. I recognize the faithful Christian love of some in the LCMS. But I have not seen very much of it.

And suddenly I don't feel like continuing this today. Don't ask me why. That leaves a good little chunk of the book (hymns 238 through 271) to wrap up with in the next installment. Till then, stay classy, Lutherans!

1 comment:

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

I have to admit, I do like "Someone Special." Then again, I also have to admit that I've been known to like cheesy, sentimental songs from time to time.