Monday, August 12, 2013

Tacky Hymns 28

Continuing to expose "Tackiness on Holy Ground" through the hymns selected for the latest ELCC/ELCA hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg, 2006), we proceed with the "Hymns" section of the book, properly so called, from Hymn No. 239 ff.

240 "Light one candle to watch for Messiah," (let the light banish darkness) by Wayne Wold, set to the Yiddish folk-tune TIF IN VELDELE, gives the theme of multiculturalism an early foothold in this book. The four brief stanzas begin with the above refrain, except that the number of candles rises from one to four. The second half of each stanza simply adds a snippet from the Old Testament prophecy concerning Messiah, without committing itself as to whether this has already been fulfilled in history. Advent hymns, generally speaking, are funny that way. They throw themselves so fully into the role of the Old Testament church awaiting Christ's first coming that you could interpret them either as anticipation of the approaching Nativity celebration, expectation of Christ's second coming, or even an expression of solidarity with our Jewish brethren who are still waiting for their Messiah. My question for the author of this hymn is: If the loan of a Yiddish folk-tune is meant to suggest that the third of these possible meanings is at least partly meant, are we really showing brotherly love to those who do deny that Christ has come?

243 "Lost in the night" (do the people yet languish) is a "Nordic" hymn, which (I take it) means the hymnal editors couldn't be bothered to distinguish which Scandinavian language Olav Lee translated it from. The tune is a Finnish folk melody. Together they do for Advent hymnody what a winter in Moominland did for Finn Family Moomintroll. It creates a beautiful atmosphere lit more by aurora borealis than by the sun, a spiritual outlook on life that is both lyrical and depressing. Don't get me wrong. I don't hate Nordic lyricism. I play Grieg often on the piano, and my interest in Scandinavian hymnody (growing out of my sojourn in a Norwegian-American church body) is so strong that one of my historical-theology profs, now president of the LCMS seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, once publicly called me a "Norwegian wannabe." But let's be honest. Most of the people who will be interested in hymns like this will be avid preservationists of Scandinavian culture, with a higher-than-average incidence of co-occurring mood disorders. Another theme in Scandinavian hymnody that can be detected in this hymn—albeit within the context of a solid law-and-gospel message—is an emphasis on the "getting us out of this miserable place" aspect of our hoped-for salvation. Though this particular hymn doesn't take it too far, at times the Nordic hymnwriters seem utterly to despise the world we have been called to live in, in favor of an enticing vision of heaven that keeps them going from day to day.

247 "Come now, O Prince of Peace" (Ososŏ, ososŏ) is, I believe, a Korean hymn by Geonyong Lee. I like Korean music. But I enroll this hymn in my Catalog of Tackiness for two reasons. First, the single stanza of Korean text (transliterated into Roman characters) is the first of what will be many examples in this book of symbolic sops to one of the gods of our age, Multiculturalism. It isn't as though this hymnal will actually be of any use to a congregation that regularly worships in Korean. The only reason for that stanza to be there is to give us an opportunity to celebrate (i.e., feel good about) what we erroneously term our church body's "catholicity" (actually meaning "multiculturalism"), its missionary outreach and partnership with foreign churches, etc. The second reason is that each of this song's four stanzas in English is so similar to the others—in some cases differing by only four words—that, in my opinion, it wastes the opportunity to deliver four solid stanzas worth of content.

248 "People, look east," (the time is near) is a modern Advent hymn by Eleanor Farjeon, set to the lovely French carol tune BESANÇON. The four stanzas use poetic imagery to portray the expected Christ as Guest, Rose, Star, and Lord. But a lot of it seems to be occupied with outward preparations and culturally conditioned ceremonies, such as "trim the hearth and set the table," and perhaps secular observances such as New Year ("the crowning of the year"). And some of the imagery is so strange (particularly Stanza 2's analogy of soil, seed, and rose) that I suspect the meaning will be somewhat subjective.

252 "Each winter as the year grows older," with words by William Gay and an original tune (CAROL OF HOPE) by Annabeth Gay, is very openly a product of the disillusionment of an aging child of the 20th century. Stanza 1: "The verities we knew seem shaken and untrue." Stanza 2 laments the racial and social upheavals of the last century. Stanza 3 begins, "Yet I believe beyond believing"—does that mean "hope against hope"? Or does Gay mean this conviction about life springing from death is a conclusion he drew independently of the old verities revealed by sources of knowledge that our traumatic age has discredited? In Stanza 4, where the imagery of the sun "turning to journey to the north" reminds me of Tippett's A Child of Our Time, Gay concludes that "the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth and bring God's love to birth." Is he talking about Christ, or something more impersonal? Stanza 5 does address Christ as "Child of ecstasy and sorrows" and "Prince of peace and pain," but the hymn's conclusion seems leave open the question whether the hope it expresses is for a renewal of this world (i.e., a kingdom on earth), or the consummation in the next world when Christ returns to judge.

253 "He came down" (that we may have love) is a traditional hymn from Cameroon, a central African nation adjacent to Nigeria. The first stanza repeats the above text three times and finishes with the refrain, "Hallelujah forevermore." Stanzas 2-4 are identical except in changing the word "love" to "light," "peace," and "joy" respectively. The music is a fine example of the kind of rhythmic African part-song that works best when sung by a choir (especially one specifically trained to sing this style of music) and accompanied by rhythm instruments. It is, however, totally impractical for congregational singing in a typical white American church, owing to the unusual rhythm. At best, it represents a lot of work on the part of the music leaders who introduce it; and the payoff, in terms of the edifying and teaching content of the text, would be negligible.

258 "Unexpected and mysterious (is the gentle word of grace) is a hymn by Jeannette Lindholm (b. 1961), set to Calvin Hampton's haunting tune ST. HELENA, which is only slightly awkward compared to other congregational hymn settings because it requires a three- or four-bar instrumental prelude to each stanza. The thought-provoking lyrics meditate on the annunciation to Mary and her visitation to Elizabeth. Though some of it (such as the bit about "our longing to bring healing to the earth") may be open to interpretations that irritate me, the only part of the text that raises a flag is the line, "We are called... to embody God's compassion for each fragile human life." In itself this is not tacky. It only brings out, by way of contrast, the tackiness of the ELCA's position on abortion, which is that "An abortion is morally responsible in those cases" that involve rape, imminent danger to the mother's life, and severe fetal abnormalities; and in this last case there may even be room for considering late-term abortions to be OK. So much for embodying "God's compassion for each fragile human life."

261 "As the dark awaits the dawn is by Susan Cherwien, set to the original tune LUCENT by Carl Schalk. It's an unusual bit of Advent poetry in that it tries to convey the idea of expecting Christ without any Old Testament consciousness of sin, captivity, or death. So with pretty metaphors of light, and a tune that floats along airily without much concern for gravity, and a happy ending more about what we can do as conduits of God's glory into the world than about what God does for us, it seems to me to be decidedly on the weak side as Advent hymns go. And some of its poetic diction comes close to being too impressionistic to sit well in a repertoire of teaching, edifying hymns—phrases like, for example, "loving bright" and "shine your future on this place."

262 "Wait for the Lord" is another Taizé Community text set to music by Jacques Berthier. Here is the whole text: "Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord; be strong, take heart!" Full stop. No written-in repeats, though I imagine there may be some unwritten ones, depending on what liturgical innovation you build around it. It doesn't even make use of an obvious opportunity to rhyme, such as "be of good cheer." If you're going to re-order the church's worship life in the image of Taizé—minimalistic, unionistic Taizé—you might as well go all the way and sing nothing but Berthier's primitive, one- or two-line ditties. But don't expect me to go along with you.

266 "All Earth is Hopeful" (Toda la tierra) is Alberto Taulé's modern Spanish Advent hymn, presented with all four stanzas both in English and their original Spanish. So, like #247, it's a monument to multiculturalism—only with the added commitment of being able to sing the entire hymn in Spanish, because it's likely enough that there will be at least a few people in your church who know Spanish, at least as a second language. So there are degrees of triumphalism even within the multiculturalist creed. This is worth noting. I also want to point out that while some of the text's tackiness (such as the phrase "new protocols declared") originates in Madeleine Marshall's translation, the hymn's concluding assertion that Jesus' presence in today's world is seen in our neighbors (rather than in the Means of Grace) goes back to the source material.

271 "I am so glad each Christmas Eve" (Jeg er så glad hver julekveld) is Marie Wexelsen's fairly well-known hymn, translated from the Norwegian by Peter Sveeggen and set to its own tune by Peder Knudsen. It's a sweetly dancing number tailor-made for precious little children, provided that you can wrangle enough of them to sing it in this day of the dying Lutheran Sunday School. Unfortunately it skims very lightly over what Jesus did "to help a world in need," only mentioning that He listens to children's prayers from his dwelling-place in heaven, and that He "opens now for ev'ry child the palace of the king." Put in the right context, that's an awesome Christmas present. But will little ones immersed in the culture that has commercialized Christmas appreciate any gift they didn't see advertised on TV? Maybe if this hymn described the gift of Christ in more detail, it might be more useful toward that end.

280 "Midnight stars make bright the skies" (Mingxing canlan ye wei yang) is a Chinese Christmas carol originating in Hong Kong in the 1970s, its two stanzas and refrain given here both in Chinese (transliterated into Roman characters) and in English. So, again, a monument to multiculturalism—no two of which, so far, have been devoted to the same culture. Other than that, it's a nice enough song, only... Given what I observed about #266, it seems the hymnal editors anticipated a strong likelihood that a lot of parishioners in anglophone Lutheran churches would feel comfortable singing in Chinese within the life expectancy of this book. Should that alarm us?

284 "'Twas in the moon of wintertime" is a translation of a 17th-century French hymn (which I have seen elsewhere titled "Huron Carol"), set to the 16th-century French folk tune UNE JEUNE PUCELLE. Isn't it odd that, while this hymnal was published by the Ev. Lutheran Church in Canada, its multiculturalist agenda did not lean so far as to print even one stanza in French, which is spoken throughout an entire Canadian province? While that fact is not in itself tacky, the footnote at the bottom of the hymn points out something that is. Where Stanza 1 says, "God the Lord of all the earth," the footnote tells us the original words were "mighty Gitchi Manitou." You might know the name from Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha: the "Great Spirit" of the American Indian tribes mostly of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. My guess is that this borrowing from Native American folklore was intended not so much as a syncretistic gesture, but followed the "contextualizing" impulse of Jesuit missiology that made it sometimes permissible to put pagan names on the God of Christianity. The editors of ELW would have been wiser to leave this footnote out and let the "alt." at the end of the text credits suffice. Because even understanding what I think I understand about the original reading of this hymn, it is now ruined for me forever. Okay, I'm being facetious. I never cared much for it. It carries its contextualizing agenda so far as to change baby Jesus' manger into a bark lodge; his swaddling cloths into rabbit skins; the shepherds into hunter braves; the magi's gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh into chiefs' gifts of fox and beaver pelt; and the concluding words "in excelsis gloria" (to any imagined audience who could only understand the gospel when it was so altered to fit their worldview) into perhaps magic words.

285 "Peace came to earth" (at last that chosen night) is a hymn by Jaroslav Vajda, set to the tune SCHNEIDER by Paul Manz, whom I wish I could hear playing it. Though Manz ended up in the ELCA by way of the Missouri Synod's Seminex struggle in the 1970s, he was the organist at the Minneapolis church in which my father grew up and so, in a distant way, he is a musical ancestor of mine; I have great respect for his music. And I also want to feel kindly toward Vajda, who toward the end of his life received a certain amount of pastoral care from the same pastor in whose care I was at that time. It's a small world, eh? But I can't help but be reminded of Vajda's "Song of the sparrow" piece in All God's People Sing. His four stanzas end in a total of eight varied repetitions of "Who could but gasp: Immanuel!"—the difference between each variation being the verb used in place of gasp. The other words used, including sing, sigh, shout, see, thrill, pray, and praise, are mostly evocative of subjective feelings. Stanza 2 likewise focuses on the power of the direct experience of Christ: "Who could be the same for having held the infant in their arms, and later felt the wounded hands and side...?" Stanza 3 pulls the tone up somewhat by at least pointing out that in Christ, God "in flesh and blood... bore our griefs and pains" and now visits us "in bread and wine." But no sooner do I acknowledge how pleased I am with this one stanza, than the hymn wraps up with another set of parallel sentences: "How else could I (have known/have loved/embrace) you, O my God!" It's so touchy-feely that it makes my skin creep. And it smacks of a creative artist who just isn't trying very hard.

292 "Love has come"—(a light in the darkness) is a hymn by Ken Bible (cool name!) in three stanzas, set to the tune of the French carol "Bring a torch, Jeannette, Isabella." It repeats the word "Love" a lot and stresses, with almost annoying single-mindedness, that love is the reason God sent His Son into our world. Like a lot of Christmas carols, to which I tend to give a pass because of their venerable vintage, it seems to invite the Christian to visit the manger scene in a world of pious imagination, keenly observing details such as the glow in Mary's eyes and even listening in on the thoughts of her heart and the whisper of her lips (unrecorded by either Matthew or Luke): "Love! Love!" All in all it's a likeable little piece, though like the above-named French carol its prolix text and rapidly flowing melody can make it a bit of a mouthful. I just wish, as I find myself so often wishing these days, that the song did a better job of specifying how "Love is Jesus within and among us." I mean, how does He get there? In what sense is He present? I believe an important task in both preaching and hymn-writing is to give clear answers to those questions before they are even asked. Otherwise it is quite likely that the answers people supply in their own minds will lead them astray.

293 "That boy-child of Mary" (was born in a stable) is the late Tom Colvin's hymn, set to his own adaptation of a Malawi folk-tune called BLANTYRE. (Malawi is that long, skinny African country squeezed between Zambia and Mozambique; its second-largest city lends its name to the hymn tune). The song consists of a refrain followed by six short stanzas which, for the most part, do a good job of reducing the Nativity gospel to terms a child can follow. But it parcels out the information rather slowly, taking two stanzas to inform us that the child's name is Jesus, and then mixing up the translation of the name Jesus with that of Immanuel ("God ever with us"). The hymnal editors had a chance to catch it and alter the text to read "God sent to save us," or something like that; but they didn't. I also think the hymn's answer to the questions "How can he save us, how can he help us" is a bit on the weak side: it simply asserts that as our brother through Mary, and yet "one with the Father, he is our Savior, heaven-sent helper" etc. Without more unpacking of the significance of these lines, this could come across as begging the question.

294 "In the bleak midwinter" is Gustav Holst's lovely setting of Christina Rossetti's sentimental poem, which make for delicious reading and choral singing. But I frankly doubt that they make, between them, a hymn. It spends the whole first stanza setting a scene which would make sense if Jesus was born in England during late December, but given where he was born and the fact that the Bible doesn't specify when, it all adds up to so much poetic fluff, drawing significance from details not supported by evidence (which here means "divine revelation"). In Stanza 2, Rossetti tortures her poetic meter into confessing that He whom heaven and earth cannot contain, made his bed in a stable (though, technically, that detail is not divinely revealed either). Stanza 3 ponders what I, poor thing, can give Him. The shepherd's gift (also not revealed by Scripture) is mentioned. The wise men's gifts (though in fact specified in the Bible) get only a general mention. And the hymn's conclusion: "Yet what I can I give Him—give my heart." To be sure this is a lovely sentiment, brings tears to the eyes and all, but even as a response to what God gave us that winter night(?), it still assumes that we know information that the hymn doesn't give—like, anything that Jesus did for us, to which our response of love should respond.

297 "Jesus, what a wonderful child" is an African-American spiritual arranged by the late Jeffrey Radford. Its single stanza, in full, says: "Jesus, Jesus, oh, what a wonderful child. Jesus, Jesus, so holy, meek, and mild; new life, new hope the child will bring. Listen to the angels sing: 'Glory, glory, glory,' let the heavens ring!" In a very simple condensed way (though perhaps a bit simplistic), this text does deliver fairly good Christmas-carol content. But the music, with gospel-anthem part-writing and swinging rhythms and long rests filled with instrumental cues, strongly appeals to be sung by a choir—preferably one specializing in this style of music. It simply has no practical place in the repertoire of a congregation, unless and until you have drilled the whole congregation (or what is left of it by then) to be the choir.

298 "The bells of Christmas" (chime once more) is an altered form of C. P. Krauth's translation of N. F. S. Grundtvig's Danish hymn Det kimer nu til julefest, which I have elsewhere seen published as "The happy Christmas comes once more." Actually this is an exceptionally good Christmas hymn. I merely list it in my Catalog of Tastelessness because, once again, the editors saw fit to print the first stanza—only one verse out of six—in the original Danish. Which prompts a thought that I also had at #271: Why does a church body that, in large part, is culturally descended from Scandinavian Lutherans, only get the option of singing one stanza of a hymn in their mother tongue, as opposed to entire hymns in Spanish and Chinese? Token multiculturalism is sad enough. But such a poor token of pride in heritage is just... well... TACKY!

299 "Cold December flies away," translated from and sung to the tune of the Catalonian carol LO DESEMBRE CONGELAT, is almost irrelevant to the Christmas season of which it purports to be a hymn. By its second line we're already singing about April. And in the second half of the hymn, the notes fly hard and fast enough to keep you from really paying attention to the words (for while it's a nice tune, it works better as a theme for variations on the organ than for singing in church). Nevertheless the words, if you have time to read them, give you the impression that the story is about a tree with red roses blooming in "love's own garden," whatever that means. Stanza 2 moves the story more onto the basis of hope dawning in a sin-darkened world, including a play on the words "sun" and "Son" that could not conceivably be native to the Catalonian original. Then Stanza 3 comes and the bud has become a fragrant lily which spreads, like an invasive plant, to cover the world with sweet-smelling beauty. Heavy on metaphor (and mixed metaphor at that) and light on substance, the hymn also has the defect, in the latter half of each stanza, of sounding excited to the point of stammering (e.g. "...brings unending joy, brings the endless joy of our hope, highest hope, of our hope's bright dawning..."), quite possibly to ludicrous effect. For example, as I hear this song being sung in my mind's ear, the scene is invaded by a memory Chester the cartoon terrier asking Spike the bulldog, "Can I? Huh? Can I? Huh?" until Spike swats him down and snarls, "Shut up!"

1 comment:

Jonathan Rundman said...

I found your blog when searching for information regarding the hymn "Lost In The Night." I just played it this past week for the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians conference in Atlanta. Here's a video from the event:
Also, I recorded it on my new album A Heartland Liturgy:
It's one of my faves!