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?
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.