Friday, August 16, 2013

Tacky Hymns 29

As we continue to address the burning problem of Tackiness on Holy Ground, through judicious ridicule of the hymn selection in 2006's Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW hereafter), please bear in mind that in my blog, grounds for being considered "tacky" in the context of a body of Lutheran hymnody include, but are not limited to: making a lukewarm or colder confession of Lutheran doctrine; suggesting, or leaving open to interpretation, teachings contrary to Lutheranism; throwing out valuable pieces of Lutheranism's hymnody heritage to make room for symbolic tokens of appreciation of other religious cultures; confusing multiculturalism for catholicity; confusing the simplistic for the simple; confusing law for gospel; giving subjective experience priority over objective truth; and giving the sensitivities of Special Interest Groups (political correctness) priority over continuity and conformity with the whole church everywhere and at all times.

Hymn 300 "The First Noel" (or Nowell, as the tune's title spells it) is the familiar English Christmas carol whose refrain repeats the word "Noel" four times in a row, before rhyming it with "Born is the King of Israel." To the best of my knowledge, Noel is a synonym for "Christmas" or "Christmas carol" that stems from an old French word for nativity, or birth. I explain this as a favor to generations of English-speaking kids who, no doubt, have wondered what the word meant while being called on to sing it over and over, until they finally gave up wondering about it and just went with the flow. Setting aside questions and concerns and going with the flow may, indeed, be a habit of a highly successful user of ELW. The five stanzas of this hymn, meanwhile, take their sweet time getting to the point. Stanza 1 gets no further than setting the scene of the shepherds lying in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep. Stanza 2 confuses the shepherds, who looked up and saw an angel, with the magi, who saw a star in the east. Stanza 3 forgets that we were talking about shepherds and tells us how the "three wise men" followed the star. Stanza 4 explains how the star did "both stop and stay" (very precise, that) "right over the place where Jesus lay." Stanza 5 repeats the misinformation that there were three wise men (the Bible doesn't specify how many) as they stoop to offer their gifts to Jesus, giving the word "presence" an accent on the second syllable and, in effect, making this an Epiphany carol rather than a Christmas one. And so the worship experts who edited this book make themselves look sloppy when they put this song under the heading of "Christmas." And for what? Why is it so important that a song you can find in any decent collection of Christmas carols, and that can well be sung at home or at any holiday social gathering, be in the hymnal and used in public worship? I reckon that to fit this song into the book, some less popular but probably more deeply edifying piece of hymnody, perhaps from the early church or early Lutheranism, had to be squeezed out. Was it worth it?

The "Epiphany" section of the hymnal includes all of three hymns, 301 to 303, before passing on to the also fairly brief "Time After Epiphany" section—a renaming of the former Epiphany Season, part of this hymnal's persistent program of inventing new nomenclature for things that already have perfectly serviceable names. Of this "Time After Epiphany" section, four hymns (315-318) are specifically about Jesus' Transfiguration. I have no beef with these particular hymns, except to note that singers of some of the newer lyrics may need to do a bit of extra-curricular reading and thinking to connect clear thoughts to such poetic phrasings as "the birth of newness" and "we too will burn and brighten" (from 306 "Come, Beloved of the Maker" by Susan Cherwien); "till the full creation" and "global transformation" (from 307 "Light Shone in Darknesss" by Delores Dufner); "transform our pleasures" and "surprise our dullness" (from 312 "Jesus Come! for we invite you" by Christopher Idle). I can find good interpretations for most of these phrases (though the last stanza of Dufner's hymn still smells vaguely tacky to me), but it takes work and I hope the Lutherans who use this book are up to it. Really I only mean this paragraph to express my astonishment at the scant selection in these sections of the hymnal of the numerous excellent, historic Epiphany and Epiphany-season hymns that other hymnals have made familiar to me.

324 "In the cross of Christ I glory" has words by John Bowring (1792-1872) set to the tune RATHBUN by Ithamar Conkey (1815-67). It was also included in pretty much all the hymnals that I grew up with, so this isn't a new or unfamiliar tackiness. It is, rather, an old, comfortable, indulgently tolerated tackiness that I nevertheless own as tacky, even at the risk of implicating myself. The first stanza is nice, drawing imagery from Galatians 6:14 ("God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ") and generating some striking imagery of its own ("tow'ring o'er the wrecks of time," etc.). But the bad taste becomes impossible to ignore in Stanza 2, when the cross is depicted as one who "never shall...forsake me" (almost like a person), and as something that "glows with peace and joy" (the proof text for why a pink neon cross is just what your church needs to get its message out in the community—and I kid you not, this really has come up at church meetings I attended). Stanza 3 depicts the "sun of bliss" as "beaming light and love upon my way," and radiance streaming from the cross. Stanza 4 gives credit to the cross for giving holy meaning to everything in my life, whether pain or pleasure, etc. But all this sentimental waffle can only partially conceal the truth that "the cross" is coded language for something that the hymn never explicitly spells out. And while a right interpretation could be conceived for it, it seems at least equally likely that a bad interpretation will arise in people's minds—like, for example, "the cross" being code for my apprehension of Jesus as my Savior through direct personal experience, or pious imagination, or mystical meditation, or cheerful perseverance in either passive suffering or active service, or even conceivably through cherishing relics or images of the cross. It could be code for so many things, and "apprehending Christ through the sacramental means He has pledged Himself to" does not seem likely to rush the front of the line. American Lutherans would probably have been better off, spiritually, if they had taken "no" for an answer when their leading theologians counseled against using songs like this.

325 "I want Jesus to walk with me" is an African-American spiritual whose haunting, minor-key melody is titled SOJOURNER, at least in this book. Its arrangement, created for this book, implies part-singing (particularly when the alto line echoes the words "walk with me") and requires a certain rhythmic precision that won't come cheap in the context of congregational singing. In short, it's a choir number. And while a non-African-American choir might be excused for singing it on some basis like cultural diversity and the study of historic art forms, the only way it could be less tasteful would be to perform it in blackface. It takes all of Stanza 1 to say, "I want Jesus to walk with me all along my pilgrim journey." Stanzas 2 and 3 likewise make much out of saying little. And though what little it says is emotionally moving, it doesn't give anything like promises from God; it just expresses an almost hopeless wish that we had something like that. You know, like the gospel...

326 "Bless now, O God, the journey" is a Lenten hymn with words by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-93) set to the Welsh tune LLANGLOFFAN. Dunstan's poetry suffers from a strange tendency of words that have multiple meanings to suggest a meaning other than what the author had in mind at a crucial point. In Stanza 1, the hymnal puts a long-vowel sign over the word "winds," recognizing rightly (I think) that many people will mistake the verb for the noun. That would only be natural, because we've just been singing about a trail in the desert, where winds blow; it isn't until the end of the line ("and winds the mountain round") that you realize that the word describes not a desert wind, but a winding trail. Similarly, Stanza 2 has the phrase "while often we are bound," which in the stanza-wide context of "sojourners and pilgrims" might be seen as beginning to describe the destination toward we are bound; but actually, it means "bound" in contrast to the "freedom" mentioned in the previous breath. Stanza 2 is also weakened by an inexplicable switch from addressing the pilgrims in the second person ("you") and identifying with them in the first person ("we"). Stanza 3 gives us an eight-line poetic paraphrase of the old chestnut "It's not the destination that matters, but the journey"—though it suffers from an attempt to make "road" rhyme with "flow." But what I think puts this hymn decidedly in the realm of bad taste is its assertion that in our Lenten journey, the pilgrims themselves accomplish what matters: "Your hope burns through the terrors, your love sustains the day." Jesus, in contrast, is someone we meet on the road. Why? Because misery loves company?

328 "Restore in us, O God" is a brief penitential Lenten hymn by Carl Daw (b. 1944), set to the tune BAYLOR by church-choir-anthem maven Hal Hopson (b. 1933). The first flag that the text raises is in Stanza 2, where Daw actually chooses the word "unfurl" for the middle of a line, without needing it to complete a rhyme. As any struggling poet knows, "unfurl" is a word one only uses when one is backed helplessly into a corner; one doesn't voluntarily stick it into a line, especially in a way that leads to a strange, forced, and indeed mixed metaphor ("fruitless" at one end, "springtime bud and flow'r" at the other). Stanza 4 petitions the "Three-personed God" to grant that we may behold Him "when all our searching ends," which might suggest that there is a wide variety of ways (rather than one very narrow Way) to find Him. And while Stanza 1 could be interpreted as a prayer for forgiveness, it could also, and perhaps more easily, be understood as a prayer for perfect sanctification: "renew your image in our hearts," etc. This is part of what a penitent sinner asks of God, but it isn't the main thing.

On two facing pages are three relatively new hymns: 329 "As the sun with longer journey" by Benedictine monk John Patrick Earls, set to the tune NAGEL by Carl Schalk; 330 "Seed that in earth is dying," with a modern text and tune imported from Norway; and 331 "As the deer runs to the river" by Herman Stuempfle, set to the tune JULION by David Hurd. All these nice, shiny new texts and tunes have nothing wrong with them as far as I can tell, and I even rather like them. But sadly, I don't think they're going to get much airplay. They're not simplistic and tacky enough to seize the attention of today's "give us shlock or nothing" church. Worthy as these creative efforts may be, they just won't compete with songs that have a more conventional rhyme scheme, a more familiar tune, and a less meaningfully Lutheran text. It's a pity, but I predict that these will join the large number of newly-written hymns that will go down in history for being published in one American Lutheran hymnal, but will never make it into another. I've seen so many cases of this, spread across so many different hymnals, that they blur together into an effect related to tackiness, in that one senses a type of vanity involved in the decision to include a lot of untried, untested, unpopular new hymns in a book that is already struggling to squeeze in some of the church's most precious historic treasures. It pains me to admit this, since I myself have written many hymns, and I put a high value on the continuing work of contemporary hymn-writers. But out of many, many new hymns that flow like pieces of driftwood under the bridge of the church's never-ending hymn-selection process, and that wash out into the wide trackless sea, very, very few get pulled out and fashioned into anything useful and enduring.

And so, I am developing an idea that there might be a better way to bring hymns like these, that we would like to see becoming useful and enduring adornments to the church, before the hymn-singing and -reading public. Something that would not occupy hymnal space to the detriment of already-proven masterpieces. Something that would not over-expose the church to a commitment to preserve a thing of ephemeral value. Something like a journal or periodical in the form of a quarterly hymnal supplement, which can be reproduced for use in worship, archived, or binned as the Spirit takes you. Then more poets and composers can see their works field-tested, and perhaps by the time the next big hymnal comes out (if that ever happens), the selections to represent the present generation will more accurately reflect the direction in which our body of hymnody is growing.

This may also be a good place to point out another shading of Tackiness on Holy Ground, which involves at least the Missouri Synod's Lutheran Service Book (2006) and perhaps this book as well: the idea of mandating equal representation for hymns of each century since the Reformation. I'm not the first person to point out what a colossal boner this is, but I just want to add my assent to those who have already said it. This rule gives equal time to the era of Lutheran orthodoxy, the times of rationalism and sentimentalism, and the past century's era of modernist and post-modern iconoclasm. It gives equal time to people who really understood how to write Lutheran hymns, people who are doing their best to restore that ideal but have only a sketchy idea of how to go about it, and several intermediate generations of people who were more or less deliberately revolting against everything that makes hymnody Lutheran. And in practice, this means pushing in greater numbers of hymns of questionable value and pushing out very deserving pieces of unquestionably Lutheran character. On the other hand, I don't approve either of the radical proposal some of my colleagues are making to correct this mistake—namely, to compile a hymnal in which no hymn from the Reformation period on will be included unless it's by a Lutheran author. Next time, dear church (if the Lord does not return first), heed my advice and let the merits of the text (and tune) decide each case. If that means lopsided representation by 16th and 17th century Lutherans, an embarrassingly high incidence of 18th-century hymns by the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren, Anglicans, and Wesleyans, virtually nothing from the 19th century except translations of older hymns, and no 20th- or 21st-century hymn that hasn't been published in at least two or three Lutheran hymnals, so be it.

That's enough for now. I've got other stuff to do today. Meanwhile, hang in there, Lutherans! I'm praying for you!

No comments: