Friday, August 30, 2013

Tacky Hymns 34

Resuming our snarky survey of the hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), numbers 475-499...

477 "I received the living God," with words and music by Anonymous, is really a nice little ditty. Its refrain boasts, "I received the living God, and my heart is full of joy." The four stanzas very simply and briefly apply Jesus' statements, "I am the bread of life," and, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I have only two eensy-weensy quibbles with the text as such. In Stanza 1, the words "kneaded long" are really a strange thing to insert into Jesus' bread saying. If Anonymous tried a little harder, (s)he might come up with a more apposite image that fit the meter of the line. Quibble #2: in Stanza 2, where "Jesus said: I am the way," the stanza doesn't say anything that really touches the significance of Jesus' self-identification as the road that leads to God. "I come to bring you home" is as close as it gets—but strictly speaking, a road isn't known for coming to collect people; it just is. Be that as it may, there's nothing wrong with this song—except that it's in the Holy Communion section of the hymnal. As a communion hymn it has the merit of saying, yes, that "I received the living God" and of making use of Jesus' "I am the bread" sayings. But it has the demerit of not saying anything explicitly about the Lord's Supper. And what it says about receiving Jesus could be interpreted (like Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6) as a spiritual reception that does not necessarily involve the bodily eating and drinking of the Lord's Supper.

479 "We come to the hungry feast", with words and music by Ray Makeever (b. 1943), is a three-stanza communion hymn that, again, does not name the sacrament it is supposed to be about, except by a novel poetic description of it as "the hungry feast." In its four five-line stanzas, it spends six lines saying "We come to the hungry feast." Only three lines do not mention the word "hunger" or "hungry." So it has the poetic virtue of being intensely focused on one image or metaphor. But it has the poetic vice of talking around what it has to say, rather than saying it outright. In Stanza 1, "Hungry for a word of peace" could mean "seeking God's forgiveness," and so "To hungry hearts unsatisfied the love of God is not denied" could be interpreted as a very fine statement of the gospel being applied to conscience-stricken sinners. But is that clear enough for Grandma Smurf1 to understand? On the other hand, is that the only message people could read out of these lines? How about the message, "If you're looking for a church where everybody is accepted without question, where doctrinal and even moral differences are overlooked for the sake of peace, why, here we are"? Stanza 2 is a little weird, perhaps because of a bit of awkward phraseology: "...hungry for a world released from hungry folk of ev'ry kind..." The "from" is what throws me. Are we looking for salvation from the foes in this world who would eat us up like bread? Or does this mean release from being poor? The stanza goes on to mention the "poor in body, poor in mind"—so we've already moved beyond the "poor in spirit" into the realm of social justice and serving the needy. How quickly the law rushes in to disturb the peace given by the gospel! Stanza 3 expresses a sort of eschatalogical hunger "that the hunger cease, and knowing, though we eat our fill, the hunger will stay with us; still we come, we come to the hungry feast." Again, this could be read in a good way or otherwise. We hunger for the sacrament, receive it and are satisfied, though we know we will hunger for it again and again until we pass over to the endless feast and eternal repletion of heaven. On the other hand, the way this is phrased could also be taken to mean, "We know this meal will not satisfy us, yet though we expect to go away still hungry, it's the best we have." Which isn't exactly a glowing food review.

482 "I come with joy" (a child of God) is a text by Brian Wren, set to the early American tune DOVE OF PEACE, which requires the last line of each stanza to be repeated. It's another example of the type of communion hymn that interprets "communion" as the bond that unites Christians. An interesting characteristic of this school of interpretation is that it has plenty to say about the the "bread," but not so much about the "wine." I'm not sure why this is, because the wine (being made of many grapes) is susceptible of the same type of metaphor as bread (made from many grains of wheat). But even where that metaphor of many grains being united in one loaf is not explicitly stated, it seems to be freighted into such lines as "the new community of love in Christ's communion bread" (St. 2). Maybe the reason the wine is so inconvenient to this line of interpretation is that we can think of ourselves as communing together as so many members in Christ's one body, but when you start to talk about blood it becomes very hard to avoid the concept of substitutionary sacrifice. No matter, this hymn doesn't strike the "one body" note either, because it never mentions Christ's body (let alone his blood). Its outlook on the Supper is: "As Christ breaks bread, and bids us share, each proud division ends" (St. 3). Whatever communion we have in the Supper, according Wren's thinking, doesn't seem to have any bodily dimension to it. It's spiritual only, as evidenced by Stanza 4, which emphasizes the Holy Spirit's unseen work of binding us together in friendship. And though Christ's laying down his life for me (St. 1) seems to be the message of "all that God has done" (St. 5), which we are to go out and proclaim to the world, Wren's hymn says nothing to suggest that the eucharist bodily unites us to His sacrifice, or that the sacrament is itself a proclamation of this gospel. In short, it is by every reasonable measure an un-Lutheran communion hymn.

483 "Here is bread," with words and music by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950), is another example of a communion hymn that seems to say the minimum that a communion hymn should say, but only if you don't look at it thoughtfully. "Here is bread, here is wine, Christ is with us" (St. 1) is nice and whatnot, but it doesn't actually claim that Jesus' body and blood are taken by mouth. Stanza 2 says, "Know his grace, find his peace, feast on Jesus here"—but for all we know, we could be talking about a spiritual eating. "Here we are, joined in one, Christ is with us... We'll proclaim till he comes Jesus crucified" (St. 3) doesn't really say any more than Brian Wren's text in 482. The refrain has an opportunity to make all things clear: "In this bread there is..." But then, instead of saying "Christ's body," it says "healing." "In this cup is..." It could say Christ's blood; instead it says "life forever." And the refrain concludes, "In this moment, by the Spirit, Christ is with us here." Again, Christ is present in Spirit; whether in body and blood, it doesn't say. All that this hymn says is true. But what it very pointedly omits to say is much more important.

484 "You satisfy the hungry heart" (Gift of Finest Wheat) is a communion hymn by Omer Westendorf (1916-97), set to Robert Kreutz's (1922-96) tune BICENTENNIAL. The opening refrain already sets my heart a-sinking: "You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat. Come give to us, O saving Lord, the bread of life to eat." Again the emphasis is on bread; no commitment is made as to the presence of Christ's body. Do the hymn's five stanzas correct this impression? Stanza 1 doesn't; it talks about sheep hearing their shepherd's voice. Stanza 2 doesn't; it only thanks Christ for counting us worthy "to share this heav'nly food." Stanza 3 does, sort of (DING!) when it says, "Is not the cup we bless and share the blood of Christ outpoured?" But the second half of the stanza relapses into the Wren/Kendrick interpretation of communion: "Do not one cup, one loaf, declare our oneness in the Lord?" Stanza 4 mentions the mystery of Christ's presence, but rather than talking about his body and blood in the sacrament, it relates this to how he "comes in our hearts to dwell." Stanza 5 says, "You give yourself to us, O Lord" in a way that could as easily mean spiritual as oral reception, and without ever once relating the sacrament to the forgiveness of sins (i.e., the gospel), it goes directly back to law: "then selfless let us be, to serve each other" etc., etc. Is that what the heart is hungry for? Really?

485 "I am the Bread of life" is a hymn based on John 6 by a Canadian nun named Suzanne Toolan (b. 1927). It consists of 5 stanzas to be sung by a soloist ("Leader or All," but let's be realistic; the text fits the tune so irregularly that it's only ever going to work as a solo) and a refrain to be sung by "All" in four-part harmony. The refrain says, "And I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day." Just in case you want to start rehearsing your part now. Most of the hymn quotes or paraphrases Jesus speaking to us along the lines of his bread of life discourse. The last two stanzas paraphrase Jesus' words to Martha in John 11 ("I am the resurrection...") and her/our response ("Yes, Lord, I believe..."). It is awesome to see these texts applied so confidently to the Lord's Supper, although its use as a basis for the doctrine of the sacrament was shown to be very shaky by the eucharistic debates of the Reformation era. This is hardly the place to go into all that. I'm just going to call this hymn tacky because the music, though quite uninspired, requires expert singing that simply isn't to be expected of the average congregation. It won't be sung as a hymn, though it could be sung by the choir. So again, why should it be in the pew hymnal?

486 "God extends an invitation" (Nuestro Padre nos invita) is a one-stanza communion hymn by Miria Kolling, which is printed in both the original Spanish and in Gerhard Cartford's English translation. So, both musically and textually, it is another triumphalistic demonstration of the church's multiculturalism. Apart from that, it doesn't offer much. God invites us to "the table of creation" (the Spanish has, literally, "the table of life"). On the table, in either language, we find "wine and light and bread," and I suppose the light is there because of the candles on the altar. What do we get from this spread? The English version says "the feast of life," but the Spanish only says "the communion." I'm always looking for a specific assertion that Christ's body and blood are there; but in this case, no joy. The rest of what the Spanish version says is that "we meet together and share it." The English version uses the same two lines to stress what we offer there: our thanks and our lives of service. So, to say the least, the gospel isn't proclaimed very richly in this hymn.

487 "What feast of love" (is offered here) is a three-stanza communion hymn by Benedictine Sister Delores Dufner, set to the English ballad GREENSLEEVES ("What child is this"). Supposing that a Catholic lady will have a high view of the Lord's Supper, I read the text looking for the usual signs thereof, such as specific mention of Christ's body and blood. Stanza 1 calls the sacrament a "feast of love," a "banquet...from heaven," "food of everlasting life," and a "gracious gift," and it speaks of Christ as "bread come down from heaven" and "sweet...manna." Stanza 2 repeats pretty much the same material with only slight changes: "light of truth... covenant from heaven... hope of everlasting life... wondrous word... sun come down from heaven... Word of God," etc. Stanza 3 then does it again with "wine of love... crimson drink from heaven... stream of everlasting life... precious blood"—AHA! Something you can actually recognize as relating to the cross!—"sweetest wine of heaven... Son of God," etc. So in 3 tediously similar stanzas, you get one brief glimmer of Jesus' sacrifice for sins, which the Lord's Supper was given to proclaim. What's sad is, this is actually an improvement over the past handful of hymns!

489 "Soul, adorn yourself with gladness" really shouldn't be on this list. But it's not my fault that it is. Hymn 488 broke the almost continuous streak of communion hymns by post-Lutheran-Orthodoxy hymn writers with another setting of this hymn, words translated from Johann Franck's (1618-77) original German, music a beautiful and well-known chorale by Johann Crüger; on the next page you find this version of the same hymn, set to a Hispanic tune, and with all three2 stanzas presented in both English and their Spanish translation. The way it is laid out on the page makes it abundantly clear that the editors had a realistic understanding of which language it was more likely to be sung in. So the question remains: Why did they bother printing the Spanish text? Oh! Of course! How could I forget?—Cultural Diversity!3

491 "Come, let us eat" (for now the feast is spread) is by a Liberian hymn-writer named Billema Kwillia. It is odd, therefore, that her text isn't given in its original Loma language; how multicultural that would be! Kwillia's tune A VA DE is patterned according to the "call and response" tradition of African music; which is to say, each line of text and music is sung first by a soloist ("Leader or All"), then repeated by the group ("All"). Even without the opportunity to try to sing it in an African language, it is still somewhat of a sop to cultural diversity. And yet, to the shame of many other modern communion hymns quoted up to this point, it actually does a reasonably good job of saying what should be said. Stanza 1 says, "Our Lord's body let us take together." Yes! In Stanza 2, where the wine is poured, it says, "Jesus' blood poured let us drink together." Awkward, but faithful! And so when stanza 3 says, "In Jesus' presence now we meet and rest," it is actually saying something of sacramental significance. And when stanza 4 tells us to "spread abroad God's mighty word," the part of that word that will make the most difference has just been given to us. Plus, it ends on a note of proclamation rather than exhortation: "Jesus risen will bring in the kingdom." Tacky by some standards (because of the whole cultural-diversity thing, which encourages parishioners to feel a warm glow of self-congratulation whenever they struggle lamely through a piece of cross-cultural hymnody), it is finally the hymn's comparative excellence that makes the tackiness of so many of the above-spoofed hymns stand out all the more. They didn't have to be that bad. It wasn't as though their authors were at such a socio-economic disadvantage that they couldn't be expected to do better. Here we have a Liberian convert to Christianity, constrained by a culturally-shaped form of poetry and music that drives toward simplicity and repetition, and yet writing circles around them!

492 "Eat this bread, drink this cup" (not to be confused with hymn 472) is a four-stanza communion hymn, with refrain, by Jeremy Young (b. 1948). It is set to Young's own tune STONERIDGE, which is about as uninspired as a tune can be without being generated by a computer. The refrain, after the line quoted above, says: "Taste and see the goodness of God. Bread of life, cup of love, we rejoice in your presence." The stanzas are a paraphrase of Psalm 34 which, apart from one line that says, "Taste, and have your fill," appears to have no direct relevance to the Lord's Supper. There's nothing bad about it (unless you count the tune). There's just nothing particularly eucharistic about it either.

493 "Taste and see" is another Psalm 34 paraphrase, only with words and music by James Moore (b. 1951). It has a refrain for "All" to sing, perhaps in four-part harmony, though again, it's not particularly interesting music. The three stanzas are apparently so rhythmically irregular that they had to be laid out in sequence, rather than with three lines of text under each staff of melody. The rhythm ensures that "Leader or All" will, in virtually every case, be the former. In other words, it's not a congregational hymn. So (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), why is it in a hymnal?

494 "For the bread which you have broken" is a communion hymn by Louis Benson (1855-1930)4, with "alt." added at the end of the text credit line, by way of acknowledging that the editors did their best to spruce it up. It's a good thing they included that, because otherwise it would be hard to tell whether they were making any effort at all. Stanza 1 thanks Jesus for the bread He broke, the wine He poured, and the words He spoke; but it's up to you to conclude whether he actually meant it when He said, "This is My body." Stanza 2 asks Christ to hallow our lives through His promise of love, gift of peace, and call to heaven. Stanza 3 asks God to "keep love's tie unbroken" between the saints in heaven and "the church still waiting for you." Stanza 4 concludes: "In your service, Lord, defend us; in our hearts keep watch and ward; in the world to which you send us let your kingdom come, O Lord." All very fine stuff. But no body or blood. No sacrificial cross of Jesus. At most a vague allusion to forgiveness ("gift of peace restored"). So not really very eucharistic, and for all its prayerful appeal, oriented more on sanctification than justification. A church denying the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Supper, and taken captive by the law, would not have to alter much to make this hymn fit their tastes. I wonder, though... exactly how did the editors of ELW alter it? And why? And while they were at it, couldn't they have done a bit more?

495 "We who once were dead" is a communion hymn translated from a Dutch text by Muus Jacobse (1909-72), and set to Rik Veelenturf's (b. 1936) modern chorale MIDDEN IN DE DOOD. Taking its departure from Jesus' Easter-evening appearance to the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24), the text really does a fine job of connecting the Lord's Supper to Jesus' death and resurrection, and our own cross-bearing and resurrection. Whether the hymn really implies that we take Jesus' body and blood by mouth in the Lord's Supper is a matter for interpretation; Lutheran ears will probably hear it as though it did, in such lines as "He became our bread... On him we are fed, eating what he gave us"; "Jesus, you...made yourself our bread"; and "In this meal we meet you. Be our bread and wine." I suppose the hymn's restrictive meter ( makes it hard to get any clearer than that, though I can't help suspecting that another interpretation is possible, if not likely, given the Reformed provenance of the text. What's going to push this hymn across the tackiness threshold is, finally, Veelenturf's rhythmically asymmetrical, melodically "meh" tune.

496 "One bread, one body" is a soloistic, Christian-contemporary ditty by Jesuit composer John Foley (b. 1939), who teaches liturgics at SLU, right here in town. The opening refrain takes the Lord's Supper as its starting point, but moves from there to an interpretation of "communion" that abolishes all distinctions. Stanza 1: "Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more." That's the whole stanza! Stanza 2: "Many the gifts, many the works..." Stanza 3: "Grain for the fields," etc. Conclusion: "We are one body in this one Lord." Evidently one of the things the Jesuits (who now have a guy pretty high up in the church hierarchy) mean to do through their liturgical leadership is lead Catholics away from their church's old emphasis on blood and retribution and atoning sacrifice, and more toward something to do with human brotherhood and mutual sympathy. If that's really true, this song could be part of that strategy.

497 "Strengthen for service, Lord" comes from the Syriac Liturgy of Malabar, and is set to a modern tune by Robert Hobby (b. 1962). I find BUCKHURST RUN to be a pretty banal piece of music, in contrast to the dignity of the text. But as communion hymns go, this one leans heavily on the note of law. Stanza 1: "Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken; and let the ears that heard your word to falsehood never waken." There are two more stanzas like this, turning every aspect of worship into admonition (against deception, to sharper perception, against wandering). It finally returns to a hint, a microscopic hint, of the gospel in the eucharist: "Lead the faithful nourished here to journey on in splendor." I mean, at least it says "nourished." Anything about forgiveness would be an improvement, however.

498 "United at the table" (Unidos en la fiesta) is another Hispanic hymn, with all three stanzas presented in both English and Spanish. So ditto all the ridicule I have heaped on similar misplaced anthems to our church's multicultural righteousness. The refrain describes communion as a joyful uniting in praise of God. Stanza 1 is a nice generic song of praise to God for His love. Stanza 2 calls communion "the bountiful table of life and grace" which grants us "communion with ev'ry race." Stanza 3 calls for rhythm instruments and dancing, but otherwise adds nothing. So again, concluding this 25-hymn chunk of ELW, we have a communion hymn that makes no explicit reference to Christ's self-offering on the cross, or the forgiveness of sins, or our communion with Him through his body and blood, which he gives us to eat and drink. It's just a nice piece of festive praise music with a Latin lilt.

At this point what depresses me about this hymnal is not so much the large amount of tackiness that it has paraded before my incredulous eyes, but the thin representation of historically and spiritually important Lutheran communion hymns, such as 499 "O Lord, we praise you," and only a handful of others. It has made me wonder, not for the first time, why the publishers thought it was worth the expense to include the word "Lutheran" in the title. I wouldn't expect to find fewer truly Lutheran hymns in a hymnal of any other denomination, Protestant or Catholic.

1A name, not originally mine, for a hypothetical entity that many pastors and church musicians have met in concrete reality: a being that sits in a pew during church services, more or less good-naturedly bemused by the intellectual banter flying high over its head. When perched on an organ bench, rather than a pew, I like to call this creature Grandma Wurlitzer. I don't think I mean anything disparaging by this—but if I do, it is not Grandmas Smurf and Wurlitzer I mean to demean, but those who talk over their heads. Including, at times, myself. God made them the way they are; we're not going to change them; but if we're going to serve them, we need to learn to communicate on a level they can understand. To the extent that we struggle to do this, they may actually be smarter than we are.
2Because nobody would ever, ever, ever want to sing, or even just read, all nine stanzas of this hymn!
3Note the capitalization of the divine name.
4Tune: OMNI DIE, a relatively simple 17th-century German chorale.

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