Monday, October 21, 2013

Tacky Hymns 40

The hymns selected for Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW for short; Augsburg Fortress, 2006) continue to make the dishonor roll...

603 "God, when human bonds are broken" is a "confession, forgiveness" text by the late Fred Kaan (1929-2009),1 a British Congregationalist minister. It expresses some nice sentiments about the Christian virtue of forgiving one another, and even a bit about being soothed by a consciousness of God's forgiveness. My only problem with it is that there isn't anything in it about the absolution (i.e., the rite of declaring us objectively, unconditionally forgiven by the Word of God). It therefore lacks the essential je ne sais quoi that would make it a Lutheran hymn.

I have similar reservations about 605 "Forgive our sins as we forgive" by Rosamond Herklots (1905-87),2 a British lady about whom I know little except that she wrote dozens of hymns, mostly for children, after her retirement from an administrative role in the medical field. Again, it's a nice prayer for the grace to forgive one another, but the gospel (the message that we ourselves are forgiven by God) only comes in by way of giving an argumentative edge to this law of Christian love.

607 "Come, ye disconsolate" consists of two stanzas by Thomas Moore (1779-1882), plus one by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), set to the blandly pretty tune CONSOLATOR by Samuel Webbe (1740-1816). At the risk of maligning a hymn that was in my beloved TLH (The Lutheran Hymnal; Concordia, 1941) and that I myself found very comforting when I was an inwardly tormented teen, I now believe this hymn is tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, particularly when placed in the section of the hymnal where "confession, forgiveness" stand in for "confession and absolution." TLH at least had the sense to index it under "cross and comfort." It does not have a shred of sacramental thought in it. The mercy seat where (in stanza 1) you are directed to kneel and tell your anguish of heart, apparently exists in the shrine of your imagination, for all the help the hymn gives us in locating it. Stanza 2 mentions penitence and depicts the Holy Spirit as murmuring words of comfort into your heart. Stanza 3 rounds it off by mentioning the Bread of life, the feast of love, and the waters flowing forth from the throne of God, but without giving any specific reason to interpret these as the sacraments of the font and the altar; all this language could be metaphor for the healing balm of the Spirit's message that "earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal," etc. This refrain, slightly varied at the end of each stanza, finally locates the comfort that God offers in the hope that whatever we suffer now will pale beside the glory to come. So no, I absolutely see no shade of God's sacramental activity in this hymn. Alas!

608 "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling" is a sentimental altar-call hymn that I have already lampooned. So I won't say much about it here, except that its placement amid the "confession, forgiveness" hymns is especially unfortunate.

610 "O Christ, the healer, we have come" is a Fred Pratt Green hymn3 that opens the section of hymns on the topic of "healing." Is this meant to be another sacrament, or merely a topic of prayer? The hymn itself makes an interesting argument about problems of health revealing a need for "wholeness," but in my opinion there is something cold about a prayer that cannot simply ask for healing or release (with a "Thy will be done" as a check to our own impatience), without making it primarily about community-building and world peace. I don't think it best honors the value of the saints' suffering.

611 "I heard the voice of Jesus say" by Horatius Bonar (1808-89) is likewise a hymn I have dealt with before. If anything, its setting in this book is the least tacky I have seen of its many appearances in anglophone Lutheran hymnals. Set to the fine English tune KINGSFOLD, it sounds very noble and tasteful. But it remains highly subjective, and its sharp division of the work of the gospel into "the half that Jesus does" and the "half that I do" is a poor way to confess the Lutheran teaching that my salvation is entirely the work of Christ.

612 "Healer of our every ill" is yet another Marty Haugen opus. This Roman Catholic author-composer, who specializes in the "classical pop" stylings that have made worship in many American Catholic churches increasingly hard to distinguish from the Evangelical church down the street, seems in ELW to stand in the place many Lutheran hymnals reserve for a poet or composer laureate (often a member of the editorial committee). This is to say, he has sown his seed so prolifically in this book that it is strange not to find him listed among its editors. Typically, his hymn has a light touch, both textually and musically, offering such breathtaking originality as the rhyme of "tomorrow" and "sorrow," and of "sadness" and "gladness," etc. Some of its language is imported from the leadership-training cant current among church-growth gurus of the last fifteen minutes, such as "give us all your vision." And it quickly moves beyond any distasteful (for some) hint of the earthy, specific pains and sicknesses of the flesh, to ask for spiritual blessings, such as "strength to love each other" and knowledge of the "way of healing," i.e. compassion. So again, like the above-noted Fred Pratt Green hymn, it is a rather thin, lukewarm gruel of comfort for those enduring their own or their loved ones' bodily and mental afflictions. It irks me to observe that this hymn has the folk appeal to be popular far beyond its merits.

613 "Thy holy wings, O Savior" is translated from Carolina Sandell Berg's (1832-1903) original Swedish.4 I have previously remarked on Lina's reputation as the "Fanny Crosby of Sweden," which means that just seeing her name in a credit line puts me on alert for incoming tackiness. I have also learned to fear the name of translator Gracia Grindal, one of the movers and shakers of the ELCA's "Reclaim" movement (which is planning a hymnal of its own, in rebuttal of ELW), and whose essay on "What Makes a Hymn Lutheran" left me in grave doubt of her judgment on that question. This entire three-stanza hymn is devoted to the metaphorical imagery of us, as chicks, nestling under the downy wings of God, as the mother hen. Yet there are actually some pretty strong moments in this hymn, so I can't write it off as altogether tacky. I like the line "let my ev'ry moment be lived within thy grace" (stanza 1), and I can't shake the impression that Sandell Berg (or at least Grindal) means baptism when she writes, "Oh, wash me in the waters of Noah's cleansing flood." But this hymn has, after all, a certain warm, cuddly, infants'-nursery type of sentimentality that leaves me itching and running at the nose. Maybe it's a feather allergy.

614 "There is a balm in Gilead" continues the tackiness streak with words and music adapted from an African-American spiritual. Again it bypasses the opportunity to stuff this "healing" section of the hymnal with prayers for the physically and mentally ill, disabled, injured, etc., and goes straight at the need "to heal the sin-sick soul." Ordinarily I wouldn't object to this emphasis, if only I understood exactly what balm the hymn was talking about. That "there is" such a balm—in Gilead, at least—is the burden of most of the refrain; another instance of the type of impersonal, indirect language that made "There's a wideness in God's mercy" such a wide target for my scorn. Stanza 1 leads off with more of the same: "Sometimes I feel discouraged," etc. Stanza 2 provides the only clue to what the balm is when it says that, even if you can't preach like Peter or pray like Paul, you can say that Jesus "died for all." Stanza 3 concludes its promotion of the spiritual patent medicine by saying, "Don't ever be discouraged, for Jesus is your friend; and if you lack for knowledge, he'll ne'er refuse to lend." Eh? Lend what, knowledge? How does he do that? By direct link to your brain? What kind of interest does he charge? OK, so I'm picking nits. But nits is most of what this ditty offers us. And the historical knowledge that Jesus died for all is a starting point at best. I already know this, and yet "sometimes I feel discouraged." So then what?

615 "In all our grief and fear we turn to you" is another hymn by United Church of Canada pastor Sylvia Dunstan (1955-93).5 The "healing" for which this hymn prays is healing of interpersonal conflict: "the pain we put each other through" (stanza 1); "the angry word, the clenching fist, the wish and will to hurt" (stanza 2). Stanza 3 hits on a powerful truth: "You did not even spare your only Son..." And stanza 4 asks God to comfort us with his presence. Again, this hymn has its strengths. But it cries out for a clear articulation of the message of forgiveness—clearer, at least, than the refrain's "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord, grant us peace." The missed opportunity to apply Jesus' redeeming death in a purely gospel way (no strings attached) is what I find tacky here.

616 "Jesus, remember me" (when you come into your kingdom) is a Jacques Berthier/Taizé Community ditty consisting entirely of the words quoted above, repeated twice over a four-part harmonic texture that changes chords about once per bar. Rather than comment further, I refer you to everything I have said about Taizé worship songs in this thread.

I mention 617 "We come to you for healing, Lord" by Herman Stuempfle,6 mainly as an example of the kind of thing I've been looking for, so far in vain, in ELW's "healing" section. It's evidence that there really is such a thing as a hymn that covers what we ask in prayers for those who are sick. It's not tacky; it's really quite all right. There should be more like it, in my opinion. But there's just this one, and here endeth the "healing" section.

618 "Neither death nor life" is Marty Haugen's melodic setting of a goodly chunk of Romans chapter 8. It's got a refrain framing five stanzas, each of which needs to be set to a separate line of melody because of the extreme irregularity of the text's rhythm. The refrain is earmarked for "All" and the stanzas for "Leader or All," though I think it is ambitious enough to hope that the congregation will pick up the refrain in six tries; forget about the stanzas. Which, again, makes this mostly a solo number, and so a waste of precious space (two whole pages!) in the pew hymnal. Plus, you know, it's Marty Haugen music.

625 "Come, we that love the Lord" (refrain: "We're marching to Zion") concludes this segment with a text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)—a poet whose pedantic moralism was a matter of satire even to Charles Dickens—and a tune specially written for it by Robert Lowry (1826-99), who has appeared frequently in this thread. Lowry also wrote the words of the refrain ("beautiful, beautfiul Zion..."). It leads off the "hope, assurance" section of the hymnal with the idea that we're passing blindly through this world, conscious only of the paradise to come. Besides, some of its elderly diction sounds a bit funny today. Stanza 3: "The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets..." To be sure, there is a place in Christian devotion for the consolation that, whatever wrong befalls us here, heaven will right it. But hymns of the "I'm but a stranger here, heaven is my home" ilk tend to annoy me with their hint (and sometimes more than a hint) that there is nothing at all important or even precious about this life; or that we don't have a responsibility to this world beyond marching roughshod across it en route to the golden streets of heaven.

Till next time...

1Tune: the beautiful, dignified MERTON by W. H. Monk (1823-89).
2Tune: the early American hymn-tune DETROIT.
3Tune: the early American hymn-tune DISTRESS.
4Tune: the lovely Swedish folk-tune BRED DINA VIDA VINGAR.
5Tune: Charles Anders' (b. 1929) melody FREDERICKTOWN, known to some as the tune to "When in our music God is glorified."
6Tune: Hugh Wilson's (1764-1824) MARTYRDOM.

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