Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tacky Hymns 42

Still working our way through the tacky hymn selection of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a little at a time... because too much Tackiness on Holy Ground can be toxic!

Hymn 651 "Oh, praise the gracious pow'r" continues the section of hymns devoted to the topic "Community in Christ," which is ELW's fancy way of saying "The Church." (We have already remarked on the pattern of re-inventing terminology for hymn topics in this book.) The words are by Yale Prof. Thomas Troeger, whose CV bewilderingly lists his denominational affiliation as "Presbyterian and Episcopal." The music is by Dr. Carol Doran, an authority on church music in (I believe) the Episcopal Church. With these credentials, it's hard not to interpret this hymn as another anthem to ecumenism, not to mention that bugbear of confessional Lutheranism—unionism. The gracious power praised in Stanza 1 "tumbles walls of fear and gathers in one house of faith all strangers far and near"—which could be coded language for the sentiment that only bigotry prevents disparate religious groups from joining in full fellowship. Stanza 2 praises the "persistent truth that opens fisted minds and eases from their anxious clutch the prejudice that blinds"—which is interesting imagery, though one usually thinks of truth as something that adds to one's knowledge, rather than something that takes it away. Unless, again, this is coded language for disabusing people of long-held beliefs that only(?) cause needless(??) division. Stanza 3 praises "inclusive love," which is oblivious to (among other things) gender—one in the eye of all those poky folks who haven't yet jumped on the women's ordination bandwagon. After a good stanza about the "word of faith that claims us as God's own," we come to Stanza 5 praising "the tide of grace" whose effect, for this hymn's purposes, is to bring about world peace. Peace with God goes without saying, evidently; it probably also goes without saying, whether evident or not, in a church that no longer rebukes sin. Stanza 6 gathers up all these praises in the list "the pow'r, the truth, the love, the word, the tide"—a strange choice of "tide" rather than "grace," which at least can be excused by the fact that it rhymes with "Christ the crucified." But that doesn't excuse the fact that each stanza of the hymn culminates in what the seventh stanza calls "the gospel": "We praise you, Christ! Your cross has made us one!" Is it only an effect of the limited purpose of this hymn, or should I gather from this that "making us one" is the main thing about Christ's cross?

Hymn 659 "Will you let me be your servant" is not tacky the way you think it is (assuming that anyone still reading this thread by now is a confessional Lutheran who appreciates fine, orthodox hymnody). Judging based on the first line alone, you probably think this hymn is addressed to God, like the Christian pop classic "Make me a servant." But if possible, Richard Gillard's (b. 1953) text1 is something even tackier: a song for parachurch conferences in which participants build each other up, or practice Christian reconciliation, etc. Stanza 1: "Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too." The only time I have seen an exercise like this presented as a liturgical text without tackiness was in the Compline liturgy, in which the participants confess their sins to each other and absolve each other, turn and turn about. There is something awfully therapeutic about this hymn's language—and I mean that not as a compliment, but as a contrast to the Compline service's emphasis on confession and forgiveness. Stanza 2 says "we are here to help each other...bear the load," which is all right; but is it all? Stanza 3: "I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear." How? Could the hymn be more specific? "I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear." Is that supposed to mean God's forgiveness? Or are you just OK with me imagining it is, if that keeps me quiet? I like Stanza 4's bit about weeping with those who weep, etc. Stanza 5 adds nothing new (it's just a repeat of Stanza 1). So I'm left in conflict. Maybe it's a poem that says good things about how Christians are to serve each other. But it barely has Christ in it, or God doing anything for us; it's all about what we're doing for each other. So, even apart from the faint odor of a glad-handing song of the "Circle of Friends" type, it's all Law and no Gospel.

Next comes a section of hymns titled "Witness," which in the terminology of previous hymnals might have been described as "Mission." Under this heading are several hymns whose tackiness I have already extolled, including "Lift high the cross," "I love to tell the story," "O Zion, haste" (same link), "What wondrous love is this," and "Christ is the King." The next bit of juicy news is hymn 664 "Heaven is singing for joy," with words and music by Pablo Sosa. Again, all three stanzas can be sung in either Spanish or English—so it's another paean to multicultural tokenism, among many already poked by my ridicule. Besides the opening line (repeated at the beginning of each stanza) and several Alleluias, the entire content of the hymn is compressed into three lines: "for in your life and mine is shining the glory of God" (st. 1); "for your life and mine unite in the love of our God" (st. 2); and "for your life and mine will always bear witness to God" (st. 3). So, it's also pretty light on content. And what content there is, focuses mainly on what you and I do with our lives. God is not the doer or the giver, but the beneficiary of the good we achieve. Lutheran? I think not.

665 "Rise, shine, you people" is all right as these things go, but even after belonging to a church whose hymnal (The Lutheran Service Book) also contained it, and no doubt having played and sung it in church, I still don't quite get what puts this hymn in the same class as some of the masterpieces of Lutheran hymnody that were squeezed out of ELW by it and its like. Ronald Klug (b. 1939) wrote the words, Dale Wood the tune, and it is very simple, singable, teachable material, yet without a single spark of originality in it. In that respect, I think more of 651 with its "fisted minds" than of this hymn. Klug is forced by an awkward meter to say of Christ that "God in him is centered," which is such poor stuff that it truly makes me sad. He earns points for trying to deal with the incarnation of God and the forgiveness of sinners. But by Stanza 3 he has worn out his inspiration so far as to rhyme "unfurling" with "hurling," never a good sign for a poet aspiring to anything like originality. The same stanza also rhymes "story" with "glory," which makes me yawn so hard that I hurt my jaw. And Stanza 4 proves by experience that a hymn stanza can mention all three Persons of the Trinity without being a doxology ("Tell how the Father... Tell of the Son... Tell how the Spirit..."). Come on, Ronald! Take it back and give it some more work! And think about either addressing the Father, Son, and Spirit, or simply telling us about them (rather than telling us to tell about them). As it is, the hymn does not sound finished. It sounds like an early draft of a B+ project in a college class on hymn writing.

669 "Rise up, O saints of God" is by Norman Forness (b. 1936)2. Everything it says is an appropriate word of admonition to Christians. It just hits me as a downer because it's just about all Law, with the only hints of Gospel (such as "Christ rose triumphant" in Stanza 1) serving as a rationale for the ethical demands it places on us. I think the tone could stand to be softened to more of a "God has so loved us, let us likewise love" kind of thing. Instead we get the whip cracked over our heads as we are sent forth on a crusade to right all wrongs in the world. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that having their ears filled with this type of message leads Christians to become more, rather than less, obnoxious to the rest of the world.

670 "Build us up, Lord" (words and music by Mark Glaeser and Donna Hanna, b. 1956 and 1952 respectively) and 671 "Shine, Jesus, shine" (by Graham Kendrick, b. 1950) are so self-evidently artifacts of the Baby Boomer generation's efforts to win the world through sanctified pop music—more or less an endlessly repeating loop of Richard Marx's Greatest Hits, with names of God dubbed in over all the romantic endearments—that I prefer not to waste any more of your time, or mine, discussing them.

672 "Signs and wonders" by Susan Cherwien3 leads off with a line so perplexing that I had to read the whole stanza and wrack my brain for a minute or two before I realized that it was about the annunciation to Mary. Behold: "Signs and wonders lead the dancing from the heart God frees from fear." I was actually thinking more about Mary's visitation to Elizabeth until I got to the line, "Wings of angels greet the maiden, and God finds a dwelling here." In line 3 Mary models for us a godly attitude to the Word of God—"bow the head, and voice Amen"—but that advice is easier to take when you understand what you're being told. Then the stanza concludes with some goofy twaddle where "open hearts invite the starlight." A Mary is actually named in Stanza 2, but it's Mary Magdalene (meeting the risen Jesus in the garden), and by now it's evident this hymn is hitting the highlights of women in the New Testament. Application: "Boldly may we... step beyond the garden wall" and proclaim, with beautiful feet, the "good news of death's defeating." All right, but still the "garden wall" bit is on the same level of goofiness as the starlight line in Stanza 1. Likewise, in stanza 3, "hand in hand we dance the round." The finishing touch is a prayer that our holy lives may "dance signs and wonders" in the sight of those hungering for God. It gets full points for creativity; but it's goofy with it, to the point of distinct tackiness.

674 "Let us talents and tongues employ" gets its first blush of tackiness from the tune LINSTEAD, adapted by Doreen Potter (1925-80) from a Jamaican folk tune. The Divine Liturgy can only endure so much calypso, and this tune exceeds the limit. Then you notice that Fred Kaan's text isn't all that hot either, from the point of view of Lutheran worship. Stanza 1 says, "Bread is broken, the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard"—but it does not actually claim that Christ is eaten and drunk. What a blown opportunity! Stanza 2 skews the theology of the Sacrament even further, saying of Christ: "At the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and indeed express." So in our recital of the benefits of the Lord's Supper, we've skipped right over the forgiveness of sins. The third stanza and the refrain both leave one with the impression that "bread" means the Word that Christ gives us to share. After two stanzas specifically discussing the Lord's Supper, this is the kind of waffle that smacks of an intentional denial of Christ's promise that "this" (the bread eaten, the cup drunk) "is My body/blood, given for you for the forgiveness of sins." The Lutheran eighth-commandment ethic of "putting the best construction on everything" would ordinarily constrain me to assume that all this was an excusable weakness in style rather than a damnable error in substance; but the cumulative effect of so many nearly identical weaknesses is rubbing that patch of my Lutheran ethics to the nub.

O Lord, how long? How many more units of this ELW (silent L) tackiness must we endure? Well, remember: the hymn numbers in this book go up to 893. And there is plenty of tackiness to come. Like it, lump it, and (please, for all love) LEARN.

1Set to an original tune by the same author, an Anglican from New Zealand.
2Tune: William Walter's (1825-93) FESTAL SONG.
3Tune: FREU DICH SEHR (Geneva, 1551).

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