Friday, December 6, 2013

Tacky Hymns 44

Hoping to end our survey of the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship soon, so we can pick on other hymn-books...

Hymn 702 "You, dear Lord, resplendent within our darkness" (Tú Señor, que brillas) is an anonymous "Lament" hymn whose three Spanish stanzas are printed alongside their English translation by Fred Pratt Green (d. 2000). Again, in the context of a pew hymnal for anglophone Lutherans, it's a bit of crass multicultural tokenism, serving more our feelings of pride in having patronized Hispanic missions than any likely practical purpose. The text does have a certain poignancy in its expression of anguish and feeling far from God. I think the reassurance it gives is thin and weak, compared to what one would expect from a classic Lutheran hymn of lamentation.

703 "O God, why are you silent" is the tacky-at-face-value pairing of a Marty Haugen (b. 1950) text with a J. S. Bach setting of Hans Leo Hassler's Passion Chorale, HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN. The tune brings to mind several fine examples of the complaint of the faithful, not to be found in this book. Haugen's text actually isn't bad, in this case. But the trade-off saddens me nonetheless.

704 "When pain of the world surrounds us," with words and music by Jim Strathdee (b. 1941), provokes a "however," if not an "on the other hand." This hymn's solution to being surrounded by pain, darkness, and despair is not to be comforted by the promise that Christ is fighting for us, caring for us, weeping with us, gathering us to Himself, etc. (in a word, gospel), but to conclude that "we are called to follow Jesus and let God's healing (justice, Spirit, changes) flow through us" (in a word, law). The Church has stopped being a hospital where the afflicted come for divine medicine, but a fitness club where the faithful beef up to fight the injustices of society. Sure, it behooves us to do the Good Samaritan thing and think about responding to our neighbor's need otherwise than crossing to the other side of the road. But isn't "Lament" supposed to be about our cry for help to Jesus? Finally, stanza 4 sounds—or could be understood—as though God's Word has guided us until now, but we just hope He will give us courage to journey forward into a changeful future where everything (including our beliefs) must change.

So endeth the "Lament" section of the hymnal. Then comes one titled "Justice, Peace"—as though that note hadn't been struck many times before now. With a groan, I sense that an all-but-unbroken stretch of tacky hymns is coming...

706 "The people walk throughout the world together" (Un pueblo que camina) is another instance where all three stanzas can be sung either in the original Spanish (by Juan Espinosa, b. 1940) or in the English translation (by Martin Seltz, b. 1951). The rhythms of Espinosa's tune will only come naturally to a congregation deeply immersed in Hispanic culture or to a well-rehearsed choir. And the text skates perilously close to the brink of liberation theology.

708 "Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love" is a hymn by Tom Colvin (1925-2000), based on a Ghanaian folk song. Having been the pianist for a Lutheran church choir that attempted to sing this (accompanied also by bongos), I can personally bear witness to the unspeakable lameness that can result when a choir director's enthusiasm for a bit of ethnic color like this exceeds the ability of little old, white, Midwestern, conservative church folks to adapt. And that was just the choir. When would I try it as a hymn for the congregation? Never.

709 "When our song says peace" is by Richard Leach (b. 1953), here set to a reasonably good tune by Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962). This is a difficult hymn to describe without running afoul of fair use. The three stanzas fall into a repetitive pattern, represented by stanza 1: "When our song says peace and the world says war, we will sing despite the world..." There's a stanza where "peace/war" are replaced by "free/bound," and a "home/lost" stanza, and the assertion that we sing of God who does thus and so (breaks the spear and sword, opens prison doors, brings us home at last, etc.) I just think it's funny, the way "When in our music God is glorified" is funny, when this song sings about the song we sing, and even mentions our song is about God, though apart from that mention we never actually get around to singing about God. Maybe the sound of my own snickering is distracting me from the possibility that the hymn may be multi-tasking; though I believe I read recently that people who try to multi-task tend to lose I.Q. points.

710 "Let streams of living justice" is by William Whitla (b. 1934), set to the tune THAXTED by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). This hymn tune is an example of a practice I consider to be tasteless, ill serving the best interests of both hymnody and art music: adapting themes from classical pieces for use as a hymn tune. In my study of hymnals Lutheran and otherwise, I have shaken my head sadly at examples from the works of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Beethoven, Haydn, Handel, Pleyel, and even Bartok, to name only a handful. But the one tune where my opinion runs counter to practically everybody else is THAXTED. I just don't believe this tune should be sung in church, especially a church whose standards of propriety frown on using certain marches by Wagner and Mendelssohn at weddings. If Lohengrin and A Midsummer Night's Dream carry pagan connotations, than certainly The Planets does: Holst's symphonic suite celebrating not the physical planets in outer space, but the classical deities whose names they bear and the astrological significance they represent. The chorale theme from "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" is very attractive, to be sure; but not every symphonic theme of a "chorale" persuasion is worthy to be baptized. And since I've already overdrawn my daily account of goodwill just attacking the tune of this hymn, I can hardly afford to spend more on the text, in spite of it sounding more and more as though the church's mission is about politics and social work and less and less like the dispensary of divine forgiveness that Luther made it out to be.

711 "O day of peace that dimly shines" is by frequent guest on this thread Carl P. Daw Jr. (b. 1944), and if anything it outdoes 710 by being set to Hubert Parry's JERUSALEM—a tune I have seen described as "the most English of all hymns" and the unofficial anthem of England. Here is a video of Parry's original piece performed by choir and orchestra, showing the William Blake-penned lyrics that are most strongly wedded to this tune. For sheer Anglicanism in a Lutheran hymnal, nothing can beat a two-page spread in which both THAXTED and JERUSALEM appear; one more riff on British nationalism would probably create some kind of musical singularity, pulling all sound-waves within earshot of the open book into its event horizon and incinerating them in a puff of Pomp and Circumstance. Plus, there is something very clever about setting Daw's lyrics about bringing "Christ's promised reign of peace" into this warring world to the tune of Blake's premillennial, triumphalistic paean to "build(ing) Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." It's too bad that both Daw and Blake have their utopian ideology mixed up with Christian eschatology.

712 "Lord, whose love in humble service" is by Albert Bayly (1901-84), and goes to the early American tune BEACH SPRING. This hymn has been around long enough to be accepted everywhere as a good hymn of the type that urges Christians to perform acts of service. It does have its fine points, such as opening with a depiction of Jesus serving mankind on the cross. But red flags start going up (for me, at least) as early as the second half of stanza 1, where worship is described as something we bring to the Lord (which is only half of the truth). Stanza 3's opening line, "As we worship, grant us vision," makes me squirm with its hint of motivational-speaker jargon being imported into holy time and holy space. I also think that stanza's final line errs in its application of the phrase "your abundant life," which ought to be about more than matters of this world. But the coffee doesn't spray out between my teeth until stanza 4's opening line, "Called by worship to your service." To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, Bayly keeps using that word ("worship"), but I don't think he understands what it means.

713 "O God of every nation" is by William Reid (b. 1923), set to the Welsh tune LLANGLOFFAN that I associate with "The night will soon be ended." My first clue that Reid is up to not much good is his attempt to pass off a "hurled/world" rhyme in stanza 1 as a demonstration of modern originality. Stanza 2 asks God to deliver us from societal ills that really do deserve to be prayed against, though it is surprising to see a hymn mentioning "bombs that shower destruction through the night" in a country that rains down such bombs on other people far more often than they rain on us. Is this criticizing our society and its governance? That is daring... but then, this book came out when Bush was still in office. I wonder if ELCA congregations still sing this hymn today. I appreciate what Reid is trying to do in putting in the church's mouth words that decry "pride of race and station," etc. But the church isn't going to change the world by mobilizing a corps of progressive political activists. If the peace of the gospel doesn't transform men's (and women's) hearts and lives, the only difference will be a different crowd of demagogues forcing their greeds and hatreds on everybody else.

715 "Christ, be our light" (first line: "Longing for light, we wait in darkness") is a Christian pop ballad by Bernadette Farrell (b. 1957). Stanza 1 asks that Christ make us His holy people, to give light to a world longing for light and truth. Stanza 2 asks that we become Christ's voice to proclaim the word of peace and hope. So far, so good—though already the repetitive pattern of the text has more than started to become tedious. Stanza 3 moves on to hunger and thirst, but its prayer that Jesus "make us your bread, broken for others," etc., harks back to the New Theology of the Sacrifice of the Mass that permeates this book—in which we are the sacrifice for the life of the world, while Jesus' body and blood are never even mentioned. Stanza 4 asks that we become God's building, sheltering those who long for warmth and a home; a strange application of the biblical description of the church as a house made of living stones, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the 1 Peter 2 concept of our "spiritual sacrifices" being acceptable to God because it and we are founded on Christ the Cornerstone.

717 "Let justice flow like streams" is by Presbyterian hymn-writer Jane Huber (b. 1926), set to the 18th century tune ST. THOMAS, which makes me think of "The Advent of our God." Huber's first stanza talks about the pure waters of justice giving refreshment, cleansing, and nourishment to life. This could be said of the righteousness of God that is graciously applied to sinners through faith in Christ; but instead, Stanza 2 makes clear that Huber is talking about "faith translated into deed" as we care for others. In other words, it's about works (of "justice, right, and peace"), not faith: and though it is defined by "God's plumb line," it is essentially our justice, not God's.

718 "In a lowly manger born" deserves to be mentioned not as an example of tacky hymnody, but as evidence that all hymns about "Justice, Peace" need not be as described above. Translated from a Japanese text by Kō Yūki (d. 1985) and set to the tune MABUNE by Seigi Abe (d. 1974), it very simply and briefly does everything all of the above hymns should have done, but don't. Stanza 1 points to specific ways Jesus' earthly life make him not just an example of compassion for the needy, but one who has undergone suffering and deprivation as one of us—"Behold the man!" Stanza 2 depicts Jesus in action, "giving of himself in love," and even calling sinners to new life—"Behold the man!" Stanza 3 concludes with the message of Christ crucified for our healing, and so showing us God's love. Only then does it invite us to follow in his footsteps. Well done! So where is the tackiness? It is in the editing of a hymnal that does not seem to distinguish between quality work like this and moralistic hackery like the hymns lampooned above.

719 "Where cross the crowded ways of life" by Frank North (d. 1935), is set to the attractive 19th-century tune WALTON. I have a theory that this tune would work better with a hymn whose last two lines were broken into rhyming couplets of four syllables each; but that's just my weirdness. Stanza 1 conjures an image of Jesus' voice reaching us above the noise pollution of life, including "the cries of race and clan" and "selfish strife." All right, one thinks at this point: this could be headed in an interesting direction. But rather than going further with the thought that Jesus' message has a higher claim on our fear, love, and trust than anyone or anything else, stanza 2 jumps from the sound of Jesus' voice to the sight of his tears over dens of poverty, violence, and greed—and it perpetrates another motivational-speaker catch-phrase with the words "catch the vision." My next quibble comes towards the end of Stanza 4, where the line "yet long these multitudes to view" forms one of those garden-path sentences one must read two or three times before one can untangle the subject from the predicate.

720 "We are called" (first line: "Come! Live in the light!") is a David Haas CoWo anthem that might play well in a megachurch after everybody has heard the song leader(s) perform it a few times. Only then would the sound of the "congregation" attempting to sing it (or even just the refrain) improve on the embarrassing mumble I would expect in all other circumstances. It is really written to be performed at the people, with instrumental bridges and backup singers and the whole shooting match. And I am concerned about the spiritual health of the congregation being fed this diet. The lyrics are a thin string of vaguely biblical phrases threaded between popcorn-like kernels of pious platitudes, decorating a theme that is more about us serving each other than living according to God's Word or being saved by Him. And if you look close, you might notice that there is neither Christ nor cross in it.

721 "Goodness is stronger than evil" is taken from Desmond Tutu's (b. 1931) An African Prayer Book, and its tune comes from the Scotland-based Iona Community, which Wiki identifies an ecumenical community that works for peace, justice, and experimenting with "new forms of relevant and participatory worship." John Bell's music is simple but nice, though it presupposes a group that can sing it in four parts. The single-stanza text consists of four statements similar to the opening line quoted above, followed by repetitions of "Vict'ry is ours through God who loves us." While I'm sure this is a good message, it is distinctly under-powered in contrast to the full depth of the message of Christ.

722 "O Christ, your heart, compassionate" is a text by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923) set to the 18th century melody ELLACOMBE, familiar to many as the tune to "Hosanna, loud hosanna." Stanza 1 takes a creative stab at relating God's incarnation in Christ to His closeness to humanity in all its needs. I'm just not convinced that "The heart of God, the heart of Christ combined in perfect rhyme" is a clear enough expression of the full union of God and man in the Person of Christ; it rather sounds as though "God" is one person and "Christ" is another. I also detect a certain banality in stanza 4's phrasing, "Come, make your church a servant church that walks your servant ways."

723 "Canticle of the Turning" (first line: "My soul cries out with a joyful shout") is Rory Cooney's (b. 1952) attempt to turn Mary's Magnificat into an Irish ballad. The music is a tune called STAR OF COUNTY DOWN, which sounds mysteriously similar to the Vaughan Williams tune KINGSFOLD (admittedly, a folk-tune adaptation). And while there is much to be said for the material Cooney packs into this hymn's four long stanzas, the folk-massy leanings of the music and the meter of the poetry suggests a lower standard of taste than I like to see in the Divine Service. Plus, I'm worried about the editors who classed this hymn under "Justice, Peace," which suggests a this-worldly, political slant on the canticle. There's even a line in the refrain ("Let the fires of your justice burn") and an even-more-often-repeated hint that "the world is about to turn" that, in this context, seems to have more to do with some kind of millennial reformation of the body politic than the kingdom of God that comes through the baby of a humble virgin.

724 "When the poor ones" (Cuando el pobre) is a four-stanza hymn in both Spanish and English. Most of what I have to say about it, I have already said about the bilingual hymns discussed above. To avoid repetition, I will only add that this hymn's distinctive feature is the theme that we see God among us when the poor give of what little they have, when the thirsty pass the cup to share water, when the wounded tend to others' hurts, etc. If it weren't for the refrain repeatedly telling us that we see God in these things, it would seem that all the good things that happen in this hymn come from within us. "When we choose love" (stanza 2), "when our spirits... when our voices... when our longings" (st. 3), "when the nations work to change..." (st. 4), even the Divine Passive of "when the stranger is accepted as our neighbor"—it's all on us, except for one line about "when the goodness (is) poured from heaven" and all those repeats of "We see God, here by our side, walking our way." Even so, I wonder: is that because God causes these things, or because he lets Himself be seen by those who are worthy?

I would love to finish up the "Justice, Peace" section (only four more hymns!), but right now the excuse that I've covered my 25 hymn-numbers for today seems awfully inviting. Bearing with tackiness is so hard, especially when you have to acknowledge it in the midst of a message that (arguably) ought to be proclaimed, to believers as well as unbelievers. The heart-breaking thing about this particular stretch of tackiness is the scope it gives one to imagine a church where this is almost the only message preached—one that, with the exception of only a few hymns, has nothing to do with faith in Christ.

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