Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tacky Hymns 46

The hymn selection of ELW (silent L) marches on... For those joining us late in the thread, that's Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), making the best of its target church bodies' case that "Lutheran" vs. any other flavor Protestant is just a matter of brand identity, like Chrysler vs. Dodge, Ford vs. Mercury, or Chevrolet vs. Buick: basically the same platform as the other brands, only with subtle cosmetic distinctions between them. So weep the spirits of Lutheran confessors over the centuries who resisted, even to the point of shedding blood, being forced to compromise between heavenly and human doctrine for the sake of peace and unity...

751 "O Lord, hear my prayer" is another minuscule ditty by Jacques Berthier and the Taizé Community, based on Psalm 102:1-2. As a standalone hymn it is very thin, with four repetitions of its opening line punctuated by either "When I call, answer me" or "Come and listen to me"—a prayer that asks nothing except that God would hear our prayer. In all fairness, it might have some usefulness as a refrain between petitions of a long prayer, its iterations serving to keep the people attentive while the minister drones on and on. But again, I suspect it of being the type of transcendental meditation hymn I have picked up on before, where the meaning of the words blurs into an ecstatic experience or a suggestible state of mind. And then there's the second stanza, italicized and modified by the rubric "OR," which makes it look like an attempt by the hymnal editors to take hymn-writing into their own hands: "The Lord is my song, the Lord is my praise," etc. There's nothing wrong with the words as such. It's just that you would have to repeat them a hypnotic number of times in order to obtain the effect that you have sung a hymn.

752 "Lord, listen to your children praying" is by Ken Medema (b. 1943), a blind songwriter who daylights as a music therapist for seriously hurting kids. As such, criticizing his work feels like kicking a puppy. But I don't think it is mean-spirited to point out that this four-line, one-stanza hymn, which including the harmony takes up only half a page in ELW, suffers from the same basic affliction as your average Taizé ditty: It's too short to be much use as a hymn, unless you repeat it ad nauseam. Like Berthier's music, it is harmonically static (with one or maybe two chord changes per bar, mostly to IV, V, or I chords), though there is one rather nice diminished chord in there at a dramatic moment. So, not to be unfairly critical, it's pretty bland stuff.

753 "Dona nobis pacem" is that arrangement of the final line of the Agnus Dei which, rendered in English, is: "Grant us peace." Like many fine musical settings of this liturgical text, it fills out its length (such as it is) by repeating its Latin text, repetitions that will multiply when the choir, children, or maybe (shudder) congregation try to sing it in a 3-part canon. None of this really offends me, except the idea of trying to get many of the congregations I have known to sing a 3-part canon, and the fact that space in a pew hymnal has been wasted on a Sunday School ditty that Mrs. Hasenpfeffer has probably already taught to the third-graders without using sheet music.

755 "Jesus, Savior, pilot me" is one that I have poked at before. I mention it again just to give an impression of how thickly the tackiness is strewn on this stretch of the ELW hit parade. Also, at this point, we've left the section titled "Prayer" and entered "Trust, Guidance." Just so you know.

756 "Eternal Father, strong to save" is William Whiting's (1825-78) four-stanza, Trinitarian hymn "for those in peril on the sea," wedded to the tune MELITA by John B. Dykes. It is a very successful combination of one of Dykes' more attractive pieces with a hymn that has created a niche for itself. In fact, the concept behind this hymn is so compelling that the other armed forces (besides the Navy) have added stanzas of their own, with the result that I (for example) once sang a verse for each branch of the U.S. military at a veterans'/reservists' "dining out" at my seminary. I remember it as a strenuous occasion, because I had to scream the hymn over the accompaniment of a phalanx of industrial-grade electric fans. But I digress. Attractive as it is, I still feel like making that "cat shaking its paws" gesture of ickiness after prolonged contact with its lush romanticism, and outside of Naval "dining outs" and chapel services on board ships, I don't see much use for such a niche-specific hymn.

I have only one complaint about the text of 760 "O Christ the same," by Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926): Its stanzas are twice as long as they should be. Metrically, they could be broken into twice as many stanzas of half the length; textually, this would do violence to a text whose structure (establishing an aspect of Christ's character before making an appeal based on the same) does not allow such a division. Because of the length of the stanzas, however, composer Carl Schalk (b. 1929) found room for a long melody (eight lines of 10 or 11 syllables each) that will be twice as difficult for the congregation to learn as the four-line alternative might have been. And the organist had better be watching his/her key signatures, because a couple of lines in the middle of the hymn switch to the parallel minor key and then back again. Other than that, and the sense that the hymn is taking its sweet time getting to the point, it's a reasonably good stab at a hymn riffing on the verse "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). It's just too bad that one has to work so hard to locate this unchanging Christ in the rapidly changing culture of doctrine and worship in ELW's target church bodies.

762 "Holy, holy, holy, holy" (Santo, santo, santo, santo)—I kid you not—is a long one-stanza hymn by Salvadoran composer Guillermo Cuéllar (b. 1955) and includes the Spanish version of its lyrics. As far as paraphrases of the Sanctus goes, it is pretty loose. Musically, it is strongly ethnic. Theologically, it smells vaguely of liberation theology, with its line about how God "accompanies our people" and "lives within our struggles" (not specifically mentioned in the Latin liturgical text) and in the final line's emphasis that the Good News is "that our liberation comes." In the context of an anglophone pew hymnal, its significance is probably triumphalistic, as I have suspected of many other sops to cultural diversity in this book. And in the context of a Lutheran church service in, say, Iowa City or Peoria, it's reads like a recipe for midwestern white people making themselves ridiculous.

763 "My life flows on in an endless song" is a classic piece of shmaltz by Robert Lowry (1826-99), better known to most of us by the last line of it concluding refrain: "How can I keep from singing?" Actually, I never heard this song until the St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang it at the funeral of one of its members, where the running metaphor of music and singing was especially poignant. It so effectively grabs one with a feeling of warm, gushy tenderness that, again, it feels mean-spirited to say anything against it. But there is so much to be said against it—not as a cultural artifact, but as a representative of Lutheran worship! Like several other hymns that I have been too chicken to pick on (like 759 "My faith looks up to Thee," whose popularity with the blue-haired set armors it against my minor quibbles), it hints at the attitude that says, "I am floating indifferently above the troubles of this world because I belong in heaven"—but which is not very true to the experience of most earthbound Christians. Nor is it encouraging to those who are faithfully engaged in a very earthy struggle to fulfill their vocation, to endure temptation, and to redeem the time. Finally, it conjures an idea of the "new creation," or the presence of Christ, that is infinitely far from the earthly means He has instituted (e.g., the Sacrament), located in the believer's ability to imagine that he hears a far-off echo of heavenly music ringing in his soul. How can I keep from singing, indeed? But now and then it behooves us to shut up and hear Jesus speaking.

768 "Lead me, guide me" is a contemporary gospel song by Doris Akers (1922-95), whose piano part (not printed in the pew edition) I can hear in my mind's ear, filling the duration of the tune's longer notes with classic R&B moves. Its melody is full of rhythmic pitfalls that will isolate the successful singer from the main body of the congregation, thereby guaranteeing that whatever you intend, it will inevitably become a piece for a soloist backed up by a select choir. And if that soloist doesn't have a soulful vibrato, she's being paid too much. As for the lyrics, what are they really but an excuse to keep singing this torch song to Jesus as long as it takes for the collection plate to go around a couple of times?

770 "Give me Jesus" (first line: "In the morning when I rise") is an African American spiritual with five repetitive stanzas and one repetitive refrain ("Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus"). It's a splendid choral arrangement, but not particularly well suited to congregational singing. It's a gorgeous cultural artifact, but not a particularly edifying instrument of teaching or witnessing. And while it models a laudable devotion to Jesus, its insistent harping on "Give me Jesus" misses a huge opportunity to confess how one is given Jesus. It's not even addressed to Him, which suggests that at bottom it's not a prayer or act of worship so much as a boast.

Boasting also plays a note in 771 "God, who stretched the spangled heavens" by Catherine Cameron (b. 1927), set to the early American tune HOLY MANNA. Stanza 1 moves on from recognizing God's creative brilliance to claiming kinship with him as creative beings. Stanza 2 moves forward into recounting some of mankind's achievements as a member of this fellowship of creators: space travel and splitting the atom. Stanza 3 closes the hymn with a prayer that God would guide us in our creativity to serve others, honor Him, and work toward the same goal as He. It's a surprising and interesting direction for a hymn to go from acknowledging God's creative might. But what is most surprising about it is how quickly it puts awe of the Creator behind it, as if we were on a basis of equality with Him. To my ear it sounds one small step away from determining that mankind's advances in science and technology have killed God altogether.

773 "Precious Lord, take my hand" is by Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993), "the father of black gospel music." According to Wiki, he wrote this song in 1932 while mourning the death of his wife and newborn son. If you wonder what I mean by snide references to a school of hymnody of the "recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford" persuasion, take this as your example. Besides T.E.F., it was also recorded by Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jim Reeves, and Roy Rogers. One can argue that, with its origin story, the song's traditionally emotion-choked delivery is well earned. But one can also argue that it's a solo number, not for congregational singing; that it expresses personal feelings, rather than confessing what the church believes and teaches; and that most Christians can distinguish between the type of music they like to hear at home (or in the car, or on a jukebox) and what is most appropriate for worship. Viewed in that light, there is something downright ridiculous about devoting space in a pew hymnal for a Tennessee Ernie Ford hymn.

774 "What a fellowship" (Leaning on the everlasting arms) is another hymn that I have already weighed and found tacky. And so ends another discouraging group of 25 hymn numbers in ELW. But take heart! There are less than 5 such groups to go, and then we can move on to another collection of risible hymnody. Hang in there, Lutherans!

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