Friday, January 31, 2014

Tacky Hymns 48

Approaching the end of Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), we continue to stumble (choking with laughter) over hymn selections that, in the context of Lutheran congregational singing, are just plain silly.

801 "Change my heart, O God" is a one-stanza hymn, with refrain, by Eddie Espinosa (b. 1953), copyrighted in 1982. It has the rhythm of a pop song, and so it will be of interest mainly to soloists who like that style, or perhaps a well-drilled vocal ensemble. This is not what congregations are catechized to sing. It is probably too tricky for them to perform without sounding embarrassingly lame. And its four lines of text (expressing a desire for sanctification, but with no gospel in view) don't seem to put the time set aside for a hymn to very good use. I mean, unless this is an excerpt from a much longer number, it would have to be repeated quite a few times just to last long enough to serve a real purpose.

805 "Lead on, O King eternal" by Ernest Shurtleff (1862-1917)1 is another hymn that prays for sanctification without speaking one word of gospel. It depicts the Christian walk, the struggle against sin, etc., in imagery of an army marching to war. The closest it comes to hinting at the means by which Christ enables us to overcome is a reference, late in the third stanza, to the "cross... lifted o'er us." Such hymns may have their uses, but I think one of them may be to wring the last drop of Christianity out of devout churchgoers.

808 "Lord Jesus, you shall be my song" (Jésus, je voudrais te chanter) is another notable example of this hymnal's attempt to make multiculturalism pass for catholicity, only with perhaps a slightly less useless token gesture than some of the others (given that some of the Ev. Lutheran Church in Canada's congregations and missions worship in French)—though one or two hymns in an otherwise anglophone hymnal are no substitute for the francophone book those folks really need. Yes, all four stanzas are printed in both English and French. Again, unsurprisingly amid the "Commitment, Discipleship" section of the hymnal, it is a hymn that offers Jesus one's devotion and witness throughout life's journey. The pleasant surprise comes in stanza 3, which actually confesses that Jesus "saved me by giving [His] body and blood," which puts it in a class above the previous two hymns, at least; though Stanza 4 is a little fuzzy as to how we locate Jesus' presence in our lives ("the sound of your steps by my side" just doesn't have a sacramental ring to it, in my opinion). In spite of the awkwardness of its meter, its musical setting makes it a very touching little piece. Perhaps the fact that it was composed by a Roman Catholic religious sisterhood, which has ecumenical ties to Taizé among other communities, highlights the even greater tackiness of many hymns supposedly representing evangelical voices in this book. I mean, how galling is it that a community devoted to good works gives us more gospel than half a dozen Protestant hymn writers put together?

809 "Send Me, Lord" (Thuma mina) is a South African traditional hymn whose English translation dates back to a 1984 album of "songs of praise and protest." Its three stanzas (not counting one in the original tongue) fall into the pattern "Jesus, ____ me, Jesus, ____ me, Jesus, ____ me, Lord," with the words send, lead, and fill each filling the blank for one stanza. There's a leader's part (hearkening to the "call and response" tradition) and some simple harmonies and rhythms characteristic of African music. Other than that and the flush of pride in our church's multicultural pretensions, there isn't much to be said in favor of singing this hymn during the worship hour.

810 "O Jesus, I have promised" is by John Bode (1816-74). This hymn grates on my sensibilities from Line One, simply by opening with "my" promise to the Lord as opposed to His promises to me. Later in Stanza 1, Bode boasts that "I" will not waver or wander so long as Jesus remains "by my side"/"my guide." This strikes me as a pretty weak confession of faith compared to Paul's "it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Stanza 2 begs Jesus to "let me feel you near me," also a far cry from the sacramental faith that says, "As Thou livest in me, let me also live in Thee," etc. Stanza 3 does well to ask Jesus to "let me hear you speaking," because until now one might have taken the impression that this Jesus we keep singing about is an imaginary comforter, molded to suit our needs. Stanza 4 does, finally, come down on the "Jesus, you have promised" note that should have sounded at the top. But in the second half of this stanza, we revert to discussing what I have promised, in a sort of reciprocal agreement with Jesus. How nice it is to have a god who meets you halfway.

812 "Faith of our fathers, living still" is the hymn by F. W. Faber that I sneered at much earlier in this thread. While no more needs to be said about that "anthem to a vague sense of religious conservatism," its first stanza crops up again in hymn 813, followed by three newly-written stanzas by Joseph Alfred (b. 1947). The new stanzas include one beginning with "Faith of our mothers," another with "Faith of our sisters, brothers too," suggesting that someone on the editorial board had fits over the sexism of the language of "fathers" and, missing the whole point of the hymn, felt that it could only be corrected by giving equal time to both genders. Perhaps this is an uncharitable flight of imagination, however; but whether it is or not, an unexpected consequence of it is a new wine that might actually deserve better than the old wineskin. Gender politics aside, the new stanza 2 emphasizes the spreading of God's word, stanza 3 the witness of those suffering today for the Christian faith, and stanza 4 the fact that faith is "born of God" and unites all who share "the struggle of the cross." In my opinion, the tackiest thing about Alfred's hymn is that he wasted the quality of his thoughts on a cheap knockoff of a classic hymn (or worse, an attempt to rehabilitate it by correcting its political deficiencies). When in doubt, err on the side of originality!

814 "Take, oh, take me as I am" is a John Bell (b. 1949) ditty in one brief stanza. Again, it is either an excerpt of something too long to print in the pew book, or a mantra to be repeated until the congregation reaches a suggestible state. Perhaps both. But... it is not a congregational hymn. Its text does not have the scope to be really useful as a teaching tool; its music comes to an inconclusive conclusion. It prompts thoughts in my head such as, "If the committee was so desperate to put the bottom half of this page to good use, why didn't they just print a nice block quote, or a prayer, or a half-plate illustration?"

815 "I want to walk as a child of the light" is by Kathleen Thomerson (b. 1934). Copyrighted in the 1970s, I've seen it around in some other books, so I'm surprised to find that I haven't touched on it before. Basically a harmless little piece, it troubles me for a few minor reasons. Firstly, in spite of its sweet and childlike appeal, it is really quite uninspired and could even be difficult to learn, once the congregation must come to grips with the length of its through-composed stanzas and the irregular way the text fits the notes. Secondly, very little of what it says or how it says it is at all striking. What little there is strikes me as putting too much emphasis on "my" own decisions and resolutions.

816 "Come, my way, my truth, my life" is a gorgeous poem by 17th century divine George Herbert, set to a really fine tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The tune is deceptively simple yet poignantly attractive, though the long melisma in its last phrase may either make it or break it for the musically unwashed. More troubling, however, is the prospect of singing this hymn as a congregation. There is no speed at which it could practicably be sung that would not cause the words and images of Herbert's lines to fly by too fast for most minds to grasp. To make it at all useful to the congregation, one would have to introduce the hymn with a lengthy dissertation on its structure and the intended meaning of some its allusions. I love that people get to see this hymn, just as I love the brave way The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary put John Donne's poem "Wilt Thou forgive the sin" out there for all to see. But both poems might more usefully be published in a supplemental volume of devotional poetry, complete with explanatory prefaces.

817 "You have come down to the lakeshore" (Tú has venido a la orilla) is a bilingual (Spanish and English) Bible-school ditty by Cesário Gabaráin (1936-91). In this sung narrative, the singer plays the role of one of the fishermen-apostles whom Jesus called to be a fisher of men. Singing it as a group presents difficulties, beginning with the very soloistic nature of the tune, and proceeding to the appropriateness of dramatic role-playing as congregational hymnody. In concept it blurs the boundaries between metaphor for an experience we are all supposed to have shared and testimonial of an unspecified individual's experience—and besides this ambiguity, there arises the question whether the experience here described applies to each Christian individually, or to the church as a whole, or to the ministry in particular. While you're tamping all these questions into your pipe, take a drag on this question: In what sense can everyone singing this truthfully say the words of the refrain, "Sweet Lord, you have looked into my eyes; kindly smiling," etc. I don't dare ask you what to make of the reference to "my fish nets" in Stanza 2, because I know you'll make a dirty joke out of it. And I won't even mention Stanza 4's line "You who have fished other waters," for the same reason. Granted, I'm a jerk for insisting that we interrogate each nice little ditty in this nit-picking way. On the other hand, you're a jerk for expecting me to swallow this bait without choking. After so many centuries of beautiful, churchly, and doctrinally clear hymnody, are we to make pew-book-room for such an awkward piece of trivial conceit as this?

818 "O Master, let me walk with you"2 is by Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a American Congregationalist minister who played an early leading role in both the Progressive and Social Gospel movements. These facts, together with the substance of his hymn, promote the depressed feelings that have grown throughout the survey of this section of the hymnal. If the editors had set out to replace any semblance of Lutheranism with an entirely different religious outlook, they couldn't have chosen a better selection of hymns whereby to do it. While asking Jesus to let us walk with him in paths of service toward others, Stanza 1 blurts out, "Tell me your secret"—but without specifying any further, it permits one to imagine that the secret in question is how "to bear the strain of toil, the fret of care." Since the application of forgiveness through Word and Sacrament isn't even remotely suggested, one gathers that this secret-telling is a transfer of moral rectitude that will take place via a direct working of the Holy Spirit within one's heart. Stanza 2 asks Christ to "help me the slow of heart to move by some clear, winning word of love," suggesting not so much the living and active power of the divine word proclaimed as the tact to say just the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. Stanza 3 again requests a more intimate sharing of Christ's presence, yet without any hint of sacraments; also, its phrasing "work that keeps faith sweet and strong" rather puts the cart before the horse.

819 "Come, all you people" (Uyaimose) is a Zimbabwean ditty in three stanzas, plus one stanza in the original language. As with several examples we have seen in this book, its music is written in the style of orally-transmitted harmony that African choirs, and even whole congregations, will readily sing, but that may find American Lutherans stumbling and blushing and mumbling in a most embarrassing way. The words and harmonies are very simple; the rhythms, not so much—not from the perspective of a realistic assessment of your congregation's musical abilities. The simplicity of the one and the difficulty of the other may lead put-upon parishioners to question—perhaps even aloud—whether it was worth all the hassle.

With hymn 819, the hymns' topical designation switches to "Praise, Thanksgiving"—a category that promises, if not deeper theology, at least fewer specific errors.

820 "Shout to the Lord" (first line: "My Jesus, my Savior") is a Christian pop song by Darlene Zschech (b. 1965), presupposing a congregation that can sing offbeat rhythms, wide intervals, and decorative flourishes in unison. Or maybe the assumption is that they'll just follow along with their eyeballs while a soloist or select ensemble sings it at them. Don't feel bad, CoWo fans. I would be just as unsparing of a classical tune that I thought was beyond the reach of a large group of musically untrained and unrehearsed singers. Those who stuff a hymn-book with such tunes have evidently lost sight of the reason hymn tunes, as such, were invented.

823 "Praise the Lord! O heavens, adore him" is set to Haydn's tune AUSTRIA, a.k.a. the Imperial Hymn, a.k.a. Deutschland über alles, for what it's worth. I happen to like the tune. But after witnessing the meltdown of a holocaust survivor upon hearing a different hymn set to this tune, I would advise hymnal editors to let it rest a while longer before re-introducing it. In the meantime, there are plenty of handsome alternate tunes that don't conjure newsreel footage of goose-stepping Nazis.

This segment of ELW ends with 825 "You servants of God," a blameless hymn of praise by Charles Wesley (1707-88), based on the angelic strains in the Book of Revelation, and set to a catchy tune by Michael Haydn (Joseph's little brother). I mention it only because of the fact that this hymn was a breath of fresh air. And when I am relieved to find a kernel from one of the fathers of Methodism sown among Lutheran furrows, it can only testify to the strain the last 25 hymns have placed on my composure, my dignity, and my philosophical outlook. To say nothing of my Lutheran good taste...

1Tune: LANCASHIRE by Henry Smart (1813-79). Many American Lutherans may recognize this as a tune to "The day of resurrection."
2Tune: MARYTON by H. Percy Smith (1825-98), a rather pale and uninspired specimen.


David R said...

It seems to me that the only required, non-negotiable stanza in "Faith of Our Fathers" is this one:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

Choosing this hymn when the primary purpose *isn't* specifically to ask the Blessed Virgin to intercede on behalf of Roman Catholicism in England, and those who have fairly recently been martyred for its sake, is IMO missing the point completely.

OK, maybe "completely" is too strong - the hymn can be doctored to not say "England" - but no matter how much doctoring is done, in essence it's about martyrs and the systemic persecution of the faithful. And even in the UK where the hymn originated, systemic martyrdom hasn't been a relevant topic for a long long time.

For a modern American Christian to presume to sing about keeping the faith despite murder and violent suppression is not merely tacky; it can also be seen as outrageously hypocritical.

I guess this is one of the exceedingly rare cases in which many modern American Christians have erred on the side of not taking words literally enough. :) (i.e. I don't think this hymn ever had much worthwhile to say other than what was right there on the page.)

But it's really difficult to show people that the reasons they have for wanting to sing a certain hymn are bad ones, in a way that's both convincing and inoffensive. And so such hymns stay in the hymn book. Again. And satisfying no one, because the new words ruin the old hymn AND the old hymn as it stood had already been irrelevant for many generations and wasn't worth saving.

David R said...

(Sorry: by "fairly recently been martyred" I meant to say that this hymn was relevant only while that was still the case, and therefore hasn't been relevant for a long time - I wasn't saying that there actually are recent martyrs in England.)

RobbieFish said...

Who knows, it might become relevant again. Intolerance of any form of Christianity that doesn't kowtow to the spirit of our times is brewing and it's already starting to cross from words to deeds.