Monday, June 27, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Saturday night, I went to see the sequel to Independence Day, the Roland Emmerich sci-fi/action blockbuster that came out in 1996, the year I graduated from college. Full of scenes of national landmarks blowing up, Will Smith being cool, Jeff Goldblum being smart, Brent Spiner being weird, Randy Quaid being weirder, Judd Hirsch being Jewish, Bill Pullman being President, and then-present-day people facing annihilation by a Far More Advanced But Terrifyingly Nasty Alien Species (FMABTNAS), the original ID4 has become a mainstay of U.S. popular culture since then. What's really weird is moving forward 20 years in real time to see a sequel, set 20 years later, but in a world completely different from ours. How could it not be, after beating the FMABTNAS and reverse-engineering the dickens out of the wreckage they left behind?

So, a lot of stuff happens, and it's really action packed. There are more scenes of desperate courage, more inspiring sacrifices, more exploding landmarks, and more touching relationships. The annoying bureaucrat proves himself on the field of battle. The hot-dog pilot wins the heart of the ex-president's daughter. The goofy scientist wakes up out of a 20-year coma and saves the non-FMABTNAS side of a galactic war - going on, in the final frames of the film, to hint at a series of sequels in which mankind "takes the fight to the enemy." Except what landmarks will they blow up then?

Jeff Goldblum, who trailed only Will Smith in the original film's credits, trails only Liam Hemsworth in this one's. (Which Hemsworth is that? Of the three heartthrob-actor Hemsworth brothers, he's the youngest; Chris is the one who plays Thor in the Avengers movies, and Luke is the one you've probably never actually seen. Liam is the Hunger Games one.) Sneaking ahead of the also returning Bill Pullman in the billing is Jessie Usher, who currently plays a basketball phenom on cable TV's Survivor's Remorse, and here plays the Will Smith character's grown-up stepson. Pullman has worked steadily since his previous appearance in this series as President Thomas Whitmore, but not in anything you've seen; this may be his best shot at breaking back into visibility. Playing Whitmore's grown-up daughter is horror-film maven Maika Monroe. Robert Loggia makes his final film appearance in this movie, reprising his ID4 role as an old soldier.

Also re-upping are Hirsch (lately of the late and lamented TV series "Forever"), Spiner (still best remembered as Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), Vivica A. Fox (as the ill-fated widow of Smith's character, who has somehow managed to die off-screen). Playing two subsequent Presidents of the U.S. are well-known character-actors Sela Ward (TV's "Sisters" and "Once and Again") and William Fichtner ("Armageddon"). Other principals include Chinese supermodel Angelababy as a (surprise!) Chinese fighter pilot; French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg as a (surprise!) French psychiatrist/love interest for Goldblum; DeObia Oparei (actually a Brit, of Nigerian ancestry) as a Congolese warlord who specializes in slaying FMABTNASes with a pair of katanas; and Travis Tope as Hemsworth's best friend who, surprisingly (spoiler alert!) survives all the action. Tope seems strangely familiar for a guy who has only been in one production I have ever seen, and that an episode of the (also late and lamented) TV series "Battle Creek."

Big cast. Ensemble movie. Lots of irons in the fire. Action cutting from one group of protagonists to another. Characters you want to see more of, disappearing off the screen for far too long at a time. Surprisingly intricate bundle of plot threads braiding to a pretty intense climax. Action, action, action. And of course, special effects. But the characters carry it. And although no one ever tries to sell quite the load of inspirational oratory that Pullman did in the first movie, the overall theme of the planetwide underdog fighting to its last stand is pretty gripping. All in all, a popcorn movie of the first order. It will be one of maybe four or five movies I see all this year (including the couple I've already seen), but I'm glad I waited for it... and didn't miss it.

On the more critical side... I thought the whole gay-life-partner-relationship storyline built around Spiner's character was pointless and slowed the pacing down, especially in the scene where it ended. I found Usher's character to be disappointingly boring, considering who his stepdad was; all the fun, hot-doggy coolness seems to have passed diagonally to Hemsworth, and the relationship between their characters lacks chemistry - perhaps because it is Tope who really seems to be the Hemsworth character's best buddy. The Goldblum/Gainsbourg romance also lacks the chemistry of his "rekindling old flame" dynamic with Margaret Colin in the original. Goldblum and Hirsch, meantime, get very little screen time together, which is a lost opportunity to revive a strong dramatic and comic duo. There's a Tope/Angelababy romance that, I'm sorry, completely fails to sizzle. There doesn't seem to be enough time to make the kids who tag along with Hirsch interesting. Probably the most impressive character touches are Sela Ward's last words onscreen ("There will be no peace!"), the payoff of Pullman's character arc, and the bromance between Oparei and the weaselly bureaucrat with the heart of a warrior, played by Nicholas Wright. There are almost no lines that struck me as imminently quotable, partly due to the lack of James Rebhorn ("Pardon me, Mr. President, but that's not entirely accurate"), Harvey Fierstein ("Screw my lawyer!"), Randy Quaid ("Up yours!"), Will Smith (passim), Harry Connick Jr., etc. The only one that comes to mind at this moment is Hemsworth's "Did you wet your pants a little? Me too," or maybe Wright's "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me!" And of course, Spiner is always good for a laugh (except when he isn't).

The battles with the aliens are great, though a certain something also seems to be missing from the jeopardy. Instead of the whole planet being surrounded by a swarm of city-destroying ships, this time there's just one super-big ship that parks on top of the Atlantic Ocean, with bits of it standing on three continents, and a slightly less super-big ship that separates off it like the saucer section of the U.S.S. Enterprise (Captain Picard era), plus little two-seater drones that at times are almost difficult to see at the scale set by the mothership. The alien queen is a big mother, and no mistake; but even with her seeming invulnerability, her position always seems basically vulnerable. With the aid of a non-hostile alien intelligence who sort of becomes Spiner's totally platonic girlfriend (totally), the prognosis seems inescapable: We're going to kick alien ass. I almost feel sorry for the slimy critters.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Word Becoming Flesh

The Word Becoming Flesh
by Horace D. Hummel
Recommended Ages: 16+ (some prior study may be indicated)

This 1979 "introduction to the origin, purpose, and meaning of the Old Testament" is part of a set of seminary or pre-seminary instruction titles that Concordia Publishing House, the publishing organ of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, put out in the wake of a traumatic controversy now remembered under the catchword "Seminex" (Seminary in Exile). Its "New Testament isagogics" companion was The Word of the Lord Grows by the late Martin H. Franzmann. I think it's important to sum up this history up-front, to make the position clear. Seminex was a dramatic 1974 walk-out by some of the faculty at Concordia Seminary (LCMS) in St. Louis, Mo., eventually merging with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and leading to the formation of a dissident church body called the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, which in turn joined two other Lutheran groups to form what is now the U.S.'s largest and most liberal Lutheran body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There is anecdotal evidence the AELC component of the merger was the seed of ELCA's sharply leftward development since then.

Meanwhile, the Seminex debacle left political and theological ripples in the LCMS that have not quite settled to this day. It arose from questions about the study of Scripture - specifically, to what extent the seminary of a church body that subscribed to the "inerrancy of Scripture" (A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod, 1932) should be allowed to espouse the Bible-scholarship methods of destructive historical criticism. Then-LCMS President J.A.O. Preus threw the power of his office behind teaching the Bible as inspired Scripture; the Seminex faculty publicized the view that the only responsible scholarship was up-to-date with current critical theories. Hummel's book doesn't go into these politics, but the influence of Seminex issues is evident in the amount of space he devotes to critiquing the critics.

Hummel introduces the books of the Old Testament in terms that will be most helpful to ministers and theological students preparing to teach laypeople about them. In general terms, he discusses where, when, by whom, and in what circumstances they are believed to have been written, the condition of the Hebrew text as it comes down to us, and sometimes important variants in Greek, Latin, or other languages. He then moves on to an overview of their form, structure, style, and theological content. But at each step of this general outline, the view at eye level is mainly of the myriad ways critical scholars have cast doubt on the traditional understanding of the biblical message, along with any possible ways the faithful may refute these quibbles. He notes the extent to which skeptical scholarship has actually contributed positive insights for the faithful Bible interpreter, as well as advances in linguistics and archaeology that have effectively mooted critical theories long bandied about. He also frequently remarks on the shortcomings in many conservative Christians' approach to Old Testament texts, highlighting themes a Lutheran preacher or teacher should be keen to stress - as well as too-easy exegetical pitfalls that must be avoided.

Writing without footnotes (though under protest, to judge by his preface), Hummel states his case in an elegant style of prose that presupposes a reader of advanced literacy and some previous, at least entry-level theological study. But his argument is always eloquent, cogent, and balanced. Reading it, I picked up stuff I intend to use in my own study of Old Testament texts, if not in future teaching and preaching to others - from an outline of the Book of Leviticus that I instantly wanted to try out as a way to make that book's structure and message clear, to his hint that Leviticus and Chronicles are "absolutely indispensable collateral reading with the Psalms." I tried out a couple of Hummel's points about Esther this morning in a chat with my pastor, who was considering using that book in an upcoming program of some kind, and he seemed as surprised as I was at the intelligence of the sounds coming out of my mouth. I am also attracted by the fact that, although he isn't a slave to the priority of the Masoretic Text (which may not at all points really be "the original Hebrew"), he arranged his introduction to the books of the Old Testament in the MT order, with Torah (the five books of Moses) followed in order by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and "the Twelve," i.e. Hosea through Malachi), and finally the "Hagiographa," or "Writings" (everything else, beginning with Psalms, ending with Chronicles; with Ezra-Nehemiah in one heap; and with the five Megilloth, books customarily associated with the chief Hebrew festivals, right in the center).

Hummel writes in a manner to lead the reader to appreciate not only the Holy Spirit's intended message through each book, but also their merits as literature. He writes to make you eager to read them again, to meditate on them in depth, and to reconsider things you may have hastily passed over in previous read-throughs. To be sure, at times he writes in a linguistic register that seems a sovereign cure for insomnia - and then again, he writes at such length that holding the book sometimes gave me hand cramps. But that length is divided into manageable chunks by the structure of the material, and the difficulty of plowing through it is at least partly a function of the complexity of the subject. Nevertheless, what Hummel manages to poke through the mental fog of your under-prepared and easily-distracted mind, if you can focus on it, is very persuasive.

Horace Hummel (unlike, alas, Franzmann) is still living, I believe. I met him once or twice at a church we both occasionally visited in southern California. I never had much chance, until I read this book, to sit at his feet and take in what he had to teach, but I can now say from experience that he is a treasure to the Lutheran faithful. But from our brief contact I carried away the impression of a still sharp and very faithful Lutheran mind. CPH has also published his two-volume commentary on Ezekiel, which is both way more recent than this book, and way out of my price range. This book, on the other hand, remains in print (though it wasn't required reading during my theological studies), and it's also available in digital form.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is the middle Marlowe: the fourth of seven mystery novels Chandler completed, all featuring the hard-boiled, Los Angeles-based "private operative," Philip Marlowe. If it seems familiar to readers of the previous installments (The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The High Window) it may be because they were all developed from the same, previously published short stories. This doesn't, however, necessarily mean they have no surprises, intriguing twists, or unique characters, each book its own. Ask me about this book, though: Did I guess whodunit? I answer: Yes. But now ask me: Did that diminish my pleasure reading the book? I answer: No.

Actually, the murders in this book - and there are several, all tangled together - were each done by a different character, some of whom were themselves victims of the later crimes. And if Marlowe isn't always there when the body drops, he is generally there when it bobs to the surface; or, in what seems to be a recurring theme in his detective career, it's there when he wakes up after being knocked out by a blow to the head. And even when both Marlowe and the reader seem to work out how it all happened at the same time, he saves this knowledge for the right time to reveal it, and you happily go along with him in his little manipulative game, because the effect of the full reveal on whoever else is left standing at the end is just priceless.

In this adventure, a businessman hires Marlowe to trace his missing wife, last seen a month earlier at their cabin in the mountains. Soon after that last confirmed sighting, Crystal Kingsley telegrammed her husband from El Paso, informing him she was planning to get a Mexican divorce and to marry a certain fast young man. But Kingsley says he has met said fast young man recently, and the guy denied running away with his wife. Marlowe visits the beefcakey Chris Lavery and gets the same story from him. But after a visit to the cabin in the mountains only turns up the dead body of the caretaker's wife, missing since the same day Crystal disappeared, Marlowe decides to take a second crack at Lavery and finds him dead too. Before he can get his head around these two murders, Marlowe finds reason to fault the suicide ruling in the death of a woman who lived across the street from Lavery, and he gets tangled up with some crooked cops, and he has a close encounter with that species without which no hard-boiled novel would be complete: the femme fatale. After that late point in the proceedings, only two more characters manage to die before the end of the book.

No surprise to anyone tuned into the themes of hard-boiled fiction, Marlowe's L.A. is a brutal, corrupt, dangerous place, full of deeply rooted disorders and complex man-woman issues that frequently, not to say regularly, work themselves out in murder. It's a place of darkness belied by the blinding sunshine, and of coldness made ironic by the suffocating heat. It's a place where cops boast about killing a case pretty, where it's unwise to turn your back to a curtained doorway, and where a little fear and loathing can take you a long way. Set sometime during World War II (the book rolled out in 1943), it is also set in an interesting between-time, in which rubber rationing for the war effort has already begun, but civil-defense blackouts haven't; in which urban homicide investigations include a touch of CSI, while a small-town constable might still engage in a quick-draw contest. It's a world where sudden enmities and strange, surprising friendships can flower at whirlwind speed, and in which one sees attractive people of both sexes as well as gruesome images of death. And through it all Marlowe threads his tortuous, wise-cracking, self-belittling, almost but not quite cynical way, kept going by his own notion of what is at least minimally right to do.

As usual, I got to the end of this book with a way-too-long list of classic Chandler lines that I wanted to quote in my review, including a wonderful meta-mystery speech in which Marlowe mocks the inevitable scene in which the villain, holding the sleuth at gunpoint, wastes time speechifying instead of pulling the trigger. This almost fourth-wall-breaking passage, in which Chandler seems to gaze at us over the rims of his spectacles with an ironic crease at the side of his mouth, doesn't prevent him from putting several long paragraphs in Marlowe's mouth later on, explaining to a seemingly surprised killer what the killer must already know. In such moments, an experienced mystery reader must confront the fact that, if the story is going to make sense, the reasons everything happened must, when revealed, be not very surprising. What then makes the mystery worth reading is the rich setting, the vivid characters, the sharp dialogue, and the sleuth who draws you willingly into his inner world. And that, no pun intended, this book has in spades.

Career of Evil

Career of Evil
by Robert Galbraith
Recommended Ages: 14+

J. K. Rowling's third "Cormoran Strike" novel, written under a pseudonym she initially adopted in order to test whether she could succeed as an adult mystery writer without the help of her "Harry Potter" fame, proves once again that she really has it. Mummies and Daddies may want to cover their kiddies' eyes or ears, though. This book is very adult in language and content.

London private investigator Cormoran Strike and his secretary/partner Robin have been doing well in the wake of the first two well-publicized mysteries they solved together. But when a bicycle messenger hands Robin a box containing a girl's severed leg, the impact on their business puts the lie to the proverb that "there's no such thing as bad publicity." Their caseload suddenly dwindles to two clients and sinks from there, while a psychopath who likes to cut trophies off his victims' bodies terrorizes London - a psychopath who bears a personal grudge against Strike.

At first blush, Strike can think of four men who might have it in for him and who might capable of such things. One is a gangster he once testified against. Two are ex-soldiers whose careers Strike ended while serving as a plainclothes military detective: one was convicted of spousal abuse on Strike's testimony; the other, a child rapist, went scot-free with brain damage that he blamed on Strike. The fourth suspect is his own stepfather, a death-metal rocker who, Strike believes, murdered his mother.

There are points in all four suspects' favor. The gangster, who already has a record of mailing body parts to people, is actually the one Strike is sure didn't send the leg. But the police continue focusing on that angle, leaving Robin and Strike to steal time from their last paying clients and try to trace the other three possible killers. And a killer there definitely is, attacking more and more frequently - sometimes maiming, sometimes killing - and all the while planning to bring the bloodshed right to Strike's doorstep.

This book is a disturbingly immersive visit to the dark side of London, into the mind of a truly twisted person, into the procedures and problems of detective work, and into the increasingly complicated relationship between Robin - who reveals a terrible secret from her past - and Strike, who faces a monster from his youth that is no secret at all. Robin's plans to marry her hometown sweetheart Matthew also come in for some big complications, but the crisis that will leave fans of this series chewing their nails affects the partnership between the two protagonists - leading to a final page, a final paragraph, and a final sentence whose implications on the future of the series will leave their grip felt inside.

A recommended accompaniment to this book is an audio playlist of Blue Öyster Cult songs, lines of which appear in the headings of many chapters. Until now I have only been familiar with two or three of their biggest hits. I just wikied them and saw a recent photo suggesting that lead singer Eric Bloom, who is five years older than my father, currently looks exactly like me. I guess that says it all for clean living. Their lyrics add another disturbing dimension to an already spooky portrait of the mind of a murderer. One outcome of this wholesale use of one band's lyrics in the book is a rare sense of a novel having a specific musical score. It gives me another reason to hope Hollywood leaves these particular J. K. Rowling books alone: turning this one into a Blue Öyster Cult music video just wouldn't be as creepy as the effect of those snippets of song lyrics on the sound editor of my mind.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dream with Little Angels

Dream with Little Angels
by Michael Hiebert
Recommended Ages: 13+

Ten-year-old Abe is the bright-for-his-age son of Alvin, Alabama's only police detective, a widowed mother of two named Leah Teal. Through his eyes, we see her wrestle with the disappearance of two teenage girls - both within a year of her puberty-stricken daughter Carry's age - and a brutal crime that brings back memories of a case she failed to solve before Abe was born. Leah must juggle a daughter who wants to sneak out at night to meet older boys, a son who believes their new neighbor across the street is up to no good, and a sense of failure that has come back with a vengeance, to find the real killer and the girl he still holds prisoner, even after the other cops think they have found the guy. Luckily, her too-curious-for-his-own-good son is a master at spotting things others have missed.

Abe is a delightful narrator: full of boyish goofiness and vulnerability, unable to tell whether something he says is inadvertently racist or not (to his mother's constant dismay), cool enough to put up with the oddness of his best friend Dewey, and basically good-hearted. His mistaken belief that he knows how to get through to his difficult sister adds a sprinkle of picaresque irony, and his ability to cope with gruesome discoveries is just a tiny bit disturbing - all part of a fascinating package. It will be interesting to see this kid grow and become more useful, or at least more keenly observant, of his mother's crime-solving process in books to come.

This is the first book of what I have seen described as either the "Detective Leah Teal" series or the "Alvin, Alabama" novels. Its sequels include Close to the Broken Hearted, A Thorn Among the Lilies, and the June 2016 release Sticks and Stones. The Canadian author has also written the novels Dolls and Darkstone, the short-story collection Sometimes the Angels Weep, and a book about writing titled Journeys Under the Moon.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Copyrighted Hymns in TLH

Years ago, at the latest when I was studying at a Lutheran seminary, I first encountered the rumor that the contents - though not necessarily the page formats - in The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941; hereafter TLH) were all in the pubic domain. I came into existence amid Lutherans who used TLH in weekly worship. I experienced the introduction of the succeeding hymnal, Lutheran Worship (CPH, 1982; hereafter LW), which was still the hymnal being used to train Missouri Synod pastors in leading worship when I was at the seminary in the late 1990s. Later still, as an organist/choir director of an LCMS church in St. Louis, I got to be part of a team that introduced CPH's Lutheran Service Book (LSB) to the congregation when it came out in approximately 2006. I have also, along the way, participated in the roll-out of another new hymnal (the Evangelical Lutheran Synod's Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, c.1995), and belonged to a church that used still another (1913's Lutheran Hymnary), and taken every opportunity I could to study the contents of anglophone Lutheran hymnals and to assimilate them into my creative output, such as organ preludes, choir anthems, etc.

So imagine my disgust when I was first alerted, back in the days when LSB was being introduced, to the fact all TLH's contents aren't, in fact, public domain. More recently, I found on CPH's website a table specifying exactly which hymns are still under copyright protection, along with a notice that the LCMS publishing house intends to defend its rights to TLH in general until approximately the year 2036 - nearly a century from the book's publication date.

In other words, far from encouraging hymn-oriented creative writers, composers, commentators, and curriculum creators to make full use of our church's rich heritage of hymnody, CPH has stayed on top of all its renewals, pushing the assertion of its rights to the limits of the law.

Also, irritatingly, the format of their table of still-copyrighted hymns only gives hymn numbers, the copyright dates of the hymn texts or translations, and ditto of just a couple of tunes. You have to page through the book to find out which hymns are off-limits - or at least, virtually so, since any plan to use them founders on the slow, complex, and uncertain process of persuading the publishing house to give permission for it. A possible side-effect of this busy-work is that hymnody-oriented creators may feel discouraged from doing anything with any text taken from TLH, and will look elsewhere for material to work with. And that could mean missing opportunities to create excellent choral pieces, or writing original tunes or hymn arrangements, of pieces that in most cases really are in public domain.

So here I am to make it easy for you. If you are a creative artist with a fondness for Lutheran hymnnody, and you're worried about the legal ramifications of using anything printed in TLH, here are exactly which hymns to look out for. It's pretty much open season on the rest. Also, I will note along the way some practical alternatives to using the copyrighted bits of TLH, which may keep alive your dreams of doing something with one or more of these hymns.

The good news is, CPH is only still defending its rights concerning two hymn tunes in TLH. Please understand that all the copyrights listed below are held by CPH.

The first is SALVATOR NATUS, the tune to hymn 86, "Christ the Lord to us is born." The credit line says the tune is a 14th century Bohemian product, so I gather the copyright only applies to the arrangement. A slightly catchier version of this tune appears under the title NARODIL SE KRISTUS PÁN in LW and LSB, set to the text "Let our gladness have no end." I think you could get away with using this tune, provided you come up with a public-domain translation of the text and a new harmonization. There's just no way CPH owns a 14th-century Bohemian melody.

The other tune is SEPTEM VERBA, © 1939 by Bernhard Schumacher, a wonderful tune set to the seven-part litany-type hymn on Jesus' seven last words, "Jesus, in Thy dying woes" (TLH 180). I hate to say it, but on this one you're just going to have to choose a different tune. Fortunately, there are some excellent alternatives. Get in touch if you want to know where to find them.

Again mercifully, we find most of the copyrighted hymn texts in TLH are actually translations from hymns originally written in German, Latin, Slovak, Danish, etc. When it comes to those, you have options to work with - such as getting your own translation done, or going back to an older translation published before TLH. But there are a few sad cases where the hymn is just plan off-limits, unless you are willing to wrangle a permission out of CPH's copyright department. Hymns originally in English, that were evidently written for TLH, include:
  • Hymn 482, "Dear Lord, to Thy true servants give," ©  1937 by W. Gustave Polack, who seems to have been to TLH what Jaroslav Vajda was to LW, or what Stephen Starke was to LSB.
  • Stanzas 2-3 of Hymn 510, "Savior, sprinkle many nations," © 1927 by Polack. Stanza 1, by Arthur C. Coxe, is dated 1851, and so is not protected. 
  • Hymn 629, "Let children hear the mighty deeds," altered form of Isaac Watts' 1719 text (stanzas 1-3, 5), plus an original stanza 4 © 1938 by the same Schumacher who composed SEPTEM VERBA. Actually CPH's list of copyrighted hymns doesn't make the distinction that it is only protecting Schumacher's stanza; it appears to claim ownership of the entire hymn, presumably on the grounds of "alt." Getting around this one might be as easy as going back to Watts' original version.
  • Hymn 639, "For many years, O God of grace," © 1938 by William M. Czamanske, another frequent contributor to TLH.
  • Hymn 640, "God the Father, Son, and Spirit," © 1941 by Polack - evidently one of those "written for that hymnal but never seen again" productions, of which TLH has remarkably few examples compared to other books (cf., for example, Service Book and Hymnal, 1958).1

Here's the damage from CPH's proprietary translations of hymns in TLH, with some remarks now and then about what can be done with them.
  • Hymn 6, "Kyrie, God Father in heaven above," 12th-century Latin, 16th-century German, and translation © 1939 by Polack. What a shame! This is one of those great liturgical-paraphrase hymns from the Reformation period, traditionally attributed to Luther himself. But if you're not going to sing it straight out of the hymnal or via some other CPH copyright license, you'd better do your own translation or find one in an older, public domain work. I'm not sure the latter will work in this case, since this is in a certain class of classic chorales that TLH first helped popularize in English-speaking Lutheranism, to the extent it can be described as popular. It should be more widely known. It's a parade example (to borrow a phrase I picked up from Horace Hummel) of the kind of hymn that cries out for a new arrangement by one of today's gifted young church-music composers who are passionate about great hymnody. Their best chance is to collaborate with one of today's gifted young hymn translators!
  • Hymn 7, "As we begin another week," 17th-century German by Martin Wandersleben, translation © 1940 by Polack. Meh, CPH can have it.
  • Hymn 42, "O Thou Love unbounded," 1735 German text by J. J. Rambach, translation © 1940 by Polack.
  • Hymn 45, "Now the hour of worship o'er," 1680 German text by Hartman Schenck, translation of stanza 3 © 1938 by Oscar Kaiser. For some reason (possibly an error in its table of copyrighted hymns in TLH), CPH does not seem to be defending the "composite" translation of stanzas 1-2, though many other "composite" translations are listed below.2
  • Hymn 78, "Hail the day so rich in cheer," 15th century Latin, translation © 1940 by Polack. There are other, earlier translations of this hymn, though their meter is a little different, requiring a different variant of the tune.
  • Hymn 81, "O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is," cento from a 1653 German hymn by Paul Gerhardt, composite translation © 1941. Generally, when it says "composite," that means you may be able to dig back through earlier hymnals and find one of the original translations it was modeled on, such as ones by Richard Massie or Catherine Winkworth. A good place to start is the old Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book, also published by CPH in various editions between 1912 and 1931.
  • Hymn 82, "Come rejoicing, praises voicing," 17th-century Slovak by Tranoscius, composite translation © 1941. My advice under the previous number applies here as well, only with a change in the names of the earlier translators. The LCMS still has a non-geographic "Slovak District," a remnant of a 20th-century merger with the Slovak Evangelical Lutheran Church; the late Vajda was one of the treasures the synod reaped from that connection with Slovak-American Lutheranism. If this is the hymn you want to write your great cantata on, I would advise getting in touch with some of those SELC District folks and see if they can't put you in touch with pre-TLH translations of Tranoscius and his ilk, or with someone who can still translate from Slovak for you.
  • Hymn 86 (again), "Christ the Lord to us is born," 15th-century Czech, to which CPH asserts © 1941. This is confusing, however, since the book credits the translation of stanzas 1-4 to Vincent Pisek (d. 1929), and stanzas 5-6 to John Bajus, 1939. Possibly, this was the first time Pisek's translation was published in English. But I still think CPH's ownership of the rights to his stanzas may be open to challenge.
  • Hymn 89, "To Thee my heart I offer," 17th-century German, composite translation © 1941. I don't recall this ever being used in any congregation I have worshiped in, so again I say, meh.
  • Hymn 90, "Come, your hearts and voices raising," 1667 German by Gerhardt, composite translation © 1941. This really is a pity. This is a great Christmas hymn. But by now, you know what I would advise you to do regarding a "composite" translation.
  • Hymn 126, "Arise and shine in splendor," 1628 German by Martin Opitz (abbreviated), 1937 translation by Gerhard Gieschen. CPH's assertion of © 1941 is a bit confusing, but it may simply reflect the date of the translation's first publication. Again, it's a pity to see CPH clamp down on a classic Epiphany hymn like this, but there's always translating it anew, or combing old books for earlier versions.
  • Hymn 142, "A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth," 1648 German by Gerhardt (cento), composite translation © 1941. Again, a pity. This is an incredibly important Passion hymn. Advice: the usual.
  • Hymn 150, "Lord Jesus, Thou art going forth," with German stanzas by two different 17th-century authors, and Polack's translation dated simply "1940" in the book, but for some reason "© 1927, 1941" according to CPH. It's a big meh for me, since I don't think the hymnal is exactly the place for an allegorical dramatic dialogue between "Jesus" and "The Soul."
  • Hymn 169, "Jesus Christ, our Lord most holy," 16th-century (Slovak? Czech?) by Michal Grodzki, translation © 1939 by Bajus. I like it, and I'm afraid it's going to be hard to replace Bajus' translation; so in this case, I have no good suggestions.
  • Hymn 172, "O sacred Head, now wounded," 12th century Latin ascribed to Bernard, by way of 1658 German by Gerhardt, composite translation © 1941. This is "the" Passion hymn, so finding one's way behind the copyrighted CPH version will be important, at least for the next 20 years. You know what I would suggest.
  • Hymn 187, "Christ is arisen," 12th century German, translation © 1939 by Polack. Unbelievable. But you know.
  • Hymn 198, "He's risen, He's risen," a cento of C.F.W. Walther's 1860 Easter hymn, translated from German by Anna F. Meyer, © 1937. Again, this is kind of sad. But getting a new German translation isn't all that hard.
  • Hymn 211, "Lo, Judah's Lion wins the strife," 17th-century Czech, translation © 1940 by Bajus. Again, this could be a harder translation to replace. And it's a pity, because each of several tunes I have seen associated with this hymn would be fun to work into a chorale motet.
  • Hymn 216, "On Christ's ascension I now build," 1636 German by Josua Wegelin, translation © 1938 by Czamanske. Again, if there isn't an older translation to be found, it won't be too hard to create a new one. Hint: The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal is a good source for the original German texts of a lot of these hymns, in case you can't get hold of an old German Gesangbuch (which would be remarkable).
  • Hymn 224, "Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord," Luther's 1524 German, composite translation © 1941. Again, unbelievable. Again, you know what to do.
  • Hymn 238, "All glory be to God alone," a 16th-century paraphrase of the Gloria sometimes attributed to Luther, translation © 1940 by Polack. Options: dig, or retranslate.
  • Hymn 243, "Oh, that I had a thousand voices," a cento from Johann Mentzer's 1704 German, composite translation © 1941.
  • Hymn 249, "Isaiah, mighty seer, in days of old," Luther's 1526 trope on the Sanctus, composite translation © 1941. Typical. You know what to do.
  • Hymn 253, "In one true God we all believe," a 17th-century Slovak paraphrase of the creed from Tranoscius, composite translation © 1941. At least outside Slovak-American circles, this seems to be the least-used of several creed-hymns in TLH; which is not to say it wouldn't be a cultural loss to see it disappear. See my remarks on Hymn 82.
  • Hymn 260, "O Lord, look down from heaven, behold," Luther's 1523 German paraphrase of Psalm 12, composite translation © 1941. Drat; but you know what to do.
  • Hymn 264, "Preserve Thy Word, O Savior," abbreviated from Andreas Gryphius' 1676 German, translation © 1938 by William J. Schaefer. Again, it would be a pity not to be able to work with this hymn, but another German translation shouldn't be too hard to come by.
  • Hymn 266, "O God, our Lord, Thy holy Word," cento of a 1527 German hymn, translation © 1938 adapted from Polack. Really! We've got to find a PD (public domain) translation of this!
  • Hymn 267, "If God had not been on our side," Luther's 1524 paraphrase of Psalm 124, composite translation © 1941. Sheesh. You know what to do!3
  • Hymn 275, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," cento of a 1535 German paraphrase of the Magnificat, translation © 1940 by J. Theodore Mueller - presumably the same J.T. Mueller famous for his one-volume "Cheater-Pieper" dogmatics, which has helped confuse generations of LCMS divinity students about several points of doctrine on which the three-volume Pieper tends to be more clear.4 Anyway, this may be another hymn that needs to be re-translated.
  • Hymn 299, "Dear Father, who hast made us all," 1541 German by Albert Knapp, translation © 1939 by Czamanske. It's one of only a few baptism hymns in TLH, so we need this hymn!
  • Hymn 313, "O Lord, we praise Thee," a 15th-century German communion hymn to which Luther added two more stanzas in 1524, composite translation © 1941. The importance of this hymn is beyond mind-blowing; one survey of LCMS congregations in the 1990s showed this to be the most well-known hymn in TLH. Luckily, that word "composite" means we can settle for an older translation.
  • Hymn 315, "I come, O Savior, to Thy table," a 15-stanza cento(!) of F.C. Heyder's 1710 German communion hymn, composite translation © 1941. Whew! That's a mercy! You wouldn't want to have to re-translate all those stanzas(!!) to be able to make creative use of another of TLH's most well-known hymns, one many congregations have sung every Communion Sunday (or in alternation with Hymn 305, "Soul, adorn thyself with gladness") since Hector was a pup.
  • Hymn 362, "My soul's best friend," a cento from W. C. Dessler's 1692 German, composite translation © 1941. Meh, I've never been turned on by this hymn, which strikes me as boring, prolix, and smacking suspiciously of pietism. If you want it, you know what to do.
  • Hymn 383, "Seek where ye may," 1623 German by Georg Weissel, translation © 1938 by Arthur Voss. I thought the variant of the tune used in LW was much more exciting than the one here, also used in LSB; I could see myself working on a motet based on the LW version. But alas, I would have to seek (or make) another translation.
  • Hymn 408, "Jesus Christ, my Pride and Glory," cento of Johann Olearius' 1671 German hymn, translation © 1939 by Paul E. Kretzmann, author of quite a few of those one-off hymns in SBH (see note above on Hymn 640). This, unfortunately, is a hymn I really care about. (Author shakes fist at CPH.)
  • Hymn 470, "Rise again, ye lionhearted," cento of a 1712 German hymn, translation © 1940 by Martin Franzmann, who later got a lot of his original hymns into LW and LSB.5 I like this hymn. I also like Franzmann. The pity of it is, experience tells me writing a competing translation will probably be easier than getting permission to use this one.
  • Hymn 477, "Lord Jesus, Thou the Church's Head," cento of a 1726 Mentzer hymn, translation © 1938 by Schaefer. It's probably an underrated hymn. It might be less so if more creative types had the freedom to mess around with it. Thanks again, CPH!
  • Hymn 479, "Zion, rise, Zion rise," cento of a 1704 German hymn by J.E. Schmidt, translation © 1925 by Czamanske. Again, this is confusing, since the hymnal dates the translation 1938; if the copyright really originated in 1925, I wonder whether CPH really still has anything to defend.
  • Hymn 498, "Rise, Thou Light of Gentile nations," 19th-century German by Hermann Fick, composite translation © 1941.
  • Hymn 509, "There still is Room," anonymous and undated German, translation © 1938 by Czamanske. I'm pretty meh about this hymn, which has something vaguely altar-callish about it.
  • Hymn 540, "With the Lord begin thy task," 1724 anonymous German, translation © 1937 by Polack. One of those hymns that frequently comes up at Matins services (especially in campus chapels that have them daily), it has a lot of potential for creative adaptation... but not in Polack's translation!
  • Hymn 545, "The morning sun is brightly beaming," 1835 anonymous Finnish, translation © 1938 by Gustaf A. Aho. Maybe not as well-known as Hymn 540, its protected status is nevertheless a problem for the same reason.
  • Hymn 560, "Gracious God, again is ended," 1711 German hymn by Caspar Neumann, translation ("recast") © 1938 by John T. Mueller. I'm confused now as to whether this is the same as the "J. Theodore Mueller" referenced in Hymn 275; in which case, I may have done J. Theodore an injustice regarding "Cheater-Pieper."
  • Hymn 590, "In the midst of earthly life," 1524 German funeral hymn by Luther, composite translation © 1941. Good grief! Well, you know what to do, kiddies!
  • Hymn 596, "This body in the grave we lay," mostly (stanzas 1-7) the 1538 German by Michael Weisse, plus an anonymous eighth stanza; translation © 1938 by Czamanske. The odd thing is, CPH does not specify "translation" in its claim of copyright protection for this hymn, though at least 7/8 of it (in the original German) dates back to Luther's lifetime. It's one of those gaffes that adds a thrill of uncertainty to any creative enterprise touching the hymns in TLH.
  • Hymn 598, "Who knows when death may overtake me," an 11-stanza "abbreviated" form(!) of Aemilie Juliane's 1686 German hymn, composite translation © 1941. You know...
  • Hymn 599, "My course is run," cento of a 1726 German hymn by Gryphius, translation © 1941 by August Zich. Oddly, the book dates his translation 1937.
  • Hymn 603, "In the resurrection," 1660 anonymous (Czech? Slovak?), translation © 1939 by Bajus. Really quite an unusual hymn; I could see someone wanting to do an arrangement of it with, say, tambourines and finger-cymbals. But not with Bajus' translation! And where will they get another?
  • Hymn 630, "Ye parents, hear what Jesus taught," cento of 1596 German by Ludwig Helmbold, translation © 1939 by Czamanske. If this hymn brings out the creative drive in somebody, I guess they just have to get a different translation.
  • Hymn 655, "I pray Thee, dear Lord Jesus," 1699 single-stanza Danish hymn by Thomas Kingo, translation © 1939 by Norman A. Madson. It must rankle Madson's kin and descendants in the ELS to know their synod's great contribution to TLH is owned by the LCMS publishing house.
  • Hymn 659, "Feed Thy children, God most holy," altered form of a 1656 German hymn by Johann Heermann, composite translation © 1941. It's a one-stanza table-prayer hymn that some congregations can probably sing by memory. I wonder how excited they would be to learn that, while "Happy Birthday" is no longer protected, they could still be fined for handing out photocopies of their favorite pot-luck ditty.

To conclude with a clarification, I do not advocate violating the intellectual property rights of CPH or any other copyright owner. But I do not applaud their continued defense of their rights to the contents of a book published before the U.S. entered World War II, two official LCMS hymnals ago - and particularly of translations of important, classic Lutheran hymns that, in many cases, seem to have been cobbled together from earlier translations, possibly for the very purpose of evading the complexities of copyrights and permissions. It's way past time for this material to be at the disposal of the authors and composers whose creative efforts are now carrying forward the cultural and spiritual program of Lutheran hymnody. And it would sure be nice if the church's own publishing arm acted more like it was in these creative artists' corner, or like it really had the enrichment of the church's musical heritage at heart.

1 Actually, it was reprinted in the 1990s Wisconsin Synod hymnal Christian Worship, but that doesn't really count; CW was nothing if not a crass repristination of TLH. And I say that with all due disgust, in spite of thinking very highly of TLH.
2 The designation of "composite" seems to mean the hymnal editors patched together a Frankenstein's monster of different pre-existing translations, representing the best bits of each. Since the resulting composite translation was distinctive enough to get around any then-existing copyrights, CPH took the commercially shrewd step of slapping its own copyright on it.
3 You must have noticed by now, the really dangerous ones are the ones that name a particular translator. This may mean that guy gets credit for rescuing a previously unsung hymn from obscurity, at least in the English-speaking world. If no previous decent English translation can be found, this means starting from scratch with the original German. The word "composite," on the other hand, offers a little hope: it suggests, at least, that there were multiple published translations before TLH.
4 I had a prof at the seminary who thwarted "Cheater-Pieper" users by setting quiz questions exclusively taken from the most obscure footnotes in Pieper's corresponding volume.
5 One of the hymn texts, permission to use which I am struggling to extract from the publisher (in this case, CPH) before publishing my next volume of hymns, is by Franzmann. The other, before you ask, is "A stable lamp is lighted" by Richard Wilbur, owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Friday, June 10, 2016

202. 'Opening' Hymn

This is not specifically an "opening hymn" in the sense of a "hymn to enter worship" - though it could be used for that. It's an "opening" hymn because it runs the theme "Christ, open our ___" into the ground. I wrote this with no particular tune in mind. I'll let you know when I come up with one.
Christ, open our eyes to see the love
That owns us the heirs of God above,
Perceiving the Word showed forth in sign:
Your body as bread, Your blood as wine;
To see, as You see, the things that are:
Your cross our strong shield and guiding star;
The light of the law, though bright and pure,
Eclipsed by Your gospel’s promise sure.

Christ, open our ears to hear the truth
That looks not on race, sex, age or youth;
A scandal to these of stiff-necked pride,
And folly to those on reason’s side:
That once, for all man, Your blood was shed,
And rising triumphant from the dead,
You promised to all who trust Your name
Escape from the grave, release from shame.

Christ, open our hearts again this day
To turn from our sins, to fast and pray,
To wait for Your hand to lift us up,
To shrink not from toil or bitter cup,
To share one another's joys and woes,
To answer with love our mortal foes,
And, brimming with hope and keen concern,
To keep our lamps trimmed for Your return.

Christ, open our hands to serve the need
Wherever You cast the gospel seed;
And likewise, that we Your gifts receive,
Lest we boast of what our hands achieve!
Since everything not of faith is sin,
Clothe us in Your grace, till we begin,
Without fear or pride or selfish taint,
To serve as You living in Your saint.

Christ, open our lips, repeating back
Your words, that supply us all we lack;
Our witness, our prayer, our hymns of praise,
Conform to Your will, Your word, Your ways!
Thus draw forth from us what You put in,
That, covering one another's sin,
We cover Your name with honor bright
And shine forth Your own life-giving light!

EDIT (Aug. 27, 2016): A day or so ago, I started a new collection of hymns with the working title Edifying Hymns for the Lutheran Church, School, and Home, with this hymn as Hymn 1. In consequence, I had to write an original tune to put above it. I'm titling it OPENING, and it looks like this:
And yes, I'm aware there is some similarity between this tune and one I wrote called JUDICA. It's different enough.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

'Useful Hymns' and Tradition Criticism

I've been reading Horace Hummel's excellent textbook on Old Testament introduction, The Word Becoming Flesh, the last few evenings. Part of the process of studying the isagogics of the books of the Bible is coming to grips with the whole tradition of criticism, including one particular branch that becomes important when the ancient manuscripts bear witness to different versions of a book - for example, that of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah's material is arranged one way in the Hebrew text on which our English translations are based (MT=Masoretic Text); but the Septuagint (LXX="The 70") offers a quite different arrangement, an extreme example of the LXX's tendency to deviate from the MT; and certain Hebrew manuscripts discovered in the mid-20th century seem to support the LXX reading. Tradition history, or tradition criticism, struggles with these problems of textual transition, asking (and perhaps never convincingly answering) how the book reached its final form, or (as in Jeremiah's case) which textual variant is the final form. It raises interesting ideas, even from the viewpoint of someone like me, who is committed without qualification to the doctrine of the Bible's verbal inspiration. It suggests there is some validity to the critics' speculated world of oral traditions and/or documents being redacted together over a period of time.

Another interesting example is the Book of Psalms, which the biblical text itself divides into five "Books of Psalms" - Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. The way psalms by particular authors, or of particular types, are distributed among these five sections, or sub-books, suggests interesting things about how the book was collected and organized in the first place. It wouldn't take anything away from their verbal inspiration to suppose that, for example, each of the five sections represents a different point in history when material was added to the collection by different editorial hands, each new layer arranged according to its own distinct purposes.

All this may sound just a bit like jiggery-pokery to a newspaper writer and novel-reading slob like me. Authors, sometimes many times in a career, routinely send out into the world units of literature that rival and often greatly surpass the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or the book of Jeremiah in length; books of fiction as well as nonfiction; and except for minor editorial emendations or the compilation of an omnibus edition, their work mainly stays as it is as long as it remains in print. We may second-guess Dickens' judgment in changing the end of Great Expectations (indeed, I do); but that doesn't alter the final text of his book one bit. People like George Lucas try to retroactively rewrite some of their great contributions to our culture, but they don't get away with it unnoticed ("Han shot first!"). But mostly, one would think my writerly experience would hold: what I write in the newspaper, once the ink hits the page, is there to stay as long as copies of that issue exist. I may have to answer for it later, but once copies land on the newsstands, there's no taking it back.

But then I realized, tradition history describes exactly what's going on with my own book of devotional poetry, Useful Hymns. Consider these stages of transmission and redaction:

1. Sometime in high school, I wrote a few miserable early attempts at hymnody, and shoved them into a binder where I have kept most of the poetry (sacred or secular) that I wrote from that time through my college years. I even set a few of them to equally miserable pieces of original music. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had to start somewhere. I now shudder to recall that at least one of my very early hymns was even performed by a church choir (not when I was present). Those poor people! Apart from that, those "hymns" just stayed in that binder which, until recently, lived on a shelf in my dad's study.

2. During college, I studied writing and music theory, and spent a lot more time trying to write both poetry and music. It was still pretty immature stuff. There was one year, somewhere around 1993 I think, when my production of hymns (texts, tunes, and fully harmonized arrangements) spiked due to the slight chance that I might get one of them into a new hymnal that was being edited at about the time and place where I was studying. None of them, thank God, did get into the book, which is greatly to the credit of The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary and its prudent editors. After my disappointment at that time, my production of hymns dropped off and I turned my creative energies toward other projects, except at wide intervals.

3. After completing my undergraduate degree in music, I attended the seminary and spent a lot of my time immersed in sacred music. All this time, by the way (and going back to my undergrad studies), I was pouring over hymnals and analyzing what made hymns tick, or fail to tick as the case may be. Now and then, through my seminary years and down into my brief ministry as a parish pastor, I would write a tune for an existing hymn that I thought deserved a better one, or a choral arrangement of a hymn with its existing tune, or an organ prelude on a hymn tune, or other sacred musical settings (choral arrangements of introits, a mass setting, a choral anthem on a psalm, a set of Easter Vigil pieces, etc.). I sometimes got to perform them in public, or hear them performed by others; recordings of one or two of my compositions have even been published. The coolest part about all this is that at some point, after lots and lots and lots of agonizing effort with uneven results, I broke into a groove where I could very quickly write music that consistently sounded exactly the way I meant it to; I believe this is what they call artistic maturity.

4. The same thing happened just a bit later with my writing of hymn texts. I did this only occasionally, sometimes writing two or three hymns in one year and then going through several years without writing another. After leaving parish work, I served as an assistant to the editor of a Lutheran theological journal, who sometimes involved me in his research of biblical and doctrinal topics. At times, I attempted to explore the ideas I encountered by writing hymns about them. I didn't get much encouragement from my boss, but I kept at it. I also served several years as the choir director and organist of a church in St. Louis that offered some fine opportunities to explore my creative side; I got to play some of my own chorale preludes on the organ, and heard the choir sing some of my original hymn tunes and choral arrangements. All this time, instead of adding to that binder of high school and college poetry, I was keeping up a book of my "mature" poetry in the form of a Microsoft Word document, divided into topical sections, one of which was sacred poetry.

5. Unfortunately, my dual gig at the Lutheran magazine and at the musical reins of that St. Louis church came to an end, one job ending within months of the other. It took me the better part of two years to find another full-time career. Meantime I had tons of disposable time, some of which I spent reconsidering my book of poetry. By this time, the sacred hymns were a disproportionately large part of the total work. I decided to take out the ones that were of a hymn-like character and start a separate book with them. That was when Useful Hymns started to take shape. Mind, the hymns in it were again arranged topically, without regard for when they were written. There were ones that corresponded to Sundays, seasons, or feast days of the church year. There were ones that paraphrased parts of the liturgy or of the catechism. There were hymns meditating on specific Bible passages, hymns that tackled doctrinal problems, and hymns that applied Christian comfort or encouragement to issues in every-day life.

6. At a certain point, I decided I had collected enough original hymns to make a serious attempt to publish them. So I made sure there was an appropriate tune to go with each text, and I made sure there was a harmonization to go with each tune, and I added some indexes, and came darn close to publishing an initial collection of 53 hymns on

7. Before I pulled the trigger, however, I went back to that old binder of immature poetry and decided to give my earlier efforts at hymn-writing a second chance. I spent weeks revising, rewriting, deleting, adding, mostly tightening up the verbiage, sometimes making more sweeping changes. By a funny coincidence, I counted up these "scratched and dented" hymns, after repairing them as best I could, and realized there were 47 of them - expanding Useful Hymns to exactly 100 hymns. Then, I just had to massage them into the topical structure of the book, reconsidering the location of entire sections, dividing one section into two, and placing hymns written decades apart right next to each other while, at times, two hymns written in the same fit of activity ended up at opposite corners of the book. I also added a bunch of brand new tunes, and revived some old ones I had buried with my hopes of getting them published in that mid-1990s hymnary. When all that was done, I did publish Useful Hymns, and it even sold a few copies. They're out there somewhere, bearing witness to a distinct stage in the book's redaction history. But it wasn't done yet.

8. I still had some hymns in me, waiting to come out. So, immediately after publishing U.H., I began work on a second volume of original hymns that I meant to call, ahem, "Useful Hymns: Volume II." As this project developed, one of the goals I set for myself was to fill in the gaps in my "hymns for Sundays of the church year" - which, at that point, meant writing most of them.

9. I can't remember exactly when or why I changed my mind about "Volume II" and decided to combine the two volumes into one book, a Second and Expanded edition of U.H. But once I made that decision, I immediately had to reorganize the whole book, inserting the hymns I had written since publishing the First Edition into the topical and liturgical order among the ones that were already in print. That meant not only re-numbering hymns that had already seen the light of day, but also sticking place-holder hymn numbers into the sequence where I was putting hymns that I hadn't written yet. And as that plan evolved, as plans will do, I had to re-number and re-number the hymns again. I developed marvelous automated processes for doing this, by necessity. And at a certain point, when I was still a couple dozen hymns short of my new goal of at least 200 original hymns, I actually had a table of contents featuring the titles of all the hymns I intended to write. I had tunes picked for some hymns before I started writing their lyrics; though sometimes these choices changed later. And before I finished the 200th hymn according to this premeditated scheme, I had actually written a "201st" hymn that was surplus to my plans - necessitating another fit of re-numbering.

Now the book is almost ready to go up on Lulu again, more than twice its original size (more, because I also decided to include a handful each of my translations of other authors' hymns and of other authors' hymns (translation included) with my original tunes. To make the redaction-critical outlook even more confusing, I invited some other hymn-tune composers to contribute their original tunes to some of my hymns, with results that I find really exciting; among them was the last piece of text or melody to fall into place for this edition of U.H.

The upshot of all this is an arrangement of sacred poems that would surely be very confusing to somebody who came upon them and wanted to know why they were arranged as they are. If the Table of Contents were lost and the section headings were left out by, say, a pirate hymnal publisher, you might have nothing to go by except the words themselves, and maybe the melodies. Would you assume they were written in the sequence in which they appear in the book? Would you find the transitions between topical sections bizarre and abrupt? Would the "hymns for every Sunday of the church year" (historic one-year series) seem arbitrarily arranged to someone unfamiliar with that lectionary? Would the fact that most of the "heroes of faith" hymns actually were planned and written within a narrow time-span be as evident as the fact that, in other sections of the book, hymns written throughout a 25-year period, with gaps of several years between some of them, are jumbled together with no semblance of chronology? Even given a look at an extant copy of the 100-hymn First Edition, would anyone reading the Second Edition ever guess the 101 added hymns, spread throughout the whole book, were all written during approximately one year of almost obsessive-compulsive activity?

Some of my original tunes have dates on them. None of my individual hymn-texts do. The variation in literary quality and spiritual maturity may be all the tradition-historical critic has to go on as he tries to date the writing (and in some cases, redacting, or rewriting) of each poem. And I'll admit right here, while none of my earliest attempts at hymn-writing were masterpieces, and the scratched-and-dented specimens could only be improved to a degree, even some of my latest and most "mature" poems landed a little sideways of the mark I was aiming at. One can't sustain the creative drive to write 201 hymns in 25 years, especially when 101 of them are written in the 25th year, without daring some risky experiments now and then. You would burn out sooner. You would go insane. Or you just wouldn't get very far, especially through that awful Year 25. It's the kind of effort that makes me wonder whether I shouldn't just quit the hymn-writing racket for good - though it's also possible that I simply can't, now. But I can guarantee, based both on first principles and on personal experience, that even a very prolific and mature writer can creatively misfire at times, and there's no help for it.

So, when you buy the Second Edition of Useful Hymns, you'll just have to wonder: "Does this hymn's outstanding lousiness owe itself to an early or late date of composition?" You'll have to wonder and wait for the Third Edition, which will just make matters worse. Welcome, my friend, to Tradition History!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Little Book

The Little Book
by Selden Edwards
Recommended Ages: 15+

Wheeler Burden has been a baseball phenomenon, a Harvard dropout, a 1960s rock star, the heir of a fabulous fortune, and the editor of a beloved prep-school don's book about fin de siècle Vienna. He carries the heritage of an American World War II hero, celebrated for dying under Gestapo torture rather than betraying intelligence about the Normandy invasion, and of an Anglo-Jewish pacifist whose book helped spawn the modern feminist movement. The love of his life, so far, has been an adulterous affair with a federal judge's dying wife. Then one night in 1988 San Francisco, while staring down the barrel of an assassin's gun, he masters one more amazing skill: time travel.

As this book begins, Wheeler finds himself walking along Vienna's Ringstrasse in the year 1897. As he figures out what to do with himself at that remarkable turning point in cultural history - on the very cusp of modern times - he finds himself surrounded by Jung Wien intellectuals. He encounters figures like Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Twain. He discovers what he would really do if given a chance to rub out a then-8-year-old Adolf Hitler. He makes a mortal enemy of a certain man, and falls deeply in love with a certain woman, whose destiny is crucial for his personal existence. And he meets the one man who can truly explain why - though not how - he was drawn to this particular time and place.

This book contains a lot of the predictable trappings of a time-travel fantasy - concerns about changing history, erasing oneself from existence, etc. It has a somewhat unexpected twist on the reason "I'm My Own Grampaw" so often plays as an undeclared theme of such adventures. It weaves authentic history into its plot in a way that raises the stakes both philosophically and dramatically. It depicts passionate romance, touching family relationships, mind-bending discoveries, the apex of a culture tipping from grandeur toward disaster, and the bittersweet possibility of just a touch of redemption.

Perhaps just a little less to my liking, it also seems to serve at times as a tract for the cult of Freudian psychoanalysis and the permissive sexual revolution that bloomed in the generation of the flower children. It tries to eke comfort from the fatalistic, if not nihilistic, idea of being trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth, along with deceptively shallow meditations on "the connectedness of all things," etc. And a seemingly promising plot line about the alternative history of the frisbee goes nowhere. It is one of those books you admire not because it makes you feel good, but because it leaves you in a mucusy heap of emotional wreckage. It stimulates your imagination and challenges you to guess how it will all come together before, at last, it all comes apart.

More than 40 years in the writing, this is the debut novel by a sometime teacher whose life, and the lives of some of friends, provided some of its material. There is already a sequel, The Lost Prince. This review is based on the Penguin Audio edition read by Jeff Woodman - who, for what it's worth, is a wonderful actor with an awful German accent.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


by Diana Gabaldon
Recommended Ages: 16+

In a Scottish boarding-house in 1945, Englishwoman Claire Randall is just starting to get to know her husband Frank after wartime service kept them apart for most of their eight-year marriage. But while the scholarly Randall occupies his days digging up genealogical trivia, such as the story of his six-times-great-grandfather Captain "Black Jack" Randall of the Royal Dragoons, Claire discovers an ancient circle of standing stones where druidic rites still take place. One day, while visiting the stones, she is magically transported back to the year 1743, almost the eve of the Jacobite rebellion, when the English army crushed the Scottish clans. Confused, under-dressed for the weather (to say nothing of social propriety), caught in the middle of the conflict between two countries that are a United Kingdom in her time, Claire becomes an object of desire for the very Black Jack from whom her husband descended - as well as for a studly young highlander named Jamie Fraser.

Though she still yearns to find a way back to her own Frank, Claire is soon forced to marry Jamie to remain safe from the cruel dragoon captain who so eerily resembles the man she loves. But staying safe is an elusive dream, in a harsh time and a warlike country torn by feuding clans, political betrayals, and literal witch-hunts. It is finally Claire who must save Jamie, in a moving feat of heroism and devotion by a wife who has only lately learned to accept his side as where she truly belongs.

Though there is a touch of fantasy in this book, what with the time-travel plot line, it is mainly a historical romance, heavy on the romance, with enough erotic scenes to ensure the made-for-cable TV series based on it must be rated "M" for "mature." It is filled with action and intrigue, but the love story between Claire and Jamie is always front and center, and often indulgently explicit. The writing is lyric; the characters' dialects are painstakingly rendered (if an American reader may presume to judge the work of an American author); the theological underpinnings are cheerfully pagan, even during passages decorated with an explicitly Christian setting (such as the Franciscan abbey where the final act unfolds); and the sexual outlook sports an intriguing blend of a firm moral position with lots of transgressive friskiness. For example, the male protagonist's darkest hour results, in part, from the forced amorous attentions of a bisexual villain. So yes, yes indeed, this book does score both an Occult and an Adult Content Advisory.

Published in the U.K. as Cross Stitch, it launched a whole series of novels, or possibly two interconnecting series, whose canon order is interspersed with several novellas written out of sequence, with the complex result that one of my favorite book-reference websites doesn't know quite how to number them. I'm not worried, because I am not in a big hurry to continue reading this series, but I've wondered what it was about long enough. I enjoyed Davina Porter's audiobook narration through a 24-hour round-trip drive on my recent vacation, with enough left over to pass a couple quiet evenings at home. The library I borrowed it from has some of the other books in the series, but it will be some months before I will need an audiobook to get me through another long trip. At any rate, the next few books in the main "Outlander" sequence are Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, The Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, An Echo in the Bone, and Written in My Own Heart's Blood. There is also a "Lord John Grey" trilogy, including The Private Matter, The Brotherhood of the Blade, and The Scottish Prisoner; the novellas are A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows, The Custom of the Army, A Plague of Zombies, and The Space Between; and there's also a chapbook, Lord John and the Hellfire Club, and a graphic novel, The Exile.