Friday, October 22, 2021

Are 'Edifying Hymns' Edifying?

Way back when Useful Hymns came out, I asked a similar question about that book. Of course, I may not be the one to ask; others will finally be the judge of whether the hymns that I am submitting for the use and upbuilding of the Lutheran faithful are apt to do so. But here are a few thoughts from the author (me) by way of explaining why I think Edifying Hymns (EH) will prove to be just that – edifying.

First, I've been told by some people who bought the first book that they did appreciate the purposes the hymns addressed and how they addressed them. I got a glowing review from one reader (the only one I'm aware of), and a young pastor told me that (at the time) he was using it for his daily devotions and had bought a copy for his senior pastor to do the same.

All right, sales haven't exactly been off the charts and some of the copies I've distributed have apparently ended up listed on used booksellers' websites. No one can please everybody. And a couple people who have heard me sing many of my hymns as solos in church have criticized them for, as I interpret it, not being how they would have done it – but I already knew those individuals had different beliefs about church music than I do, so I took their advice for what I felt it was worth. So, again, mixed feedback. If you already disagree with my position about what makes a hymn intrinsically useful or edifying, there's a chance that the argument my hymns make will win you over; but I can make no guarantees. If, however, you sense what I do about what is amiss in the type of hymns today's churchgoers hew to, these books may just be the medicine you've been looking for. For details about what I mean, re-read my endless essay on "Tacky Hymns."

Second, there are many hymns in EH that I designed to be used piecemeal – not sung as one long marathon of stanzas, but just the first and last stanza with one or two selected stanzas in between. This isn't just a behind-the-hand admission that my hymns are too long. This is a deliberate plan to provide hymn stanzas that amplify the basic nugget of a specific lesson in a series of sermons or Bible studies about, for instance, the parables or miracles of Christ, the epistles of Paul, the "Word" words in Psalm 119, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, the seven deadly sins, Jesus' seven words on the cross, the passion of Christ according to each of the four gospels, etc. Such hymns can become a sort of theme-song for the series, with lines that strike a harmonious chord with each installment's central point.

Third, these are hymns for grown-up Christians who are conscious of the daily struggle of faith. They wrestle with God concerning the reality of suffering, grief and disappointment, which don't just vanish when you get religion. They're mature, honest, steaky stuff that meets devotional needs where the chart-topping line of happy-clappy ditties falls short. They delve for answers in the certainty of God's word. So you get a "lament hymn" that prayerfully asks God all the "who, what, when, where, why and how" questions about one's lifelong trials and troubles; a "consolation hymn" that applies God's sure promises to the same; an Advent hymn "against the Christian's threefold foe," namely the devil, the world and our flesh; hymns that face up to such painful but undeniable facts as dementia, cancer, terminal illness, a loved one's suicide, sinful habits, unbelieving loved ones, a child's death, addiction, poverty, caregiving, and persecution.

Fourth, after writing 300-some hymns and closely studying hundreds more, I've grown a lot in my skill, and I haven't the patience to write the same thing over and over without improving on what I've done in the past. So, these are definitely not the kind of hymns – and I know of some like this – that basically amount to tortured attempts to say something pious in a rhyming, metrical pattern. For example, the six "skillful psalms," basically one long acrostic poem modeled on Psalm 119, isn't just an immensely long string of rhyming couplets that show off my aptitude for alliteration, sometimes to an absurd degree – though it is that. But it's also a treatise on the atonement that digs deeper into the drama of Christ's sacrifice with, if I may say so, a passionate payoff of emotional energy. (OK, I'll stop with the alliteration now.)

Fifth, since I mention the drama of Christ's sacrifice, I've made a very conscious effort in these hymns to make His atoning blood both central and explicit. I am not interested in hymns that only go so far as saying that God exists, or that He loves you no matter what anybody says, or that whatever happens is His will, yadda, yadda. What I want in a hymn, and thus what I try to write, is something of which, if you cut out the bits that specifically discuss Jesus and His work, nothing of consequence will remain. So when I write a hymn about St. Peter or John the Baptist or the Beatitudes (cf. "All Saints' Day Hymn"), Christ is in them, constantly pulling focus.

Sixth, also relevant to this book's concerted emphasis on the atonement in Jesus' blood, this book sets out on purpose to build up believers' conviction in sound doctrine and to dispel false notes within Protestantism and, indeed, within Lutheranism. There's a "baptismal regeneration" hymn that brooks no wishy-washiness about what Scripture testfies about the sacrament. There are hymns about the three uses of the law and sanctification that rebut the "radical Lutheran" thesis that there is no place for law in a life based on the gospel. And there's a hymn about objective justification that defends that doctrine against its deniers within Lutheranism. Polemics are nobody's idea of chicken soup for the soul, but maybe when you're struggling with a doctrine, a ditty that explains it head-on might really hit the spot.

Seventh, this collection of hymns includes a bunch of prayers that really ask for things – something that too many so-called prayers forget to do. When you need help praying for these public, personal or churchly concerns, these hymns will be there for you. I've already mentioned some of them. How about prayers for people in uniform, for church meetings, for good preaching, for students of theology, or for the pastor? How about various times of life including looking for a husband or wife, raising kids, and getting old? There's a prayer for each of them that you can read in private or sing as a group.

Eighth, if all this sounds heavy and serious and oppressive and dull, and all that's missing from really picking you up is a little lightness or a sense of humor, this book risks a little silliness in a good cause. There are a couple musical jokes embedded in it, if you know where to look. For example, a children's bedtime hymn has a tune that intentionally flips "Twinkle, twinkle" upside down. And since I mention children's hymns, there are a lot more of them in this book than in UH (which, I believe, had only three). And they're all a little goofy, in what I hope is an edifying way that parents and teachers can appreciate and, hopefully, children down to a fairly early age can learn.

Ninth, hardly anyone writes hymns for teenagers. Christian pop songs, maybe; mind-dulling ditties, certainly; but hymn-like hymns that give them something to chew on and think about, that answer their questions and build them up in a particular way that suits their time of life? Not so much. So I put five of them in this book, including one that explains the seasons of the church year, one about hungering for the Sacrament of the Altar, and one about living "set apart" from the world. Youth leaders may have difficulty grasping the concept, but I was a kid once, too, and as a former kid, I can bear witness that this is the kind of song some kids desperately need.

Tenth, I'd like to plug the "Luther's Small Catechism in Melody" that I included in this book. It won't be everybody's cup of tea. But if a catechist or pastor can read notes, and the kids in their confirmation class can more or less carry a tune, they might try this musical method for memorizing the Six Chief Parts and the Daily Prayers from LSC. When I wrote these melodies about 20 years ago, I tried hard to create memorable tunes that required no accompaniment to make musical sense and that fit the structure and character of the words, so they could really work as an aid to memory. Also, I snuck in some musical jokes, like a "Thou shalt not steal" whose melody is stolen from a well-known musical work – an idea (the gag, I mean) that I stole from Haydn. Like I said, it's not for everybody; some classes may not have the pipes or the musical skills to use it. But it's an idea that, for those who can use it, I think may help teach the pattern of sound words to the next generation. And what could be more beneficial for the building up of the church?

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