Sunday, July 20, 2008

Schmaltz, praise and worship

Regular readers know that a major theme of this blog is questioning the suitability of praise music and other modernized forms of liturgy as a form of Christian worship. Even ignoring the creeping effects of modern theology on worship, the modernized liturgy (favored by evangelicals) poses its own problems. In the old Issues Etc. show, guests Terry Matingly, Barbara Resch and Jon Sollberger explained the inherent problems of chasing the culture to epxress even the most traditional theology.

Almost every Sunday I avoid this problem by spending my worship time in Anglo-Catholic worship. However, today I visited our former church. Its rector is very Biblical in his worldview, but a couple of years back he decided to convert the main service to praise bands in hopes of attracting more congregants. Like so many other parishes, the traditional liturgy is relegated to the early (in this case 8:30) service, which is why we don’t make it back very often. But if growth is the success measure, the strategy seems to be working.

More than a year before the praise band service began, the new music director was moving the hymn service away from Bach and other 16th, 17th and 18th century composers. Instead, there were a fair number of schmaltzy postwar hymns — the netherland between traditional hymnody and CCM/praise music that’s occupied by Hymnal 1982. It got to be a running joke — she would offer me now and again Bach to keep me in the choir, but any other week I would expect something schmaltzy.

What do I mean by “schmaltz”? The American Heritage dictionary definition:
schmaltz n.
1. Informal
a. Excessively sentimental art or music.
b. Maudlin sentimentality.
According to Random House, the term is Yiddish slang dating to 1930-1935, which in turn goes to the Old High German term for animal fat.

Today, with the choir on vacation, we had guest musicians on flute and piano. But even without the words, the three pieces certainly met the definition of schmaltz. One of them was “The Lord’s Prayer,” composed in the 1930s by Albert Hay Malotte.

Obviously, the words of this song (not used today) were not schmaltzy. But the music — written by a man who wrote film scores during the 1930s and 1940s — was designed to stir the listeners’ emotions. So much of what we lament about CCM was foreshadowed 75 years ago.

One of the other songs they performed was “I need thee every hour,” written in 1872 by Baptist parishioner Annie Hawks and her pastor, Robert Lowry. Hawks was later quoted as saying:
I did not understand at first why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long after, when the shadow fell over my way, the shadow of a great loss, that I understood some thing of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hour of sweet serenity and peace.
The refrain seems to presage the egocentrism (if not narcissism) of praise music a century later:
I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.
In trying to link this schmaltz to the problems of Contemporary Christian Music, I found this interesting factoid. Ten years ago this month, the Gospel Music Association instituted formal criteria as to what would count as gospel music. Even this definition has serious problems when applied to popular CCM. I’m particularly suspicious of the clause allowing lyrics reflecting a “testimony of relationship with God through Christ,” which would appear to cover lots of feelings.

Still, briefly using Google to identify popular CCM lyrics, the first two examples of Michael English seemed OK: “In Christ alone” and “Mary Did You Know?” But, more generally, CCM in the view of many leaders has veered away from its nominal Christian roots.

Obviously not all CCM was meant to be used for worship, and pastors have their choice of what to use and what to reject. However, the lines between CCM and praise music are blurring.

For me, the first warning sign is the use of the first person pronoun. Contrast Lowry’s hymn with Amazing Grace:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Even with the first person pronoun and the additional Harriet Beecher Stowe stanza, the emphasis is on God’s grace rather than our individual needs. This is even less of a problem for older hymns — such as Martin Luther’s classic of the Reformation.

Clearly praise music lyricists could make their text about God rather than human feelings. So why don’t they? Is the culture so corrupting that they don’t even try?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Extremist but not moderate

Apologies for another schism posting, but this one was too good to pass up.

The TEC, ACC and others continually emphasize how “inclusive” and “tolerant” they are. Of course, that tolerance does not mean sharing power with those who disagree with them on key social issues, such as who should be ordained to the ministry. Such dissenters are labelled “sexist”, “racist” and “homophobes.”

Canadian TV personality (and author) Michael Coren has an interesting post (in the National Post) that refers to “extremist moderation.” An excerpt:
The latest schism within the denomination has exposed the core nastiness of a bitingly exclusive institution.

The glimmering paradox of the church is that it guards its ostensible moderation with a grim determination, as so many orthodox Christian believers can testify. They have been persecuted in Canada and beyond for two decades by the liberal hierarchy, and it is only now, after so many attacks, that they are fighting back to the point of separation.
Am I the only one who thinks it odd that the wing of the TEC that denounces racism denounces black African bishops as “demonic”? Apparently Coren agrees:
Hardly surprising, in that at the last synod of this church we heard some extraordinary comments from British and North American bishops about “primitive” and “superstitious” believers from the Third World. They were described thus because they opposed the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry. Something to do with that Bible thing apparently.

None of which speaks of a middle-of-the-road organization, anxious to bend and adapt so as to please all and offend few. More like yet another liberal body vehemently intolerant of anything and anybody it sees as refusing to tolerate its extremist moderation.

Hat tip: Titus 1:9

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Gregorian chant resources

Life is hectic at work right now, so I'm going to try to do a series of shorter posts rather than wait for time to do a big long post.

Catching up late last night on my favorite liturgical music blogs (listed at right), I found an interesting post on Hymnography Unbound. Blogress “Ephrem” (like me, a pseudonymous writer) was inviting her Catholic readers to attend a conference:
All the cool kids are going to the Sacred Music Colloquium this June!

This is like summer camp for music geeks. You wouldn't want to miss that, would you?
By the time I read the link the June 2008 conference was history and the website is now promoting the June 2009 conference. I don’t know if it makes sense for a Protestant to attend, but it sounds like a spectacular vehicle for preserving the divine liturgy (lower-case D) in America.

However, I did want to pass along all the other stuff on their website, particularly as it relates to Gregorian chant. Look at the sidebar of the conference web page for
  • Two dozen online resources for Gregorian chant and an equal number of teaching resources. For example, there’s a whole article on reading the medieval neumes entitled “An Idiot’s Guide to Square Notes
  • Their online bookstore, with titles such as Advanced Studies in Gregorian Chant, as well as online copies of non-copyrighted (ca. 1907) books on church music.
  • Their quarterly journal, Sacred Music
Someday I hope to have time to read and comment on all these materials, but I thought I’d pass them along to readers sooner rather than later.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Traditionalists singing PC hymns

During a recent vacation visiting friends, we attended an Anglo-Catholic former ECUSA parish that has broken away and aligned itself under a South American bishop. The rector is as godly and devout an Anglican as I have met. He led the parish in aligning with all the various (failed) attempts to organize traditionalists within ECUSA: Episcopal Synod of America, then Forward in Faith North America (where he was an officer), then Anglican Communion Network. The Sunday we were there, worship was led by the (equally devout) assistant because the rector was at GAFCON.

And yet, like most of the Schism II Anglicans (post V.G. Robinson) they use the flawed instruments of the ECUSA 70s and 80s modernized theology: the 1979 alternative service book (to use Peter Toon’s phrase) and Hymnal 1982. It’s only because I’ve been attending a Schism I Anglican parish (post-Congress of St. Louis) with the 1928 BCP and Hymnal 1940 that I’m now cognizant that there’s another path for Continuing Anglicans.

The blog has been drifting off the past few months too much into questions of denominational boundaries and the hope that Schism I and Schism II Anglicans will someday make common cause to proclaim the gospel in North America within the Anglican tradition of worship. So rather than rehash the old arguments, let me illustrate them with a specific hymn.

The closing hymn at this ACN, Global South parish was hymn #530 in the revisionist hymnal (#253 in my favorite hymnal), an English translation of the Jonathan Frederic Bahnmaier lyric “Walte, für der, nah und fern” by A.F. Farlander and W. Douglas. The hymn is a widely reprinted example of a missionary hymn.

As is almost always the case, the changes were for gender inclusive language, banishing the M-word:
Spread, O spread, thou mighty word,
Spread the kingdom of the Lord,
That to earth’s remotest bound
Men All may heed the joyful sound.

Word of how the Father’s will
Made the world, and keeps it, still;
How his only Son he gave,
Man earth from sin and death to save.
Of course, they could have achieve the same gender-inclusive results by just using the words from The English Hymnal, an 1858 translation attributed to the great Catherine Winkworth:
Spread, O spread, thou mighty Word,
spread the kingdom of the Lord,
whersoe'er his breath has given,
life to beings meant for heaven.

Tell them how the Father's will
made the world, and keeps it still,
how he sent his Son to save
all who help and comfort crave.
Since this is a German hymn, it makes sense to look at the American church of German immigrants, the LCMS. Their 1941 hymnal (The Lutheran Hymnal) attributes their translation to Winkworth but combines the two
Spread, O spread, thou mighty Word,
spread the kingdom of the Lord,
whersoe'er his breath has given,
life to beings meant for heaven.

Tell them how the Father's will
Made the world, and keeps it still,
How His only Son he gave
Man from sin and death to save.
A google book Sacred Hymns from the German (available in PDF) says that the original German lyrics are:
Walte, walte nah und fern,
Allgewaltig Wort des Herrn,
Wo nur seiner Allmacht Ruf
Menschen für den Himmel schuf.

Word vom Vater, der die Welt
Schuf und in den Armen hält,
Und der Sünder Trost und Rath
Zu uns hergesendet hat!
Neither Yahoo nor Google translation sites did a readable job, but here’s a literal translation of these verses (my best German with a little help from a native speaker:
Rule, rule near and far the all-encompassing word of the Lord
Who only through his almighty call created people for heaven.

Word from the Father that created the world and holds it in his arms,
and has sent us sinners comfort and guidance.
An alternate text for verse 2 is found in an online German hymnal; below is the text and my translation:
Wort vom Vater, der die Welt
Schuf und in den Armen hält
Und aus seinem Schoß herab
Seinen Sohn zum Heil ihr gab;

Word from the Father that created the world and holds it in his arms,
And from his being sent down his Son to bring us to heaven.
So in the end, none of the three (or four) English texts is the Bahnmaier hymn: instead, we have a Winkworth hymn or a Farlander-Douglas hymn (in original or bowdlerized form) loosely based on the 1827 German text. The compulsion to make rhyming couplets is greater than the imperative to stay faithful to the text.

Bahnmaier (1774-1841) was a theologian, not just a lyricist. Still, it’s not like they're meddling with a statement of doctrine passed 1700 years ago. In other words, a new translation of an old text should be be evaluated as a new act of authorship, rather than as merely the representation of the original author's intent in a new language.

Which brings me back to my original point: all the ACN/Common Cause/neo-“Anglican” parishes in North America need to re-examine every liturgical innovation of the past 50 years with a skeptical eye, and throw out anything that cannot be supported by scriptural texts and their long-understood interpretation. (Last time I checked, neither JC nor St. Paul said anything about pipe organs or electric guitars, so these decisions remain in the hands of mere mortals).

Friday, July 4, 2008

Issues Etc. is back

Pastor Todd Wilken, his team and the Lutheran radio show Issues Etc. came back this week as an Internet radio show, two hours a week every weekday (and apparently also on Sunday). The show is available online, for one hour live in St. Louis (on AM 1320), and as an iTunes podcast.

I was struck by the graciousness of Rev. Wilken, who with producer Jeff Schwarz were fired March 18 by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod as part of an internal power struggle. The first hour of the first day back was about what happened on March 18 and during their period of enforced hiatus that Rev. Wilken referred to as a "spring break".

Both men also referred to the support they received from their LCMS pastors during the hiatus; Schwartz’s pastor is blogger Will Weedon, who has written about the LCMS problems and the Issues Etc. cancellation.. They talked about the sense of relief (and independence) they felt upon being fired, as well as their inability to reply to all the Lutherans and non-Lutherans who called and wrote to offer their support.

Rev. Wilken’s personality, format and melodious tones were near indistinguishable from the earlier KFUO incarnation. Some other observations:
  • Rev. Wilken also remarked at being the brunt of the LCMS publicity machine, something he’d never faced in his 17 years as an LCMS pastor;
  • the ads are for the donor-supported program rather than its former host KFUO or sponsor the LCMS;
  • many of the topics are the same, including popular perceptions of religion (the recent Pew Forum survey) and dissecting the theology of pop evangelists (such as Rick Warren);
  • many of the guests are the same, including various LCMS pastors: one guest the first day was from the LCMS seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
I find the new iPod podcasting to be more convenient than the KFUO MP3 files. The MP3 files were organized into hours: usually each hour had multiple guests and sometimes a guest spanned two separate segments. Now, each podcast episode stands alone, whether 14 minutes or 55 minutes. I am looking forward to having the Issues Etc. episodes to keep me company as I work at home.

To close out the week, on Friday Rev. Wilken observed 4th of July by interviewing another LCMS pastor, Lt. Col. Jonathan Shaw of the Army Chief of Chaplains office in the Pentagon who edits the “Sabre of Boldness” column for Gottendienst, an unofficial LCMS publication that celebrates the historic roots of Lutheran worship.

With Rev. Shaw’s impressive credentials, I look forward to listening to that podcast. Ministering to our men and women in uniform is an important concern for any patriotic, churchgoing American — just as I believe honoring their sacrifice is an appropriate topic for hymns and worship.