Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Lutheran Hymn...

When LW was introduced in 1982, some of the words of the introduction addressed this subject of hymnody:

    In its hymnody each age of the Church reflects what it returns to God for the great blessings it has received from him. Some of the Church's song is always derived from a previous era.

    The early Church developed its music from the psalmody of the synagogue, to which it added the strophic hymns of Greek and Roman converts. When the liturgy became the sole property of the clergy, there arose a need for hymns in the language of the people. Thus there came into being the great body of Latin hymns introduced and promoted by Bishop Ambrose of Milan and his followers. In time these again became the property of the clergy and hierarchy. The Lutheran Reformation once more restored the Church's song to the people in their native tongue. From then on the Lutheran Church became known as the "singing Church." The song of this Church has weathered and withstood such influences as pietism, rationalism, modernism, and universalism in one form or another.
    The hymns in Lutheran Worship draw on the vast treasury of Christian hymnody old and new, with words that speak God's law and Gospel and express our faith's response and with music that nourishes both memory and heart.

In other words, Lutheran hymns were crafted and sung long before Luther and will be crafted and sung by those not within the domain of a Lutheran church body.  What makes a hymn Lutheran is not who wrote it or composed its music but what it says and how it says it.  As Walter Buszin once put it:

    The Lutheran Church has never gone as far as to say that in her services of worship only such music is to be used which was written by Lutheran composers...  And again:

    A good American hymnal must be ecumenical in character.  The Lutheran Church has never been sufficiently prejudiced or self satisfied to insist that only hymns and music written by Lutheran authors and composes be used exclusively...  

What then defines a hymn as “Lutheran?”  One author suggested that something over 1.5 million hymns have been published (far more written but never published).  If in our hymnal we can only gather a collection of something like .0003% of this total, then we must know what it is to look for whenever we would gather a collection of hymns for a Lutheran hymnal.

1.    Lutheran hymns are means of the means of grace.  If we say that the Word is a means of grace given to us by God through which His life-giving Spirit lives and works, then Lutheran hymns will not forget this and will reflect this throughout the individual hymn.
    Lutheran hymns are not primarily to create a mood for worship or to express our feelings or frame our response to the Lord and His life-giving acts.  Lutheran hymns are vehicles for the Word in which both text and tune work together in such way that together they are greater than each individual part.  The successful wedding of text and tune is key to the effectiveness of the hymn as a means of the means of grace.

        St. John Chrysostom (c. 345-407):  God mixed melody with prophecy so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom and to condemn all things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.  PG 55:156

        Basil the Great (c. 330-379):  The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

        St. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem (+386):  We call to mind the Seraphim also, whom Isaiah saw in the Holy Spirit, present in a circle about the throne of God, covering their faces with two wings, their feet with two, and flying with two, and saying: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth", (Is. 6:3). Therefore we recite this doxology transmitted to us by the Seraphim, in order to become participants in the hymnody of the superterrestrial hosts.  PG33:360
    We stand with the ancient fathers of the Church in connecting doctrine with hymnody and in expecting that a Lutheran hymn will sing the faith to us that we may sing the faith back to the Father before the hearing of the world.

2.    The Lutheran hymn proclaims the Word and in its proclamation frames our response of faith to that Word.  Lutheran hymns do not merely teach but shape how it is that we receive this Word and guide our response to this Living Word.

        Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 379) What belonged to the theater was brought into the church, and what belonged to the church into the theater. The better Christian feelings were held up in comedies to the sneer of the multitude. Everything was so changed into light jesting, that earnestness was stripped of its worth by wit, and that which is holy became a subject for banter and scoffing in the refined conversation of worldly people. Yet worse was it that the unbridled delight of these men in dissipating enjoyments threatened to turn the church into a theater, and the preacher into a play actor. If he would please the multitude, he must adapt himself to their taste, and entertain them amusingly in the church. They demanded also in the preaching something that should please the ear; and they clapped with the same pleasure the comedian in the holy place and him on the stage. And alas there were found at that period too many preachers who preferred the applause of men to their souls' health. Vol. VII: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, p. 196.

    The nature of this response is not to entertain or amuse us or even to inspire and uplift us but to arouse faith within us and to strengthen this faith that we may grasp hold of the gifts of grace our Lord has given to us in Christ and carry them as our most treasured possession throughout the journey of our lives here on earth.

    The power of music lies in the Word and not in its ability to arouse emotion.  We often forget that the power of music as a medium easily overshadows its content.  Consider the popularity of rap music while at the same time the seeming ignorance of the hearers to the brutality of its lyrics toward women especially.  When the sound or rhythm drives the music, its ability to convey another message is subservient to how it sounds.

3.    The Lutheran hymn speaks not to sentiment but to the clear and objective Word of the Cross.  That is not to say it does not touch emotion or even arouse emotion.  What it does mean is that the Lutheran hymn is primarily a means for the means of grace that is the Word and this Word is not some vague sense of goodness or love or truth but the clear and objective truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen.  (1 Cor 1:18, 27-29)

        Chad Bird puts it this way:  A Lutheran hymn is not centered on the experience of man “falling in love” with God but the activity of a loving God on behalf of fallen man. And that divine activity is always hidden in, with, and under the Means of Grace — the Gospel and Sacraments — not feelings and garden- walks with imaginary Jesuses.

    Jesus is not my BFF or my Facebook friend, but the Lord of heaven and earth come in flesh and blood to seek out me as sinner and save me by His divine power and grace as man among men whose righteousness and love went even to the cross and death for me and whose resurrection is my one and only hope of life.  When the church’s song and the love song one might sing to another cannot be distinguished, something is severely wrong.

4.    The Lutheran hymn is textual but not simply text.  The early Calvinists and other radical reformers insisted that the words of man could not be sung but the text of Scripture or its paraphrase could be sung.  Lutheran hymns are textual and reference the specific verse of Scripture as well as its message but are not simply metrical settings of the Word (though they may be, as in the case of the canticles, metrical settings of the Psalms, and some hymns).

In fact, I would suggest that the textual character of much of what passes for the church's song in modern day terms is, in fact, its weakness and not its strength.  Snippets of Scripture pulled out of context and repeated to a musical line that is evocative more of a ballad or romantic song is an unfaithful use of that Scripture and deprives us, in most cases, of the Gospel.  Instead we get emotional and sentimental songs appealing to the greatness of God's majesty without a clue that His greatest revelation of glory is the cross.

5.    The Lutheran hymn is not throw away music or text but represents the finest in poetry and music.  The introduction of the Mass in English was accompanied by the invention of the missalette in the Roman Catholic Church and its inclusion of a small body of hymns to accompany the time frame covered by the missalette.  Since Rome had not used hymnody much, there was a flowering of hymnody but much of it was of poor quality, hastily assembled, and eminently forgettable.  Lutheran hymnody exists for the long haul and is not designed simply to fit the moment.  It is the enduring legacy of the Reformation which was as much sung as it was preached, written, and confessed.  It connects with the great body of hymns and music from the Church’s past and it represents our best for the future.

6.     The Lutheran hymn is not captive to any culture except the culture of the church catholic.  Lutheran hymns are not German nor are they bound or tied to any place and time.  They speak timelessly the timeless truth of the Gospel and they speak from within the culture of the Church to the many cultures whom God has addressed with the salvation of His Son.

    Lutheran music and Lutheran texts are not captive to the changing tastes of people or the changing reference of culture.  Liturgical music is always a servant of the text, carrying the Word of God into people’s heart through the beauty and dignity of melody.  As such, Lutheran hymns have been recognized by all church bodies for their message and for their excellent wedding of text to tune that endures and not captive to a particular time or place.

    We would do well to remember the oft quoted and powerful truth: The church that marries the spirit of this age will be a widow in the next generation.  Nowhere is this widowhood more apparent than when stepping into a church which has adopted an entertainment formula for music and whose song is the song of the moment, largely solo voice to hear, and not the single song sung by many voices, with those who have gone before as well as those present.  In addition, Scripture itself reminds us that we confess the Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.  The Lutheran hymn recognizes and addresses the changeless Gospel to the changing world.

1 comment:

Ted Badje said...

It was interesting to see the words of Gregory of Nazianzus on entertainment in worship. People make the same mistakes over and over again.