Monday, December 22, 2008

Redemption or Sellout?

Last night College Church celebrated what is for me the pinnacle of our December services: Christmas Communion. Oh yes, I look forward to Christmas Eve, and especially to ending "Silent Night" at midnight. But Wednesday's services are the afterglow of the season. The burning heart, for me, is the Christmas Table: God With Us and God For Us, Incarnation and Atonement.

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
Oh come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel.

Yes, yes indeed the music of the service hath its charms: a skilled exquisite choral ensemble, a close and smoothly blended women's trio, cello, and the congregation in full voice. But the hour-long meditation on why God sent his Son - it's all there in the best classic Christmas songs and hymns: "Christ was born to save!" What a night.

One potentially fatal selection of congregational song kept me wondering right up until its last thoughtfully sung note. "Can a congregation, even this congregation, really sing Londonderry Air, credibly?" It turns out they can, and even if that's just because they're kind of expected to, at least it worked.

But it raises some questions:
  • Why this tune with a sacred text? Well, I understand the text was written with this tune in mind. Indeed, while it is not an eccentric meter, it is distinctive; it's hard to imagine the text was written and then someone said "oh hey, you can sing that to Londonderry Air!"
  • Why this tune in a sacred context? The issue here is the association (strong in my parent's generation and a little later) with "Danny Boy" and swing bands and crooners. Personally, I am able to look back beyond Danny Boy and say, well it's a folk tune with an older and reputable history. Or at least if not reputable (because I don't know that for sure :~) at least uncertain or unknown. In other words, I can dissociate the tune from Danny Boy. Even while I recognize that others may not be able to. (As an interesting side note, it was someone from "that generation" who first pointed me to this song.)
  • Why this tune, which is so hard to sing? Ah, that's a tougher call. Those who criticize some kinds of P&W tunes often cite the extreme ranges (notes go both too high and too low in the same song) need to take note that this is nothing new. Like STILLE NACHT, some classic melodies also have this kind of reach. If they weren't already familiar, they would be criticized for this very feature. But of course, that's the answer, too: we can pull it off (if we can pull it off) because it is familiar, even if no longer "popular."
  • So, if we use this tune with its checkered associations, why not others? Have we redeemed this tune, or have we sold out? Why aren't we singing "Amazing Grace" to "House of the Rising Sun" after all? And I guess in a sense, there you've got me. Certainly the degree of ill repute (get it?) has something to do with it. I might argue that the character of the melody is more fitting. (This text and this tune fit better than that text and that tune.) Definitely honoring "authorial intent"figures significantly into the decision. And finally - this is the part that I love ... and that scares me ... I get to decide! Ha ha.

I was thinking about the first time we used "I Cannot Tell" in this service, some years ago. Kent Hughes was our pastor, and he had already expressed to me his reservation about using "Danny Boy." But he was sold on the text, and we decided to give it a go. As it worked, the people could sing it, and as far as I know there was not a negative response to it. Still, it bears reconsideration, and I never repeat it lightly. A word of caution: don't try this with a congregation unless you have a choir in front of or with them. Unaided, man must fail. Led by a soloist or worship team, and you may get too close to "Danny Boy." But where it can work, it really works.

And now, here is the "it" I have been rambling on about. You see how it is representative of why I so look forward to this service each December:

I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,
should set his love upon the sons of men,
or why, as shepherd, he should seek the wanderers,
to bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that he was born of Mary,
when Bethlehem’s manger was his only home,
and that he lived at Nazareth and labored,
and so the Savior, Savior of the world, is come.

I cannot tell how silently he suffered,
as with his peace he graced this place of tears,
or how his heart upon the cross was broken,
the crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, he heals the broken-hearted,
and stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
and lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
for yet the Savior, Savior of the world, is here.

I cannot tell how he will win the nations,
how he will claim his earthly heritage,
how satisfy the needs and aspirations
of east and west, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see his glory,
and he shall reap the harvest he has sown,
and some glad day his sun shall shine in splendor
when he the Savior, Savior of the world, is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
when, at his bidding, every storm is stilled,
or who can say how great the jubilation
when all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
and myriad, myriad human voices sing,
and earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer,
“At last the Savior, Savior of the world, is King!”

W. Y. Fullerton, 1929


Steph VG said...

I always wondered why the text we use, by Ken Bible, was "inspired by William Y. Fullerton." Now I know! We're using the Bible text on Sunday, to lead from the first to the second coming; following up the last verse with all four verses of "Joy To The World"! Should be fun!

Hal Baird said...

I have sung a benediction response that I found on a United Methodist website to the tune of "Danny Boy" as a solo on two occasions and there was no public outcry or scolding from my pastor. In fact I noticed a few people tearing up. Now whether that was because in their minds they heard "Danny Boy" or my singing was extraordinary those days (highly unlikely), I can't say. I have ventured into the secular world a few times, going so far as to sing the refrain from Josh Groban's "Believe" and "What a Wonderful World". Each time I do I realize I am near to crossing the line, but although not religious per se the words are worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

This song and tune were being played by a busker on the streets of Chesterfield, UK on the day I was divorced in 1997. A very memorable day and tune. I sang the song today at Guildford Cathedral, UK, Good Friday 2009. This I know - He heals the broken hearted. (I don't know Danny Boy, but it is a great tune and He is a Great God)

jaigner said...

According to my voice professor, he was once asked to sing "O, Holy Night" to this tune and sang these words:

O holy night,
The stars are brightly shining,
From glen to glen
And down the mountainside.

Likely the most extreme and rare connection possibly, I'd say.