Monday, March 30, 2009

Enjoyment and Discernment

From this morning, sitting in the full sun, with Frank Burch Brown and a cup of dark roast coffee. Definitely the way one wants to begin the work week!

First, a word about what I perceive to be the thrust of Brown's message: Music (along with all artistic media) used in worship will change, is changing, and must change. How we navigate that change is important, and is the concern of clergy, musicians/artists, lay leadership and congregation. Do not read the following quote and mistakenly assume that the book, Inclusive Yet Discerning is a rant against new music in worship. "All a poet can do is warn."*

The risks of uncritically appropriating secular styles can be especially great when the church seeks out accessible music and media that it hopes will be attractive to youthful newcomers. Suppose, for example, that we in fact live in a society that consumes amusements at a rate never before seen in history. Suppose that Neil Postman has a point, therefore, when he argues that we are "amusing ourselves to death." [Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 19860.] Suppose, moreover, that the major entertainment corporations, the "merchants of cool," invest almost unimaginable quantities of money in researching and marketing to a teen culture that has more wealth and independence than ever before. [See The Merchants of Cool, Frontline, PJB Video FROL-1909 (Spring 2001).] Suppose, finally, that there is a genuine if elusive connection between the kind of music being marketed most widely and the morally questionable goods being sold most aggressively. It should be evident, then, why the wholesale adoption and "baptism" of commercially popular music and media for the purposes of luring youth and newcomers to church can be risky business. This is not to deny an importatnt - even key - role for popular music in church. But if popular (and other) artists are to bring their gifts to the house of worship, both they and the leaders of worship will need to exert considerable effort to discover what is appropriate.
Inclusive Yet Discerning, Frank Burch Brown, p. 45
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)
Key words from the book and chapter titles should be considered when reading this rather personal pull-out quote ... Inclusive, Discerning/Enjoyment, Discernment. Let's none of us get too polarized, and may I grow, grow grow in this balance!
* a rather inapt quote from the World War I poet, Wilfred Owens, used on the title page of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" - the work from which I first learned the phrase te decet hymnus. Sorry, the mind is a vast mysterious wasteland ...

Monday, March 23, 2009

speaking of Ecclesiastes

Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12b)

Two more books fell into my hands this past week, now vying for my attention and equally compelling and apt for this part of my life. If I try to keep up with each of them (even if I jettison those books already in process) there will indeed be a weariness to contend with!

Along with the full pastoral staff, I was given Going the Distance: how to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry. An important subject, and always timely, it looks like a complement to the R. Kent Hughes classic Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I'm one of the last people to turn down good advice on staying engaged and "fit" for the work I do. Here is a book that will be read in small pieces, regularly, from cover to cover.

Then later in the week, a book showed up - mysteriously and anonymously - in my mailbox at church: Inclusive Yet Discerning: navigating worship artfully. The book is not anonymous, the giver is. This is the way I do not like to receive a book. That insecure and paranoid part of me surfaces and I wonder: is this from a critic or a friend? how am I to receive and process not only the book itself, but its contents/message? and in any case, whom do I thank for it?? Well, regardless, it is by Frank Burch Brown, whose earlier work on the subject I have read but never owned. His work is in theology, worship and aesthetics, and he is always worth reading. This will be my new coffee shop book - since finishing Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, which filled that role nicely and fruitfully.

So many books, so little time. I think maybe the message of The Preacher may be to pace myself, choose wisely, and balance what must be read with what must be done. And both with what is consistent with fearing God.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccleasiastes 12:11-14)

The lesson I need: read on, but carefully!

Monday, March 16, 2009

A striving after the wind

Coming up for air, having spent the morning in a fever of hymnal details. This after spending about 2.5 hours of Sunday on the same. The clock is ticking, and my distraction/procrastination nearly ruined someone else's commitment and due diligence. Yikes!

A few weeks ago someone called me with advice about working on a hymnal. My reply was simple: "Don't do it! Don't even think about it! If you can accomplish your purposes any other way, do that instead!"

The project is a constant reminder of Ecclesiastes ... Unless God is in the process, all activity is a striving after the wind. Is he in fact in this hymnal process? Oh, I ardently hope so! What I don't want is to wake up after - what is it, 6 years of work? - and find this has been "just my project" all along.

The work of the past two days should, in theory, be the end of the flurry of texts to be paired with music (already engraved). It resulted in some hymns being pulled from the collection, some being added, and others being edited or otherwise altered. I will have one more morning of "clean up" work and decisions. Then I stand ready for immediate replies to the music editor as he processes this work. He is the world's most patient person, but I'm afraid I nearly succeeded in pushing him over the edge.

This all comes to a head as we enter a new era of pastoral leadership at College Church. Which does not worry me in any particular way, it just means I also need to re-visit the commitments and decisions (selection principles, editorial decisions, etc.) again before we move to the next stage.

So, while I am pretty sure this whole thing has not been a striving after the wind ... I do strive to catch a good wind and bring this thing to harbor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Missing Mendelssohn

2009 is well underway, and I have not yet made a cogent plan for observing the bicentenniel of his birth. It is a banner year for composer anniversaries, but I have always been a bit shy of death anniversaries. Give me a birth year, or - even better - the significant anniversary of a specific composition, and I can get excited. Give me a composer with so much to enjoy and, even if he is out of general cultural favor like our boy Felix, I at least dream about how to capitalize on the anniversary to do something special.

Where I live, that something special probably shouldn't be Elijah. It is performed every so often on campus at Wheaton College, generally quite spectacularly, and there's no way what I do with the fine musicians at College Church can hope to meet the expectations generated by those performances. So it was our choice a couple of years ago to instead prepare Paulus - Saint Paul. Just months before I came to this position in 1996 this choir partnered with another church in the neighborhood to perform the Lobgesang, and that is another work that could be performed again without being compared to another local performance.

It would be good to explore various Mendelssohn options in the remainder of the year. Over a decade ago we sang the cantata, Vom himmel hoch, in a Christmas festival. Like Saint Paul, a product of the young Felix, it too has its exalted moments, and it coheres. Both works - one quite short, the other arguably "too long," have fine choral writing, a good sense of drama, and brilliant orchestral writing. I have never conducted the psalm settings, but this choir would do them justice. Even limiting ourselves to Mendelssohn's explicitly biblical texts, we would have plenty of good work for the anniversary year.

Oh well, it's not too late to jump in. And I'm sensing that the choir needs some kind of challenge. Maybe the Mendelssohn love fest will give us that challenge.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Insufficient "you"

Ignorance alert: In what follows I am working off the top of my head - generally a dangerous starting point, and always the wrong stopping point!

Twice in the past week I have handled texts for congregational singing, and grappled with anachronisitc language in these English-language hymns. In general, I am far more comfortable excising old English usage from foreign language hymns that were translated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, when our own sense of "sacred" vocabulary required Thee, thou, canst, camest, etc. Two ways to deal with that - the first (and easiest) is simply to change up the old translations and keep them as close to our received versions, while offering apologies to Catherine Winkworth et al. They did English churches a great service in their day. The second way to deal with these other-language hymns is to have 21st century translations made, honoring both the original poet and poetry (German, Latin, or whatever) within accepted common practice for English usage in our day. That is much more difficult, requiring theological acuity, poetic instincts, and a keen ear for what sings well.

And, the latter option also still has to deal with some elements of language that I bump up against when I struggle with archaic language, specifically with the use of personal pronouns.

It seems to me that modern English is entirely too flexible. Or to put it another way, we have achieved a flexibility in English at the expense of both accuracy and nuance. Examples:
  • "you" - singular or plural? And why do we not have a way to tell at a glance? I'm all for context, but sometimes, you know, you just want to know.
  • "you" - familiar or formal? Have we lost something by not making this distinction in speech and writing? I understand (see "ignorance alert" above) that in modern languages where this distinction still exists, actual usage tends toward the familiar anyway. That's apparently the way of the world, whether in the U.S. or Italy or Germany. My nascent monarchist (or is it just elitism?) mourns that in common usage. But especially in hymn singing and prayers.

This is why I still stumble over changing all the "Thee" and "Thou" language in older hymns. (I won't even address here how our democratic orthography has lowered the case on these words when used for the Divine.) "Thee" is changed to "you" and "Thou" is changed to "you." So we miss several aspects of language -- grammar: object or subject? number: are we addressing the One or the many? address: formal or familiar? And we can end up with a hymn full of the word "you" with many applications ... and that may sound goofy to sing over and over again.

I am 90% convinced this is why "As the deer" turned out so poorly as a sung text:

As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee;

You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship thee.

You alone are my strength, my shield, to you alone shall my spirit yield;

You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship thee.

Martin Nystrom, 1984

With all due respect to Mr. Nystrom, and acknowledging that I couldn't write a song to save my job, much less a song that people would want to sing for over 25 years. But you can't fix this lyric. If you replace "thee" with "you" ... well, just try it. It turns out like Zulu ululation. And certainly you would not old-up the text by changing "you" to "thou" because of course you'd have to change the verb forms as well. No, you're pretty stuck either way.

Well, bottom line: it seems to me to be the lesser of poor judgment to retain the old forms - when the original poetry is English - and to acknowledge the nuance and strength our language used to have in this arena. And to let a hip young generation absorb this, even by osmosis if you can't or won't teach about it, than to lose it altogether.

I certainly wouldn't argue that a 21st century hymn writer should revert to the old forms. Clearly the best authors communicate clearly, deeply, and reverently, without reverting to the past. I don't want to hear my pastor praying in King James English. There is still a richness, a depth, and a glory in our language that we must explore and use in our new songs and hymns. Even if "you" proves to be somehow insufficient.