28 August 2007

Mediocre Hymnody and the Lust for Something New

A relatively brief post, while I contemplate whether or not, or when, to get on board the preaching-post bandwagon.

It has occurred to me that one of the precipitating reasons for the so-called "Contemporary Worship" movement was boredom. Not with the Liturgy, though the Liturgy poorly administered can certainly become tedious, but with the glut of mediocre hymnody that seems to reign, even now, in so many Lutheran congregations. I'm talking about the standard, staple repertoire of hymns that dominate good old-fashioned conservative congregations. As soon as I would offer some specific examples, I'd start to get hate mail from people, so I'm not inclined to do that; because I'm thinking of hymns that are "old favorites" for lots of folks. Truth be told, I'm thinking of hymns that have been "old favorites" of mine, especially from my childhood.

I'm not talking about bad hymns, nor about hymns with questionable or heterodox theology. What I have in mind are hymns that do manage to say a few things that are true and right and good, because they confess the Word of God, more or less straightforwardly, though perhaps not eloquently or profoundly. I'm not suggesting that there is no place for such hymnody. There is. In any case, these are hymns that have found a place in our Lutheran hymnals, and I don't expect that they will be going the way of all flesh any time soon.

The trouble is that many of these standard hymns, which constitute the mainstay of hymnody in a lot of congregations, are not musically sturdy nor theologically substantial nor poetically rich. In other words, they don't have a lot of staying power. They get old. And the more you sing them, the more boring and tedious they become. They lose whatever punch they might have had for a while. Not because they have nothing to say, but it's not much to begin with, and it isn't said all that beautifully (perhaps sappily, but not with real literary art), and it's set to a simplistic tune that is all too easily mastered by the second stanza.

More and more, I've been struck by the fact that Lutherans have not gotten tired of their own historic Lutheran hymnody. They haven't been singing that hymnody, by and large, and they don't even know much of it! If they think about it at all, they think it's too hard, and they aren't inclined to learn it. Consequently, it's not those great Lutheran chorales that have worn out their welcome in our congregations. For the most part, those majestic treasures of our heritage have not been welcomed in the first place. No, the culprits are the Methodist hymns, and the generic Protestant hymns, that have so dominated our congregations for the past several generations. With that in mind, I find it no surprise at all that people (pastors and laity alike) got tired of the hymns they were singing, and started to lust for something new.

The more I sing the solid and substantial hymns of the historic Church, of which there are also a few that have been written in recent generations, the less interesting I find the "old favorites" that once seemed so moving and meaningful to me. There's such a qualitative difference!

If I'm right, and people simply got tired of singing that same ol', same ol' stuff - those few dozen favorite "oldies" that everyone loves and nobody could bear to part with, but which simply don't have that much to say or to offer for the long haul - it's just a crying shame that congregations weren't introduced to the tried and true hymnody of the Church catholic, instead of being lulled into a steady diet of sugar highs, becoming addicted to a constant craving for the next new thing, but never really being fed or satisfied.


Lutheran Man said...

If you think you can tolerate the hate mail, I'd like to see a list of some of the hymns you'd like to get away from and perhaps a substitution that you think would do a better job.
Similarly it can be said that we grow tired of the liturgy, not because the liturgy itself is lacking but because we do the liturgy so poorly. Where is the beauty and elegance in our churches? The liturgy must be done well, if it is, nothing can compare.

Sean said...

certainly the old favorites that don't make it on your kernlieder list probably have something to do with it. Most christmas hymns perhaps? You couldn't go a christmas wihtout singing "joy to the world", however wouldn't "We praise you Jesus at your Birth" be more exciting AND more substantial?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I haven't been ignoring you gentlemen, but I haven't had time (and still don't) for a proper response. I'm thinking that maybe I will take my life in my hands by offering some examples of the sort of "mediocre" hymnody I have in mind. However, if I'm going to do that, I want to give myself the opportunity to compile a thoughtful list, rather than simply throwing out some random off-the-cuff titles.

Sean, I don't think that Christmas hymns would be the most likely contributors to the problem I have had in mind. There are certainly Christmas hymns of the same kind, but they are far less likely to be overused throughout the year, and therefore less likely to wear out their welcome. Of course, by the time they've been sung into the ground throughout Advent, no one wants to sing them or hear them any longer by the time that Christmas actually begins on the Eve of the 25th of December.

Your reference to my kernlieder (core hymnody) list is certainly appropriate, as that intentionally offers the solid sort of hymnody that I have in mind. Those who may have missed it can check it out here (from the 12th of August):


As a general rule, anything by Luther, Nicolai, Gerhardt, Rist, or Heerman, or any of the early and medieval church hymnody that may be found in our hymnals, is likely to be of real substance, lasting significance, and interest. There are plenty of other great hymns by other good hymnwriters, but these few offer a significant block of good hymnody.