Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (or, Lutherans Really Should Sing THIS)

It took me three tries (including two failed Kindle download attempts), but I finally got my hands on Chad Bird’s Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing.

I’m glad I persisted. Bird’s slim volume doesn’t look like much, but it contains some big ideas.

If you sing in church, those ideas are sure to spark some reactions.

Read it if you’re Lutheran or Lutheran curious. Discuss it with people like your cousin Jeff, who’s critical of “those old hymns that don’t reach people anymore.” Suggest it to your pastor as the basis for a Bible study at your church. 

At its heart, the book is a defense of traditional Lutheran hymnody. Bird minces no words as he makes his claims:
“The world is flooded with hymns, but as with any flood, lots of trash and raw sewage are floating around in the water. Not all is safe for churchly consumption” (p. 7).
“No hymn deserves to be called a Lutheran hymn unless the entire corpus of its theology is crucified” (i.e., it must proclaim the theology of the cross, p. 21).
“All true Christian hymns must proclaim Christ, extol Christ, impart Christ. If His life is absent from the hymn, let us lay it to rest in an unmarked grave” (p. 6).
“[Hymnody] is by nature a preaching-song, a poem that proclaims the Word of God to man, and only secondarily prays to or praises God” (p. 29).
Some of you will agree immediately with most, if not all, of Bird’s arguments. Others (myself included) will find the book fairly persuasive but will still have questions. The book is, after all, only 38 pages long.

Which is why it would be ideal for a Bible study. The book is short enough for everyone to read, and the argument is laid out clearly, with specific criteria for Lutheran hymns. The book also contains specific examples here and there (e.g., “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”), which would be great discussion prompts.

I’m sure participants could come up with a lot of examples of their own—of hymns to keep alive as well as those to bury.

Whether or not you have the chance to pursue this in a Bible study, you could still test some of Bird’s claims on your own (after reading his whole argument), with hymnal or songbook in hand. You could run the “Bird test” on the hymns you sing the next time you’re in church, or just flip to a section of the hymnal (e.g., “Trust,” “End Times”) and see what you think.

You could even try this with your cousin Jeff at Thanksgiving dinner.

Okay, maybe not at Thanksgiving dinner…but you get the idea.

P.S. Chad Bird has just launched a sharp new website. I encourage you to check it out, especially if you like the sound of the arguments in Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guest Post: Verses for the King

This month we get an inside look at Lutheran hymn writing from guest author Laurie Gauger, who is the campus writer/editor at Martin Luther College. She produces many of the colleges print publications, including their two magazines, MLC InFocus and MLC KnightWatch

Shes been writing hymn texts for about 20 years, with the most well-known being What Grace Is This and the most recent being And You Will Sleep, which will be sung by the St. Olaf Choir at their 2015 Christmas Festival.

*  *  *  *  *

Like many of you, I grew up memorizing the great Lutheran chorales, like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “By Grace I’m Saved.” Luther, Gerhardt, the translator Catherine Winkworth, and many others taught the faith in a logical (and rhymed!) fashion.

In the 60s and 70s, the pendulum swung, at least in some churches, to “I love you, Jesus” airs with dreamy guitar accompaniments. These songs met a need, enabling some believers to worship their Lord in a way they hadn’t before. Eventually, though, even many who liked them detected a lack of substance. There wasn’t much ‘there’ there. Once the folksy novelty wore off, the song wore thin.

Laurie Gauger
The first new hymn that struck me in a visceral way was “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” by Jaroslav Vajda. So different from the chorales I’d memorized in grade school. So visual. So lyrical. So (dare I say it?) emotional. Yet thoroughly scriptural. There was lots of ‘there’ there!

In the work of Vajda, Herman Steumpfle, Stephen Starke, and other newer Lutheran hymn writers, word draws on Word, inspiring fresh understandings of the ancient truths. Texts paint the cross with new colors on the canvas of the heart. Each hymn is a little incarnation of faith.

As I try my hand at hymn writing, I try to follow the road these new writers paved.
1. Make Christ the center, just as he is the center of Scripture.
2. Divide law and gospel properly, with the light shining brightest on the gospel.
3. Balance poetry and theology. Here sincere Christians will disagree. Some prefer their hymns primarily instructional. They’ll tolerate rhyme but few other poetic devices. Others prefer their hymns primarily inspirational. They want fresh images and finely crafted phrases—without sacrificing doctrinal integrity. We might say the first Christian prefers hymns that review; the second, hymns that renew.
4. Avoid over-personalization. Again, thoughtful Christians disagree on where the line is. Some prefer plural pronouns and an objective voice. Others want a personal voice: “Oh, that I had a thousand voices / To praise my God with thousand tongues.” Pastor Bryan Gerlach, director of the WELS Commission on Worship, once reminded me that King David was incredibly personal in his psalms, God’s own inspired hymnbook.
5. Avoid sentimentality. When does appropriate emotional expression become cloying sentimentality? My personal standard is that the emotion never become the subject of the hymn—that my joy never become more prominent than my Savior. 
That’s content. What about craft? Different writers adhere to different rubrics. These are my personal writing guidelines. And since this is a blog that delves into the intricacies of rhetoric, I’m hoping readers will permit some technical detail.
1. Use sensory images—pictures, sounds, tastes. When starting a hymn, Pastor Vajda filled 5-15 pages with poetic phrases, concentrating on imagery. “That’s what distinguishes true poetry from what I call didactic poetry,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a November 1997 interview
2. Use strong—and mostly action—verbs: surrender, cry, crush.
3. Use concrete nouns—hands, stars, crowns—more than abstract nouns—salvation, sanctification. Those -tion endings might make easy rhymes, but abstract nouns don’t have walls. They’re all air. They don’t make a picture in the mind, so they may not touch the heart as readily. 
4. Avoid archaic and “hymn-y” language. We seldom say thence or diadem or even steadfast anymore, so maybe our hymns shouldn’t either.
5. Consider the way words roll off the tongue. A long line of verbs—cherish, prize, relish, treasure—might powerfully communicate love, but singers will have a hard time singing them without spitting.
6. Avoid long words. You can say more with six one-syllable words than with the six syllables of reconciliation.
7. Use internal rhyme as well as end rhyme.
8. Use near rhymes as well as full rhymes. Heart and far please the ear just as much as heart and part. Allowing near rhymes opens up the lexicon, reduces forced rhymes, and helps you avoid cliché rhymes like “Jesus in his grace / Saved the human race.”
9. Avoid enjambment, the splitting of a thought between two lines. It’s more effective to confine one verbal idea inside one musical line.
10. Avoid inversion. “To my Lord I will pray” is weaker than “I will pray to my Lord.” Sometimes an inversion does add power though. Who can argue with “In Christ alone my hope is found”?
11. Try to surprise, but not jar, the singer. Certain new phrases will please; others will only distract. 
12. Use metaphor judiciously. Comparing Jesus to a shepherd, a metaphor he used himself, is perfect. Comparing Jesus to a cowboy (who also rounds up livestock) is tasteless. Not all your metaphors need be scriptural, but they should have the gravitas needed for a hymn. 

An overriding principle for me is this: Reach for fresh and beautiful. Don’t reach for clever. Let your words exalt God, not show off your own intellectual vigor.

The ultimate goal is to create a hymn that is meaningful at first pass and then delivers more depth each time it is sung.

One more point: Every hymn writer knows that even the finest words do not a great hymn make. (There’s an inversion for you.) A hymn is nothing without a fresh, likeable tune.

Your words may get you past the gatekeepers—the pastors and worship leaders—but it’s the music that lands those words squarely in the hearts of believers.

I’ve been honored and humbled by the composers who direct their talent and passion to the task of bringing my texts to life: Philip Biedenbender, Grace Hennig, Mark Knickelbein, Sarah Lambrecht, Emily Lund, Linda Moeller, Joyce Schubkegel, Ron Shilling, Peter Sordahl, Dan Stelljes, Larry Visser. Sometimes they do so without any promise that the hymn or anthem we’ve co-created will ever be sung.

But that’s the way of a creative soul moved by the Spirit. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the Savior who offered his life to us, we offer our little tokens of gratitude to him.

The psalm writer said, My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the King (Psalm 45:1). With Jesu Juva at the top of the page and SDG at the bottom, hymn writers write primarily for an audience of one, the King himself.

To learn more about the hymns of Laurie Gauger, check out her website, “Verses for the King,” at lauriegauger.com. There, readers can request a free Advent hymn with music composed by Sarah Lambrecht, “Hear the God of Love and Comfort.” You can reach her via email at laurie@lauriegauger.com.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Friday Figure: Many-Ands (Polysyndeton) and No-Ands (Asyndeton)

The sentence completion challenge for the day: Exodus 20:17. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his…”

For those of you who memorized this verse once upon a time (especially in King James language), the “nor” train should move you forward.

The ox? The ass? You got it. Here’s the full passage:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's” (KJV).  

This bounty of conjunctions has a name: polysyndeton (poly-SIN-de-ton), from the Greek poly (“many) + syndeton (“bound together”). With polysyndeton, we see conjunctions (often, but not always, the word “and”) where they’re not technically needed.

A few examples:
When men drink, they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends. Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” (Aristophanes, Knights)
And St. Attila raised the hand grenade up on high saying, 'O Lord bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.’ And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and... (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)
I simply ask you to think. I ask you to look back on your moments of powerlessness. Look back to that moment where you had to get on your knees and scrub and sweep and mop and wax and buff and buff and buff and rebuff, and buff again, a floor that someone was going to walk on and promptly scuff two minutes later. That feeling is what it is to be human. Humble yourself and accept your humanity -- and don't deny it in others. (DeCarol Davis, U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Commencement Address, 2008)
So what’s the point of adding conjunctions if they’re not needed?

In the Exodus example, you can see how the figure helps with recall, even if it’s just remembering that there’s a long list involved (e.g., “Neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor...nor…anything else under the sun?”).

More important than recall, there’s the matter of emphasis. The extra conjunctions slow down a sentence, drawing attention to each element in a deliberate manner. The heaping up of ideas also creates a strong overall impression—of drinking men (success!), or feasting people (great bounty!), or powerless workers (humility).

To check the effects, try omitting the conjunctions in a polysyndeton. If you did that with the Exodus passage, you’d get something like this:
You must not covet your neighbor's house. You must not covet your neighbor's wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
Doesn’t have quite the same poetic ring, does it?

Incidentally, you can find this very line in the New Living Translation; the conjunctions have been omitted, which raises an interesting question: Is this really an example of polysyndeton?

This translation issue also affects a close relative of polysyndeton, asyndeton (syndeton, negated with an “a” = not bound together). With asyndeton, expected conjunctions are omitted, drawing attention to the general sense of the list (as opposed to each individual item) as well as the conclusion that follows. A few examples:
Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door! (Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”)
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23; ESV)
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23; ESV)
If you read the Mark passage in the NIV (and the NASB, ISV, and New Living Translation), you will not see asyndeton, as these translations all add “and” between “pride” and “foolishness.” The same goes for the Galatians passage; some translations (e.g., NIV, ISV) add “and” to the list, while others leave it out. (My thanks to the Truth or Tradition website for pointing this out.) 

Time to crack open the Greek-English New Testament. The Greek word I’m looking for is kai (and).

And there is no kai in Mark, and no kai in Galatians, and no kai, likely, in many other such passages.

Poetry points: Mark and Paul, 2. NIV and ISV, 0.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sitcom Sermons and the Psychology of Form

Now THIS I can’t pass up. It’s an invitation to write a sermon!

No, I didn’t get an invitation to guest preach or ghostwrite for a pastor. I just stumbled across an article on sermon writing, which features this provocative claim:

“Our preaching should sound more like the TV show Community’s storytelling.”

An interesting proposition. I’m a little skeptical, but given the rhetorical power of narrative, I suspect there might be something to this claim.

In the article, author Ken Chitwood makes a case for adopting a story arc common to sitcoms in sermons. He presents a template of sorts, provides a couple of examples to illustrate, then challenges readers to do the same. 

I’m not a preacher, but I’m all for playing with rhetorical forms.

Let’s see how this goes.

The template

The heart of Chitwood’s article is an 8-step narrative sequence developed by Community creator Dan Harmon. According to Chitwood, Harmon “is able to impressively construct compact narratives for multiple characters in a single 22-minute episode and make everyone laugh as he weaves his tale. He is a genius storyteller. This is exactly what our preaching style should be like.” 

OK. Got it. Compact story arc. Humor. Cultural relevance.

Here’s the pattern:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it
5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. They return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed

Visions of Brady Bunch episodes are flitting through my head. The sequence definitely works for sitcoms, but will it work for sermons?

I’m still on the fence.

The topic

I suspect this pattern might work best if the topic choice is open. If I could choose my own topic, I might go for one of those “devious Pharisees” texts, or maybe Jonah and the whale, or Abraham trying to pass Sarah off as his sister. (Really, Abraham?)

But alas, our church follows the one-year lectionary, which assigns texts for the day. For this exercise, I’m going with Gospel reading for this coming Sunday: Matthew 9:18-26.

The text focuses on a ruler whose daughter has just died, and a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years.

Not my first thought when I think “sitcom sermon.” But I’ll press on.

The sketch

Here are the steps of the sequence again, this time accompanied by my brief notes on the text:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort. (Hmmm…zone of comfort? The death of a daughter? A serious extended illness? Maybe the words “familiar situation” would be more fitting here. Then again, the ruler’s situation is neither familiar nor comfortable…)

2. But they want something (The ruler wants his daughter back/woman wants to be healed.)

3. They enter an unfamiliar situation. (They approach Jesus.)

4. Adapt to it (Ask Him for what they want, showing faith in Him.)

5. Get what they want (Daughter brought to life; woman healed.)

6. Pay a heavy price for it (Hmmm. All they had to do was ask. When I think “heavy price,” I think “Christ’s sacrifice.” Is this the place to talk about that?)

7. They return to their familiar situation (They go about life, presumably.)

8. Having changed (They are well, physically and spiritually.)

Looking at this sketch, I see that some parts work, and others need to be finessed. In my first pass attempt, I’m not sure the scheme has yielded much, other than to tell me clearly where I need to do my homework to flesh out the details. (And are they the right details?)

In fairness, I’m not a trained preacher, and I haven’t tried alternative ways of filling in the pattern. At this point, though, I’m not quite ready to give the sequence a hearty “Huzzah!”

Yet it still intrigues me.

The upshot

The sitcom pattern may not be a silver bullet in the pulpit. It probably won’t work for all preachers and all texts. But the underlying principle is worth noting. As I look at the scheme, I see a perfect illustration of a well-known observation from Kenneth Burke (a giant in the field of modern rhetoric): 

“Form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite (Counter-Statement, p. 31).

As Burke explains, “A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (p. 124). You can see this principle at work in books, plays, movies, TV shows, speeches, music: One thing leads to another (or prepares the way for what comes next). Such is the “psychology of form.”

Problem/solution. Crisis/resolution. Tension/relief. Question/answer.

Law/Gospel. A debt incurred/a debt wiped clean. Lost sinner/redeemed saint.

You might not hear a sitcom sermon the next time you're in church, but I’m betting that if you listen for the underlying principle of form, you will hear that.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

I'm Not Singing THAT

When I was young, my sister and I occasionally attended Catholic Mass with my grandparents. During the service, we’d give each other a look if we thought we shouldn’t be praying or singing certain things. (Any mention of Mary, for example, triggered “the look”—i.e., “Is this okay?”)

If my sister had been sitting next to me in church a couple weeks ago, when we sang Paul Gerhardt’s “Evening and Morning” (LSB 726), I would have shot her “the look.”

Oh, I know. Paul Gerhardt is a beloved hymn writer. And “Evening and Morning” is filled with reassuring words: 
Evening and morning, Sunset and dawning,
Wealth, peace, and gladness, Comfort in sadness,
These are Thy works; all the glory be Thine!
Times without number, Awake or in slumber,
Thine eye observes us, From danger preserves us,
Causing They mercy upon us to shine.

But then comes this line near the end of verse 2: “And if it please Thee, retain or release me.”

What? Wait a minute. Release me? 

The second that line was out of my mouth, I wanted to run up to heaven and take it back. (“I didn’t mean that! Really!)

Then came the rationalizations.

Well, God did harden Pharaoh’s heart, and He has kept people from seeing. And then there are those words from Paul (Romans 9:20-21): “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” And we do pray, “Thy will be done.”

But praying to God to release me? To let me go? And in that upbeat melody, alongside all those other comforting words?

Why would Gerhardt write that?

Did Gerhardt write that?

When I pointed out the line to Jon after church, he went right to the computer.

“Let’s look it up in German.” (Okay, let’s [you] look it up.)

When he finished reading/translating the relevant verse in Gerhardt’s German, guess what? There was no hint of “retain or release me.”

Here’s the last half of the verse in German:
Sonsten regiere mich, lenke und führe,
wie dir's gefället; ich habe gestellet
alles in deine Beliebung und Hand
If you plug that into Google Translate, you get this (in all its unedited glory):
Otherwise govern me, steer and guide,
as you cut down ’s; I have laid
everything in your Beliebung and hand.
For a more detailed (and useful) comparison, check out this webpage, where you can see Gerhardt’s verses in German along with four English translations. Only the 1857 translation from Richard Massie—the translation that appears in LSB—includes “retain or release me.” (See verse 9 for Gerhardt, Massie, Kelly, and Brueckner; verse 6 for Winkworth).  

Massie translates the verse as follows:
Order my goings, direct all my doings;
As it may please Thee retain or release me;
All I commit to They fatherly hand.
I don’t know much about Massie or his theology. I do know that he’s translated some great Lutheran hymns, eight of which are included in LSB (e.g., “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” “If God Himself Be For Me,” “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee”). 

So what do you think, hymn detectives? What might account for Massie’s choices on “Evening and Morning”? (Does the line mean, “Retain me [on earth] or release me [from earth and to heaven]?” If so, it’s a strange choice of words, but I could work with it.)

Until I hear a definitive explanation for “retain or release me,” though, I think I’ll just skip the line.

No mumbling. No pious polite participation. Nada.

Instead, I’ll likely just drift ahead to verse 3:
Joys e’er increasing
And peace never ceasing:
These shall I treasure
And share in full measure
When in His mansions
God grants me a place.
 Now that is theology I can sing