Monthly Archives: February 2006
The public radio program of sacred music, With Heart and Voice, is broadcasting alternate settings of familiar hymns this weekend. Public Radio Fan has a listing of days and times of the program’s broadcast, along with links to listen to the audio feed from various radio stations.
Since most of the broadcasts of With Heart and Voice occur on Sunday morning, I would suggest using an audio capture program like Audio Hijack for Mac OS X or a comparable program for PC (sorry that I cannot suggest one).
In one of my classes this semester, we were assigned Jaroslav Pelikan’s Fools for Christ. Pelikan looks through the eyes of six historical figures to see the True, the Good and the Beautiful in relation to the Holy. In the area of Beauty, he presents Friedrich Nietzsche as his anti-hero – futilely seeking the Holy through the lens of the Beautiful.
Pelikan writes on pages 132-133:
Precisely here has been the danger in the study of churchly arts like painting, music, and liturgy. One could be so impressed with the artistic magnificence of Christian cultural forms that the dynamic which produced these forms was entombed in the forms which it had developed. The perfumed charm of Gregorian chant or the virile tones of the German chorale could become the indespensable condition of Christian culture, rather than one example among many examples of how the dynamic of the Christian faith can become embodied in an art form. The identification of the Holy and the Beautiful has frequently become the identification of the Holy with this Beautiful or with that, so that a particular cultural and artistic tradition was endowed with a divinity it did not have. To be sure, it was more comfortable to live with an art form than with God, and this has been the fundamental temptation of the identification of the Holy and the Beautiful – that in aesthetic rapture I had enough commitment to satisfy me, yet not so much that I lost my self-respect.
The paragraph is worth reading and rereading several times to allow Pelikan’s meaning to sink in.
Thankfully, rather than leave the reader with the somewhat depressing tale of Nietzsche, a man who ended his life in madness and despair, the final chapter focuses on a man who understood both the depths of his sin and the glory of Christ’s redemption – Johann Sebastian Bach. With Lent approaching, I’ll be listening to and writing about Bach with some frequency. I’ll close now with how Pelikan sums up Bach’s approach to the Beautiful:
Bach was led by the overpowering mercy and overwhelming grace of the Holy to acknowledge a new dimension of life and value. … [T]hat Holy which is not the answer to every riddle but itself the enigma in every riddle – that Holy has been made fleesh and has dwelt among us in Jesus Christ.
without consolation or comfort; unhappy : he’d met the man’s disconsolate widow.
From the Oxford American Dictionary.
Sometimes the things that should be most obvious to me aren’t. Take, for example, the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. One Sunday at the end of last summer, we sang this hymn at the end of the worship service. It was a pretty standard rendition; I was singing pretty strongly because the melody sat in a good range for me. (The only people in that church who ever really said anything to me were two little old ladies who complimented my singing a couple of times. I think they were glad that someone seated beside them could read the music and teach them an unfamiliar melody.) We arrived at the last stanza and my eyes came upon this verse:
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
I had to stop singing. I couldn’t sing this in good conscience. I knew that just wasn’t the case. I don’t know what Frederick Faber meant when he wrote that verse, but if I’m understanding the words right it’s simply untrue. Love Jesus as much as I possibly could, and that still wouldn’t mean that my life would be all sunshine. Maybe Faber meant ultimately, I don’t know. But it sure isn’t the case here in the real world. There is suffering, there is pain, there is death. Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t have suffering but that he’ll be with us in the midst of it:[bibleblock]John 16.33[/bibleblock]
That stanza of the hymn felt so out of place because of its obvious dissonance with real life (and with the testimony of Jesus) and because the previous hymn expressed quite the opposite sentiment. Just after the sermon we had sung a marvelous hymn by Thomas Moore and Thomas Hastings.
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Here I was in a place where I knew no one, no one said a word to me (except the aforementioned little old ladies), no one knew if I was there or not, but there was hope. It didn’t matter if my life was sunshine or not, I could sing about a wounded heart, sorrow and anguish — the stuff of real life. The world is a screwed up place and God’s okay if we tell him that, it’s not going to offend him.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”
The hymn was great, but the tune…the tune didn’t fit very well at all. For one thing, the word “disconsolate” sounded incredibly happy and resolute…and that’s not what disconsolation is. I suppose that a tune could be written for the song that expressed the triumphant nature of the hymn — that there is triumph because sorrow cannot win, because heartache will end. But that doesn’t really speak to what I heard in the words; I heard a solemn invitation to be healed. I heard a text that needed to be reflected upon, one that would reflect the depths of the sorrow before the light of healing. It’s similar to what I wrote about when I was writing on “From Depths of Woe”. Real problems need a real savior.
Here see the bread of life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.
That afternoon I went home and immediately started writing. I wanted to write a tune that would be grave and yet hopeful. The first two lines of the hymn are about languishing, coming to God and kneeling. That’s what I wanted to reflect in the music that I wrote. I hope I captured that in the shift from minor harmonies in the first half of the tune to the major chord that begins the third and fourth lines. Wanting to accurately depict the reflective nature of what I heard in the words, I intentionally wrote very easy, very slow rhythms.
Disconsolation is all over the Psalms and all over the Bible but it’s not all over the songs that we sing as Christians. That’s a shame. When Hannah wept to the Lord because she was barren, she didn’t sing about how her life was sunshine, she was honest. When the slaves cried out in Egypt, God didn’t tell them to make “their love more simple”, he heard them and he sent a deliverer. Perhaps we don’t have a truer picture of God because we don’t bring him our wounded hearts and admit the pain, hurt and sorrow in our lives.
Come, Ye Disconsolate at Psalms and Hymns.com.
Last summer, I read Worship by the Book, a collection of essays on Christian worship edited by D.A. Carson. The four chapters are written by Carson, Mark Ashton, R. Kent Hughes and Tim Keller.
While I would have supposed that the Keller chapter would have resonated with me more than the others due to our common theological commitments as Presbyterians, it was a quote by Ashton, an Anglican, that was itself worth the price of the book. In fact, I’ve even remembered that the quotation is on page 83 though I hadn’t looked at the book again before this morning.
Mark Ashton writes about three questions that should be used as guidelines for planning a service. In asking the first question, “Is it biblical?”, Ashton writes:
If it is no longer appropriate to chant psalms, we must find other ways to incorporate them into our services. Psalms are the main biblical medium for the expression of human emotion. (Expressions of sorrow and joy, confidence and despair, anger and elation, abound in the Psalter.) As the psalms have disappeared from our church services, so other expressions of human emotion have welled up, some of which are much less healthy than the psalms, and almost all of which are less biblical. But the psalms can still be used — as frameworks for prayer, as antiphonal readings, for meditation.