Friday, October 18, 2013

Hymns and Politics

Among the more peculiar aftertastes lingering following the recent mess in Washington... which was such a Lovecraftian horror that it drove the stenographer of the House of Representatives insane... one sticks in my head.  It was the reportage that one of the meetings of House Republicans began with the singing of Amazing Grace.  Must have been a lovely moment, but given that the human beings singing it got right back to being graceless and angry as soon as that moment had passed, one wonders what the point of the singing was.

Perhaps it was an ironic rendition, or performance art designed to shock, as respectful of the intent of that justifiably beloved hymn as the unwatchable Sarah Silverman rendition.  And no, I'm not going to give you a link to Ms. Silverman "singing" it, any more than I'd link to a clip from the Saw franchise.   You want to watch it, Google it.

Or don't.  Really.  Don't.  Some things, like a couple of Lars von Trier's films, are just better not seen at all.

I think that particular "hymns and politics" moment stuck in my head because I was in the midst of reviewing the new Presbyterian hymnal, dipping my toe into the water to see whether it's worth the investment.  We frozen chosen have been working with our current hymnal since the 1980s, the "blue" hymnal.  It replaced the "red" hymnal, which replaced the "green" hymnal.

And every time there's a change, there's handwringing.  Will these be the songs we love?  What will be lost?  How many Sundays will we have to stumble through songs no one knows or likes?

My first reactions had not been positive.  Songs from the hymnal had been carted out at the last couple of meetings of my Presbytery, and they'd had kinda the opposite of the intended effect on me.  "Let's sing these wonderful new hymns," went the refrain, but God help me, I knew what that meant was coming.

The resultant combination of unfamiliar harmonies with the stilted lyrics of earnestly leftist theology just didn't work for me, reminding me way too much of the hymns I make a point of avoiding in our current hymnal.  It was not the best beginning to that relationship.

But I wanted to give it another chance, because that's how we Christians roll.   So I followed the link we'd been given, one which took us to a hymnal sampler site.

That didn't help.  The "sampler" had mostly new hymns, of the same awkward ilk, but it also made the point of repeatedly pressing one of my Angry Buttons.

A large portion of the page was dedicated to fretting about copyright issues and concerns, which always cheeses me off when it comes to sacred music.  If it's a product, then it isn't holy, dagnabbit.  If it "belongs" to you or to Sony, then it is a commodity, not a bearer of cultural meaning and transforming power.  "You may not sing my song of praise to God without the appropriate permissions" is a phrase that should never pass the lips of anyone who walks the Way.  Our music is part of our mission, not a profit center.

Two strikes.  But that I've got that particular chip embedded in my shoulder is my thing, and as the Good Lord said, we should forgive seventy times seven.  Even so, when one of the saints of my church handed me her copy of the new hymnal during the coffee hour and said I could look it over to see what I thought, I was a bit worried.  What if I can't stand it?  What if my first two reactions are reinforced and magnified?

But as we talked about it there at the coffee hour, I cracked it open and looked down.  The hymn in front of me?  "Softly and Tenderly."  Huh.  Didn't know that was in there.  It wasn't in the blue one, but Lord help me, do I love that hymn.  I flipped to another page.  Two more hymns I love.  Dang.

And then I knew how I needed to proceed.  This week, I went through the hymnal, song by song, page by page, reviewing every last one of the over eight hundred and sixty tunes.  My mission was not to find the hymns whose theology bugged me, or whose tunes stumble and clatter around in unsingable academic noodling.

My approach was exactly the opposite.

On a piece of paper, I marked down every hymn I knew and loved.  My final tally?  One hundred and thirty three of the hymns were favorites.  Old classics.  Taize meditative music.  A couple of the Christian contemporary songs I actually kinda sorta like.

Having sought the place of commonality, where those things that make my heart sing could be found, I realized that my sense of trepidation about this new book of songs had melted away.  Sure, there were songs in there I might not like.  But there was enough there to work with.  And who knows?  Maybe some of those other tunes might become new favorites.

Being intentional about seeking the shared good with the Other has that effect.

A pity so few folks here inside the Beltway seem to realize that.