Tag Archives: hymns

Metrical hymns on non-traditional topics

Metrical hymns are out of fashion these days in favor of praise songs and pop-influenced worship music. But rhymed metrical hymns are easy to memorize, and they’re actually a really efficient way to give people of all ages a basic introduction to discrete religious subjects. And every metrical hymn provides a theological interpretation of to its subject matter, so it is doubly useful: you get the basic topic, and an interpretation of that topic.

So I’ve been thinking how post-Christian Unitarian Universalists might use metrical hymns to teach post-Christian topics. I’ve been reading about the birth of Buddha in the Jataka-nidana, and I was captured by the story of the Four Omens. This would make a good metrical hymn: it’s a concise story about two paths open to a baby, one path leading to worldly success and another path leading to a life on contemplation. The baby’s father of course hopes for worldly success, but learns that if the boy ever sees a dead person, an ill person, a mendicant monk, or an old person, then the boy will grow up to be, not a king, but the Buddha. What a thought-provoking story!

Anyway, an early draft of such a hymn appears after the jump. Continue reading

Just in time…

Against all my better judgment, I’m presenting the following hymn, a metrical rendering of 2 Maccabees 10.1-7 in the KJV — just in time for sunset of the first night of Hanukkah. You can sing it to any Common Meter tune, although it goes well with Consolation (no. 53 in Singing the Living Tradition).

I tried to keep my interpretation of the KJV text to a minimum. So before you ask, yes, the original text mentions boughs, branches, and palms, and the fact that they remembered their last feast which they spent hiding out in the mountains. It’s easy to forget how weird some of these Bible stories are. I did add the references to freedom and to tyranny, though I feel they are implicit in the story; ditto the reference to the curséd idols.

1. When Maccabeus and his band
Did free Jerusalem,
When they did cast the tyrant out,
‘Twas God who guided them.

1. Good Maccabeus and his band:
They freed Jerusalem.
They cast the wicked tyrant out,
For God was guiding them.

2. The altars which the heathen built
Out in the public square,
They pulled them down, and then destroyed
The curséd idols there.

3. They cleansed the temple, kindled flame,
Gave thanks they now were free.
They then besought God keep them safe
From barb’rous tyranny.

4. They celebrated eight glad days,
Rememb’ring their last feast,
Which they had held in mountain dens
Where they had lived like beasts.

5. Therefore they bore fair branches forth,
Green boughs, and also palms.
They praised the strength that set them free:
To God they raised their psalms.

What about a metrical hymn for Hanukkah? Nah…

The story of Hanukkah comes from the Talmud and the Mishnah, although there are references to a very similar story in the Apocrypha. 2 Maccabees mentions a Hanukkah-like festival in a passage beginning:

Therefore whereas we are now purposed to keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of the tabernacles, and of the fire, which was given us when Neemias offered sacrifice, after that he had builded the temple and the altar. [2 Maccabees 1.18, KJV]

There’s another, more interesting, description of a Hanukkah-like purification of the Temple at 2 Maccabees 10.1-8. I love this story; besides which, the successful fight against the tyrant who prevented the Jews from practicing their own religion has a certain poignancy today when it is dangerous for Christians to practice their religion in some parts of the world, dangerous for Muslims to practice their religion in many Western countries, and still dangerous for Jews to be Jews in many places in the world.

I’d love to have the talent to take the gorgeous prose of the King James Version of 2 Maccabees 10, and turn it into a metrical rhyming version of this story. I’ve been working on this, and have several partial verses, like “When Maccabeus and his band / De dum de dum de dum / De dum invader’s heavy hand…”; and “…public square, / De dum de dum, and then destroyed / The cursed idols there.” I’ve also got one whole verse:

They cleansed the temple, kindled fire,
    Gave thanks that they were free;
And asked the Lord to keep them safe
    From barbarous tyranny.

Or maybe it should be “blasphemous tyranny” — the passage at hand offers both possibilities.

Of course, if I ever did manage to write such a hymn, it would be unusable in any Unitarian Universalist congregation:— the term “Lord” (which is the way the translators indicate “Adonai,” as opposed to “God” for “Elohim”) would not be acceptable; it would be a hymn by a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist interpreting an apocryphal Christian text which we ordinarily ignore and which doesn’t really tell a Jewish story which means it’s probably cultural misappropriation; and it would be filtered through my liberation theology but Unitarian Universalists don’t really like songs and hymns that talk about freedom unless they’re African American songs or unless we’re talking about freedom to think what you want as opposed to literal freedom from bondage and oppression.

This is my main failing as a hymnodist. It’s bad enough that I can’t write good rhymed metrical verse, but it’s much worse that the hymns I want to write are hymns no one would ever want to sing.

Old 100 x 4

I remembered reading somewhere that the Pilgrims liked the tune to “Old Hundredth” because it was lively — not the modernized, plain vanilla, 4/4 version found in most hymnals these days, but the original version that trips up modern singers on the last line because of the change in rhythm. I convinced Amy that we should sing the original version in the intergenerational Thanksgiving service this past Sunday — sure enough, at the 9:30 service all of us (including me!) got tripped up on the rhythm of the last line. At the 11:00 service, I was smart enough to warn people to watch out for that last line, and we sang it without a hitch.

Later I realized I should have created a half-sheet insert of the sheet music for the order of service. Even though fewer and fewer people read music these days, there are still enough music readers that they could have helped keep everyone else on track. (Plus when you provide an insert, it can serve as a teaching and outreach tool — music readers might take it home and learn one of the harmony parts to the music.) Since someone else might actually use such an insert, below is a link to a PDF. The text is a common humanist version of words by Isaac Watts: “From all that dwell below the skies, / Let songs of hope and faith arise, / Let peace, good will on earth be sung, / Through every land by every tongue.”

Old Hundredth (original form).

The Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, sings their doxology to Old Hundredth every week — but they use different versions of the tune, including the original version above, and a version by Susan Conant with more modern harmonies and even more interesting rhythms. If you’re going to sing the same thing every week, you might as well make it interesting! In that spirit, here’s yet another version of Old Hundredth — William Walker’s arrangement of Old Hundredth from The Southern Harmony (1835), laid out in classic shape-note fashion on a half-sheet size suitable for an insert into an order of service:

Old Hundredth arr. by William Walker.

“Singing an eclectic repertoire”

One of the best short essays on singing in worship just went up at the Alban Institute Web site. In the essay, titled “Singing an Eclectic Repertoire,” authors Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger point out that singing in church “is not about aesthetics — about what we like or dislike. It is about singing our faith in our local community while opening ourselves to new possibilities for singing and worship.” With that principle in mind, they offer some really great ideas for singing a wide-ranging repertoire that includes the following types of sacred song: early American, Irish folk, Hebrew traditional, African American spiritual, gospel, African, Latino, Asian, and contemporary musics.

For example, check out this suggestion for singing Irish folk melodies: “Most people don’t know that the origin of the song ‘Be Thou My Vision’ was an Irish folk tune. If you play it directly from most hymnals, it will sound more like a traditional Germanic hymn. When we simplify the harmonies and change chords primarily only once a measure, the mood changes drastically. The tempo can be lively. Adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum will enhance the Irish flavor.” Obviously, you could use similar ideas with English folk melodies as well.

Epperly and Hollinger don’t cover every type of music we sing as sacred song. They don’t cover Welsh tunes, medieval music, or contemporary North American chant, for example. But the authors don’t need to give us precise instructions on singing (and leading) every different type of sacred song. Once we realize that most congregations tend to make every song sound either like (a) old Germanic hymns, or (b) contemporary praise music — we can deal with that tendency, transcend our present narrow approaches, and become truly eclectic singers.

How about Tuvan throat singing in church? Would that be going too far? Umm, OK, I guess something like this might drive some people out of a worship service.

A new liberal religious hymnody

I’m bored with contemporary liberal religious hymnody. (Remember, hymns are the words that we sing, not the music itself.) We have a bunch of 19th century hymns which are pretty good, but which tend to carry the 19th century curses of sentimentality and niceness. We have some singer-songwriter hymns, and some praise-band songs, all of which I find vapid and overly individualistic, and sometimes cloyingly sweet, as if you’re drinking a glass of molasses. I like some of the old African American spirituals, but we religious liberals tend to remove some of the best imagery and the most striking word choices.

Recently, I’ve been reading Isaac Watts’s hymns. I find that I like many of his translations of the psalms in his Psalms of David: his verse is solid and sometimes poetic, his rhymes are fun to sing, and his imagery is often striking. But I don’t like his limitarian, non-Universalist theology one bit, and I don’t like the way he plays fast and loose with the Psalms — e.g., there is absolutely no mention of Jesus in the Psalms, yet Watts is constantly dragging Jesus into his hymns which are supposedly based on the psalms.

Before Watts, there was The Bay Psalm Book, another metrical translation of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, used by many of the 17th and 18th century New England churches that later became Unitarian congregations. In the first edition of this psalter, the translators tried to make as literal a translation as possible. This can make for awkward singing. Yet awkward though it may be, it has a directness and an immediacy that I find refreshing; and it retains all the vivid imagery of the Hebrew Bible psalms.

Scott Wells of the blog Boy in the Bands recently pointed me to Elhanan Winchester’s The Psalms of David. Winchester was a Universalist, so I’m much more comfortable with his theology. His verse is pretty good, too. He has his problems — like Watts he plunks Jesus down in the middle of old Jewish psalms that really have nothing to do with Jesus — but he’s a nice example of what good traditional Universalist hymnody could look like.

On the Unitarian side, there’s the 1865 Hymns of the Spirit by Samuel Longfellow and Samuel Johnson. Some of these hymns are quite good, certainly better than anything written by later Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist hymnodists — we still sing some of these hymns today. These are definitely 19th century hymns, which means a little too sentimental and nice at times, but the verse is pretty good, and some of the images are also pretty good.

I don’t want to resurrect these old hymnals; I’ve been reading them to help me understand what I want in a new hymnody. I have no talent for writing hymns myself, but I know what I wish for in a new liberal religion hymnody. I wish we had hymns that addressed big religious issues like death, grief, illness and healing, ultimate reality, and religious ecstasy. I wish our hymns were in vigorous metrical verse with interesting rhymes and vivid imagery. I wish our hymnodists knew at least some basic theology so they could give us some real intellectual content (Watts was a Doctor of Divinity, and his knowledge of theology made a difference).

Most of the contemporary debate in this area has centered on musical styles. Maybe we should let go of the music for a bit, and focus instead on hymnody — on the words that we sing. Instead of encouraging musicians, maybe it’s time to encourage our poets and hymn writers. Once we have a body of good hymns, then we can work on finding the best composers to set the new hymns to music.

Midwestern Unitarian christening ceremonies of the late 19th C.

The christening ceremonies of the Western Unitarian Conference contain many elements still used in contemporary Unitarian Universalist christening and child dedication ceremonies, including gender-inclusive language, the incorporation of flowers, and even the language of “dedication” rather than “christening.” You’ll find two complete christening services below:

1893 “Service of flowers and christenings” using gender-inclusive language
1884 “Christening service” including the term “dedication”

Continue reading

Garrison Keillor, righteous Christian, defender of Christmas

Dan is still down with a chest cold so Mr. Crankypants is ba-ack!

Mr. Crankypants finally decided to read the Garrison Keillor column in Salon that trashes “Unitarians.” It’s a mildly amusing little column; there are enough factual errors that one can’t help chuckling now and then.

For instance, Garry Keillor says that “You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit….” Except Emerson never preached at First Church. A simple Web search would have revealed that First Church in Cambridge is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The Unitarian Universalist church in Camnbridge, where Emerson delivered the famous “Divinity School Address,” is called “First Parish.” (A more obscure point is whether Emerson in fact ever actually preached at First Parish.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer does not know how to do simple online fact-checking.

Garry Keillor also says: “Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice…, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite ‘Silent Night.’  ” Except that Keillor’s favorite words are the rewrite, or more precisely a bad translation of the original German. The current Unitarian Universalist hymnal offers two translations of the German words written by Josef Mohr in 1816: there’s Keillor’s favorite (woefully inaccurate) translation; and on the facing page there’s pretty good translation along with the first verse in the original German. (If you want to be a real Christmas purist, be like Mr. Crankypants and sing the original German words, which are much prettier.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer tries to be a pompous purist but winds up being an ignoramus.

And Garry Keillor says: “Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation. Just… sing softly in dim light about the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el….” Except that the line about “gathering winter fuel” is from the song “Good King Wenceslas,” which is a song about St. Stephen’s feast day, which is December 26. Sure, most people sing it at Christmas time. But a Christmas purist like Keillor, who despises “all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys,” should know better. It’s definitely amusing when a self-declared “Christian” writer tries to be a Christmas purist, but lacks the requisite liturgical and theological knowledge.

The sad thing is that with people like Garrison Keillor advocating for Christmas, it’s no wonder the New Atheists dismiss Christians. Come to think of it, those who consider themselves Christians may prefer not to be associated with a bitter, ignorant, intolerant ass like Keillor.

German words to “Silent Night / Stille Nacht” below the fold: Continue reading

Old Joy, old Hark

At the Christmas Eve candlelight service, we’ll be singing “Joy to the World.” We decided to keep the words as they appear in the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, substituting only “Let us our songs employ” for “Let men their songs employ” (that is, using inclusive language for all humanity, but retaining the masculine gender for Jesus and God). I made up sheet music with all four parts of the traditional Lowell Mason harmonization, sized to fit a typical 5-1/2×8-1/2 inch order of service. I’m including links to the PDF below, in case someone else might find it useful. Also included is “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” as it appeared in Hymns of the Spirit (and which is not in either of the current hymnals). We substituted “Born to raise up those on earth” for “Born to raise the men of earth”; and in the second verse, we kept the Unitarian “Sun” instead of the more orthodox Christian “Son” found in other denomination’s hymnals.

PDF of “Joy to the World”
PDF of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”