The following article appeared in the January edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the sixth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
It was the season for high school musicals. The long months of winter rehearsals were finally at an end. The curtains cracked open for a packed house to a production of The King and I. After three hours of sights and sounds, the senses were most certainly satiated—or saturated!
One of the songs that always received thunderous applause was “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Governess Leonowens whistled her happy tune to her son Louis when they arrived in Siam fearful of their future in a new home in an exotic country. The lyrics aren’t exactly Shakespeare, but the tune certainly is sunny.
Thirty years later, I can still hear the whistling.
More than a tin-whistle hymnody
When it comes to the tunes and harmonic settings of the hymns in Christian Worship (CW), people haven’t always whistled for joy. As it turns out, one person’s “whistler” is another person’s “groaner.” The Hymnal Committee has received significant feedback on the musical elements of the project. Some comments come from trained musicians with significant experience. Other comments come from brothers and sisters without musical training. Their comments often involve the difficulty of some hymn tunes.
On the other hand, even if the thought is rarely stated, each comment also comes with a personal preference attached. There are 375,000 WELS members who know what they like and like what they know. And here we face a musical temptation. We need to be wary of stopping with what we like and know. Worse yet, we need to be careful of projecting our preferences on a denomination of people.
Dr. Martin Franzmann pokes this tendency in the eye: “Another argument might be called the ‘tin whistle’ argument. Its essence is something like this: ‘After all, a man can make music on a tin whistle to the glory of God, and God will be pleased to hear it.’ True, true, true—if God has given him nothing but a tin whistle; but God has given us so infinitely much more. When He has given us all the instruments under heaven with which to sing His praises, then the tin whistle is no longer humility but a perverse sort of pride” (Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, p. 92). What is true about tin whistles and trumpets is also true about the notes that those instruments play.
God has given WELS much more than a tin-whistle hymnody. He’s given us two thousand years of singing the Savior’s story! What does Christian music sound like? It sounds like Gregorian chant (“Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” CW 23, the most sung hymn in WELS according to surveys!), the folk music of Europe (CW 369) and America (CW 379), the cathedrals of England (CW 594), and the mission chapels of Africa (Christian Worship: Supplement 719). It sounds like the chorales of Luther (CW 200). Our music is as old as the psalms and as recent as tunes and settings composed this year. In short, the Holy Spirit does not create Christian monotones!
Music to bring Christ-centered texts
Unlike Governess Leonowens, it is not enough for confessional Lutherans to whistle happy tunes to convince themselves that they aren’t afraid. Instead, we want our tunes to carry Christ-centered texts that drive out fear. Our tunes need to touch not only our emotions but also our minds. Lutheran tunes are often less, so that hymn texts may be more.
This ministerial view of music is at least as old as the ancient church father St. Augustine: “Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer” (Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of the Enlightenment, p. 49).
In other words, is this a piece of music that carries the gospel to my heart and thereby leads me to the heart of Jesus, or does it lead me to the music? Both are emotional experiences. Only one, however, is a Christian worship experience. Music must be content to remain the text’s servant, never the text’s master.
Tunes that touch the heart
Our tunes are also meant to serve hymn singers. This does not mean that every tune will be immediately accessible. Why? Because music that is immediately accessible often makes for music that is quickly expendable. No one had to teach children born in the ’60s and ’70s the theme song of Gilligan’s Island. Its music is immediately accessible. We had to work a bit, however, to learn the melody of the national anthem. Thirty years from now, the national anthem will still be taught and sung. The theme song of Gilligan’s Island will remain a childhood curiosity and most likely be forgotten.
Our tunes also serve singers by giving sound to the entire panoply of human emotions. We grieve over our sins (CW 305) and rejoice in God’s forgiveness in Christ (CW 390). We struggle with the ever-present difficulties in life (CW 444) and rejoice that in Christ we have the ultimate victory (CW 428). There are times in life when we are called on to stand up for Jesus (CW 474) and fight the good fight of faith (CW 457). There are other times where it is best to be still and know that our Lord is God (CW 415). Some tunes are happy, others sad; some tunes lead to grieving, others to rejoicing. Why? Because all of these emotions—and many more—are felt by the family of believers this side of heaven. Tunes that are only and always light and happy can lead to a Leonowens-esque view of the Christian life—all happy, all the time. The book of Psalms puts the whole spectrum of human emotions on our hearts and lips.
Thank God that Lutheran music is never an exercise in “whistling past the graveyard.” Instead, we sing the gospel of the One who conquered the graveyard. Our music is never an effort in happy-sounding self-deception; instead, it serves as a vehicle for the gospel. God has blessed us with so many wonderful sounds through the centuries. Our century and our new hymnal will be no exception!
We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.