Thursday, October 10, 2013

Singing the difficult

A week and a half ago I touched off a bit of a kerfuffle on Facebook.  After one of the hymns in the service that morning, I couldn't help but observe that there was a verse missing.  I'm not going to get into the details as there might be a publication elsewhere on the subject, but the verse missing is going to prove controversial for some and outright unsingable for some.  While there is inevitably a theologial angle with any hymn and its discontents, here the difficulties will potentially be much more straightforward and personal.

Leaving aside the specifics of that hymn, I was provoked to wonder how many hymns, over the course of the genre's history, have had at least as much difficulty about them, that perhaps is now lost on us.  I don't mean difficulties with particular points of theology, as in the kerfuffle over the new Presbyterian hymnal's non-inclusion of a praise song over its theology of the cross.  Nor am I necessarily thinking of things like the rampant blood-and-gore imagery of some hymns around Good Friday or the cross, for example ("There is a fountain filled with blood" could be the genesis of a slasher movie, if it fell into the wrong hands.)  I'm wondering if there are hymns that were just flat-out hard, difficult, perhaps even humanly impossible to sing for more human reasons.

I can think of plenty of hymns that irritate me intellectually.  Any Christmas hymn that goes bleating on about snow on the ground outside the stable, the kind of thing that really is not typical of Bethlehem, tends to make me groan.  It's easy for some to offer up after-the-fact rationalization, which only tends to make my irritation worse.

I've known of hymns having particular imagery that caught people off-guard.  I still remember introducing a choir to "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore" and folks being caught off-stride by the second verse's reference to the singer's boat having "no money nor weapons."  That, however, turned into a good, thought-provoking teachable moment.

I'm not necessarily referring to the issues of gender language in hymns, which in mainline traditions tend to get fixed anymore.  I'm trying to think of hymns that include or included words or phrases or images that were or are just painful to some people.  Being a white male I'm probably privileged enough not to experience that kind of shock or pain in singing a hymn; offending white males just hasn't been a standard hymnodic practice.

So I guess I'm asking for help.  What are my dimmed eyes failing to see?  What have I, or what has the church generally missed out on or forgotten how painful it was or willfully overlooked?  I can't think it hasn't happened before.

No comments:

Post a Comment