I love classic Lutheran hymns. They are an acquired taste, particularly for folks who come to Lutheranism from a non-Lutheran background. Lutheran hymnody is one of those things that is a challenge "to get" for non-Lutherans. The hymns they are more accustomed to tend to be a bit more emotionally oriented, the music a bit more rhythmic, in the sense of a standard 4/4 time signature, etc. [musicians here is your cue to jump all over me and correct me on this point], but you know what I mean, I hope. Classic Lutheran hymnody tends to be more doctrinal in content and it is not at all uncommon to find them set in a minor key. [By the way, I recently read that when Bach presents you something in D Minor, well, strap yourself in, you are in for quite a ride].
That alone often causes non-Lutherans to recoil. Minor key? That’s just "too depressing" some say. Case in point: the amazingly good Easter hymn by Luther: Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands].
Here’s one way of looking at the situation. Lutheran hymns are to Christian hymnody what Espresso is to coffee. When you have y our first cup of really good Espresso you probably aren’t going to like it, but then you realize: wow, this is a lot better than ordinary coffee. And then, once you’ve acquired a taste for espresso, well, ordinary cups of java just aren’t quite as satisfying.
This is most definitely not to say hymns written by non-Lutherans are "bad" but….well, they are often not espresso. There are some great hymns written by non-Lutherans, no doubt bout it!
But, many times, when you compare non-Lutheran hymnody to classic Lutheran hymnody their is a noticeable difference. Some are like cheap cups of coffee you get from the Shell gas station when you are in a hurry. Others are like a better cup of fast coffee. Others are like a good cup of Starbucks, but …. Lutheran hymns…ah, well, they are like that cup of coffee you make yourself, at home, carefully choosing fresh beans, recently roasted, carefully ground in a burr grinder and then made precisely in a French press. If you are familiar with fine coffee freshly ground and made in a French press, well, you know precisely what I’m talking about. If you do not know how good coffee was meant to be: well, go check out a French press. Or, even better, just enjoy a fine Espresso. But I digress. [I suspect my digression has something to do with the fact that I'm trying very hard to give up caffeine!]
Here is what a friend just sent me last night, some reflections of his on the hymnody of Paul Gerhardt and the music of J.S. Bach and Lutheranism.
I have been using Gerhardt hymns for meditation during Lent. Some verses
which didn’t make it into LSB 453 are worth noting. It’s imagery is
striking. It’s theology of the cross is clear. Its witness to the
implications of the cross for daily living is moving, especially in
light of Gerhardt’s biography.