Lutheran Hymns and Espresso
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.
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.
As I meditated on the hymn, I remembered
a painting on the wall of a German pastor’s study. His wife was an
amateur painter. She reproduced a wonderful medieval fresco they had
seen which depicted a huge black monster. It’s mouth was propped open
by a cross like those often seen in portrayals of the Lamb of God. It
was being held by Christ who was leading forth the faithful from the
belly of the monster. That same imagery is employed in this hymn, but
in regard to the crucifixion rather than resurrection. I found the
translation at this site: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/winkworth/life.h013.html. It is by Winkworth and amazingly captures this wonderful imagery in verse. Here is the hymn.
that this translation is in 888 888 meter. The German original is 776
778. The melody for LSB 683 works rather well with Winkworth’s
think one of our modern problems is that we have lost the artistic,
poetic, and Biblical language which is the basis for much of what
Lutheran piety so wonderfully gave the church catholic. We have become
so fixated on being "creative" that we have lost the conventions which
make real creativity possible and understandable. It is by innovating
within conventions that the painting from Rosstal give expression to
the Lutheran proclamation of the Gospel. The convention of the Mercy
Seat was available to Duerer who then connected the Holy Spirit with
the blood and water gushing from Christ’s side. The Rosstal picture’s
placing of the dove at the foot of the cross is a theological as well
as artistic statement. Much of the shallowness of what passes itself
off as modern worship can be traced back to the loss of conventions,
vocabulary, and true innovation. Much of it is trite repetition of
modern conventions which have no connection with the past. There is an
awful lot to ponder in a Duerer painting or a Gerhardt hymn. Not so
much in a modern "praise" service. Bach without Lutheran hymns is
unthinkable. Bach used chorales to pick up the tradition and give it
new, yet connected expression. That is what is so great about Bach
and—might I say, LSB. The conventions (and witting departures from
them) which can be observed even in LSB’s modern hymn texts and musical
settings keep the connections with the past alive. That’s why it is
neither a museum nor an exercise in artistic self-indulgence. I think
it will last longer that the throw-away stuff being sold as