Friday, December 21, 2007

How did our mystery song get into the LSB?

Yesterday I talked about Lift Every Voice and Sing, song 964 in the Lutheran Service Book.

So how does a song in which the gospel is not preached, which doesn't mention Christ, which gives nothing of the law, and is written by a self-described agnostic get into a Lutheran hymn and service book -- especially one published by an ostensibly conservative group like the Missouri Synod?

It's easy: Lift Every Voice is a favorite among one of the special interest groups which populate the LCMS. This particular group are the Black Ministry folks. Distinguished, of course, from Lutheran congregations which happen to have a majority of black congregants.

We note from yesterday's posting that Lift Every Voice experienced a revival of interest in the 1970s, and this probably explains even further how it got into LSB. Black pastors coming of age (or coming into the ministry) in the 1970s would have been exposed to it. And because the musical and cultural tastes of individuals are often set in stone in their late teens and 20s, these pastors grew to love Lift Every Voice. And when their particular special group got polled for "What songs would you like in the new book?," Lift Every Voice was a natural.

As a song, Lift is not all that bad. It's a bit generic, and it's starting to wear its 20th century quality a bit thin. But there's nothing wrong with it. It's fine to sing at a community function, or a school, or a rally. But it doesn't belong in a hymnal. Especially when certain folks who helped compile it are among those who regularly criticize other church bodies for their hymnody.

A few months back, I quoted a Primitive Baptist who said, "Hymns are small sermons." He was correct. Which means that as with all sermons, a hymn should preach a clear message, should properly distinguish law and gospel, should set forth Christ, and should bring us to the cross. Lift isn't the only hymn in LSB which fails to do these things. But it's an obvious example of one that got there in spite of its obvious faults.

Tomorrow: why Lift is a micrcosm of the problems in the LCMS.

6 comments:

One Redeemed Sinner said...

Hey Jim, I agree that Lift Every Voice and Sing is not the greatest hymn in the LSB. But can you really say there is no Gospel just because Christ is not mentioned? Have you looked the Old Testament lately? At least #964 mentions God...would you advocate taking Esther out of the canon? Yeah, so it's a patriotic, nationalistic song which brings up images of the suffering of the black Americans under the yoke of slavery (and then being freed!). Is that not unlike our yoke of slavery which grips all people here in this sinful world? Is that not unlike the yoke of slavery which Israel endured in Egypt? Did not God rescue both Israel and America from the oppression of slavery? Is not Christ the one who has delivered us from our slavery to sin? Sheesh. You remind me of the pharisees in John 9 who were more blind than the blind guy because they couldn't see the light of Christ when it was right in front of them. They were too blind to see past the Sabbath law! I suppose LSB can't spell 'em all out for ya, Jim. You remind me of the αὐτοῖς ("them") in Matthew 13:13! Isn't there something more constructive you could be doing to actually build up the church instead of trying to tear us down? Romans 15 and all that...

Jim Huffman said...

Let me suggest that if Christ is not there, then neither is the gospel. And if the gospel is not there, neither is Christ.

As far as the yoke of slavery, this song doesn't even mention slave, slavery, free, or freedom. This is my point that Mr. Johnson -- being self-described as agnostic -- had no conception of the parallels -- genuine parallels -- to the freeing of of Israelites in Egypt, the freeing of the chattel slaves in America, and our freedom in Christ.

As for Esther, no I wouldn't suggest taking it out of the canon: Luther already suggested that.

One Redeemed Sinner said...

Indeed, where there is no Christ, there is no Gospel. But the Gospel means more than that we who are brought to Faith will be saved! The Gospel also means that the rain falls on our crops, there is bread in the grocery store, and my furnace is still working today. Beyond the spiritual, Jesus takes care of our physical needs, too! Look at what is happening in any miracle narrative in the Bible and you'll see God taking care of the physical needs of His people. Whenever anything good happens, we must give glory to Christ who made it possible for us.

I know this song does not mention slaves, free or freedom. You yourself mentioned that it is known as "The Negro National Anthem." You also mentioned the KKK, Jim Crow, racism, and civil rights. But is it not gospel that such advancements in human rights were made in our country? Were not the physical human situations improved? Should we as Christians not rejoice with our Christian brothers that God has lifted them out of their plight?

My point is that we all need to spend our energy in building each other up, and not trying to cause inner divisions and dissentions. No, it's not the greatest hymn. I'm not going to argue that it is. But there it is. Were you involved with the LSB project during the last 15 years? I honestly don't know if you were or not. But my point is that maybe our Synod would be stronger if we didn't have so many Monday morning quarterbacks.

Jim Huffman said...

I would venture to suggest that it is not those pointing out problems who are causing "divisions and dissensions" in the LCMS, but rather those who teach and practice error. Including those who put in a hymnal -- for reasons unknown to me -- hymns that do not put forth Christ.

I have no interest in "building up" a unionistic, heterodox church body like the LCMS. God has placed me in a certain specific place, and with His help, I aim to be faithful there, and seek His forgiveness for the almost infinite times when I am not faithful.

The problems of the LCMS are not caused by any so-called Monday morning quarterbacks (whether me or anyone else). St. Paul pointed out many problems in the Corinthian church, and by pointing out those problems, enabled those problems to be addressed, and perhaps rectified. Ignoring problems solves nothing and merely prevents us from taking care of what is wrong.

One Redeemed Sinner said...

Sorry it's been a few days since I have replied. I haven't been online much as I celebrate the birth of the Christ child with my family.

Jim, I don't have much to say here. Because you bring up St Paul's relationship with the Corinthians, I'll respond from one of his letters. All day I have been reading and rereading 1 Cor 10 and 11, while considering issues of altar fellowship. But in some ways, the end of chapter 9 speaks well to this conversation. In the spirit of putting the best construction on everything, I think maybe LSB was trying to imitate Paul and "become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." This, of course, is for the sake of the Gospel that we may share with the weaker brother in its blessings.(1 Cor 9:22-23) Sometimes the weaker brothers don't want to share the Gospel with anybody else, and that's what makes them weak. We're all interested in sharing the blessings of the Gospel with all the brothers, aren't we Jim? Wouldn't that include those on the hymn committee for the LSB? (I assume you haven't broken the eighth commandment by not speaking to them about this first?) I've already demonstrated how a competent preacher could use that hymn to preach the Gospel. Paul even used false idols to preach the Gospel. Patrick used a clover...

And speaking of false idols, Jim. If LCMS is heterodox and unionistic as you say, all who receive the Sacrament of the Altar in her churches are professing union and agreement with such heresy. This is just more of that Corinthian stuff you mentioned. (1 Cor 10:9-32) Are you a member of the LCMS or are you accusing them of such a damning position from the outside?

By the way, what really was your involvement with the LSB over her fifteen years of production?

Jim Huffman said...

1. The 8th commandment is -- as Luther ably taught in the Large Catechism -- requires a personal confrontation when a sin is of a private nature. Publication in the LSB is, by its very nature, not a private matter.

2. I don't argue that a preacher "could" use a non-Christian song to illustrate the gospel. But you have failed to demonstrate how this particular song gives Christ to us. I would suggest that it would be difficult for a self-described non-Christian (such as Mr. Johnson) could do that.

3. St. Paul used no idols to preach the gospel. He instead -- in Acts 17.29 -- specifically pointed to the errors of those who sadly worship such false gods. But he never used the idols to preach the gospel. It is important that we not justify our 21st errors by impugning the Apostle.

4. I am not a member of the LCMS. I am a member of a congregation in the LCMS. It is not possible for me as an individual layman to belong to the LCMS.

I appreciate your input and ideas. But since this is about this song and not about my unworthinesses (which are manifold) I'm not inclined to continue further public discussions with someone I don't know. If you'd like to ask me more questions off-board, I'd be happy to entertain them.