Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Musings over Problems with Musical Prayers

I know I'm a terrible person...but I can't help critiquing the text of various uplifting songs, especially if I'm rehearsing them for a performance. Examples:

1. Recursive logic.

Sally DeFord wrote a lovely piece I have sung. But it parses down to "I know He lives because He lives. He lives because I know He lives."

[Editorial note: in my original post, I rendered it as "I know He lives because He lives. Because He lives, I know He lives." Eric correctly pointed out that was merely a restatement. I have made the change based upon his suggestion.]

2. Confusion of address.

There's this beautiful Christmas song in which Mary sings a lullaby to baby Jesus and prays "the red drops on Calvary, not Lord, for him!" Except she's singing TO the Lord. I suspect the author (who is LDS) intended for Mary to pray to Heavenly Father on behalf of her baby, but couldn't work it out rhythmically. (As an exercise, I tried to fix the line doctrinally and couldn't fit it into the meter.) But textually, it parses as Mary praying to her baby on behalf of her baby. (Though I certainly sympathize with a protective mother asking, "Isn't there ANY other way...?")

As a culture, we Mormons are increasingly using the names "Heavenly Father" and "Lord" interchangeably. In fact, I would say we are migrating toward "I guess the Lord knew I needed this problem" and away from "Heavenly Father" in the capacity as the ultimate Planner of our lives. Occasionally we get gentle reminders about the doctrine on how to address prayer to Heavenly Father in the name of the Savior. But many of the hymns don't follow that approach. ("Lord, I would follow thee.") I have chosen to read it as a conversation, as if He were still living on the earth. But still, confusing.

3. Raw emotion.

Then there are some of our great Restoration hymns. "There none shall come to hurt or make afraid" (except Johnson's army) is very forgivable because it wasn't a prophecy, just a hope. Plus it's "Come, Come Ye Saints" which is, like, the LDS anthem.

But "Praise to the Man" drives me nuts. Every time we sing it, I worry that it is turning into the Mormon version of the "Ave Maria." Especially in the fourth verse where we sing "Earth must atone for the blood of that man/Wake up the world for the conflict of justice." Cringe. I know it was written in the immediate post-martyrdom phase of fervent feelings. But it's so deeply entrenched in our culture we change it to sound more politically correct (and less like militaristic Mormons bent on vengeance), or do we keep what has become an intrinsic part of our history? So far in the modern era, we've managed to avoid the issue, but how much longer will that be possible?

Last year, as Primary chorister, I pointed out, "The Primary Program, along with Christmas and Easter, is a day when we can reasonably predict lots of non-member and inactive parents and grandparents will attend church. Do we really want to shake them up with such lyrics?"

On the other hand, is censorship a form of hypocrisy?

I suspect that nobody pays any attention to it now, but would freak out if we tried to change it. Human nature, right.

4. Minor quibbles.

Speaking of human nature, 200-ish years ago, it appears that some Cornish farmers wrote a nice little folksong about their Christmas celebration. It has become "The First Noel," and it states that Jesus was born "on a cold winter's night" and implies that there was deep snow on the ground. (In a subtropical desert climate?)

According to D&C 20:1, the Lord's birthday is actually April 6th. This makes sense, since it would fall during lambing season, and the symbolism is obvious. Also, December 25th is an artificially chosen date, probably based upon some mixture of the Roman calendar, debates among early church leaders (some of whom didn't want any "birthday" celebration at all), and compromises with paganism.

Still, for the last 1700-odd years, most Christians have celebrated December 25th as the official birthday. We Mormons have decided not to dispute the date, which I assume is similar to how my family almost always ends up celebrating Eric's birthday partway through October, for reasons of convenience. I gather our leadership decided we already had enough oddities separating us from mainstream Christianity, and this point just wasn't worth fighting over. I agree.

You can't fault a bunch of Cornishmen for basing their worship on their own experiences. While this leaves us singing hymns that are technically incorrect, it doesn't bother me--it just brings out my occasional inner obsessive stickler. I sing the hymn with gusto--and a small, wry smile.

5. Romanticism.

When I was nine years old, my family was living in Littleton, Colorado, where a big emphasis was placed on Pioneer Day. For the entire month of July, we sang oxcart/handcart/walking songs in Primary. One of the songs contained a line "I would like to have been a child then." I refused to sing it. "A hymn is supposed to be like a prayer," I reasoned, "And I refuse to lie to God." (Of course, I still lied to siblings and parents back then, but isn't it nice to know I had some scruples?) I thought of that decision seven years later when I read Huckleberry Finn's observation "You can't pray a lie."

Now, seriously, would you really enjoy walking a thousand miles, barefoot, in horrible conditions? Mud and dust, cold and heat, floods and drought, snakes and skeeters, poor sanitation and dysentary, escaped mules and sick oxen, danger, death, and deprivation? Even at age nine, I was keenly aware that I liked a house, electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and decent medical care. Far better than gathering buffalo poop with my bare hands to start a smoky fire to cook a meagre stew to feed to my suffering mother who was going into labor without physicians or privacy.

I tried to point this out to my primary classmates, who ignored me, and to my teacher, who sighed.

"Seriously," I thought, "Am I the only person who thinks about these things?"

Twenty-ish years later, I'm still asking myself that.

I will look on the bright side: if the audience members aren't obsessing about the lyrics, they are also likely not thinking "I sure hope she's singing that with a semicolon, not a comma splice!" Maybe they, unlike me, are merely enjoying the intended message or meter or musicality.

So, am I an unspiritual sinner, or a silly obsessor, or just smarter than the average bear?


Carolyn said...

You're not the only one. Kristi Kirkeiner and I used to make fun of hymns in similar ways when we were growing up. My favorite was when we rewrote -- and then subsequently sang, loudly -- all of the lyrics about faith into believing things "MIGHT" happen instead of "KNOWING" they would.

Gail said...

Mom, for the recursive logic thing, to be real recursive logic, it should say "I know He lives because He lives. He lives because I know He lives."


Gail said...

Eric--you're absolutely right. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Aunt Carolyn, I saw what you said about saying things MIGHT happen instead of saying you KNEW they would happen. So "Faith is like a little seed; if planted it will grow" turns into "if planted it MIGHT grow." Like the Parable of the Sower. Be sure to tell Aunt Ten about my comment.


Cheryl said...

I refused to sing the "I would like to have been a child then" line back in Brownsburg, for the same reasons, although I added the fact that I wouldn't have lived long enough to have been a child then. I kept telling my teachers and classmates I would have died long before age 9-10 if I had lived in the 1840s. On the logic issue, the hymns don't bother me because I treat them more as poetry than grammatically correct prayers, and there is a lot of latitude in poetic license. However, many years ago I read an article in the Ensign about the truth of the Book of Mormon. It quoted Pres. Benson on the subject of how we know it is true, and to paraphrase, he said "We know it is true because it says it is true." That has always struck me as ridiculous.

Carolyn said...

Yes! Exactly! Eric, you get it! Faith alone doesn't guarantee anything!

renae kingsley said...

I agree with you! The Primary song the bugs me the most is the new one they learned this year. I don't know the title, but it starts out, "I came to Earth with power to choose/ Good choices that bless me and my family, too." I cringe every time we sing it. The melody is badly written and the words don't fit the meter very well. The rhymes (if they can generously be called such) are atrocious. I can't figure out why they picked this one to have the entire world learn. Nathan and I like to grumble over it. Luckily he doesn't have to sing it every Sunday any more!

Gail said...

Renae--I didn't even touch on the songs which are doctrinally acceptable but musically and/or lyrically bad. "Know This That Every Soul is Free" is one example that springs quickly to mind. I'm sure if I leafed through the hymn book, I'd quickly find others.

Krenn said...

wait, where did you get this tradition that hymns are like unto prayers?

And what's wrong "Earth must atone for the blood of that man/Wake up the world for the conflict of justice." ? World conflict in the interests of Justice sounds like good, clean fun.

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Jon said...

I will never be able to sing the hymns at church with a straight face again. Thanks, Sweetheart.