Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hymns In the News

Though, this time the year, it's always about the carols. This is actually a bit late, but you know how I feel about Christmas carols in Advent, and maybe you haven't heard about it anyway. Or, at least, not the whole story.

Earlier this month there were reports from various news outlets that the Anglican Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, “slams carols,” saying that he's “fed up with musical nonsense.” Some of the favorites that he reportedly dislikes include Away in a manger (though, presumably, sung to the tune that the English prefer) and O come, all ye faithful.

Digging a bit deeper, it turns out that the bishop has
a blog of his own, where he has endeavored to explain the situation, which turns out to be somewhat different from the sensational headlines.

Bishop Baines has a new book on the shelves in his country, Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? which he calls “a strong affirmation of Christmas celebration.” He thinks that some carols (like Away in a manger) are just fine for children just learning the Christmas story, but that perhaps as adults we need to sing them “with our brains engaged.”

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes;
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

This carol sentimentalizes the situation; the manger wasn't such a great place to be born. It's very unlikely that the infant Jesus didn't cry, waking up in a dark, cold, dirty place, lying in the scratchy straw amid the noises of animals. But it was completely intentional for God's child to be born fully human and vulnerable, to an unwed teenage mother, and not into the ruling class of the day, in a palace with nursemaids and a warm, comfortable bed. This seems to be Baines's message: Sing along with the sentiment, but remember the reality.

It looks to me like all the fuss started with a
British journalist who was writing about the bishop's new book and pulled out the most provocative quotes without any context, and certainly without inviting comment from the author. What excitement! How absurd! Great headlines! And then it turns out to be a thoroughly reasonable argument after all.


AuntE said...

Thanks for this CWS! I had not heard about the article which started all the fuss, nor the bishop's blog reply - which I admit I have only skimmed and will come back to read more thoughtfully after Christmas.

I, too, have thought of that line in "Away in a Manger" - "no crying He makes" - as not making much sense. Same goes for "Silent Night". I don't know of any woman (Mary included) giving birth silently!

The question for me is, how do we get people in our congregations past the sentimentality of the carols? I'm not above feeling sentimental when I sing - how can I expect the average person in the pew to not be sentimental? Is it a question of what we do with the sentimentality?

So many questions - not enough answers! :)

C.W.S. said...

I think in this instance it's up to the clergy to do their part. Music in worship is only one segment of the whole experience, and the sermon is a good place for a dose of reality amidst the sentiment.

There are modern texts being written to address this tension, but as a music director you can imagine the uproar if you had your congregation sing something like this hymn around this time of year instead of the old standards.