Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

YouTube Preview ImageLet’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

NPR’s All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.

If that’s all you’re looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday.”

As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I’m with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it’s because I had too-high expectations. I’m Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week’s hymn in our house is “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It’s the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week’s was “To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” by Martin Luther, who hasn’t been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.

If you bill your story as “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday,” I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OUR GOD”)

MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger…

FARMER: Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing – yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.

Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we’re told that we’re more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these “charts” that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn’t track these things and I wasn’t terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.

It’s quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana’s piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana’s approach.

Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here’s one perspective:

KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.

FARMER: There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

GETTY: And I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.

Later we’re told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty’s work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:

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Religion journalists save the day for young scribes

Last night I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion for The Fund for American Studies’ Institute on Political Journalism. This summer program gives students internships at media organizations, coursework in politics and economics, and other features (such as mentors to guide you as you start your career).

Anywho, the director asked me to put together a panel of religion journalists and I was thrilled that both Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton, managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, graciously gave their time and wisdom to the students of the program.

First, here’s a bit of a scene-setter.

In high school, my journalism teacher told us a story about a horrible interview she once watched. A major flood had swept through a canyon in Colorado. A reporter approached a man who’d just seen his wife and kids swept away and asked him how he felt. Everyone was understandably appalled at the lack of humanity that reporter displayed in putting a man on camera and asking such a question at the worst moment of his life. I try to keep that in mind when I’m talking to people who have undergone some tragedy. And it makes me reticent to approach some people or ask too many questions.

Lawton told a wonderful story about reporting on a disaster zone that really moved me.

Arriving after some horrific travel delays, she had to rush to complete her interviews. As she got to the village where her interviews would take place, she said she just felt icky about the work she was about to do — like a vulture descending on these poor people. But she had to do her work and so she began asking people about how they felt regarding the tragedy they’d endured. As she got going, the crowd of people wishing to tell their stories grew and grew. She ended up unhooking the microphone from the camera so the camera man could complete the footage they needed to gather and just stayed there long after her own purposes, letting people speak into the microphone about their story.

I’m probably doing a disservice to the story, but it was such a wonderful reminder that journalism need not be invasive or an unwelcome necessity. It can also be healing and a beautiful way to connect with our fellow man.

Eckstrom gave great advice to the young whippersnappers — all college-aged kids — about the importance of mastering multimedia journalism. Basic reporting and writing skills are essential, but you can’t just be a writer these days, you have to figure out how to shoot and cut video, too. He also encouraged the students to be creative about how they present information.

Which is all a long way of getting to what I wanted to highlight.

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Here I stand: Martin Luther on film

So while the rest of you are focused on Halloween, we Lutherans are busy celebrating Reformation Day. To be sure, some churches moved their celebrations to earlier in the month or last Sunday, but my congregation is keeping it real with services at 7:00 PM tonight.

You might be surprised how much Lutherans mark the day. Back in my single days, my wonderful Catholic housemate used to let us use her piano while we sang hymns at our annual party. Some mark it in celebration, others in a more solemn fashion. But how is it covered in the media? (I like to tease that the failure of the media to write about liturgical holidays constitutes a “war” on them — a la the “War on Christmas.”)

Well, it’s not a major media occurrence. But I did rather enjoy this Religion News Service piece from a few weeks ago and meant to review it. Today is a better day to do it.

The piece ran in the “Culture” section under “Entertainment and Pop Culture.” Headlined, Searching for the real Martin Luther, the piece begins with some history on Luther’s public life and then goes on to explain how both his critics and theological fans view him — without pulling any punches. Then we get to the real point of the piece — how the English-speaking world has portrayed Luther in film:

The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

The piece goes on to discuss how difficult it is to portray the “real” Luther and why it’s a shame that no movie has yet captured it.

Liturgical holidays are very difficult to cover for the Godbeat. Frequently it can seem like you’re just reporting on the same Christmas Eve or Easter traditions over and over again. The lesser holidays are frequently ignored. But I rather liked this approach — taking a somewhat obscure aspect of the celebrations (and watching these movies is something I can assure you my friends have done and do) and just finding something interesting to say about them.

So it’s just a small point, but one that’s interesting and even interests a general audience that might not be part of the typical celebrations.


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