If you missed it in my Saturday wrap-up, Leah Libresco’s analysis of the unrelenting cheeriness of contemporary Christian music (CCM) is well-deserving of your attention. Looking through the last five years’ worth songs to wind up Billboard’s year-end Christian Top 50 charts, she found striking lyrical imbalance:
There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”
Libresco rightly noted that “Parishioners may find too much positive language dispiriting,” that such lyrical emphases underscore the “‘Walt Disney-fication’ of contemporary Christian music.”
But she also pointed out that “Christian music hasn’t always been so one-note,” and contrasted CCM lyrics with those of 19th century shape note music, which was most notably different from its 21st century cousin in making more balanced mention of death/life and sin/grace. Libresco’s work has already inspired reflections on similarly complicated Christian music by two Catholic contributors to First Things: Eve Tushnet (“…if your soul needs a smoke break from the endless Christian pep rally… Harrison Lemke’s beautiful new album Fertile Crescent Blues is what you’re looking for”) and Alexi Sargeant (“‘O God Our Help In Ages Past’… expresses both an enduring hope in God and an awareness of the terrifying contingency of man in the face of time’s advance”).
Indeed, on the infrequent occasions when I’ve written about Christian music, my choices have tended to be somewhat dark. For example, here’s part of what I’ve said about three favorite songs, starting with a carol that fits especially well with Richard Beck’s notion of “Winter Christians” (a key theme in Libresco’s article).
I know, I know: for Mary and Joseph, as now for the majority of people who follow their son, Christmas almost certainly didn’t come amid “Frosty wind” or “Snow had fallen, snow on snow.” But Incarnation is incarnate in particular ways…
And in any case, I’d give Christina Rosetti poetic license to draw on her own experience of December to articulate the truth that Christ comes to us all in the midst of spiritual — if not physical — bleakness, coldness, and darkness. A sentiment that we’re too eager to banish for the sake of keeping Christmas merry. (Let “holidays” be happy; Christmas is more complicated.)
To the very end, there’s a palpable sense of reduced circumstances (“A stable-place sufficed”; “A breastful of milk, / And a mangerful of hay; / Enough for him…”; “What can I give him / Poor as I am?”) underscored by the melancholy of the tune from Gustav Holst, composed at a time of personal scarcity.
If you only know this hymn slightly, you probably know it for its rather baroque pairs. We’re to be thankful for prayers answered and requests denied, for pain and for pleasure, for roses and for their thorns. It’s hymnody as chiaroscuro.
For that reason, there are quite a few people for whom this is not a favorite hymn — or, at least, not an easy one to sing with much conviction. Those with a vacant seat at the Thanksgiving table, for example, might resent [A.L.] Storm and [Carl] Backstrom’s sentiments — particularly as they’re carried along [J.A.] Bultman’s rather bouncy melody. So I worry that — relatively easy as my life has been to this point — whatever I say here will sound trite to those in the midst of suffering.
But what I think the hymn actually teaches us here is that the shape of our thanks is not determined by our circumstances, or by our response to them. Thanks are given to the One who — for all people in all situations — is our strength, our rock, our fortress, and (yes) our redeemer: the one who is “worthy to be praised” (Ps 18:1-3).
And I’ll close with my best-loved hymn, also from the Swedish Pietist tradition:
“Though he giveth or he taketh / God his children ne’er forsaketh”
Ne’er? Truly? After all, even God’s own son felt forsaken by him.
And why would a Defender at whose will “Ev’ry foeman must surrender” leave undefended these his children?…
The hard part is that we take refuge in a God of paradox: he provides and deprives, such that in death there is life and in sorrow, grace. (See also “Day by Day” [also by Lina Sandell], in which we pray to “He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,” a Provider who gives “pain and pleasure” and mingles “toil with peace and rest.”)
(While visiting a local Lutheran church this past Sunday, this hymn happened to follow the sermon. Passing the peace a minute later, the nice old lady behind me asked if I was a seminary student. I said no and asked why she’d thought that. “Because you could sing all four verses of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ by heart,” she explained. “No,” I replied, “I’m just Swedish.”)