Friday, October 02, 2009

More Dispatches from the Hymnal 1940

Today, in my regularly-scheduled prayer time (yes, I know that sounds a little weird) at the console of the mighty Rodgers, I held a conversation with the Holy Spirit with Hymns 253 through 262 (fr0m the section "Missions") in front of us. It was a time of nostalgia for me. According to one of the characters in the AMC TV series Madmen, nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions a person can experience. It signifies the vestigial presence of an old wound, a bittersweet feeling, the call of a place and time that one yearns to go back to, but can't.

Hymn 254 is "From Greenland's icy mountains...". The text is from the great missionary bishop Reginald Heber (part of whose legacy is that he has several namesakes who went on to distinguish themselves in Anglican ministry--more than any other single person I am aware of). He died at the age of 49 (by definition, prematurely, IMO) while Bishop of Calcutta.

I can remember attending a service in an Episcopal parish in the mid-1970s where this was used as the entrance hymn. It was not unfamiliar to me from my Baptist upbringing, so I did not think it strange. Yet, even then, among the avant garde of missiologists, it would have been considered anachronistic at best, and quite possibly racist. Despite being one of the most popular hymns of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and America, it was eliminated from the Hymnal 1982, and one can scarcely imagine a setting in which it would be used today.
From Greenland's icy mountains,
From India's coral strand,
Where Afric's sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand.
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error's chain.

Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation, O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learnt Messiah's name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o'er our ransomed nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
Why? Because the paradigm that it assumes is now clearly a relic of the past. Both British and American society are rushing headlong into post-Christian secularism, while the gospel has taken hold and is flourishing by "Afric's sunny fountains," among other places. The image of souls in "heathen" lands "calling" missionaries (per the Madeconian who appeared to St Paul in a dream) from "Christian" countries is no longer even plausible, let alone compelling. There are other objections as well, but let's first look at another of the genre, "Remember all the people...":
Remember all the people
Who live in far off lands,
In strange and lonely cities,
Or roam the desert sands,
Or farm the mountain pastures,
Or till the endless plains
Where children wade through rice-fields
And watch the camel trains.

Some work in sultry forests
Where apes swing to and from,
Some fish in mighty rivers,
Some hunt across the snow.
Remember all God's children,
Who yet have never heard
The truth that comes from Jesus,
The glory of his word.

God bless the men and women
Who serve him oversea;
God raise up more to help them
To set the nations free,
Till all the distant people
In ev'ry foreign place
Shall understand his kingdom
And come into his grace.
These lines are from the pen of Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), a distinguished English priest, liturgist, and advocate for social reform. I don't remember this one from my growing-up years, and I can't say for certain that I have ever been present when it was used in an Episcopal service, though I definitely remember singing it (and chortling while doing so) in the Lutheran congregation in which I sojourned for a while en route to Anglicanism.

The anachronisms present in the Heber text are grossly magnified in this one. It bespeaks a world where it was still possible for something to be exotic, a possibility that information and communication technology has now pretty much done away with. It exemplifies a naive occi-centrism that is now not only very much out of fashion ideologically, but not not even plausible (the "apes swinging to and fro" line makes me laugh still).

So, from whence comes my nostalgia? First off, I enjoy the tunes (Missionary Chant and Far Off Lands, respectively). But I realize that my growing fondness for all-things-Victorian as I advance into my dotage is an anomaly, and not widely shared. Beyond that, however, I miss the unashamed passion for evangelism that is present in these hymns. Strip away all the intimations of cultural imperialism, and what shines through is an honest and fervent conviction of the universality of the gospel. The mysterium fidei is honest-to-God good news for all people in every place and in every time. There is no hint of forcing it on anyone; despite all the attempts at constructing a counter-narrative to the great era of European and American missionary endeavor, we're talking about genuine heroes here. (Reginald Heber lost his life to the exotic climate and micro-fauna of India more than to anything else.) They purveyed the gospel through acts of love and gentle persuasion. And there is certainly no hint of syncretism or universalism of a different sort--no "I'll take my road and you take your road and we'll meet at the peak." That era understood that to know Christ is to live in light and to not know Christ is to live in darkness, and they were passionate about bringing people to know Christ.

In fact, according to the Hymnal 1940, at least, mission is virtually synonymous with evangelism. It's a great thing to dig wells and build schools and make micro-loans to people in developing countries, but all that is an adjunct to mission, not mission itself. Mission is when you are in a position to say to someone, "May I tell you about Jesus?"

We need some new missionary hymns that don't make us laugh (though I think I won't like the tunes nearly so much as the old ones). But perhaps we need to first recover a passion for worldwide evangelism. A little resurrected Christian triumphalism wouldn't be such a bad thing now, would it?


Undergroundpewster said...

Alas, I fear that since the pendulum has swung to the point where pluralism reigns supreme and all are saved, there is no urgency in TEC to deliver the Good News of the Gospel to anyone, not even the Sunday morning golfers in the U.S. Thus we get "mission" in the form of selling hot chocolate and ginger bread cookies at the Christmas parade.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Pewster: I wouldn't be too sure of that. The biggest problem in TEC, I think, it not the various sexuality wars, nor what this or that bishop (or Presiding Bishop!) said or didn't say. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the average person-in-the-pew cannot articulate any sort of story about their relationship with God in Christ. It isn't that they don't have one, just that they don't have the tools and confidence to articulate it. I think that is where the real work lies, and you don't have to go overseas anymore to find folks who haven't heard the Good News.