December 27, 2012

Jaroslav Vajda: Concerning Poetry and Hymnody

If you're like most Lutherans, you've probably never heard of Jaroslav Vajda. So I'll fill you in a little bit, then tell you why I'm writing about him. Vajda was an LC-MS pastor and hymn writer, who began writing hymn texts in the 1960s. He is credited with giving American hymnody a "new voice" in an era that was dominated mostly by British poets. This article credits him with being much more interested with writing hymns for the liturgy and Church year than the hymn writers from across the Atlantic. Vajda died in 2008 at the age of 89, having written and translated over 200 hymns that appear in many hymnals of various denominations, including Christian Worship and its supplement (WELS), the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS), and the Lutheran Service Book (LC-MS).

So here's why I'm writing about Vajda. I had never heard his name until a few years ago. I kept hearing pastors reverently mentioning his name, always followed by glowing reviews of his beautiful hymn texts. He is even said to have been "the greatest Lutheran poet since Paul Gerhardt" (Schalk: Wonderful hymns of Jaroslav Vaija). Having been made aware of his name and his illustrious reputation, I was able to take note whenever I would see him listed as the author of a hymn. So admittedly, my experience with Vajda's hymn writing is limited to what has been included in the aforementioned Lutheran hymnals.

Because I have not read all of his hymns, part of me feels that it is unfair to pass judgement on them based on the dozen or so that I have read and sung. However, I would also like to think that the various hymnal committees have sifted through his works and selected only the best for inclusion in their respective hymnals. Unfortunately, if this is the case, it does not really help my opinion of Vajda's hymnody. (And here comes the part where I sound snooty and judgmental.) Of the eight Vajda hymns included in CW, half of them rank among the worst hymns in the hymnal, in my opinion.

What criteria could cause me to reach such a conclusion? Allow me to elaborate. First of all, I won't produce a bulleted list of criteria that every hymn should meet, or else be thrown out. Dealing with art and music probably necessitates an organic process. (And, by the way, critique is part of that organic process of inclusion/exclusion. Just because a hymnal committee included it does not necessarily make it worthy of inclusion within the Song of the Church.) By contrast, a concrete list of criteria would prove overly restrictive and rule out some very good hymns, or else be too short to be effective. But, that being said, there are some basic unwritten rules that Vajda seems to frequently break.

The biggest one is theological clarity. I can't argue with Vajda's theology, because when it comes out it is spot-on. But in hymn writing, there is often a balance struck between poetry (artistic expressiveness) and theology. In the great hymns of the Church, the poetry is minimal, because being too abstract or too "artistic" will get in the way of the clear proclamation of the gospel. (This is essentially what I have argued about the visual arts in the Church, as well.) So let's look at a few cases-in-point. The first is "Now the Silence," which I would say is tied for worst hymn in the CW with "Then the Glory." It's a one-verse hymn which reads as follows:
Now the silence
Now the peace
Now the empty hands uplifted
Now the kneeling
Now the plea
Now the Father's arms in welcome
Now the hearing
Now the pow'r
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring
Now the body
Now the blood
Now the joyful celebration
Now the wedding
Now the songs
Now the heart forgiven leaping
Now the Spirit's visitation
Now the Son's epiphany
Now the Father's blessing
The major fault of this hymn is that its theological content is extremely thin—sort of an abstract outline of some scriptural truths: grace, atonement, heaven, etc. But what little content there is almost completely lost in a barrage of repetitive adverbs, which I can only suppose is intended for poetic effect. But while I can appreciate this poem to a degree when it is read aloud, it becomes tedious and even exasperating when set to music and sung by a congregation. 

A second unwritten rule of good hymn writing is to avoid sentimentality. Being sentimental should not be confused with being emotional. Here's what I mean: "Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart" is an extremely emotional hymn. The text and music come together so powerfully to describe the relationship between a broken soul and a gracious God. And when verse three describes the resurrection in the prophetic words of Job, who can hold back tears of joy? This emotion comes from the beauty of the gospel itself more than from the artistry of the hymn writer, and touches each believer on a personal level—because we have experienced it. Sentimentality, on the other hand, has been described by some as "emotion unearned." We sang the Vajda hymn "Peace Came to Earth" on Christmas Eve, and it illustrates my point:
Peace came to earth at last that chosen night
When angels clove the sky with song and light
And God embodied love and sheathed his might—
Who could but gasp: Immanuel!
Who could but sing: Immanuel!
And who could be the same for having held
The infant in their arms and later felt
The wounded hands and side, all doubts dispelled—
Who could but sigh: Immanuel!
Who could but shout: Immanuel!
I should point out that the third line of the first verse is a very deep and beautiful statement, and were it not for the last two lines (repeated in each verse, but with different verbs), I could be persuaded to include this hymn in the hymnal. But those last two lines are deal-breakers for me. Sure, they are intended for poetic effect. But first of all, it is pure sentimentality. The poet is so overcome with emotion that he projects his sighing and gasping on the whole Christian Church. Why can we not be allowed to have our own emotional responses? And furthermore, how can I have an emotional reaction to something I have not experienced? Vajda is asking me to imagine holding the infant, then to imagine touching his wounds as my doubts melt away. But I cannot really do any of these things, so my emotional reaction is ultimately unearned. So while parts of this hymn are certainly praiseworthy, it is difficult to overlook its glaring faults.

The third and last unwritten rule that Vajda often breaks is tied in closely with the second, and that is that they are overly personal. Again, this may be a desirable thing in poetry, but it does not make for good hymnody. For instance, verse two of the above hymn text is substituting a personal (albeit imaginary) experience for the universal experience of the Church. There is a better example in one of Vajda's more well-known hymns, "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt."
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel's word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me,
But there is room and welcome there for me. 
In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
Sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me. 
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me. 
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
Its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
To die, to live, and not alone for me,
To die, to live, and not alone for me.
Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes
It's a good sign that a hymn is going to be overly personal if it is written in the first person singular. (Luther's hymn, "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" is written in first person, but from the point of view of the Angel, who shares only God's message, not his personal feelings.) At the risk of sounding repetitive, sharing your personal feelings, experiences, etc. may be perfectly fine in the art of poetry, but hymnody demands more. Hymnody is the Song of the Church. If it does not build her up, it does not belong (1 Cor 14). We don't need to imagine that we are a shepherd, staring into the manger with throbbing heart, in order for Christmas to be "real" for us. I realize it's statements like this that give Lutherans a reputation for having no stomach for emotion. Let me just reiterate—having emotions is a good and natural thing. But seeking an emotional high for its own sake is worlds away from having a genuine emotional reaction to the message of the gospel. In "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt," Vajda does include some wonderful theological truths—but they are lost amidst the sentimentality of swooning shepherds.

I did not pursue a degree in literature, and my experience with poetry as an art form is extremely thin. So I cannot say with any authority that Jaroslav Vajda was a either a good or a bad poet. I do think it is an exaggeration in the extreme to say he was the best Lutheran poet since Gerhardt. As a Christian, I think his poetry is at times good and meaningful—even beautiful. But on the whole, I have to conclude that a good poem does not necessarily make a good hymn. Maybe we should reconsider whether these hymns should really be included in our hymnals.

Anyone know of some good Christmas hymns written in the past 50 years?