652. Hymns vs. Carols

A note at the start: this may seem to be about religion, but it is also about the manner in which a writer presents his ideas.

During the last two days (November 10 and 11 in this time warp called writing posts ahead of time) I have reread Like Clockwork, putting on a final polish. I find that I have to give a finished piece a few months to lie fallow before I can see things like they when I meant to write the, or a perfectly fine sentence which leads the reader’s understanding in the wrong direction because it doesn’t match the lead-in from a previous sentence.

Songs, particularly their lyrics, play a late but vital role in the novel Like Clockwork, and polishing the parts of the book where Balfour teaches Eve to sing took me back to an earlier time in my life.

The first music I remember was in church, which was probably different from the church, synagogue, temple, ashram, or gurdwara you attended. It was the (town deleted) Southern Baptist Church, a white clapboard building that housed about fifty people each Sunday during the decade of the fifties. My father was song leader, although he couldn’t read a note of music, my mother played the piano, and everybody sang. Not well, mostly, but vigorously. That’s where I learned to sing without apologizing for my five note range.

We were fundamentalists, believing that God was all powerful, all knowing, and willing to forgive, but only if you accepted him as your personal savior. Otherwise, you would burn in Hell forever. I believed that myself at the time.

The hymns we sang echoed the sermons, particularly this one:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains

This isn’t like the kind of fancy, up-town hymns most Christians were singing, but it suited our congregation. No one questioned the lyrics. Well, I did, but I never said so out loud. Even if you accept the underlying theology, this is a harsh way to present it.

There was also a sub-category of hymns called invitationals, which were the backbone of the service. At the end of the sermon, without exception, the last hymn sung was a call to repentance. It went on verse after verse in hopes that some sinner would come down to give himself to Jesus.

I know how often I speak tongue-in-cheek, but that’s not what I’m doing now. I myself went down when I was twelve years old, convinced that I would be Hell-bound if I did not. Loss of belief came a few years later, but the sound of those sweet invitationals still lives in my memory.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

There’s that blood again, but you shouldn’t make too much of it. The sacrifice of a God or a parent for their children is hardwired into human DNA, from Jesus to Bambi’s mother. The presentation makes the difference, including the melody and the place. That “fountain filled with blood” never set well with me; today it makes me cringe and it makes me angry. But “just as I am” still rings in my memory as a sweet call to come to a God who would accept you, no matter what you had done.

Writers, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Sometimes, however, it is what you say. There was only one hymn out of the hundreds I knew, In the Garden, that always spoke sweetly. I featured it late in Like Clockwork. Eve tweaks it a bit, but I was too young when I sang it to have that much nerve. It will show up in the next post.

Although I didn’t know it when I was a child, this hymn is supposed to be the thoughts of Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. I like it better as anybody, in any garden. The second verse says:

He speaks, and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

The sacrifice is always there, but you don’t always have to talk about it. People know.

Every Christmas we sang carols, which were that oxymoron, happy hymns. That was the only time we were singing the same thing more PC Christians were singing, and I loved them most of all.

If you are a Christian, you can look toward the manger, or you can look toward the cross. We looked toward the cross, but if I were still a Christian today, I would be kneeling before the Baby Jesus.

I suspect that all religions contain both those aspects. If you look past jihadis to the precepts of Islam, you will find a vast fund of good will. If you look at the history of “peaceful” Buddhism, you will find a war fought between followers of the Amida Buddha and the Buddha of the Pure Land. Everybody, everywhere, has the same choice to make.

In our Church, the sermon on the Sunday closest to Christmas started out with the Babe in the manger but quickly morphed into hellfire. The preacher never forgot that his primary duty was scaring the Hell out of sinners — or scaring sinners out of Hell.

That’s legitimate, but personally, I reject it.

There will be more on this in Eve Learns to Sing, on Wednesday.

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