Unfortunately, objective language is difficult. I once debated a fellow who claimed to be an expert in music matters who also insisted that we use objective terms. He then proceeded to argue that Haugen was objectively good because he “uses interesting chords.” Now first, a technical point: “Interesting” is not an objective term, not in any way. It is subjective, for it implicitly needs a subject who finds something interesting. So no objectivity here.
I have also heard music defended because “There’s nothing wrong with it.” Perhaps this is true. Perhaps not in some cases, as I will argue momentarily. However, it seems to me that in celebrating the sacrifice of Holy Mass it is insufficient for our music to have “nothing wrong with it.” There should be something positively right with it. Unfortunately, so far all I’ve been offered personally is ‘interesting chords,’ whatever that means.
But I’m willing to admit the existence of ‘interesting chords’ or ‘curious rhythms’ or whatever novelty seems to pass for musical goodness these days. I am, admittedly, a musical amateur. My expertise lies in language. To be fair, the debate that began this little rumination was over Haugen's psalms, which aren't so bad when compared to- say- Rossini's propers- and the words are direct translations, so my linguistic analysis would be irrelevent. Instead I propose to examine the words to one of Haugen’s greatest hits, the ubiquitous “Gather Us In”.
Before I begin to examine what is to be found in the words, let me say what is not to be found: God. There is no explicit mention of God, neither by name nor by attribute. Normally I would have thought this to be a problem for a hymn, but apparently I am wrong. With that in mind, I begin.
Here in this place, new light is streaming,And we’re off. This line sets a place for this song- “here”- which is the only way we can assume the song is about God, because we are in a Church, and presumably we would ask God to gather us in church, right? We’ll get back to that point. The next part of the line offers us new light. Why new? Light has been a subject of many hymns down through the ages, and many adjectives have been added to it. “Holy” light, “Heavenly” light, “Godly light” or even “Godlight.” But here the light is “new”. New is not a virtue, although it is paraded in this song as though it were. Further, what is “new” about light? Light was the first created thing. It could be the light of a new day- except for me, the place and time where I heard this song most often was at the Saturday evening Mass of Anticipation, when the day was drawing to a close, and the light was therefore old. The only new thing about the light in church is that light is currently provided by electricity, a relatively new development. Perhaps that’s what this song is about: it’s really a hymn to Thomas Edison. It makes sense. After all, Edison is mentioned by name exactly the same number of times as God.
Now is the darkness vanished away,Here we have the first mention of the true subject of this song: Us. There are 27 or 28 mentions of “we” “our” or “us”. By comparison there are seven mentions of “you” and “your” which is presumably God. Or Edison. A question: Are we supposed to see “our fears and our dreamings” at church? If not, then where are we? Incidentally, dreamings is not a word.
See in this place our fears and our dreamings,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in, the last and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken,
We shall arise to the sound of our name.
We are the young, our lives are a myst’ry
We are the old, who yearn for your face.
We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry
We are “sung”? What does this mean? I am at a loss about being sung into existence. I can only hope the songwriter is better than Haugen.
Called to be light to the whole human race.'The courage to enter the song'- perhaps my least favourite line of the song. We ask for the strength and courage to endure. The courage of saints and martyrs. Here the song combines New Age spiritualism with sixties idealism which tells us that the bravest thing in the world is to strum a guitar around a campfire in protest of the Man.
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty,
Gather us in, the proud and the strong,
Give us a heart, so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song.
Here we will take the wine and the water“New” again. And here we run into a pet peeve of mine. I am tired of songs that refer to the body and blood of Christ as bread and wine. I know, Aquinas did it. He did, but he also stressed that the matter was more than bread and wine. Some of the newer songs I was stuck singing for five years emphasize the bread, rather than the flesh. Some go further, so we sing of “seed” and “grapes” or “vines”, and are no longer singing of bread and wine. If we go any farther back we’ll be singing in praise of manure.
Here we will take the bread of new birth.
Here you shall call your sons and your daughtersBody and Blood of Christ.
Call us anew to be salt of the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Give us to eat the bread that is youBody and Blood of Christ!
Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are new.
Not in the dark of buildings confiningSo, we’re not in a building. A church, whatever else it may be, is a building. So if we are not in a building, then we are not in a church, and if we are not in a church, then where are we, and more importantly, whom are we asking to gather us in?
Not in some heaven, light years away,
I have no idea what to make of that line.
But here in this place, the new light is shiningThe song displaces God, and in God’s place puts “us”. This song is not about God, or in praise of God, it is in praise of us, and us alone. I would take the advice of the fourth stanza, and not sing this song in a “building confining.” Although, personally I would not sing this song around a Catholic campfire.
Now is the kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in, and hold us forever,
Gather us in, and make us your own,
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.
So what do we do at this point? Objective debate would be nice, but few are capable. The majority of music that seems deficient is the new stuff, so the tendency is to want to banish the new in its entirety. It is unfair to look back into the past and say “gosh, they really knew how to write back then!” Natural selection of a sort has been taken place, and only the best has come down to us. Natural selection is still at work. A while ago a choir director acquaintance of mine took me through some old dusty cupboards of a church and showed me some hymnals from the forties. The hymnals were full of the work of a priest who wrote the sappiest, most syrupy saccharine songs you could possibly imagine. His work has now died the death it richly deserved, and is sung no more. Wait a few years, and most of the Haugen Haas Schutte stuff will be gone. A few of their better pieces may survive, and Catholics will be griping about some other new hack who has arrived on the scene.