Review of “Preaching from Home” by Gracia Grindal

Gracia Grindal, Preaching from Home: The Stories of Seven Lutheran Women Hymn Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2011), 384 pp.

This book intrigued me in the first place because of my interest in Lutheran hagiography: I figured it might direct me to some givers-of-Christ I hadn’t known before. And it certainly did that—but learning about some remarkable Lutheran women is only a piece of the whole book’s project, which is packed with far more than the title would lead you to believe.

Still, let’s start with these remarkable women. The introduction tells us of Elisabeth Cruciger, the wife of one of Luther’s students Caspar Cruciger, who according to a rather later legend dreamt of preaching in Wittenberg’s city church and eventually did so, albeit not from the pulpit or with a sermon but through her hymn “The Only Son from Heaven” (LBW 86), which was the first Reformation hymn composed by a woman. Little is known about her aside from the hymn, so the story must move on from there to Dorothe Engelbrettsdatter (1634–1716) of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom, who in her day was as famous and revered as Thomas Kingo. An aristocrat, Dorothe was very well-educated and fluent in a number of languages, as well as being a gifted householder and a happily married wife. Her books of poems and hymns were bestsellers in their day for their rich emotion, penitent piety, and use of the then-contemporary Baroque style. By contrast, Birgitte Boye (1742–1824)—whose story has also been recounted in the summer 2012 issue of Lutheran Forum—turned to the Enlightenment’s newfound interest in the creation and its Creator for inspiration, and for this reason no fewer than 140 of her hymns were included in the national hymnal of Danish-Norwegian church in 1783. And yet a mere twenty years later her hymns had fallen into disfavor, sounded old-fashioned, and were cut ever more drastically in succeeding hymnals.

Berthe Canutte Aarflot (1795–1859) charted yet another course, as her hymnody was shaped by the Pietist revival of Norwegian layman Hans Nielsen Hauge (often looked down upon by American Lutherans who only know the dregs of Pietism, but who almost single-handedly improved the material conditions of life in Norway, brought the people back to faith, and was a powerful proponent of women’s ministry to boot). Her poems and hymns recaptured much of the mystical experience that shaped the early Luther but had fallen by the wayside in most Lutheran cultures and reintroduced eschatological themes as well. Lina Sandell (1832–1903) of Sweden, author of “Children of the Heavenly Father,” anticipates the “modern” woman who combines family and career: she had established herself as a poet, hymnist (with over 1700 hymns to her name!), editor, translator, and author of children’s literature on the strength of her own gifts and was quite happy to do so as a single woman; accordingly, she was rather startled when a man several years her junior proposed marriage to her. After quite some time of agonizing over the question, she accepted, and together they continued to promote missions at home and abroad. One of the major Lutheran leaders of Sweden, Carl Rosenius, declared that “no one can sing of the free gift of grace like Lina Sandell.” Her works became particularly meaningful to Swedish immigrants in America.

Britt Hallqvist (1914–1997) and Lisbeth Smedegaard Andersen (b. 1934) strike a new note entirely. Baroque, Enlightenment, and Pietist enthusiasms have all run their course by the twentieth century; there is a massive loss of faith in God, confidence in knowledge, and certainty in anything. Hallqvist started out rather a doubter herself but as she grew into adulthood, and to everyone’s surprise including her own found herself married to a pastor, she regained the faith that most Swedes had lost. Her hymns were rich in simple, accessible, personal imagery, many written for children but with a kind of happily skewed vision that was meant to shake adults out of the rut of the obvious and ordinary—a hymn on the disciples shooing the children away from Jesus, and his insistence that they be allowed to come to him, is a particularly charming example of this. Andersen, the only hymn-preacher in the book to have become an ordained-preacher as well, also sought to address the emptiness and loneliness of her contemporary Danish society, alienated from but also ignorant of its Christian faith, sometimes with hymns that simply voice those feelings without immediately moving to a solution, as in works she wrote for Holy Saturday. At the same time she encountered no little resistance from fellow Lutherans who felt that the church’s chief task was to preserve the heritage of Brorson and Grundtvig, regardless of their hymns’ ability to reach contemporary people.

The final hymnist of the book is Gracia Grindal herself. Leaving out most of the biographical details that filled out the accounts of the earlier women, here Grindal focuses on a single thread in her life: learning to become a hymnist, with many false starts and wrong detours along the way. For American Lutherans who have strong feelings about worship music, this will be compelling reading indeed! (Grindal was on the LBW committee; she was most definitely not on the ELW committee.) It is hard to write for a land of immigrants, who have such disparate musical as well as theological traditions. How do we choose what to preserve? How do we judge whether a contemporary voice actually breaks through the crust of dead tradition, or whether is it only pleading for attention with sensationalistic tropes? (Grindal clearly does not care for hymns that do so by talking about factories, buses, and slums.) And who exactly are we writing for? The conclusion of Grindal’s story—and the insight that ties together the other hymnists’ work as well—is that, though much Christian hymnody follows Augustine’s dictum that a hymn is praise directed toward God, the Lutheran pattern has moved in quite the opposite direction: a hymn is actually preaching to the people, just as Elisabeth Cruciger dreamed. Lutherans have survived the ups and downs of theological and ecclesial trends because, even if no one else was doing it, their hymns were still preaching the gospel to them. Grindal puts it nicely: “Prayer is either help me, help me, or thank you, thank you! To be original in prayer flies in the face of all we know about God, who knows our hearts! Like Luther and Calvin, I was suspicious of the originality that flowed from the human heart, but I trusted Scripture… The Word of God was for human beings, not God” (339–340). This breakthrough finally opened up her own long-blocked hymnwriting impulses and eventually led to a huge collection of hymns for the lectionary, which is in the process of being published in several volumes at present.

This review can only whet the appetite; there is much more to be gleaned from its pages. But a few conclusions of the work are worth mentioning. One is the importance of fathers in the lives of daughters: by and large the women mentioned here were loved, honored, and encouraged by their fathers to do as much as their societies permitted them to do in service of the gospel. Secular studies have long confirmed the importance of fathers for young women’s flourishing, but it is encouraging to see that fact embodied in our church history. Second, the moods of Christian piety shift and change, and though we may long for a mood of the past, we fail our missionary task if we ignore the mood of the present. A steady diet of we-are-unworthy, for example, will not bring the gospel home to most people in North America today, though it might again someday. Which means, third, that artists of all kinds will have to take the risk of non-immortality—maybe that means trusting in the reality of the resurrection!—by writing what suits the moment without anxiety that it will endure for all time. As much as Grindal admires the women she studies in this book, she readily admits that most of their work would be inaccessible to present-day worshippers. And that’s no catastrophe; it’s the nature of forward-moving history. But, fourth, an artist will probably fail to speak potently to her own day if she knows nothing of her tradition. Immersion in the tradition is exactly what offers all the range of voice, mood, style, and form that can be tweaked and developed to create a compelling riff for the present. Finally, hymnals come and hymnals go. They are political products as much as theological ones, but they are also dated things, and they pass away. Some of us will find that to be particularly good news.

 

Comments are closed.