Line by Line

Hymns that make you go "Hmm...": "Gather Us In"

posted March 03, 2012

Tags: Religion, Hymns

It's no secret that Catholics have a problem with bad liturgical music. Some hymns are borderline heretical. Others are basically error-free but watered down. Some praise the people rather than God, and some have us sing as God. Some are overly complicated and can't be sung by laity who aren't trained singers (and--let's be honest here--aren't all that into singing anyway).

I sometimes wonder why Catholics put up with this, but on further reflection I think I know the answer: We get so used to our usual hymns that we don't even stop to think about what's wrong with them. That's why I've decided to go through some hymns and point out what it is about them that bothers me. I hope I can inspire people to start asking questions and making more careful choices in the music we sing.

Today I'm looking at "Gather Us In," which is published in the OCP Today's Missal - Music Issue that my parish uses. It's credited to Marty Haugen, and © 1982, GIA Publications, Inc.

Here in this place new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away.

The song just started and I'm already tripped up. For one thing, every other verse has another syllable after where "place" is; Why not simplify it as "a new light"? Additionally, "vanished" doesn't take an object: It should be "the darkness vanished," not "the darkness is vanished." No wonder I always mistakenly say "banished" instead. But at least there aren't any theological problems yet.

See in this space our fears and our dreamings,

Wait a minute, "dreamings"? I could understand making up words to make a rhyme work, but not in a hymn. On closer inspection, though, that can't be the reason for the added "s" because the word it's supposed to rhyme is "streaming." No "s." I can't figure out why this was done, and it comes off as childish.

Next, we get to the meat of the song: The rest of the first verse talks about our fears and dreams (sorry, "dreamings") being brought to God and into the light, and all of us in our weakness ("the lost and forsaken, [...] the blind and the lame") rising to respond to God's call. I don't see any real problems here, save for a little subject-verb agreement problem at the end ("the sound of our name"), so let's move on.

We are the young--our lives are a myst'ry,
we are the old--who yearn for your face,

I would advise against using the word "mystery" because it has a specific theological meaning. While my life is certainly a mystery in the everyday sense of the word, there's no comparison between my future (which I presume is what it means by "our lives") and the mystery of the Eucharist. It's not even apples to oranges--more like apples to wildebeasts.

I also have a problem with this "we are" business. I'm not old, mystery or not. I assume this was supposed to mean something along the lines of "We are your people, both young and old" or something like that, so why separate them out like this? Just to fit the music? Doesn't that imply that the young don't yearn for God's face, or that older people's lives aren't mysterious?

Besides, there's barely any content here except taking time to talk about us. Which brings me to the next line:

We have been sung throughout all of hist'ry

Excuse me!? No. This is wrong. We have not been sung... Well, for one thing, the construction of the sentence bothers me: You sing songs, not people. But that's a minor issue. The real problem is whom the song is about.

Songs about Jesus would "have been sung throughout all of hist'ry." Not us. He founded a church, yes, but salvation comes from Him, not the Church, and certainly not its members. This idolization of the laity a classic example of bad hymns praisng us instead of God. It's narcissistic, self-congratulatory, and worst of all, it very well may qualify as idolatry. This line eliminates any goodwill I may have had for this song.

The song gets even worse, but that's a bit later. The next few lines almost seem to be trying to make up for the preceding one:

called to be light to the whole human race.

This looks like an attempt to relate the previous line to Jesus' command to be salt and light. Merely making a reference to Scripture doesn't make it scripturally sound. That Jesus gave us a mission does not make us, instead of Him, the focus of the Old Testament prophecies.

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,

Okay, first of all, I've been trying to avoid punctuation nitpicks because I can't tell whether the errors originated with Haugen, GIA or OCP. But that's a pretty blatant comma splice. I suppose the semicolon is technically correct but should really be a period instead. In fact, every single verse is written as two run-on sentences, one at the beginning and the other starting with the "Gather us in" part. Moreover, what's up with all the dashes? For the record, dashes set off parenthetical phrases. A comma would work better. This is why we have editors.

Second, I'm not sure what's going on with these lines. On the one hand, it seems like a genuine attempt to emphasize that the proud need to ask God for humility; either it's to make up for the "We have been sung" line or, more likely, Haugen just didn't realize how badly that line undermined this message. Of course, that doesn't speak well of his ability as a lyricist, especially one writing liturgical music. On the other hand, reading these lines in conjunction with the next one, I can't help but get a different feeling.

Give us the courage to enter the song.

I know in this case I'm probably just being paranoid, but I can't shake the feeling that Haugen is calling out those (like me) who can't bring themselves to sing this, accusing us of being proud and haughty for wanting sacred music to be, you know, sacred.

Really, the interpretation of "song" that makes the most sense is as a reference to the song from a few lines ago, the one about us instead of God. So there you have it: It takes courage to sing one's own praises. It's as if the whole concept of meekness is being turned back against itself, like something out of The Screwtape Letters.

Or maybe Haugen just couldn't think of anything else that rhymed with "strong."

Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth

This is ambiguous. Is it referring to the actual bread and wine before consecration, or the Eucharist? There's no good reason to be singing about the plain old bread and wine, but if it's about the Sacred Species, why use the terms "bread" and "wine"? I know it's not uncommon to use the language of appearances (e.g. talking about the sun rising rather than the earth rotating), but if you're going to sing about the body and blood of Christ, why not sing about the Body and Blood of Christ? It makes me wonder if it's not deliberately ambiguous to appeal to Protestants who don't believe in the Real Presence.

Also, Haugen has his Sacraments mixed up: "New birth" is Baptism, not the Eucharist.

Worse, there are more of those first-person pronouns. What business do we have taking the Eucharist? (Assuming it is the Eucharist.) That's called self-communication, and it is strictly forbidden. We receive the Eucharist. It's a gift, not something we can take for ourselves.

The next couple lines refer to us being called. Nothing too problematic, but still generally focusing on us rather than on God. After that, there's a rehash of the almost-Eucharistic theme, with "the bread that is you" being the only reference to the Real Presence, followed by a mention of fashioning "lives that are holy and hearts that are true."

Now we come to the last verse, which is just full of problems.

Not in the dark of buildings confining,

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but given everything else we've seen in this song, I can't help but see this as a reference to churches. Yes, I know that Our Lord's presence is not restricted to certain buildings. But at the same time, a Catholic church is a sacred place, where Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in a way that He is not present in other places. Seeing "buildings" equated with darkness and contrasted with the "new light," especially in conjunction with the "now is the Kingdom" (with a capital K) bit and the hymn's general focus on the laity, makes me think this verse was written not for Catholics but for Dispensationalists who believe that the age of the churches has passed.

not in some heaven, light years away,

I don't even know what to make of this. I mean, the more I think about this line and the one before it, the more I find wrong with them and the more flabbergasted I am that we sing this in a Catholic church.

First of all, what's so wrong with heaven? Why in the world would God's light not be shining in heaven? Second, what do light years have to do with anything? Does Haugen really think that Catholics think that heaven is located out in space somewhere? On the other hand, if Haugen is using light-years as a metaphor for heaven being far-off from our experience on earth, I guess that's a little better, but still problematic because the whole point of the Incarnation was to bridge that distance.

The song finally ends after a few token lines about unity. So let's look back over the highlights:

  1. Flowery language about "new light" and dreams
  2. Reference to human weakness, ignoring that said weaknesses are our own fault.
  3. Careless use of a term with a specific theological meaning.
  4. Arguably idolatrous claim that "we" are what history has been waiting for.
  5. Reference to human pride and haughtiness and a request for humility, the song's one redeeming feature, which is undercut by the lines right before and after.
  6. Stupid remark about how joining a song takes courage, with the implication (intentional or not) that the song in question is about how great we are.
  7. A verse about the Eucharist, containing only one token effort to indicate that it's talking about the Eucharist and not ordinary food.
  8. Possible reference to self-communicating, a serious liturgical abuse.
  9. Implicit reference to churches as dark and confining, contrasted with the light outside.
  10. Complete misrepresentation of what heaven is and its importance.
  11. More references to "new light" and the present day.
  12. Some harmless but worthless language about unity.

Okay, I admit to interpreting this song in the worst possible light. I have two reasons for this. First, I have a hard time coming up with any orthodox explanation for what this song says that makes any sense, especially considering the sheer number of problematic lines. I could understand one or two, but for this many to slip through accidentally, not only would Haugen have to be incompetent, but there would have to be absolutely no editorial oversight at GIA Publications or Oregon Catholic Press. (Which actually wouldn't surprise me, given the punctuation problems.)

Second, in our culture of self-centered, lazy, consumerism, this song is unhelpful to the point of being dangerous. Too many Catholics don't read Scripture, don't attend Mass regularly (if at all), think Magisterial teaching has no more weight than their own opinions, act like the Church exists just to make them feel fulfilled, and in an alarming number of cases, don't even believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We need hymns that are helpful, not just harmless. This one, from its us-centered attitude to its shaky if not outright heretical theology, doesn't even score that high.

I'm not trying to be uncharitable here. I'm not trying to accuse Haugen (or anyone else) of wrongdoing or belittle his (or their) desire to serve God. All I'm concerned with right now is whether the song is a help or a hindrance in getting people to heaven. Considering what the song says about heaven, I think the answer is pretty clear: We should not be singing this.

Finally, yes, I know all about the starving African children, massive human rights abuses at home and abroad, and the sex scandal still not being over yet. But I still think this look at our music is important. It doesn't stop being a problem because other problems exist, too. Being reverent and respectful to God while in His own house should always be a priority.