Yesterday’s service featured #580 in the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, “God, who stretched the spangled heavens.” Beyond being a mid-20th century hymn (and they have some interesting quirks themselves), the second verse was very interesting:
Proudly rise our modern cities,
stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling,
stare on canyoned streets below,
where the lonely drift unnoticed
in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost to purpose and to meaning,
scarcely caring where they go.
It almost seems like this should be immediately followed by “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
This hymn tries to balance two images in this verse (and supported elsewhere in the song): on one hand, we have “stately buildings,” impressive demonstrations of modern capacities and on the other hand, these great cities are full of people “lost to purpose and to meaning.” On the whole, this is not a favorable view of city life, even if it is trying to be descriptive and demonstrate the issues modernists face. Are there any hymns that talk about vibrant urban neighborhoods?
I resolve to be on the watch for anti-urban messages in other hymns. I wonder if there is a large gap in hymn content in this area between more mainline denominations who retained a little more presence in the big cities during the post-World War II suburban boom and also tend to hold to political views that suggest engagement with the city while religious conservatives have more individualized songs and desire escape from the dirty, evil cities.