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A musical note: ‘A Mighty Fortress’ and other ditties

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Reflecting on 500 years of influence of Martin Luther has taken me in and around many different subjects. But the one I take up today is probably the very first one I perceived over half a century ago, and it follows along closely with the theme of the arts that my column has tracked the past few weeks.

You see, about a half a century ago, on Sunday mornings, while readying ourselves for Sunday school and church, my little brother and I would find ourselves perched in front of the TV. The show that happened to be on was one of those claymation classics in same vein of “Gumby” called, “Davy and Goliath.”

Pertinent to today’s topic is not that it was a religious children’s series with a morality tale in each episode, but the music that would play at the end of each episode.

“Mom, don’t we sing that song in church?”

“Yes, we do. That’s called, ‘A Mighty Fortress.’ It’s the theme song for the Lutheran church.”

I don’t know how young I was when my mother told me that, but in an instant, I realized a couple of things: Our Lutheran church actually made those children’s programs; our Lutheran church had its own identifiable music; and one of the mainstay hymns of churches everywhere was written by none other than Martin Luther himself! It turns out that music and musical influence were huge parts of Luther’s legacy in the Reformation that are still felt today.

Before I go much further, I must confess that this subject is one on which old Marty and I part ways to a significant degree. As anyone who has ever had the misfortune of standing next to me in worship can attest, I am blessed with the ability to sing only one note, and it is not readily usable in any song.

My best instrument to play is my iPod. And though I recognize, appreciate and can plan with great effect music’s sway, the creation of such is a gift that eludes me to the extreme. All of which may be why I esteem musical skill so greatly, and am amazed at those who so easily waft their way into heaven’s realm with voices and instruments.

Luther, on the other hand, was keenly aware that as important as the spoken and read word is to get to the mind, that the sung word more readily presses into the heart. Early on, he not only emphasized that scripture and worship be translated into the language of the people, but that the music used to sing those words equally be translated into the language of the people.

He thought that the songs should be singable. Now, granted, what was singable in the 16th century and what is singable today may be two different things.

However, take for example that theme song of the Lutheran church, “A Mighty Fortress.” Originally, Luther is said to have taken a traditional bar song’s melody and put those powerful, theologically adept words to it. As I have described it in the past, it would be like taking the theme from “Cheers” and making a hymn out of it. Or, as I myself did while developing a congregation in Florida, take the tunes of one Jimmy Buffett and make worship music out of it.

In that congregation, my musician literally was found in a local bar and had no problem at all when I wrote “Listening to the Holy Spirit’s Will” to the tune of “Margaritaville.”

I also wrote songs to “Changes in Latitudes” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” which inspired that musician to write some of his own original, very singable, music (by the way, spell check is insistent that singable is not a word, but you and I know better).

If you do a little research, you will find a very impressive list of classical musicians who were Lutheran and inspired by Luther’s passion for the heart as well as the mind to be infused with the Gospel. Ones I myself recognize go from Buxtehude, Pachelbel, J.S. Bach and Handel (that “Messiah” was sure a big hit back in the day) to even more current artists such as Lyle Lovett and Jimmy Buffett’s own lead guitarist, Peter Mayer, who has a whole other career devoted to Lutheran-inspired music.

One last note about Luther’s influence on music and Lutheran musicians to this day: His thought is that while the music both touches the heart and makes words more memorable to the mind, the words of a song are meant to make a theological statement, to tell a story that progresses from verse to verse.

And this is why, for many other denominations, Lutherans are known as “the ones who sing all the verses.” Just try to tell a Lutheran musician that we only have time for two out of eight verses, and they will quickly ask you if you only “have time” for one out of four Gospels.

Within minutes, you will find yourself debating with Dr. Luther himself. And I guarantee, it will not be music to your ears!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.

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