Sometimes I get discouraged at how much significant religious news gets completely ignored by mainstream media. Two weeks ago, one of the country's most prolific hymn writers died. The death of Jaroslav Vajda was the kind of news that got passed around among fellow Lutherans and fans of his lyrics. And yet the most beautiful remembrance I read about Vajda was written by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Tim Townsend:
It wasn't until the Rev. Jaroslav Vajda was nearly 50 that he began to pursue the craft that would leave his name etched in history. Or at least the hymnal.
OK, so maybe you've never heard of Jaroslav Vajda (pronounced VY-dah), but that's because you probably don't write or publish hymns.
Vajda, of Webster Groves, Mo., died last week at the age of 89, and left the world of hymnody -- the art of composing of sacred songs in praise of God -- very different from when he entered it.
"He was more or less the dean of hymn writers in North America," said Carl Daw, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada at Boston University.
I can't help but think that many religion writers would hear about the death of someone like Vajda and decide not to write anything about it on account of his lack of fame. Townsend instead uses that as a hook to explore his significance and enter into a discussion of hymnody.
Townsend explains that Vajda translated or wrote more than 200 hymns that appear in 50 hymnals from Christian denominations. Apparently there was an explosion of hymns that began in the 1960s and 1970s but that they were mostly written by British hymn writers:
"He was the one who started making this American version of hymns, putting language together in a new way," [Mark Lawson, president of MorningStar Music Publisher] said. "In the American church, there had been a lot of gospel songs, but in terms of the liturgical tradition, in the liturgical church, he was a new voice."
Liturgical music takes its cues from the order of a worship service and church calendar. Lawson said Vajda loved the liturgical calendar and wrote hymns to complement it. "He'd write baptism hymns, Epiphany hymns, Lenten hymns," Lawson said. "He worked along with the seasons of the church year, and he infused churches with new things to sing."
Vajda was an ordained pastor in my church body, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. For us, hymns are a source of theology, not liturgical filler. They are distinct forms for confessing our faith and we take them extremely seriously. Townsend's article, which has wonderful detail about the life of Vajda and his impressionistic, image-laden poetry, gets the significance of the content of our hymnody. The article ends as beautifully as it began, with some of Vajda's hymn "Now the Silence."
A few of the readers who sent the article to me expressed surprise that a mainstream news article about Vajda would be so good. I'm pleasantly surprised, too. Mostly at the level of topic selection but also at how well written it is for a non-major piece.