Editor’s note: Martin Luther famously said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53). The ELCA still holds tightly to Luther’s understanding. In this series, we’re exploring Lutheran music throughout history, the importance of music to the Lutheran faith and how that tradition continues today across styles and expressions.
“Christmas always comes a couple days after the solstice, and the good Lutheran liturgical scholars who trained me taught me something really important,” said Chicago-based songwriter Steve Thorngate. “The church year is not first and foremost about the life of Christ. Before the church year maps the life of Christ, it maps the year as all humans experience it.”
Thorngate’s new full-length album and songbook, After the Longest Night, explores the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons through universally resonant images of light and darkness—especially, as he puts it, “darkness as a positive thing.” Intended more for congregational use than private listening, his songs draw on years spent contemplating the images we use in worship. He holds a Master of Arts in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and served for a decade as director of music at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Chicago.
Living Lutheran spoke with Thorngate about his new collection.
Living Lutheran: How long has After the Longest Night been in the works?
Thorngate: The songwriting has been years in the making—mostly in the context of working as a church musician and needing a particular thing and just writing it. This project began with the Luke canticles. I’ve set all three of the Luke canticles on this record, and two of them I wrote 12 years ago. I’ve always been mesmerized by those texts. So I wrote my own settings of those, and I’ve done them in the churches I’ve been in over the years.
Were any other songs meant to fill specific needs in your parishes?
The first song is called “Savior Come,” a setting of the O Antiphons from the Middle Ages. I and a lot of people I’ve worshiped with have always been of two minds about “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It’s a beautiful song, it speaks to the history of the church, and it certainly is the sound of Advent in a meaningful way—and I don’t know many Jewish people who like it. So I have experimented over the years with rewriting some of the words. I think that was probably the impetus: wanting to have the O Antiphons to use in worship and just to let go of the “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” chorus. The idea that something called “Israel,” [or a] so-called “Israel” today, is in particular need of help, is not part of that song.
How do you envision these songs being used in other parishes?
I hope people recognize them as songs aimed at congregations. At every turn I tried to make them singable and easy to learn. I’m sure there will be someplace where somebody does this as what I grew up calling “special music,” and I’m very grateful for people to use these however they see fit.
That said, I think church music is entirely about congregational singing. I’ve been shaped by the liturgical renewal movement following Vatican II, and the first principle for church music is it’s about the voice of the entire gathered assembly. I hope people will take these songs and make them their own stylistically. I’m not particularly anxious about what instruments they use or what tempos they play them at. I just hope everybody is invited to sing.
I think church music is entirely about congregational singing. … I hope people will take these songs and make them their own stylistically.
There’s a real variety of material here, but it all fits into a specific aesthetic realm, between folk and country.
What has always drawn me to folk and country and Americana music, specifically for liturgical use, is that it doesn’t seem like it’s “owned” by any of the factions in church music. Even if it’s played by guitars and drums, compositionally, a lot of times [the songs] are hymns.
A lot of old American gospel material often works best on the guitar, yet it’s strophic (verse-repeating). It’s not this modern praise band thing of three or four different parts of a song, and you play them each a bunch of times. It’s not stylistically anything that somebody in the pews at a choir-and-organ church would find all that familiar, but it might not be threatening either. So I like the way it troubles those boundaries of definition.
Alongside your originals and adaptations, why did you decide to include fairly straight versions of “What Child Is This” and “Creator of the Stars of Night”?
“What Child Is This” is one of my favorite Christmas carols, and I was eager to do it in a way that is both fairly straight, as you say, and also a little bit off, with kind of noisy electric guitar. I was eager to take a traditional song that comes from a folk idiom and give it what I see as a contemporary folk treatment, where mixing acoustic and electric guitars is pretty much second nature.
“Creator of the Stars of Night” might be my favorite hymn tune, and I’ve always loved that text. It’s two original verses and three new ones. With the new ones, I took the themes of the original verses but completely recast them. One of the new verses was also an opportunity to explore something I’ve been thinking about a lot with this project, which is positive language around darkness.
Are there other songs here in which you explored that idea?
Yeah, the main one is “The Thick Darkness Where God Dwells” [based on Exodus 20:21]. Each verse of that song explores a different way to think of darkness as a positive thing—not as something we’re being drawn out of, or something we’re escaping. … I think it matters to say good things about light without saying bad things about darkness.
The After the Longest Night album and songbook are available at stevethorngatemusic.com.