Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Language of Hymns

There is much debate about what to do with ancient hymns whose language does not resonate well with the political themes of the Christian religion practiced by some today or whose language is dated enough that it is not obvious in its meaning to those who would sing or speak its words now.  I must say I am conflicted by this.  I am not very fond of most of the efforts to update the language of hymns.  In many respects I find the modern revisions flat and the poetry forced.  In addition, I am old enough (as my children keep reminding me) that I learned these hymns with their archaic language and can no longer sing them with confidence without looking at the book to see what they might have done with them.  Finally, the modern sensibilities of feminism and diversity have created a circumstance none of these able and gifted writers could have possibly foreseen.  It is impossible to know how they might have written had they been alive to write today (and thus I vote to leave their texts alone).  If it be that we cannot in good conscience sing them without tinkering with them, then maybe we should not sing them at all.  Otherwise, let us remember their context while admitting our own may not be the same and let stand their witness and leave alone their poetry.

Lutheran Worship was more into the revisions than Lutheran Service Book and Evangelical Lutheran Worship more than Lutheran Book of Worship (in this case, especially for the hymns chosen to be included and those not chosen).  All in all, I think we can live with an Ebenezer or ken or a few hundred other words that are no longer in common usage.  And I am not so sure why it is that women of previous generations could sing hymns that spoke of man as the inclusive term for male and female but some women of today treat this as an offense to their gender.  It is not as if no one still uses the term man in this way.  You can find it all the time (albeit in places not so attuned to political correctness).

No, I think that hymnody provides us with a far more serious problem than inclusive language or archaic vocabulary.  What concerns me about many hymns today is that they are empty of solid theological truth and devoid of the rich Biblical imagery that marked the hymns of old.  It is as if some hymnwriters today are writing to please the singer instead of to be faithful to Scripture and to the faith itself.  We end up with stilted poetry, one dimensional imagery, and even more dated texts than ever before.  In the end, this has cheapened the whole role and purpose of hymns as servants of the Word and instruments by which the faith is taught as well as expressed.  And this makes me sad.

In the recent issue of The American Organist a letter to the editor complained about the trouble a Unitarian organist had in playing Trinitarian hymns in the congregation in which he was employed.  Egads!  Do we now have to be concerned about offending someone who finds hymns consistent with our faith and confession offensive to him or her???  Is it not offensive when the Church sings what is inconsistent with her faith and confession or when when she sings words nearly any religion might embrace instead of the songs consistent with her faith?  We surely do not need more less specific hymn texts.  We need texts less generic and more specific to our Christian faith and confessional identity.  It is precisely this that has caused a flourishing of grand and enduring hymns from the pens of Lutheran hymn writers -- over the ages and even to the present day (I think of Jerry Vajda, Herman Stuempfle, Martin Franzmann, and Stephen Starke, to name a few).

Hymns are compact, efficient, and effective when the words speak more than what they say and give us the opportunity to sing the faith in but a few stanzas.  Hymns are a profound way we identify and connect to those who have gone before us and lay claim to the faith yesterday, today, and forever the same.  Hymns are the sung prayers and praises of a people who believe that music is a gift to be exercised in worship most of all.  I am happy to look down and find that this marvelous text I am now singing in 2010 was written in 350 and translated in 1800 -- as one hymnwriter put it, "Through the Church the song goes on..."  Amen and Amen!


ErnestO said...

I arrive at church one hour before the service to study the gospel and to read every hymn assigned for the worship service. It is the only way I can get the full measure of hymns, as so often we only sing a few versus.I confess we are one of the worst congregations when it comes to carrying a tune and the reading of the hymns beforehand reminds me I'm there to praise God not listen to the singing.

Dan Walters said...

Whenever I hear about hymns being changed for "politically correct" reasons, I think of Martin Luther's "Lord, Keep us Steadfast in Your Word." My grandmother's hymnal, the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book, 1927 CPH gets the first verse a little closer to Luther's original: "Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work, Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk, Who fain would tear from off Thy throne Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son."

This hymnal also adds a 4th and 5th verse written by Justas Jonas. The 4th is interesting: "Destroy their counsels, Lord, our God, And smite them with an iron rod, And let them fall into the snare Which for Thy Christians they prepare."

I wonder if my grandmother would prefer this version if she were still alive! It's a fascinating topic, and I must say I do not envy hymnal editors!

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

When I was in college and later at the Sem we used to tease the folks who were big proponents of CW, asking them when they were going to write a song based on the imprecatory Psalms. Of course we pre-sem/sem guys were the only ones who got the joke...

I must admit, there are a few changes that I've welcomed for purely selfish reasons. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to explain the term "hoary hairs" (TLH #427 stanza 6). Some words do fall out of use and no matter how hard we try, we won't bring them back. Others are so beautiful and descriptive we are compelled to learn their meaning, i.e., 'as to death a Tributary' LSB 940.

To their credit the COW included the very un-PC "Not all the Blood of Beasts," and returned "Fight the good Fight" to the tune Mendon, in LSB. Among many other good changes in LSB.

Some changes are subtle yet significant, such as changing the article in "Built on the rock the church shall stand." In LBW it was changed to built on 'a' rock the church shall stand. This was carried over into ELW, and it changes the doctrine of the hymn completely.

With the continued poplularity of garage-band services we have more and more people who think they can write their own hymn. And so we have an abundance of regrettable-forgettable praise songs.

Three disciplines need to come together in order to write a hymn, Music, Poetry, and Theology. Of these three, which do we have an abundance of in the United States? Contemporary poetry is predominatly self-absorbed tripe which is hailed more for its sincerity and political tone than than mastery of language. Classically trained musicians and composers are an endangered speciies in the church, and theology is viewed as an impediment to worship.

G7MZH said...

The church I go to makes a point of using "inclusive" language and often rewrites hymns accordingly.

While most of the time this simply replaces "he/his" with "she/hers", in some cases it removes all pronouns referring to God, so you get lines like "God so loved the world that God gave God's only-begotten son" - which is bordering on gibberish.

Where the "inclusive" word has more syllables than the original, it gets silly and the music no longer scans.

I am not at all convinced that being "inclusive" in this way actually includes anyone at all - it actually EXcludes those who feel God is above such things.