Friday, December 18, 2020

The language problem. . .

I was reading through some thoughts in a discussion of the use of jargon in Church and happened upon some other ideas about the problem of antiquated language.  It started me thinking.  Jargon is part of our daily lives.  Everything from computers to the software we use to video games to smart phones to texting and a host of other aspects of modern life have left us with vocabularies specific to a medium.  We may not like it but we have learned to use it.  Even emojis have entered the vocabulary of daily life and communicate without words something that might use many words.  Of course, there is always the tendency to be misunderstood and there is the challenge of jargon that may not be universally known or clear.  But it goes with the territory, doesn't it?

When we use jargon in the Church it is different than how we speak to those outside the faith.  We are addressing the faithful, after all, a people who should be learning if not having already learned the shorthand (Trinity, justification, etc...).  I wish I could recall the source who said that in the liturgy the Church uses her own queer or peculiar language but in her preaching and teaching to those outside, she uses the language of everyman.  Sometimes that means using simpler vocabulary and sometimes it means translating complex ideas into plain concepts but neither justifies or excuses a lack of faithfulness.  Here we have often been rather messy -- such as the explanations of the Trinity that have bordered on heresy in an attempt to unpack a mystery and make it ordinary.

When it comes to liturgy and hymns, the issue is slightly different.  How far do we go in removing archaic or antiquated words, phrases, and references in liturgy and hymnody?  We have almost universally banished Sabaoth and replaced it with power and might -- not exactly a good fit but already well entrenched in the minds and voices of God's people.  This is not simply about Thees and Thous but about few words that attempt to convey heavy truth -- like in the creed where we say Jesus is of one substance or consubstantial with the Father.  

When it comes to hymns, it is even more messy.  Some have gone too far in the opposite direction -- taking excessively colloquial or antiquated language from previous generations and rendering them into idioms and colloquial terminology that is captive to current idiosyncrasies.  Some have turned the well crafted poetry of the past into banal and mundane words nobody wants to sing and no one will ever remember.  Editors have been left with quite a challenge.  Some are certain that the people in the pews will not abide the archaic language from even 200 years ago and have rejected not only the words but the hymns themselves.  Others have insisted upon leaving words that have most modern singers in the dark about what they are voicing.   Still others strive for consistency -- an all or nothing approach that forces even familiar old texts to change to keep up with the times so that all the Thees are replaced by Yous.  Finally there is the problem of how far you go with inclusive language -- especially when it comes to the attempt to modernize the texts passed down to us from those who went before us.  That is another topic but not one unrelated to all of this.

I will admit a certain confusion with my own hymnal of choice, Lutheran Service Book.  For the life of me I cannot figure out why some texts were changed and others were not -- even simple Thees and Thous!  There seems to no apparent consistency of approach (except perhaps in the minds of the editors and committees who worked on them).  I regularly sing the wrong words -- words that stick in my memory but differ from the words that ended up on the page.  This was more of a problem in our predecessor hymnal, Lutheran Worship, but it still pops up with LSB.  This is super apparent when you look at what was left and what was changed in Divine Service Three -- the Common Service well known to us and beloved from The Lutheran Hymnal.

This is compounded by the fact that the original translations were often at odds with the versions of the hymns that stuck.  We all sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” but the original translation of the Latin  was “Draw nigh, Draw nigh Emmanuel.”   We will sing on Christmas Eve “Hark! The herald-angels sing” though it was originally “Hark how all the welkin rings.”  I believe most of us prefer a later version to the original when it comes to these.  Add to this the combining of stanzas or omission of stanzas that may end up making even a beloved hymn unrecognizable to its author!  We do this because we think we have to; should we, though?  How far should we go?  Finally, some words sing better than others.  I love Martin Franzmann's text but I think it sings better Preach Thou the Word than the odd adaptation Preach You the Word.  Yet that is what we end up singing in the hymnal of my church body.

So what is my point?  It will remain an argument and source of some conflict over the years as we try to find our way through preserving the past and adopting the present gifts of authors who put into poetry the faith we sing. 

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