Wednesday, June 21

Changing the Words to Hymns

I don't like it much. Hymns are poetry, and poets usually choose their words carefully. It isn't nice to monkey with their chosen wording. If I had my druthers, we'd treat hymns like other forms of literature or historical documents, and if the meaning is obscure to us, we'd do the work to understand what it meant in its historical setting; because every time you fiddle with the author selected wording, you lose something.

If we disagree with the theology presented in a hymn, that's a little different; but even then I'd prefer an explanation of what's wrong with the theology over changing the words unless the theology presented is horrendous. A month or so ago I wrote about a change made to the hymn At the Cross in the hymnal my church uses. I believe this particular change was made for theological reasons. I agree with the theology of the original wording and the image in that wording, so I prefer continuing to use the original words. Nevertheless, I can understand why people feel this sort of change is important. If someone disagrees strongly with the theology presented in a hymn, they may have trouble getting the offending words out of their mouths.

If the hymn is translated from another language, then the words are not the specific words chosen by the author anyway, so variations in wording are not much of an issue. Sometimes you'll find quite different translations of the same hymn, and I'd expect that. That comes with trying to translate poetry from another language, keeping it true to the meaning of the original poem while giving the words poetic meter and rhyme at the same time.

The sort of change that sticks in my craw is merely updating or simplifying the original language. You don't update or simplify poetry! If the change is only to make the historical wording easier to understand for people who know present-day English, 'taint worth it. We may get easily understood wording, but we're losing the carefully chosen wording and images of the original author, and the pay-off isn't big enough. If a word here and there in a hymn is obsolete or obscure, it usually isn't hard to find out what it means.

How difficult is it to explain that people used to refer to God as Thou instead of you, and that at some point that form of reference became a sign of reverance, for instance?* Updating thou and thee, by the way, isn't as uncomplicated a change as one might think, since those words often come at the end of a rhyming line, and if they're changed to you, then words must also be changed in at least one other line in order to keep the rhyming scheme, and before you know it, whole ideas are changed. Moreover, using the original forms of address for God in an older hymn benefits us by reminding us that there were believers who lived before us, who wrote hymns from their hearts in their customary language, addressing God with thee and thou because they held him in great reverence. Singing their words, and doing the legwork to understand their words, values their contributions to the communion of the saints. Updating thee and thou is one of those changes that has not much benefit, and costs us more than we might think.**

Here are a couple of other examples of updating or simplifying the language that have annoyed me recently. The first one I wrote about earlier in the series answering questions about hymns. It's a change often made in the hymn Come Thou Fount: Removing the obscure word ebenezer and replacing it with wording that explains what it means.

Two examples of ways this change can be made are given in the comments to the linked post. Both changes, however, lose something--the allusion that the word ebenezer makes to an Old Testament story. Samuel placed a large stone as a monument to God's help, and he called the stone Ebenezer, which means "stone of help." When we sing the word ebenezer in the hymn, it is a reminder that not only is God our help, but he has a long history of helping his people, and it's that last bit that we lose when we change the wording to something less obscure. What we gain in surface clarity, we lose in depth of meaning.

That's what poetry is all about, isn't it? Isn't it about depth of meaning of carefully chosen words? We should expect to look below the surface, to have allusions to things we might not understand at first glance. Of course, if we were more biblically literate, we'd understand ebenezer to be an allusion to the Old Testament story right off the bat.

A second updating of words I'm going to use as an example is one I noticed a couple of weeks ago as we sang Blessed Be the Name in church. The original words of the second and third line of the first verse are these:
Who gave his Son for man to die,
That he might man redeem!
The problem with these words, as the editors to our hymn book see it, is the word man. Apparently it's not gender inclusive enough as commonly understood. So here's the change they've made:
Who sent his Son to earth to die,
All sinners to redeem.
If you're theologically astute, you'll notice right away that this wording defines the scope of the atonement in a way that the original wording doesn't. The first set of words work well enough for people on either side of the particular/universal redemption debate, but the second set doesn't. The changed wording gives the purpose of Christ's redemptive work as the salvation of all sinners, which, incidentally, even most unlimited atonement proponents would deny, affirming instead that Christ came in order to save all sinners who believe, rather than all sinners.

But, believe it or not, that isn't what annoys me most. What annoys me most is that the representative nature of Christ's work, an idea that is included in the original words, is lost in the updated ones. Christ came to die on behalf of human beings in order to redeem human beings. Yes, he came to earth to redeem sinners, but that statement has less specific meaning than the older one. Something of the original meaning is lost in the updated wording, and all that's gained is the removal of a reference to humankind, both male and female, as "man"--a usage of the word man that isn't common now, but isn't that hard to explain, either.

Why don't we view obscure or obsolete wording in hymns as an opportunity to learn something about the allusions made or the language of our forebears? Why not take more interest in the hymns we sing by taking the time to understand them with their original layers of meaning? Why not value the work of the saints who wrote them by learning why they chose the specific words they did?
Previous post on words to hymns:Tim Challies posted on another common hymn wording problem: Skipping verses.
*That their reasoning for using Thou and Thee might be flawed is irrelevant. It still was customary to do so.

**And while we're on the subject, how come my church's hymnal changes the Thees and Thous in the really old hymns, but leaves them in more recent ones, like
Thou Art Worthy?

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