Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Singing out Revisions Steal Poetry, Meaning from Hymns, Professor Says

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Singing out Revisions Steal Poetry, Meaning from Hymns, Professor Says

Article excerpt

Many teachers send up alerts about the dumbing down of the culture. Now comes an English professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville whose concern is the watering down of hymns.

In many new hymnals, lyrics are less poetic, demand less of Christians and sometimes are just bad theology, said Brian Abel Ragen. Publishers have erased many references to sinfulness and sometimes changed the vision of God, he said.

The Bible and "a collection of poems" known as hymnals are the only books of literature most Americans hold in their hands in the course of most weeks, the English professor said. "American culture sees the casual, sloppy, even childish as more genuine than the formal, well-planned and sophisticated," the professor said. "The changes in the hymnals and service books reflect this preference." He'll be presenting a paper on this topic in York, England, this summer. He's presented earlier papers on the idea, at academic seminars and liturgical meetings in this country and at Sir Edmund Hall, Oxford University, England. This week at their national meeting in Dallas, Southern Baptists protested gender-inclusive language in new Bible translations. Gender is not the issue for Ragen. Meaning and poetry is. Recently, he stacked his collection of nearly 100 hymnals and service books on the mahogany table in his home west of Kirkwood. He pointed at African-American hymnals, two by Catholic publishers and one by an Episcopal publishing house, as about the only ones still printing four or more verses with hymns. They also have multipart harmony, which are dropped in most newer hymnals. He opened a heavily revised hymnal to "Amazing Grace" - probably the best-known hymn in this country. Millions of Americans can sing its first line, written in 1779 by John Newton, a contrite, retired English slave ship captain: "Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!" In the Collegeville Hymnal, the word wretch was removed. The line became: ". . . that saved and strengthened me." Another hymnal changed it to ". . . that saved and set me free." The alterations weaken the text as a poem, the professor said, and undermine the point about the nature of grace. If people don't face the fact that they are sinners, then the rest of the hymn about grace makes less sense, he said. Recognizing man's sinfulness is basic to Christianity and the first step toward accepting Christ as savior, Ragen said. The hymn is just one of many that have been "sanitized" so as not to make congr egations feel uncomfortable, he said. Those who take Christian doctrine seriously should use public worship to forget their own goodness, admit their wickedness and then focus squarely on the transcendent glory of God, he said. In worship, as in education, the goal should be self-forgetfulness, not self-esteem, he said. Unitarian and secular humanist ideas have seeped into many hymnals, especially the controversial new United Church of Christ hymnal, he said. …

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