Old Hymns in "New" Language the Destruction of Imagery and Meaning

By Kerr, Don E. | The American Organist, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Old Hymns in "New" Language the Destruction of Imagery and Meaning


Kerr, Don E., The American Organist


Recently, a parishioner said to me, "I love some of the new hymns in our hymnal, but I would rather that we just don't sing the old favorites anymore if we have to sing them with half of the words changed."

Like many others, this lady responds positively to newly written hymns that use a more inclusive language and incorporate a contemporary Christian response to issues such as social justice; but she is put off by textual changes in familiar hymns. Over the years, many of us have become increasingly weary of the endless and often unnecessary use of the male gender. In truth, if women had not been treated these many years as second-class human beings - or as first-class household chattel - this discussion would not have been necessary in the first place. There was clearly a need for new hymns that use a language and a focus different from that of classic hymnody. The devil, as always, was in the details.

The New Century Hymnal, for instance, contains many new hymns that are good poetry, such as those texts by Brian Wren, set to good music, either new tunes or classic ones. The inclusion of Ellington's "Savior God above" was a stroke of brilliance, and it would have been even better to have used more pieces of this genre. "God of Abraham and of Sarah" by James Gertmenian is a superb addition to hymn literature, and is an excellent alternative to "The God of Abraham praise." The hymn is inclusive, contains powerful imagery, and embodies rock-solid theology and Christian teaching. Would that all new hymns were of this caliber. What a contrast between this and many of the hymns currently sung in Roman Catholic churches, as well as the socalled contemporary Christian songs used elsewhere that are sung to lowest-common-denominator commercial junk music, with lyrics that insult the intelligence of a ten-year-old and contain egregiously degraded theology (and unsound teaching). In words or in music, a mature vision of 21st-century Christianity does not include the self-serving, the self-indulgent, the self-congratulatory, the trite, or the merely banal.

Reforms, even when badly needed, often end up throwing out the baby with the bath water. The revised texts of classic hymns clearly show the results of this excess of zeal and are living proof that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Many of the editors of revised hymnals were driven by far more than a feminist agenda. We have gone from too many male references to a place where any male reference, ever, is unacceptable. We can no longer call God our King, because we live in a democracy. God is apparently now our CEO - meaning, I suppose, that we are free to replace God with someone else if we don't like the way things are being run. We can no longer call Jesus our Shepherd, because doing so makes us sheep and is, therefore, demeaning. The list of banned words continues to grow, with the word Father near the top. Jesus himself often used that word - should we leave it out when we read the Scriptures and pretend he never said it? If we pull too hard on this thread, we may well unravel the entire fabric of Christian doctrine.

The powerful, deeply moving poetry of Reginald Heber, John Mason Neale, John Greenleaf Whittier, and many others has been reduced to vacuous twaddle because textual revisions have destroyed the essence of the poetry: imagery that obtained and sustained a deep emotional grip on the listener or singer and impelled the mind and the soul to take wing. When we play the game of all or nothing, we usually end up with the latter. Messing about with classic hymns to make them "relevant" is akin to rechiseling the "Pietà," so that Mary is clothed in Versace - I would rather see it reduced to chips and used to cover someone's driveway.

What person of sound mind would endeavor to take the entire canon of English literature and rewrite it in a way that makes all of it politically correct? A case in point are the Collects from The Book of Common Prayer, monuments of great English literature, which have, in the 1979 edition, been transformed into prose that is at best mundane and pedestrian. …

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