Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.

Music

I have some thoughts ensuing from my last post.  The first is about music.  This blog is primarily about classic Christianity as revealed through texts.  A discussion of Haydn’s Creation and the doctrine of creation is not about any classic texts of the faith, and a significant portion of it was about a teaching or idea.  However, a discussion of a piece of classical music such as that is consonant with the aims of Classic Christianity as seen in the sidebar on the main page.

The riches of the Great Tradition are not only locked away between the covers of books.  Another of the places where Christians can find the richness of the past ages is the arts.  Haydn’s Creation carries within it pieces of the tradition, truths that are timeless, enrobing them in the flesh of music.  The beauty of Haydn’s composition sings forth the beauty of creation.

Haydn’s Creation is but one example of many, but is an entrance into one facet of how music can carry the tradition through the ages.  Similar to Creation is Handel’s Messiah, also an oratorio, recounting the life and theology of the Messiah in beautiful music with words all taken from Scripture.  Within that tradition of performance-oriented classical music we also have Bach’s cantatas based on the passion narratives of the Gospels, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Stravinksy’s Symphony of Psalms among others.  All of this music captures in some way some aspect of the Great Tradition.  All of this music is worth listening to as music, as art.  And, I believe, all of this music is a vehicle of God’s grace and revelation.

Most Christian music, however, has been composed for use in worship.  The earliest surviving music is the chant of the ancient churches, Gregorian, Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian.  Related to these are Anglican plainsong and the chant of the Slavic churches.  This music is filled with an austere beauty and able to create space for worship of a type that modern worship music does not.  The Renaissance produced music so beautiful one imagines that the angels in heaven must use it as they gather around the Throne of the Almighty, especially Palestrina but also Tallis, Allegri, and others.  All of this ancient, beautiful music for worship stands within the same musical tradition and is very valuable.

Composers of classical music have also written music for times of worship.  Tchaikovsky wrote settings for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Monteverdi wrote Vespers.  Verdi and Mozart both wrote Requiems.  Vivaldi wrote a Mass.  Their music has also been applied to hymns by different lyricists, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” providing the tune to “Joyful, Joyful.”

Also important is the tradition of hymnody.  I speak now of music with English lyrics.  These old hymns are worthy to be sung in congregations all of the world.  The best of them have resonant theology with captivating music.  My favourite hymnographers are Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale.  Some of my favourite hymns by other writers are “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” “I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship,” “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

In modern worship, these hymns sometimes fall through the cracks as we seek to be cool and contemporary and relevant, singing only the newest and hippest songs.  Yet these songs, these tunes with these words, connect us to the tradition of Christians who have gone before us, passing along their thoughts and theology, their beauty and sense of holiness.  I encourage leaders of worship to keep the hymns in the repertoire amongst the newer songs.

Exciting to my mind are some new hymns that have been produced (we’re talking hymn as a musical genre).  The only things that come immediately to mind are “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  Other musicians who have kept links to the old music, old poems, and old theology have produced new music for liturgical settings, as John Michael Talbot who has essentially produced the entire Mass and Steve Bell who has a version of the Sanctus, “Holy Lord.”  Steve Bell has also recorded musically new yet truly old songs on his album Devotion, though these are not all his own compositions.

A study of the old music is important for those who wish to engage in the creation of new music.  Some churches act as though only the old is worth singing; this is not true, for the old was once the new.  Some churches act as though only the new is worth singing; this is also not true, for the new is untested and untried.  A combination of the two is worth singing, in my opinion.  However, a knowledge of this old music, of Haydn, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Wesley,  and Neale, of what has gone before, will undoubtedly deepen the new music, as a knowledge of old poetry can deepen new poetry, that of old theology new theology, that of old paintings new paintings and so forth.

Since we’re talking about music, I do listen to some new Christian music besides John Michael Talbot and Steve Bell.  I am a fan of Rich Mullins and dc Talk (both “old” new music by now), some Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Third Day as well as a certain amount of new worship songs by the likes of Matt Redman and people whose names escape me (except — because I worship at Little T — Mike Janzen and — because I’m kind of oldskool — Graham Kendrick).

Music is an important part of the life of church, ancient and modern, old and new.  We should tap the resources of this vast tradition that spreads out behind as well as all around us.