Hymn, Her, and Other Matters That Matter

While most churches don’t crack open hymnals anymore (if they even have them), the ones I’ve been part of typically still sing an array of songs found therein. (This is probably a contributing factor to my membership at said churches.) But I love books, so even when the words of a hymn are displayed in 2-foot letters at the front of the sanctuary, I like to hold the hymnal and sing the words sandwiched in a grand staff.

As a lifelong churchgoer weaned on the hymnbook, I notice when the lyrics are changed (or at least when a different version surfaces). Some changes are theologically good,1 and some, sensitive to changing language and culture, attempt to remove unnecessary barriers to the greater message.2 Sometimes making a needed change requires mangling the lyrics, so it’s better just to delete the song from your church repertoire or to skip the offending verse.3

But some changes aren’t necessary or good, and they can dilute the message – like the one I encountered a couple weeks ago singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The version of this familiar carol that I grew up singing has a verse that reads as follows:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

But the verse being sung around me was…

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

The difference is subtle, but it is significant. I like “my” version better, and here’s why.

As a professional teacher of many years, I can say with complete confidence that I taught reams of material to my students that they never learned. It goes with the territory, unfortunately. 😐 Teaching does not equal learning.

Back in the day when I was being educated about being an educator, I learned about three types of learning: cognitive (like passing your history test or like memorizing these three types of learning); psychomotor (like swinging a bat that actually hits a ball); and affective (like appreciating art, music, and the person sitting next to you). Folks engaged in religious instruction also talk about a fourth category – the “formation of right tendencies” (Wolterstorff) or “dispositional” (Issler and Habermas). This fourth category involves forming the student’s will – that is, helping them learn to desire and to do the right things.

This is the kind of learning I stand most in need of. Teaching me the way to go – that is, helping me cognitively learn it – is a good place to start. After all, you can’t do what you don’t know. But (perhaps because I’m a worm), I need the Spirit to change my heart, to make me want to do the right things and then to help me do them – or, in the words of the carol, “to cause me in the way to go.” O come, o come, God-With-Us. We need You.

1. Like the last line of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed”: Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?, which is widely changed to for sinners such as I. It’s true that we’re utterly – by which I mean absolutely, inarguably, hands down – undeserving of Jesus’ sacrifice, but “worm theology” tends to minimize the goodness of God’s creation.

2. Like changing “man” to something explicitly gender inclusive, like “all” or “people.” If you grew up singing “man” in all these hymns, it probably doesn’t matter a lick to you. If you are hearing the songs (and the message) for the first time, it can smack unnecessarily as sexist.

3. Like the verse of “And Can It Be” which problematically proclaims that when Jesus left His Father’s throne above, He emptied Himself of all but love. You can nuance this in your head so it doesn’t bother you, but Jesus most certainly did not empty Himself of “all but love.” If He did, there’s dangerous space for denying His divinity. He did not leave behind His “Godness.”

3 responses to “Hymn, Her, and Other Matters That Matter”

  1. jeffrey askanazi Avatar
    jeffrey askanazi

    since you brought up sexism I am obliged to comment since I find humanity greatly confused. Lets go back to the beginning, male dominance was A CURSE given to humanity after Adam, it neither blesses either sex. At the finality I believe this will be reversed, as Creation is restored to its origin. Woman are to be a helper, but in the spiritual world, in the physical world the guys get to serve.

    1. Hey Jeff,
      I’m not sure I followed all that – especially toward the end – but I didn’t bring up sexism in either agreement or disagreement of it. Just stating that in our culture, the use of “man/men/mankind” when “all/people/humankind” will do just as well can be an unnecessary barrier. It doesn’t usually bother me, but I grew up with the King James in one hand and the hymnal in the other. 🙂

  2. […] posted these thoughts three years ago, but they came to mind again yesterday during carol-singing at church, and I realized anew how much […]

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