Monday, 02 January 2012
In Church today, a few lyrics of certain hymns were a bit different than I remembered them. “Good Christian Men Rejoice” had quietly changed to “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” In Joy to the World, where we had previously been commanded to “let men their songs employ,” the verse now proclaims “let us our songs employ.” God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen still references gentlemen, no longer encourages us “with true love and brotherhood, let others now embrace,” but rather “with true love and charity…”
Stephanie feels that the gender-neutral changes are bad because they could lead one to believe there was something wrong with the original lyrics. In these cases, she worries that a person may think that perhaps the church which changes the altered lyrics is claiming that the original lyrics showed a type of unChristian chauvinism (though, all chauvinism is unChristian I suppose) and we don't want to lead people down that path since it isn't true of the author's intent.
I agree with her. However, I disagree that a change demands the notion that there was a problem with the previous work. Things can move from good to better or from one thing to a different thing. It doesn't have to be a bad thing to a good thing or a wrong thing to a right thing. Gender-neutralizing beautiful works isn't always an attempt to right wrongs or to say there was a problem with the work in it's original form. It's entirely possible that such action is merely an attempt to make the song more personal for different minded or nurtured participants. People in the 2012 might need to sing different words than people in 1912, 1812, or 12. I am of the opinion that we need to embrace our classics, even in their original form, but we must also sing evolved forms of our classics so as to be closer to the message than we otherwise might be. We can have both and I think we should.
Stephanie goes on to explain that "brotherhood" and "men" were not terms meant for males alone and she does a good job of presenting this truth in a short amount of time (clearly she is better as being short-winded than I). Again, she's right but even though they may not have been chauvinistic terms they easily can be today (and have been in recent history for some sects) and since times, culture, communal experiences, and perspectives change we need to be able to make sure that we're doing what we can to communicate the original message of these works.
Now, the message may not be heard the way it was originally if it were left in the same exact words. It depends on the involved parties. Changing up the lyrics can help with that in certain times and places. That's a good thing. It's worth pursuing. I think it's also a benefit to change lyrics in this fashion if it helps to show the characteristics of the people of God who embrace a kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. That is to say, if our changing of lyrics can shed light on the fact that we are a people who know our culture and desire to communicate the gospel message as best we can within that culture (be it in evangelism or isolated worship) then why not go for it?*
Finally, Stephanie makes the case that, "...we keep to the original text of the Bible and of Christmas hymns." Here's the rub though; if we're going to commit to keeping the original texts then we all better start learning Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and stand against English translations of the Bible. If we want to be really purist about this we shouldn't even have hymns that put scripture into English in their lyrics but rather we should only sing hymns that have scripture references in the original language. There is danger in changing the lyrics but I would argue there is as much, if not more, danger in being a purist about the original lyrics.
I see Stephanie's concern, and it's a good one, but while we fight being hyper-sensitive to an ever-changing pluralistic society we have to keep in mind the reality of the historic cultures from which the vocabulary used in those works derived and remember that those were cultures filled with chauvinism and male dominance. The lyrics may not meant to be chauvinistic but their may very well be born of a chauvinistic culture and thus possess the DNA of that culture within them. We can't ebb and flow with every passing fancy of our current cultures but we have to speak the language and we have to convey the Gospel message as appropriately as we can.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to push the agenda of relevncy being a top priority because I think focusing on relevancy itself most often a damaging action that leads us away from truly doing our work as the Church. At the same time, there is a balance between knowing our history, the true meanings and intentions of those wonderful works of praise and being intimate with the message of the works as a different community with different vocabularies and nurturing as the ones in which those works were birthed.
So let us be creative! Let us compliment one another! Let's share our art and do what we must with it for the sake of Christ's ongoing work which happens through his body and bride known as the Church. Let's do cover songs and switch up the lyrics whether we're doing it with the works of John Mark McMillan or Heinrich Suso.
*I realize that many will take issue with the altering of a deceased artist's work and that would be a big reason to not tamper with such masterpeices. We wouldn't give the Mona Lisa highlights in her hair or put her in a Lady GaGa outfit after all. However, when it comes to communicating the message of the scriptures, the love of God, the story of Christ, we are at liberty to release ownership of our art to the community so that we own it as a unified body that transcends time and place. If we accept this, claiming that the message is more important than the artwork remaining in it's original condition (in other words, saying that the message is more sacred than the catalyst) then we are at liberty to make such changes.
What do you think? Is it wrong or right to make our historic hymns gender-neutral? What issues need to be a part of this discussion? Is it black or white or gray? How purist can we be? Does your church sing altered hymns?