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Changed Hymn Lyrics: Pet Peeve or Serious Concern? (And An Invitation to Nominate Worst Examples)

Changed Hymn Lyrics: Pet Peeve or Serious Concern? (And An Invitation to Nominate Worst Examples) September 7, 2013

Changed Hymn Lyrics: Pet Peeve or Serious Concern? (And an Invitation to Nominate Worst Examples)

There seems to be a trend toward changing hymn lyrics—especially when the lyrics contain words perceived as associated with war, violence, blood, conflict or gender inequality. Hymnal editors, worship leaders, performers all engage in this sometimes seeming freewheeling and cavalier altering of hymns, gospel songs and worship songs. Occasionally serious thought seems to have been put into the alterations. Rarely does one get to ask the person who changed the words why they did it, so individuals and congregations are left scratching their heads and wondering why they are singing the right-now-wrong words.

My wife knows most familiar hymns (and some not-so-familiar-ones) by heart. So do I. But she prefers to sing them from memory and not be tied to a hymnal or “worship folder” containing the lyrics or to the words projected on a screen. We both grew up in a form of Christian life where closing one’s eyes and singing a familiar hymn, gospel song or chorus with hands raised was common, even normal.

But for the past few years, as old hymnals go and new ones replace them I’ve sometimes heard her singing the right-now-wrong words. That’s why I prefer to keep my eyes glued to the words. But it’s often extremely distracting to try to adjust to new lyrics to familiar hymns.

Is this just a pet peeve or a serious concern?

It probably would fall into the pet peeve category except that, often, it seems the changes to the lyrics are arbitrary or poorly considered or done just for the sake of someone’s idea of  political correctness or their discomfort with the “old words.” In other words, it seems, the hymns are often simply Bowdlerized by hymnal editors.

Now, I understand that sometimes, especially in the case of really old hymns, lyrics need to change because of changes in language. Some hymns were written in (or translated into) an older English that now makes no sense to anyone (except an expert in older English). Even then, however, I cringe a little. Imagine Shakespeare being performed in contemporary English. Still, I understand that when a hymn is being sung by a congregation it’s best if the lyrics are understandable to most of the congregation.

On the other hand, hymns have been one of the ways congregations pass Bible literacy on to generations. Some of the lyrics of older hymns sent me, as a child, on quests to find out the biblical stories behind them. For example, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come” (in the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) refers back to a biblical story. I am dismayed that so many biblical references like that have been stripped out of hymns and gospel songs.

In the church I grew up in the pastor would occasionally step to the pulpit in the middle of a hymn and explain the words in a mini-sermon or lesson. It made singing hymns and songs much more meaningful and impressed on the congregation that the words are important.

I think that’s partly why I feel I have a different consciousness about hymns and songs sung in worship than a lot of my fellow congregants who seem to be singing them without really meditating on the words.

Perhaps that’s why when I’m singing a hymn whose lyrics have been radically altered it jars me. I think about why the lyrics were changed. What do the new lyrics say and how do they alter the message of the song?

Here’s a case study. Recently I attended a worship service using a new, recently published hymnal. One of the hymns was “This Is My Father’s Word.” I love that hymn! In fact, I’ve often used it with classes to illustrate a theological view of God’s sovereignty and present evil. My favorite lines are in verse three: “This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done. Jesus who died shall be satisfied and earth and heav’n be one.” That stands in some apparent tension with an earlier line in the hymn that says “And though the wrong seem oft’ so strong, God is the ruler yet.” However, I argue, one can and should believe both! The hymn has it exactly right. God is the ruler now, but we live in the “already but not yet” situation where the battle with evil continues until the eschaton. God is our ruler but the territory in which we live is still party enemy occupied territory.

The new version of the hymn contains the lyrics (to replace “the battle is not done…”) “This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King! Let heaven ring! God reigns! Let earth be glad.”

Now, I should note that those lyrics are not invented by editors. They are taken from other, rarely used lyrics of the hymn. So this isn’t a case of sheer Bowdlerizing.

Still, it makes me wonder why the verse was altered by the hymnbook editors.

An expert in hymns suggested to me that the hymnal editors may have felt uncomfortable with the “satisfaction” language, perceiving it to be related to the “satisfaction theory” of the atonement. If so, that seems to me mistaken. The original words (“Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heav’n and earth be one”) aren’t about the atonement but about the eschaton! Jesus will be satisfied when his reign is so realized that heaven and earth are one. The expert also suggested that perhaps the hymnal editors were uncomfortable with the battle language. But the Bible is full of battle language and, in this hymn’s case, the battle language is not about physical battles but about spiritual battles (I assume it refers to our wrestling not against “flesh and blood but against powers and principalities in heavenly places”).

I also worry that perhaps the change in this hymn’s lyrics reflects a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty. I don’t know that to be the case, but the substituted lyrics are more consistent, in my opinion, with Calvinism that the original lyrics.

Now, of course, I realize the editors of the hymnal I held in my hands and sang from that day may have simply adopted an already altered version of the hymn from other hymnals. The change, in other words, may have been made by others, not this hymnal’s editors. Still, I would prefer that they used the original lyrics when putting together this hymnal. My point is not to criticize them but to express my own, hopefully reflective and considered, opinion that lyrics of hymns should not be altered without good reasons and that, in many cases, the reasons do not seem strong or good enough to me.

May I be so crass as to suggest hymnal editors consult theologians before altering lyrics?

Now I open it up to you, my readers, to offer your own examples of hymn lyrics changes that you consider inappropriate, ill-considered, offensive or just plain dumb. What are your nominations for the worst examples? Be careful not to include links or lengthy quotations from copyrighted materials. If you quote from a copyrighted hymn, keep it very brief as I have done above. Explain your reason(s) for opposing the change(s).

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