Why I like old hymns and their old lyrics

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I grew up in a church where we sang hymns and then went to a youth group where we sang modern folk-inflected praise songs. Might as well write a bit more about church music today, while I’m on the subject.

The first thing I’ll say is that I’m not here to take sides in the hymns-versus-praise-choruses debate. People connect with God through many different kinds of music, including not only the stately majesty of hymns and the creative energy of praise choruses but also the lively immediacy of Gospel songs, the lavish richness of classical choral compositions, the spare simplicity of monastic chants, and plenty of other forms. More than one of those musical forms has helped me connect with God myself at one time or another, and if hymns resonate a little more deeply with me, that’s just me; other folks have the same response to other kinds of music. That’s one of many things that makes the diversity of the worldwide church so enriching and exciting.

But I do want to write about hymns a little bit today, and the thing I want to address is the modernization of the lyrics. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and I usually detest it.

See, one of the things I like so much about hymns is their theological density. The verses of a good hymn can bore through the layers of a theme or unfold a progression of ideas in a way that fires my imagination and gets my spirit–which, for me, has a close relationship with my brain–eager for God to reveal himself. (Again, that’s what hymns do for me; other musical forms grab other people, and sometimes also me, in other ways that are also good.)

But sometimes modern Christians insist on revising the words so the hymns say something different. I’m not talking about writing a new refrain to insert between the verses of a classic hymn, though for purely aesthetic reasons I’m not always crazy about that practice either; I’m talking about rewriting the words of the hymn itself. Why some Christians do this, I don’t know, and it probably varies from instance to instance. Maybe they see a word they don’t really understand, so they figure that to make the hymn comprehensible to them, or maybe accessible to non-Christian visitors to their churches, they have to rewrite the line to remove the offending word. Maybe they see a theology they don’t recognize, so instead of trying to understand it they replace it with another one. Maybe–and this one I can sort of accept–they see gender-specific language in a lyric that’s meant to apply to all humans everywhere, so they try to expunge it for the sake of inclusivity.

Whatever the reasons, the classic instance of this problem, for me, is coincidentally (and irritatingly) one of my favorite hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” usually sung to the tune “Nettleton.” The version I grew up singing had this second verse:

Here I raise my ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

Robert Robinson’s original 1757 lyrics were in a different order, so perhaps in inveighing against monkeying with hymn lyrics I’m a bit hypocritical. But this version, even while reordering them, leaves the ideas themselves essentially intact. What doesn’t is this late-20th-century revision:

Hitherto thy love has blessed me;
Thou hast brought me to this place.
And I know thy hand will bring me
Safely home by thy good grace.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Bought me with his precious blood.

To begin with, the first four lines are completely rewritten. Now, I understand that nowadays the only reference point people have for the word “ebenezer” is Ebenezer Scrooge. But the word itself, derived from Hebrew, means “stone of help” and is used in I Samuel 7:12 as the name of a monument Samuel erected to commemorate a victory over the Philistines, won with God’s help. (Side note: we should totally start using “ebenezer” as a normal word again.) The idea of a journey and a return home is preserved, but in addition to replacing God’s help and pleasure with his love and grace, the change deprives the hymn of both a vivid image and a Biblical allusion.

The other major change to this verse is in the last line, where “interposed” is replaced with “bought me with.” These are two very different understandings of the cross. The newer version is economic: there was a price to be paid for me, and Jesus paid it, using his blood as the currency. But the older version has an immediacy to it that the newer one doesn’t quite capture: death or some other danger was making straight for me, but Jesus stepped between it and me so that it would strike him instead. In the newer version, Jesus pays a ransom for me; in the older version, Jesus takes a bullet for me.

Mind you, the new lyrics are not theologically incorrect. It’s not as though the hymn used to be true and now isn’t. It’s that the hymn used to say one true thing and now says a different true thing instead. The first true thing, which may have fit well with 18th-century theological emphases and sensibilities, has been replaced by a different true thing, which fits well with 20th-century theological emphases and sensibilities. But maybe it’s because the revision fits so well with current thinking that we should keep singing the old, un-revised version to remind us of other truths that we too easily forget because we don’t encounter them as often.

That’s one of the reasons I like hymns. And it’s one of the gifts that, at their best, they can offer the whole church–including the people who prefer praise choruses.

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