Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Music: Are you ready for that? Driving your car down a desert highway listening to the seventies and eighties rise like zombies from the rippling sand? I hope so.

Depersonalizing God in modern hymns

Jerry Stratton, February 23, 2022

Let us love him

I have an upcoming post about how modern hymnal editors are bowdlerizing older hymns to distance mankind from any acknowledgement of sinfulness. But there is another class of bowdlerization that distances men from God Himself: changes that downplay the very existence of God as a guide and confidant, as a father who speaks in our hearts.

Hymns are replacing personal pronouns in lyrics—that are literally about God the father—with neutral and less personal titles.

We sang Where Charity and Love Prevail for the offertory hymn several weeks ago. Every lyric that personalizes God has been depersonalized. Most of them are innocuous, but one especially is not, and the combination is both stilted and distancing. The earliest verified lyrics I’ve found are from the 1966 Peoples Mass Book; they remain the same up to at least the 1984 edition. The original lyrics of the second verse are:

  • With grateful joy and holy fear
  • His charity we learn;
  • Let us with heart and mind and soul
  • Now love him in return.

Sometime after 1984 they were changed to:

  • With grateful joy and holy fear
  • God’s charity we learn;
  • Let us with heart and mind and soul
  • Now love God in return.

The change from pronouns to God throughout the lyrics makes for very stilted language. “Be ours his holy peace” becomes “Be ours God’s holy peace”, and so on. Every place in the lyrics where we once sung about God as someone we know has become depersonalized to a title.

It’s like they just took a global search and replace across the entire lyrics without regard for meaning. In fact, it almost looks like they globally searched and replaced on His and thus missed what I assume is a lowercased “his” in the fifth verse.1 It’s also possible that, since the line speaks specifically of Christ2, the bowdlerizers haven’t yet decided that Jesus the Son isn’t deserving of “his”. They may be prepping for the change: they did replace “him” with “Christ” in the fifth verse:

  • Let us recall that in our midst
  • Dwells God’s begotten Son;
  • As members of his Body joined
  • We are in him made one.

becomes:

  • Let us recall that in our midst
  • Dwells God’s begotten Son;
  • As members of his body joined,
  • We are in Christ made one.

I’m surprised they didn’t replace “Father” with “Parent” in the final verse. They’ll probably change those words, too, once they find a word that rhymes with “one” to replace “Son” with. Or a word that rhymes with “Child” to replace “one” with.

Where Charity and Love Prevail is not an old song. It’s one thing to exhibit presentism and assume that 18th century authors were unaware of their political incorrectness; in this case, assuming that God the father can be referred to by “him” and “his”. While I argue in Though the Darkness Hide Thee that the older lyricists were more understanding of human sinfulness than modern bowdlerizers are, at least the argument that old language needs updating to modern times is a superficially logical one.

It’s another thing entirely to change the words of modern authors who were well aware of the issues of modern language and made their word choices with full knowledge of those issues.

The reason I haven’t included a scan of the full lyrics and melody here from the original hymnal, like I will for Though the Darkness Hide Thee, is that Where Charity and Love Prevail is new enough to be still covered by copyright restrictions. The hymn was written by Omer Westendorf for World Library Publications in 1961, inspired both by the traditional Latin lyrics Ubi caritas3 and by the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council.

To deliberately change his words in a manner that distances the singer from God is not just arrogant, it’s counter to the intended meaning. Westendorf knew what he was writing. He deliberately chose his words to bring the singer closer to God—that’s one of the changes the Second Vatican Council hoped for. It’s a modern song, and it speaks—or spoke, before the lyrics were bowdlerized—to modern issues.

The new publishers also changed “brotherhood” to “family”. The line wasn’t in the original Latin. Westendorf wrote it specifically for modern times, for the then-recent Second Vatican Council’s changes. He was saying something specific about the relations between multiple creeds of the same God. The word “family” obliterates that meaning.

This change goes beyond depersonalizing God and depersonalizes God’s word. The word “brotherhood” acknowledges our fractured religion. Even using the term in its more restrictive sense of lateral familial relations—Westendorf probably meant it in the wider sense of a fraternity of members grouped into separate communities—a brotherhood is a community of uncles and aunts each with their own different family and their own different way of living. In Christianity, we have fractured into many families, each with separate creeds about God’s word.

Westendorf is emphasizing that we are a brotherhood with a central belief in God but also that we are divided by core beliefs. We can (and should) love those of different creeds, but we cannot forget that if God’s word means anything, we are divided by the differences in those creeds.

In order to fulfill the promise of “we are in him made one” we must overcome those differences without tossing the eternal truths of God and Christ.

The change from “brotherhood” to “family” is both a lesser and a more egregious change than the loss of personal pronouns. It’s a lesser change because the superficial meaning hasn’t changed. Our family does embrace all whose Father is the same. But it’s also more egregious, because it allows us to forget the hard part about our faith: that we in fact have a faith, that we believe something eternal and unchanging. It takes the hard problem—that there are creeds that divide us—and rather than offering a means of working through that problem, pretends it doesn’t exist. It says that God is a fiction we can alter to our preferences.

We don’t have to change, the lyric says. We can change God instead. The new lyrics transform sin into a mere matter of diversity.

But we do not love a concept called God, we love Him. And if we love him, we try to keep his commandments. God is real, not a mere thing that we mold to the whims of the day. By replacing “Him” with “God”, by replacing “brotherhood” with “family”, the bowdlerizers are deemphasizing God as a real being we can talk to and love, as a loving Father who commands us to obey eternal truths.

Christ came to bring us closer to the Father. He came to emphasize the Father’s eternal truths, not to deny the Father, and not to tell us that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we’re one family. He specifically did not tell us that where others believe different things, we can change our beliefs to become one with them.

Our goal is to become one with God, not the sinful world. It is very easy to accept all faiths as one; it is what the world wants us to do. It is far more difficult to “confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” and to “believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” in a world that wants us to believe all faiths equally mythological.

In response to Hymns: Musings about hymns.

  1. The choice to capitalize God’s pronouns is not universal, and wasn’t used in the original printings. In the World Library Publications hymnal, Peoples Mass Book, “God” is capitalized, as are “Father”, “Son”, and “Body”. But none of the pronouns are.

  2. I don’t think that pronoun refers to Christ, but to God. But a bowdlerizer on a quick search and replace might not realize that.

  3. The melody, Christian Love, comes from Paul Benoit, a Benedictine monk, but I’ve been unable to find the translation he wrote them to; it doesn’t scan right to the Latin lyrics.

  1. Sinful man ->