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.

Light a candle for Christmas hymns

Jerry Stratton, February 7, 2024

Joyful Music: Joyful music leads us sunward/In the triumph song of life.; Hymns

Christmas certainly has its share of bowdlerized hymns, some of them more consequential than others. But even the less consequential changes show a severe change in theology. O Little Town of Bethlehem, for example, has changed from humans to everything:

    • For Christ is born of Mary,
    • And gathered all above,
    • While mortals sleep, the angels keep
    • Their watch of wond'ring love.
    • O morning stars, together
    • Proclaim the holy birth!
    • And praises sing to God the King,
    • And peace to men all on earth.

Belying the claim that these are merely modernizing the lyrics, the new bowdlerized lyrics retain “thee” and “thy”.

Looking up the new lyrics, I ran across an interesting article from 1986 about Methodists making a new hymnal. O Little Town of Bethlehem fared better than Onward Christian Soldiers and Battle Hymn of the Republic, which were removed completely. Fortunately, actual Methodists complained loudly enough that these powerful—and, in one case, anti-slavery—hymns were restored before publication.

Complaining about bowdlerization does occasionally work, as we’ve also discovered at my church.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing has seen a similar change. The ever-popular replacement of all mankind with “we” is a weird one. It’s as if the editors of hymnals are uncomfortable with spreading the word of God throughout the world, and want to confine it only to people who have already been graced with it.

    • Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
    • Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
    • Light and life to all he brings,
    • Ris’n with healing in his wings.
    • Mild he lays his glory by,
    • Born that man we no more may die,
    • Born to raise the sons of us from the earth,
    • Born to give them us second birth!

I’ve also seen the version “Born that all no more may die”.

The funniest of these I’ve seen recently is not a Christmas song at all. I Am the Bread of Life is filled with references to mankind as a whole.

    • I am the bread of life.
    • He who comes to me shall not hunger;
    • He who believes in me shall not thirst.
    • No one can come to me
    • unless the Father draw him.
    • And I will raise him up,
    • And I will raise him up,
    • And I will raise him up
    • On the last day.
    • The bread that I will give
    • Is my flesh for the life of the world,
    • And he who eats of this bread,
    • He shall live for ever,
    • He shall live for ever.

Given the predominance of “he” and “him” in this song you’d pretty much have to rewrite the whole thing to bowdlerize it. And that’s what they did. Besides the change of “Unless the Father draw him” to “Unless the Father beckons”—which is pretty much the opposite meaning—the whole song has been changed from saying that everyone who believes in God shall be saved, to saying that you will be saved. The whole thing has been changed from third person—all of mankind—to second person, which is to say, just you.

You could, I suppose, call this a sort of second-person-passive, but that’s hardly an improvement.

A hymn with a personal focus is not a bad idea, but it’s a very different meaning from what I Am the Bread of Life was written for. Such a change deserves its own hymn, not the bowdlerization of an existing hymn. Besides being extraordinarily self-centered, the new lyrics also de-emphasize the already existing change in the original penultimate verse from third person to second person.

    • Unless you eat
    • Of the flesh of the Son of Man
    • And drink of his blood,
    • And drink of his blood,
    • You shall not have life within you.

This verse’s change to “you” is no longer a change under the new lyrics. In the original, the first, second, and fourth verses talk about mankind, and the third emphasizes the very personal consequences of denying Jesus. By making all of the verses into “you” the new lyrics change the very intense penultimate verse to a very generic one. It goes from powerful to passive.

All of the changes seem to be antithetical to the entire idea of a Catholic—that is, universal—faith. God is no longer God for all mankind. He is only God for us, and even then with caveats. We have no responsibility to shine our light to the world.

But it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and it was with trepidation and hope that I read an email from our pastor in November that we were receiving new hymnals. I was out of town for Thanksgiving, so I didn’t get to see the new hymnals right away. The hymnal turned out be The St. Michael Hymnal, fifth edition. This is a very nice collection of music, and the editors have specifically rejected bowdlerism.

Of the songs I’ve complained about in the past, most are present, and all use traditional lyrics.

The songs I’ve discussed that don’t appear are:

  • I Am the Bread of Life
  • God’s Blessing Sends Us Forth
  • We Are the Light of the World

I’m learning more about just how deep this rabbit-hole goes, too. Just last Sunday we sang the wonderful “Behold the Lamb of God”, and in the chorus I thought, these aren’t the lyrics I remember. I thought it was “shall come to know God’s glory” not “shall come to know his glory”. Why would… Oh!

If anyone tries to tell you that modern bowdlerization of hymns isn’t about denying God the Father, point them to these lyrics. That is, as far as I can tell, the only word changed in the entire song. And in the mix changed it from a personal knowing to a generic, abstract knowing.

Just glancing through the book, I can see that the beautiful Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee is also the original, far better lyrics. I suppose there’s some consolation that the bowdlerized lyrics elsewhere for this song haven’t turned Christ from our brother to our sibling, even if they have decided that God our Father does not reign over us with a Father’s love.

But it’s even more of a consolation to know that there are still choices for congregations that don’t want bowdlerized hymns at all, who still believe that the Catholic faith is Catholic. The St. Michael Hymnal is a great book. If you or your church is looking for a hymnal that doesn’t bow to the Gods of the Market Place, take a look at it.

There are a lot of great songs I’ve never even heard of in it, and I’m looking forward to singing them, even if it will be Joni Mitchell style:

Let’s sing this song together, okay? This song doesn’t sound good with one lonely voice. It sounds good with—the more voices on it, the better, and the more out-of-tune voices on it, the better. No, it was really—it was made for out-of-tune singing, this song. — Joni Mitchell (Miles of Aisles)

In response to Hymns: Musings about hymns, and about modern bowdlerism as it applies to Christian, especially Catholic, lyrics.

  1. <- Our generic parent