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.

Though the Darkness Hide Thee

Jerry Stratton, April 27, 2022

Rainbow in darkness

There are some glories that God does allow us to see, such as the symbol of his saving grace.

Just before Easter I posted a piano file for the hymn Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!. The song came to my attention at a recent mass with more modern lyrics that reminded me of the annoying tendency of modernizers to dehumanize and bowdlerize once-insightful songs. References to man’s sinful nature may offend some, but they are necessary to accept God’s grace.

When hymnal publishers update lyrics that refer to humanity, removing the references to “men” or “man” and replacing them with “us” or “all” or reworking the line to excise the reference to humanity entirely, most of the time the changes end up just looking silly, as when they replace all of mankind with the self-centered “us”. Or when “And if wicked men insult and hate you” becomes “And if wicked tongues insult and hate you”.

Really? It’s the tongue that’s doing the hating, and not the people? It seems that if these modern bowdlerists were sincere in wanting to improve the texts and thought that providing body parts with agency would do so, they’d at least choose the brains or the mind rather than the tongue, but of course that would be too close to acknowledging that wicked people exist.

In many cases, the changes seem explicitly designed to exclude everyone except the congregation. When hymnals replace “Let men their songs employ” in “Joy to the World” with “Let us our songs employ”, we’re no longer speaking of humanity when we sing the songs. It’s supposed to be joy to the world, not joy to us. One of the great messages of Christ is that he was Christ for the world.

But there’s a deeper and more dangerous reason for those kinds of changes. The dehumanization of the lyrics externalizes the sin both from humanity and from the singer. I’m not a sinner. It’s my tongue that does the sinning, it’s my eye that’s sinful. Of course, if the bowdlerizers making those changes actually believed that, they’d be both mute and blind, because they would follow Jesus’s command to tear out the sinful flesh.

But they don’t believe that. They just want to dehumanize sinfulness.

Among the worst of these are the changes made to “Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!”. Originally, it very clearly put the sin on man and not on man’s body parts—when it mentioned sin at all.

Before it mentioned sin it emphasized imperfect humanity vs. our perfect God. The earliest version of the lyrics I’ve been able to find is from A Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotion, 1846. In this version, the lyrics of the third verse go:

    • Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
    • Though man’s eye the fulness of thy glory may not see,
    • Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee,
    • Perfect in power, in love, and purity!

There’s nothing in those lyrics about sin. Man cannot see the fulness of God’s glory. Why is either irrelevant or assumed, or perhaps explained by the third line of the verse. Only God is holy. Mankind is not. This is one of those concepts that fell out of favor in the seventies in favor of everyone being their own divinity.

Within two years, a later edition of the same book printed the more well-known lyrics, or closer to them:

    • Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
    • Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see,
    • Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
    • Infinite in power, in love, and purity!

“Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.” Now that sinfulness has been brought into the lyrics, it is man—all of mankind—who is sinful, not the eye of some particular man.1 There was a reversion to something similar to the earlier lyrics in the 1908 Christ in Song2, which used “Though the eye of man thy great glory may not see”. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it other than that the wording is more awkward, at least assuming a similar melody in both.

Starting around 1978, people started trying to make the eye sinful rather than acknowledge the sin in mankind’s nature. The variations first appeared, among the hymnals collected at the immensely useful Hymnary.Org, in a Lutheran text in 1978. It uses the somewhat standard replacement that I saw in my Catholic church, “the eye made blind by sin”.

    • Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
    • Though the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see,
    • Only though art holy; there is none beside thee,
    • Perfect in pow’r, in love and purity.

This is evil, and not just because it uses the Oxford comma. The eye is not made blind by sin. We can see what is and is not sinful. We have that ability to discern right from wrong even while we are sinning. As humans we are born sinful, not made sinful later. We often choose to ignore that knowledge, but it is there. It is the eye of sinful man, not the eye made blind by sin, that cannot see the glory of god, because it is an imperfection of sinful man, not a flaw in the eye.

All of the changes since 1978 take agency out of man and put it into man’s body parts. It’s the eye’s fault, not the person’s, that we sin.

The least problematic of the changes is probably from the 2012 Journeysongs, “Though the eye of sinners thy glory may not see”. It at least puts the flaw in the sinner and not the eye. But it also hides in the darkness that we are inherently sinful. It says that, theoretically, there are non-sinners who will see God’s glory. It is sinners, not mankind, who are flawed, as if we are not all sinners.

The beauty of the original is that it encapsulates a fundamental truth of Christianity. We cannot point at someone else and say, you are sinful, and I am not. We are all sinful. We are all born with original sin. We all need God’s saving grace.3

But there are some doozies of variations as people try hard to hide God in the darkness, as they try to shift attention away from our sinful nature, denying the inherent sinfulness of fallen man. The 1990 Worshiping Church used the very contorted phrasing “the eye of sinful flesh”, possibly to get around that. But, again, it’s putting the sin away from the person and into the body. It’s the body, the flesh, that sins, not the person.

This is most explicit in the very weird variation from The Hymnal of 1982: “the sinful human eye”. It’s not man who is sinful, it is his eyes, or at least one of them.

The silliest variation is probably from the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal and the 2020 Voices Together: “the eye of sinfulness”. It sounds like a Dungeons & Dragons artifact. Like the Eye of Vecna, something you would quest to put in your body rather than keep out of your body.4

The creepiest has to go to the 1998 Common Praise version, “though our sinful human gaze thy glory may not see”.

The new lyrics fall into the main theological sin of progressivism, which is that men are born perfect, or at least born perfectible by other, more enlightened men—such as the bowdlerists themselves. God is unnecessary when we have such a refined elite guiding us to Heaven on Earth.

By denying humanity and by denying our own sinfulness these lyrics also deny the divine and the necessity of divine grace.

March 27, 2022: Today’s gospel was John 9, about the blind man who Jesus heals. In this parable, Jesus tells his disciples that it is not sin that makes the man’s eyes blind; and the man born blind who saw God’s glory in Christ is contrasted with the men who refused to see God’s glory in Christ despite being born with fully functional eyes.

In response to Hymns: Musings about hymns.

  1. Interestingly, and completely off-topic, you’ll notice that in those two years the publisher had also started capitalizing references to God: Thy and Thou and Thee weren’t capitalized in the 1846 version, and are in the 1848 version. Also, “perfect” has changed to “infinite” and would remain so through the 1861 edition, but by at least 1871 other books were using “perfect”. The two words have a different number of syllables—were there different melodies?

  2. All unlinked references from here on are from the Hymnary comparison site.

  3. Journeysongs also contains the more flawed but in a different way, “eye made blind by sin” version on a different page.

  4. Not that I’m recommending that you have your D&D character chop out an eye and replace it with the Eye of Vecna. This never works out well for the player character. But even in roleplaying games man is imperfect, and will sometimes succumb to the desire for power over the obvious common sense God gave us.

  1. <- Brotherhood of Hymn