What to do with Him Texts?

Not long ago I found myself on a Sunday morning visiting a church where some friends of mine are the pastors—Jim and Steve the lead pastors, and Mark in charge of music (their names have been changed here). The worship was wonderful – strong preaching wedded to both missional and sacramental sensibilities. The people were friendly, the music eclectic and excellent, the Spirit alive in the sanctuary. Yet there were a few moments where I cringed when we sang songs with sexist language in them. In subsequent email correspondence with those friends, I articulated my ill-ease with this these lines and stumbled into an interesting discussion about changing the lyrics of “classic” hymns. With my friend’s permission, I’ve edited (for clarity and anonymity) an excerpt from that exchange below:

Hi Jim.

I’m writing today to thank you for your grace in hosting us this past weekend. Thanks also for your good leadership at worship this morning.  

You’ll understand, I suspect, when I tell you that it’s hard to entirely repress my inner worship professor. So maybe you can answer a question for me?

This comes from a place primarily of curiosity, though I admit there’s a titch of disappointment, too. I think the world of Steve—he’s a wonderful musician, composer, arranger, and worship leader. I LOVED the string quartet today and the Sufjan-flavored ensemble. Just top notch. Full stop.

And this may seem a small thing, but there were a few moments in today’s worship where I was jolted out of prayer by archaic and sexist language in some beloved hymns. “Though the eye of sinful man” in Holy Holy Holy was a problem; but “I thy true son” even worse in Be Thou My Vision. I thought of singing it with my daughter beside me, and know that she would have given me the stink-eye.

You and I have discussed before how attempts to avoid sexist language can sometimes invite a “the cure is worse than the malady” dynamic. But easy fixes can be found in many hymnals, no extra creative energy required—and with zero loss of thematic coherence or poetic beauty. So “Thy my true Father and I thy true son/Thou in me dwelling and I with Thee one” can be effortlessly rendered “Thy my true Father, Thy child let me be/Thou in me dwelling and I one with Thee.” (Likewise, “man’s empty praise” can be “vain, empty praise”—because, frankly, women can give empty praise just like men can).  

I’m of course not touching here on the “Father” language for God—that’s a much deeper theological conversation. But not using “man” when we mean all people, and “son” when there are so many daughters among you... well, you’ve read the relevant chapter in Worship Words, so you know what I think of all this. It’s an issue of both justice and hospitality, and seems—to me, anyway—like a no-brainer.

So I was a bit surprised at all this, since you have so many young, educated, professional women in your congregation. Perhaps there are resistances to these sorts of changes? At another church I might chalk this up to a kind of liturgical indifference (with an underlying hint of patriarchy), but the great care and excellence with which all the rest of your liturgy is handled does not commend that explanation. So I wonder if you can share with me any insight about this.

Thanks, Jim, for indulging my curiosity and receiving this with grace.

To which Jim responded: 

I spoke with Steve and Mark about the hymn texts, because I wanted to see if their reaction was the same as mine. Steve’s take is that Be Thou My Vision is a classic, a work of art and poetry, and there is simply no way he touches the historic text. (He looked at me as though I had suggested that the Mona Lisa needed a tattoo). His sense is that folks here respect art for it’s own sake and would not resonate with “contemporary bug fixes.” Mark and I think he’s right, and add this: the sensitivity we’ve seen on this issue—with older texts—comes pretty exclusively out of Christendom contexts, not from secular people, or even feminists. For myself, in 25 years of ministry in urban, secular contexts, I’ve had only 3 people ever raise this issue with me, one of which, of course, is you. At our church we run focus groups on all aspects of our ministry—nobody has ever registered any concern with hymn language. I wonder if your daughter would have the same reaction if she had not been deeply shaped by her parents, her years of Christian school, and the worship environments where these issues are sharply brought into focus? Maybe she would, maybe there are others like her, but I’ve talked to women at our church and they don’t seem to like the idea of changing classic texts. 

I respect you, Ron, and welcome pushback and further thoughts from you on this. We could be missing something. I’m trying to lay our thinking out to you candidly and honestly.

To which I then responded:

Hello, Jim.

I’m finally getting back to this exchange, after some intense time teaching, writing, and prepping for upcoming courses.  My thoughts aren’t yet fully formed here, but maybe they’re in enough shape to prompt some further discussion.  It feels to me like there is an opportunity here to plunge a little deeper into these waters, offering a little friendly theological give and take. Thanks for engaging! 

I think the substantive subject of debate in view here is gender-inclusive language for people in our worship words—including ‘classic’ hymns. If I read your response correctly, we’re on the same page with regard to liturgy, new songs, bible translation, prayers, etc. But you and your team are hesitant to alter ‘classic’ hymn lyrics in order to name people more inclusively as both men and women. You seem to be grounding your argument in three areas: aesthetics, history, and theology. I’d like to offer pushback on all three fronts, and see if that leads us anywhere productive.

Historical—I’m keen not to mis-characterize your argument here, but when you refer to ‘classic’ hymns as somehow untouchable, it seems you are pristinizing what was never pristine. What version, for instance, of “Be Thou My Vision” is the ‘untouchable’ classic version? The 6th century Old Irish text? The English version published in 1905? The adaptation made for the English Hymnal in 1912? At what point does it become ‘untouchable’? 

Most writers of worship songs never intended them to be perceived as fixed, final, unalterable contributions to the church’s songbook. Until the post-Enlightenment era brought the celebration of the ‘individual creative genius,’ the words and music offered to the church by its composers and authors was done with a clear eye to its likely alteration. One of the most significant ways this alteration happens is in translation. St. Ambrose is not complaining that we don’t sing his Te Deum in Latin. Translation from one language to another—or from one linguistic age to another—is required to make any ‘classic’ hymns come alive on the lips of God’s people in any given time and place.

Here, for instance, is as “classic” a hymn line as you’ll find: Hark! The herald angels sing—glory to the newborn King! But that’s not what Charles Wesley actually wrote. What he wrote was this: Hark how all the welkin rings! Glory to the King of kings! Now, I like the word welkin. But its day has come and gone. Just because a beloved and spiritually wise person wrote a hymn doesn’t mean that those words are fitting and appropriate for us today. And just because people are used to singing a song a particular way doesn’t mean they should continue to do so. Of course, the alterations have to be made with sensitivity—both pastoral and aesthetic (and I would argue, in that order). If “welkin” and “bowels” mean different things now than they meant when they were written, and we don’t blanch at changing those lyrics, why should we be reluctant to change the once-understood-as-inclusive “man” and “men” and “son” when those words, too, have come to mean something else? I’m not arguing right here for any particular alteration of any particular text. But I’m more broadly suggesting that the age or provenance of a text should not automatically make it off-limits to appropriate adjustments.

Aesthetic—But there’s the rub: “appropriate” adjustments. Steve’s instinct to honor the original composer’s artistic intentions is laudable. I would argue, though, that he’s already made his peace with making appropriately enculturating adaptations to works of art in worship. He just makes them with the music, while leaving the lyrics as is. But on what aesthetic grounds is this distinction made? The text for Holy Holy Holy was written in 1826, and the tune in 1861, specifically for that text. Many would see them as an undivided pairing. Yet the Sufjan-esque banjo-led arrangement Steve offered in worship last month was very indigenous to your congregation—even a bit idiosyncratic. I thought it was wonderful, though my guess is that Dykes (the composer of NICEA) would hardly have recognized it, and may not have approved. Someone could argue that the text, with its invocation of Isaiah’s awesome vision of the throne room of God, calls for a more congruently austere and transcendence-evoking musical interpretation than the one Steve gave. I’m guessing Steve made a pastoral decision about enculturating the text and music for your congregation in its unique geographic and cultural location, and put aside his impulse to honor the aesthetic judgments of the original tune composer. And I’m fine with that. But why be shy about changing the text, then? The argument I’m making here is that you are already making judgments and aesthetic re-interpretations—you’re just not consistent in how you’re thinking about which ones you make and don’t make, feeling free to reinterpret tunes and musical arrangements, while avoiding doing so with ‘classic’ texts. 

The key here is the purpose of art in worship. You wrote: “[Steve’s] sense is that folks here respect art for it’s own sake and would not resonate with “contemporary bug fixes.” This seems to me to be just plain wrong. Because art—when used in worship—is never used or respected for its own sake. Art is deployed in liturgy as a tool for the worship of God. Nick Wolterstorff in Art In Action makes this point better than I could—art for faith’s sake. The excellencies and purposes of music and poetry and painting and statuary and graphic design, etc.—all these are subordinate to the pastoral and theological purposes of worship.

Theological—So the challenge is whether there is a really good, theologically substantive reason to change a beloved text—a reason that emerges from its liturgical use (that is to say, as a tool for the praise or prayers of God’s people). Without such a reason, I’m not at all in favor of editing song lyrics willy-nilly. As you note, some hymnal editors have produced the songbook equivalent of this disaster. So the fear you express is not unwarranted.

But the argument you seem to be making, theologically, is that changing gender-exclusive language isn’t all that important to people—no one, as you say, has complained about it. You’ll forgive me if I push back more vigorously here—this argument seems especially weak. It certainly wouldn’t fly in another context if what was in view was, for instance, lyrics that were racist or imperialist, (consider, for instance, “Red and yellow, black and white...” or Reginald Heber’s other classic hymn From Greenland’s Icy Mountains—[BTW, Heber also wrote Holy Holy Holy]). Or what if we persistently referred to children as “ankle-biters” in worship or disabled people as “cripples,” and found no grounds to change because we never heard complaints about it?

Not to use the language of a politically-correct, liberal seminary professor, but you know that it is customary for oppressed people to become habituated to the tools of their oppression. And in this case, gender exclusive language is one of those tools that our culture—and the church—has used to subordinate women. The subsuming of the feminine into the masculine has communicated that women are second-class, that their experience is less representatively human. When our language teaches us that daughters of God are less important than sons, it’s no wonder that women don’t speak up. That no one complains about this in your focus groups or in conversation with you doesn’t mean it’s not a problem; it might just as easily mean that people do not expect the church—given its long history of patriarchy—to be a place of equality and liberation for all people. And that dynamic would be all the more pronounced in congregational contexts where women are not perceived to be equal to men. My daughter has indeed been, as you note, “deeply shaped by her parents, her years of Christian school, and the worship environments where these issues are sharply brought into focus.” And as a result, she expects that the language we use in worship will reflect the equality men and women share in Christ. She expects that equality to be reflected in worship leadership: both men and women preaching, singing, praying, and presiding at the communion table. She expects that the world we enter in worship is a world of hospitality and justice. Would that all congregations nurture such expectations. 

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).