Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Renewing Worship?

Lutherans -- or at least their publishing house -- have long felt the need for a new hymnal and service book. (Unlike our Anglican cousins, we typically combine the two). Be careful what you feel the need for.

1978's Lutheran Book of Worship is a masterpiece of liturgical scholarship. Inter alia, it restored to the Eucharist an eschatological dimension; eliminated faux-Jacobean worship dialect; offered three practical Mass settings, appropriate for congregations with differing levels of musical skill; acknowledged that the introit had become an anachronism; and offered elegant orders for daily prayer, which have drawn praise from no less an authority than
Robert Taft. And plenty more.

But it was never perfect. It lacked a complete psalter. The hymn choices and harmonizations were sometimes questionable, and the texts were frequently altered to dubious effect. The emphasis upon German, Scandinavian and "traditional" 19th-C. American hymnody became ever more limiting, as Lutherans struggled to receive the gifts of African and Latin American Christianity.

So now comes "Renewing Worship," the culmination of a 15-year process, now in its last stages. A new book will be published soon -- and this is a big event in American Lutheranism. We take our "new books" seriously. Which makes the readily apparent problems with Renewing Worship especially worrisome. Here are a few preliminary concerns. I'll raise more later:

Inclusive language. Well, the Egg is all for it. Strongly, loudly, frequently. The LBW rightly eliminated the "masculine neuter," an historically questionable grammatical trick by which both men and women were referred to as "man" or even "men." God -- as Trinity, Christ, Father and Spirit -- remained "he." A few congregations have adopted the practice of emending the texts to remove masculine pronouns for God -- a common enough practice among US Protestants. (The Romans flirted with this, but Rome told them to stop.) Most haven't.

RW goes further in this direction. A few more hymns lose their pronouns -- hardly a surprise.

And the truth is that hymn texts have always -- always -- been subject to ideological editing. We love Luther's Lord Keep Us Steadfast, but it is a long time since we sang about "murd'rous Turk and papist's sword." How many of us have ever sung the true verse 3 of Lift High the Cross? (It's about "false sons" of the Church, "those who hate her," all meaning exponents of the Higher Criticism). Or verse 3 of "Faith of Our Fathers," about how "Mary's prayers" will overthrow Anglicanism?

But RW goes a step too far: It gender-neutralizes the Psalter. We are not talking about the sort of gender-accurate translation that the
NIV publishers tried a few years ago, before Southern baptists threatened a boycott. We are talking about translations which distort the Biblical text. Psalm 1 -- "Blessed is the man" -- becomes "blessed are they." In Hebrew, it's "ha-ish." That's "the man." A person in general, or humanity in general, is "enosh."

More typically, this business involves a change from third to second person -- God is not "he" but "you," which the publishers call "the language of prayer." Oh, piffle. The psalms themselves are the language of prayer -- they have been for millennia. And they aren't like hymns -- they are are Scripture. They shape the way we pray, and we dare not reshape them to fit our desires. If we don't like them, we should pray something else (and find another religion. Taoism is sort of nice).

publisher's note is a little deceptive. It claims this second-person business is common in Hebrew poetry, and brags about the "Lutheran Old Testament scholars" who have been consulted. All well and good, but it skips over the basic, irreducible fact that the words are being mistranslated. People in the pews deserve, at the very least, to know this.

But this isn't really what burns our britches at the Egg. As I said, we like inclusive language. We really, really do. Here's what gives us agita:

Dumbing It Down. There's a great song by folk-rock-Lutheran guy
Jonathan Rundman about how often leaders dumb down the language -- and content -- of worship. This idea is always to welcome strangers, by making worship accessible even to the uninitiated. So they make it sweet and easily digestible, like baby food. Get rid of the hard words. Replace the crucifix with a cross, and the cross with a painted angel. or better yet, an abstract design, so people can project onto it their own hopes and dreams for a religion.

But you are supposed to grow out of strained carrots and applesauce. The problem with these dumbed-down services is that they take away the substance, and never bring it back. And so the depth of the Christian message goes missing, and is not retrieved. Rundman's refrain ends, prophetically, "we're creating monsters." Damned right we are, with an emphasis on the "damned."

There aren't many good Transfiguration hymns. The best is probably "O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair." Or was, until RW rendered it "O Wondrous Image." These words are close in meaning, but not the same. An image is, etymologically, an imitation -- as human beings are of God, or a picture of the thing depicted. In Christian theology, a "type" is something rather different -- a prefiguring, as the Ark is of the Church, say, or in this case, the Transfiguration is of the Resurrection. (In fairness, the original Latin of this hymn has the less precise word "forma;" John Mason Neale made the typological point explicit in his translation.)

Worse yet, consider one of the brilliant Eucharistic hymns by Thomas Aquinas. "Thee we adore, O hidden Savior" is the traditional, and accurate, translation of Adoro te devote, latens Deitas. The hiddenness of God is the whole point here -- that even though we cannot see or taste the presence of Christ, we nonetheless trust that he is present because he said so. A very Lutheran idea, by the way. Or it was, until RW butchered it: "Thee we adore, O Savior God most true." Still an accurate idea theologically -- but simply not the point of the verse or, indeed, the hymn. For an idea of how badly endumbed the RW version is, compare the seven-verse original
seven-verse original to RW's four bastardized verses. (You'll have to scroll to find them; it's a long document, but the hymns are alphabetical). Worse yet, RW credits its translation to Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose actual version is so scrupulously good. (And we don't much like Hopkins, generally).

So what shall Lutherans do, if all this ticks them off a bit to much? Well, RW can't be stopped; it's almost in print. But that doesn't mean we have to buy it. The LBW is good for a few more years. This Far By Faith is a pretty good book. The Episcopalians have a hymnal, and their prayerbook is okay, except for the Calvinist parts. or maybe we should go back to the Common Service. I'm game if you are.

1 comment:

Father Anonymous Bosch said...

A church member pointed out, to my horror, that the LBW psalter handles Psalm 1 exactly the same way -- "blessed are they." I should have checked this.

Well, it was a bad idea in 1978 and it hasn't gotten any better.