Friday, December 12, 2008

For Every [Stupid] Thing, There is a Season

As we mentioned below, the newsmags often take this opportunity -- the one we call Advent -- to print silly stories about how traditional Christianity has it all wrong.  Whether "it" is the date, the place, or the virginity.  Another beloved trope is reporting the dumb-ass things that ministers do and say, to not-so-subtly hint that we are all about as dumb as the dumbest guy around.

The locus classicus, of course, is the cretin who chooses his Easter Sunday sermon to declare that the Resurrection is a myth/legend/fairy-tale/metaphor, etc.  Somebody, somewhere, does that every single spring, and somehow the press always finds out who and where.  

But Christmas has its customary follies, too.  A few years back, we blogged about a British vicar traumatized his grade-schoolers with an impassioned sermon on the evil myth 0f Santa Claus.  Lately, the Telegraph has some more on the follies of British vicars who, if the story is to be credited, have launched an island-wide campaign to ruin Christmas carols:

Enduring favourites such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen are being altered by clergy to make them more "modern and inclusive" ... a Church of England vicar banned his congregation from singing O Little Town of Bethlehem because he believed its words do not reflect the suffering endured by modern residents of Jesus's birthplace.

Another clergyman has rewritten the Twelve Days of Christmas to include Aids victims, drug addicts and hoodies.  ... [in Hark the Herald Angels Sing] the line "Glory to the newborn King" has been replaced by "Glory to the Christ child, bring".

And the most seemingly American rewrite, all about sex and race:

Churchgoers at one carol service will not be allowed to sing the words "all in white" during Once in Royal David's City in case they appear racist, while another cleric has removed the word "virgin" from God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.

Well, sure.  There's a self-righteous baboon born every minute, and one ordained every couple of days.  But some of these stories smack of urban-legend material, and in any case we ought to point out to readers that this sort of text-butchering began decades ago, and that we suspect the tide is already cresting, as the Boomers pass their peak.  

For example, Evangelical Lutheran Worship -- despite its mutilation of the Psalter, against which we never tire of inveighing -- actually restored a number of hymns to their original versions, or more nearly so than LBW.  This very morning, organizing a funeral service, we compared ELW's "Glories of Your Name are Spoken" to LBW's "Glorious Things of You are Spoken."  (Of course, for the price of a "thee," they could have sold us their cow, but they chose otherwise.  It will be a slow process, bringing back the words that poets actually wrote -- but the President-elect promises us that change is coming.)

We might also take this opportunity to remind readers that sometimes tinkering with hymns -- up to and including rewriting them -- can yield wonderful results.  People always say that "A Mighty Fortress" is "based on" Ps. 46, which even a quick read shows is overstatement.  But at a conference many years ago, which happened to occur on Reformation Day, we were tickled pink when our Papist hosts proffered a devotional service which included "A Mighty Fortress," or rather a new and quite nice metrical paraphrase of Ps. 46, which we sang to the beloved Lutheran tune.

Or, in a far more obscure example, consider "Nearer My God to Thee."  This hymn was popular about a hundred years ago -- remember the doomed Titanic bandsmen! -- but despite a casual Biblical allusion, it is as theologically vague as you would expect from a Unitarian like the one who wrote it.  So the Lutheran theologian Henry Eyster Jacobs wrote an entirely new hymn, in the same meter, that goes like this:

Nearer, my God, to thee!  Nearer to thee!
Through Word and sacrament Thou com'st to me.
Thy grace is ever near, Thy Spirit here, 
Drawing to Thee!

There's more like this -- the preexistent Word makes an appearance, as do the Incarnation, Atonement, life of sanctification and Beatific Vision.  It's a much better hymn that the original.  It never caught on, but we're holding out for the right Sunday to reintroduce it in our own little slice of Heaven.

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