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Don't mess with the music: Why changing hymn lyrics can be dramatic
A debate sprung up recently about whether hymns with war-related imagery should be updated to better suit churches working toward peace. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Does a wretch by any other name fit the tune?

Modern hymn writers (in this case, re-writers) seem to think so, and adjustments to the second line of "Amazing Grace" are now relatively common.

"Saved a wretch like me" is traded for "saved someone like me" or "saved and set me free" in newer renditions, as theological concerns drive some singers to leave wretch behind.

"The word plays into self-hatred," said Brian McLaren, a Christian pastor, author and hymn writer. "I imagine that people who are familiar with the hymn hardly notice the word, but, for someone coming into a church for the first time, it can have the effect of making them very nervous."

Churches have been adjusting traditional hymn lyrics for centuries, yet the process remains dramatic. Church members rarely agree whether altering gendered pronouns or the adjectives describing God is warranted.

McLaren knows first-hand the controversy that can erupt when messing with lyrics of a beloved hymn. In a late February interview, he addressed what he saw as problematic war imagery in "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and other hymns. Within a week, prominent evangelical leader Russell Moore responded, criticizing McLaren's commentary on his website.

Denominations need to be thoughtful about the words members are asked to sing, but it should be religious beliefs, not cultural trends, that inspire lyric changes, according to hymn experts. Otherwise, churches risk getting out of tune with the people in their pews and alienating visitors, said Mary Louise Bringle, a professor of philosophy and religion at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina.

Hymns "matter to us deeply and touch our hearts in ways that other music doesn't," she said. "People may forget a sermon five minutes after hearing it, but they'll still be singing the hymns to themselves halfway through the week."

Why hymns change

Lyric changes, large and small, help faith communities ensure they're singing things they actually believe, McLaren said. Changes might be necessary when a song is imported from a different denomination or a community member raises a concern about inclusive language.

"When I was a pastor, we changed 'Good Christian men rejoice' to 'Good Christians, all, rejoice,'" he said.

Churches also rewrite classic hymns or commission new ones to highlight certain social issues, like global warming, and attract new members, noted Bringle, who is also a hymn writer.

For example, the "Glory to God" hymnal, published in 2013 for Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches, was inspired, in part, by a growing number of visitors to the denomination's churches who hadn't grown up Presbyterian. The new hymnal was designed to be more ecumenical and aimed at singers who weren't well-versed in Presbyterian theology, said Bringle, who chaired the Committee on Congregational Song that compiled the book.

"People aren't quite as biblically literate as they were in the 1950s," she said. "We needed new ways to tell biblical stories."

From August 2008 to January 2012, Bringle and her committee members combed through 10,000 hymns, eventually selecting 853 for the hymnal. The group, composed of theologians, musicians and religion scholars, hoped to craft an approachable songbook that served the needs of modern Presbyterian churches.

"We wanted to be attentive to some of the new texts being written and stay in touch with trends in contemporary Christian worship," Bringle said.

But no amount of careful planning could prevent controversy, and Bringle found herself at the center of a national debate on hymn lyrics when news broke that the committee had dropped "In Christ Alone" from the new hymnal.

"It was surprising! I guess that's a sign of my naivet," she said.

The committee had taken issue with one of the lines in the song: "On that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied." They wanted to use a version that ended the sentence with "the love of God was magnified," but learned that the hymn's authors (and copyright owners) had never approved the change.

Committee members who disagreed with "satisfied" as a theological claim won the vote, and "In Christ Alone" was dropped.

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, was one of many commentators who criticized the decision. In his regular column for First Things, he argued against adjusting or dropping certain hymns in the pursuit of making God and faith more palatable.

Churches should be wary of changes driven by worldly concerns, he said in an interview.

"I'm in favor of changing dumbed-down hymns to make them stronger and sturdier," George said. "God in the Bible is a full-sized God, not a trimmed-down God. Any (lyric change) that emphasizes glory, majesty, transcendence, alongside his love and compassion I'm all for that."

Assessing change

McLaren's efforts to adjust war-related hymns and the "In Christ Alone" dispute Bringle oversaw are modern examples of a centuries-old phenomenon, George said. From the earliest days of Christianity, church members have adopted lyrics that best captured their beliefs about sin, resurrection, salvation and other theological issues.

For example, the Nestorians, a sect of early Christians, revised standard lyrics to reflect their view that Jesus Christ's divinity and humanity were separate. They wouldn't refer to Mary as "Theotokos," which means "the one who bore God," in songs, and, instead, called her "Christotokos," or "the one who bore Christ."

Hymn adjustments were also common for the original members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Michael Hicks, a music professor at Brigham Young University and author of "Mormonism and Music: A History."

"Early Mormons weren't writing hymns. They were making a selection based on what would be appealing to people in the church" and what fit with Mormon doctrine, he said.

Church leaders who developed hymn books for the Mormon community borrowed popular songs from other Christian traditions and made edits to emphasize key theological concerns. The opening lyrics of the Christmas hymn, "Joy to the World," became "Joy to the world, the Lord will come," because of the church's focus on the Savior's promised return, Hicks said.

"The change wasn't an objection to celebrating Christmas. It was like throwing a gauntlet down to say, 'We're looking forward, not backward,'" he said, noting that the lyrics were changed back to "Joy to the world, the Lord has come" in the 1980s.

What complicates today's hymn debates is that Christians aren't immune from modern culture's obsession with political correctness, George said, noting that he worries about changes made due to "modern sensitivities" or without comment from the entire congregation or denomination.

"'In Christ Alone' was sung at the installation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for heaven's sake," he said. When a song is beloved, "why tamper with the words?"

Although McLaren agreed that lyric changes shouldn't be made lightly, he said people shouldn't dismiss the value of meaningful adjustments or ignore the potential harm of leaving some hymns unaltered.

"Reflecting on the effect of lyrics is important. When people (sing) something 50 or 52 times a year," it influences them, McLaren said.

He was in a worship service recently in which people sang the lyric, "Oh how he loves us," over and over and found himself worrying about the theological and emotional implications of that phrase.

"Who is the 'us?' This was an all-white congregation. Did (church members) think it just meant people in that room?" McLaren said. "Without defining 'us,' the (lyrics) could be problematic."

Why the drama?

As the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song's experience illustrates, changing lyrics at the denominational level is a long process. Leaders have to give the people in the pews an opportunity to share their hymn-related joys and concerns, as well as check on legal issues like copyright law.

"It's a long, tedious struggle for denominations that use hymnals," McLaren said.

However, many traditional hymns actually lend themselves to adjustments, he noted. In older hymnals, the number of syllables in each line is often printed somewhere on the page, allowing musicians to sing the hymn to a different tune or revise lyrics.

Additionally, many individual churches find it easier now than ever before to change song lyrics because they've transitioned to projecting PowerPoint slides with song lyrics during worship services.

"That makes (lyric edits) more fluid," McLaren said. "They might get changed on late Saturday night before the service."

This situation is both a blessing and a curse for pastors and music leaders, Bringle noted. New lyrics can breathe new life into older hymns, but hymn writers have to respect people's emotional attachment to traditional worship songs.

"Hymns are sung at baptisms and at the funeral of a parent. We get attached to particular words and to the version we grew up with," she said. "When words are changed, it strikes us as cutting away" at something sacred.
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