Anthony Esolen on the Contemptible Mutilation of Hymns
Even when a traditional hymn is included in the modern Catholic hymnals, one cannot settle in to praise God with words written by greater men than we are. Almost always, the lyrics have been so flattened, botched, castrated, and lobotomized that I’d almost prefer to sing “On Turkey’s Wings” (you know, “I will raise you up on turkey’s wings, la de da and la de da, la de da da da da daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”).
Apparently it was not enough that the revisers had to aspire to heresy—the heresy that they call “inclusivity” and “relevance”—they had to be lousy writers, too.
Here I would like to show a little bit of what is to be found in something called Worship III. I will juxtapose the original verse of the classic “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” and the revised verse (revisions in italics), appending commentary:
ORIGINAL: Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven;
To his feet thy tribute bring;
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Evermore his praises sing:
Alleluia, alleluia! Praise the everlasting King.
REVISED: Praise, my soul, the king of heaven;
To the throne your tribute bring;
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Evermore God’s praises sing, etc.
The contemptible suppression of the masculine pronoun makes hash of the second line. The revisers (smarter than Jesus, who naively called the Father by that exclusive “he”) could not refer to “the feet” without identifying whose feet—so they altered the sense entirely. A line of frank humility is now rendered vague; instead of laying our tribute at the feet of the King, we just sashay up to the throne.
If the King is the same person as God, then he is most appropriately identified by a pronoun. To ditch the pronoun is to loosen the grammatical and rhetorical connection between the King and God. Maybe the theological connection, too—because the revisers (who are smarter than Jesus, I must remember) apparently do not want us to have in our minds any sharp image of a King, who must invariably be masculine.
When I first published some of my analysis on Touchstone’s weblog Mere Comments, one correspondent wrote to suggest that the revisers could have solved their problem by replacing “King of Heaven” with “Heav’nly Ruler.” From their point of view, yes. But besides messing up the strong monosyllabic rhythm of the line and blurring the noun by a limply inserted adjective, the suggested revision alters the meaning and muffles the theology.
A “ruler” is defined by function: He is one who rules. That word embraces a range of positions of authority, and could presumably describe the chief of any of the orders of angels; Michael is in a sense a ruler, and he, too, dwells in heaven. But God sums in himself all rulership. The word not only describes what he does; it names what he is. He is King—not duke, not earl, not prince.
That “King” is an exclusively masculine term is a boon for us, since it accords with scriptural usage and with the revelation of Christ. The revisers might well want to ask why even they seem to blanch before calling God our Queen.
The second verse (revised) continues in the same form, with the same sensitive and inclusive avoidance of the offensive pronoun “he.”
Praise him for his grace and favor
To our fathers in distress;
Praise him still the same as ever,
Slow to chide and swift to bless:
Alleluia, alleluia! Glorious in his faithfulness.
REVISED: Praise the Lord for grace and favor
To all people in distress,
Praise God, still the same as ever,
Slow to chide and swift to bless.
Alleluia, alleluia! Glorious now God’s faithfulness.
Here the suppression of the masculine pronoun severs this stanza from the previous one. It also obscures whose grace and favor we are talking about; not just any old grace and favor that God happens to give, but his grace and favor.
Further, the original is direct and personal: We are meant to think of particular graces that God has shed upon our fathers (a scriptural allusion, that), without which we wouldn’t be where we are, and we are reminded that God, who does not change, will grant us the same grace. We are encouraged to be grateful for concrete graces whose effects we can see before us. The revision botches it: “All people” in distress is impersonal, the grace generic, even theoretical. And the phrase makes no sense of the following lines.
The last line is the dumbest of all. In the original, “glorious” is grammatically parallel with “slow” and “swift”: It interprets and sums up God’s treatment of our fathers, and of us. He is “slow to chide and swift to bless,” and thus “glorious in his faithfulness.” The revision destroys the parallelism and the climax. Its last line is a sentence fragment, unconnected grammatically to anything in the verse. And what on earth is that absurd adverb now doing there, other than to fill up a syllable in the meter? What, was God’s faithfulness not glorious yesterday?
In verse three, the editors of Worship III broaden the hymn’s metaphorical reach:
Father-like he tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame he knows;
In his hand he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes.
Alleluia, alleluia! Widely yet his mercy flows.
REVISED: Father-like, God tends and spares us,
Well our feeble frame he knows;
Mother-like, God gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes.
Alleluia, alleluia! Widely yet God’s mercy flows.
The revisers (informed by an undisclosed Fourth Person of the Quaternity) know that it is just as valid to refer to God as Mother as it is to refer to him as Father, regardless of the quaint poetry of some Jewish carpenter. The “he” in the second line, the only masculine pronoun in the entire revision, is clearly allowed a free pass only because the revisers happen to be talking about God as a father there—not as The Father (nowhere else is that word used), a concession in any case quickly qualified by a balancing “Mother-like.” That, of course, suggests that to call God “Father” is only to use a figure of speech, and one to be avoided unless properly balanced with a feminine figure of speech.
Their revision, ironically, destroys the intimacy of the third line, for in order to shoehorn that “mother” in there, they had to suppress the consoling scriptural image of the hand of God. And, perhaps unintentionally, it introduces the un-scriptural image of God giving birth to us, that being the natural meaning of “Mother-like, God bears us.” Confusingly, this image of God in childbirth does not explain how God (she?) rescues us from all our foes.
And finally, in verse 4, we are given instruction in the geography of heaven:
Angels, help us to adore him;
Ye behold him face to face;
Sun and moon, bow down before him,
Dwellers in all time and space.
Alleluia, alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace.
REVISED: Angels in the heights adoring,
You behold God face to face;
Saints triumphant now adoring,
Gathered in from every race.
Alleluia, alleluia, et cetera.
Lacking the masculine pronoun as the direct object of “adore,” the first line is left senseless and ungrammatical—you cannot, in English, just be “adoring.” Adoring what, or whom? The revisers (wiser than the Offspring of God) could not, this time, write in “God” for “him,” without giving their whitewash away completely. The point of the original is that the angels can help us to adore God, because they see him face to face.
Now clearly the heavenly image in the third and fourth lines would have to be ditched, because you’ve got no rhyme for “adoring” that would fit the sun and moon. So the revisers (more eloquent than that old spinner of parables, What’s-His-or-Her-Name) simply threw the lines out altogether, and landed back on earth with a bump, apparently not understanding the purpose of the first two lines, while smuggling in a bit of comforting topical politics.
Not that the revisers seem to have been thinking hard about heaven—otherwise they would not have written “in the heights.” Is there then a hilltop in heaven? In Scripture, the “heights of heaven” refers to the angels themselves. But I may be mistaken about that: I am not smarter than Jesus, as the revisers are.
It has been a cold winter, and with oil prices soaring, many families in the northeast were (and will be for a month or two) hard pressed to heat their homes. Some huddled around a poor stove in the kitchen; some went without common necessaries. At this season especially it behooves us to think of them, and to provide some little assistance. And next winter may be as bad, or worse.
What a scandal it was and is, that those people should tremble in the cold, while all along such an excellent supply of fuel sits idle in Catholic (and, I daresay, Protestant) churches across this rich land. Nor would it be a novel use for Worship III. I have it on good authority that it is already being so used, and to good effect, in a certain unknown southern region (whose existence has been called into question by many a smart theologian), on account of its remarkable property of generating heat while never, in any material or spiritual reaction, shedding light.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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