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Vandalism, poetry, and music

Time for a post that has something to do with music.

Here is a wonderful, though painful, column by Tony Esolen from last year about the vandalism done to hymns by the forces of political correctness, feminism, and general theological down-watering. I knew they were doing this kind of stuff. I just didn't previously feel strong enough to know how bad it is. It's very, very bad. Here are a couple of samples of the tripe:

O blest communion, family divine!

We live and struggle, they in glory shine:

Yet all are one within God’s great design.

Crown him, ye martyrs of our God,

Who from his altar call;

Extol the stem of Jesse’s rod,

And crown him Lord of all!

Extol the stem of Jesse’s rod,

And crown him Lord of all!

(Esolen: "The poet hears the word extol and thinks straightaway of something being lifted high, since that’s what the word literally means. All right then – how do you extol a stem? What does that mean? Or is it the rod we’re extolling? Is it the rod of the stem of Jesse, or the stem of the rod of Jesse? And what does the rod of the stem or the stem of the rod have to do with that moment in Revelation, and martyrdom? Nothing, people; just keep singing and don’t ask questions.")

And my personal nominee for the most howlingly horrible sample given in the article--the vandals' version of "A Mighty Fortress."

God’s word forever shall abide,

No thanks to foes, who fear it;

For God himself fights by our side

With weapons of the Spirit.

Were they to take our house,

Goods, honor, child, or spouse,

Though life be wrenched away,

They cannot win the day.

The Kingdom’s ours forever!

"Were they to take our hoooouse,/Goods, honor, child, or spoouse..."

Make it stop! Please, make it stop!

Esolen does the sort of skewering job that we all wish we could do on such nonsense. He points out, trenchantly, that sometimes the allergy to KJV "-eth" endings is a useful pretext for revisers to get rid of other things they don't like for ideological reasons. He loves the English language and has that excellent English prof's ability to tell us why the original poetry was wonderful and should have been left alone.

Thanks be to God for the 1940 Hymnal. If you're a Baptist, Great Hymns of the Faith is unvandalized.

I have to say, perhaps I shouldn't be this dogmatic, but I don't think I could bear to attend a church that sang songs that had been neutered, defaced, and tortured in the ways that Esolen chronicles.

Bonus: Esolen on new hymns (in this case, new Catholic ones). Or perhaps one should say "hymns." They really are hilariously awful, and in a sense less infuriating than the vandalism of wonderful old hymns. After all, if one wants to write shlock, one should have the courage to write one's own shlock rather than coming along like a feminist harpy and tearing up someone else's glorious English poetry. So if you need to lighten up and have a less bitter laugh after reading the first Esolen piece, read the second. (But I don't think I'd be able to attend somewhere where I had to sing the new shlock, either.)

Comments (21)

Lydia, the second article had me laughing so hard I was crying. Particularly with this one:

God, whose barnyard is the earth,
Bringing piglets unto birth,
Free us piglets from our sty
And make us all to heaven fly.

Now that there's an instant, eternal classic, that is! For best effect, try to imagine Old Mrs. Swinbourne, who bought into the liberal clap-trap 40 years ago and hasn't swerved out of that trough since, trying to teach it to a youth choir as being "relevant".

One thing that struck me about that second piece is that the real hymns he quotes are *so awful* that one would think it's impossible to parody them, yet Esolen manages to parody them hilariously.

I think one of my favorite parts from that one was his imaginary deathbed scene:

I am lying on my deathbed, and my wife asks me, “Honey, would you like to listen to some music?”
“Yes, I’d like to listen to a hymn. How about The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ?”
“Oh, that one always gets me, right here.”
“Yeah. Then after that one can you play Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit?”

Professor Anthony Esolen piece is correct. He is brilliant on the slash and burn job he does on such nonsense Much of the damage done to hymn singing in the mainstream Churches has been a deliberate attempt to undermine the faith by promoting feminism and worse. The old hymns taught good theology. Most churchmen never read a systematic theology. What theology they know, they know from the creeds and the rest of the liturgy and the hymns sung in their Church.
Few were the hymns of human origin sung in the Church prior to the Reformation in Germany. Most hymns sung prior to the Reformation were versifications of the Psalms or paraphrases of some other passages of Scripture. The chanting of the Te Deum and of the creeds are notable exceptions to the pattern of Psalm singing in the Churches structured worship. Calvin's wing of the Reformation continues the Psalm singing tradition to this day. Thus the blame for modern hymn singing should be laid at the feet of Dr. Martin Luther.
Having laid out my bias on the topic allow me to observe, that a marked decline occurred in Protestant hymn singing about 1850. Look at the schmaltzy quality of hymns written after that date. Adoration and praise that typified Wesley and Watts are replaced with my experience with my Jesus. The musical accompaniment is substantially less majestic then was found in traditional hymns.
In the mid 1970s a new Bible translation, The New International Version, took the Evangelical Churches in North America by storm. On sober reflection, 35 years later, most evangelical churchmen would say the New International Version is good vernacular prose but fails on two fronts. The New International Version lacks the precision that was found in the Authorized Version. The New International Version lacks a poetic character.
The same criticisms could be made of most of the liturgical changes and changes in hymns that have occurred in the Episcopal and other Protestant Churches in the last 35 years.

God save us from drivel. We are doing 40 years in the desert, at least.

Great stuff by Esolen, as usual.

Fortunately, there is high quality modern hymnity out there, especially the UK collaborators Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. My preference is generally for the old classics, but these two have written some excellent hymmns. "Across the Lands," "O Church Arise," and "In Christ Alone" are good examples.

If we really need to sing in Church, we can sing in Latin.

I think churches need less music and more chanting.

I like the Getty/Townend team too. I was actually saying to myself when looking at this drivel, "Yeah, I'll take 'In Christ Alone' any day."

The only thing is though that as a student of hymnody, I know in my heart that their skills can't match the old hymn-writers. They try hard to mimic that style, and they don't do a half-bad job at that, but it's like setting fool's gold next to the real thing. For one thing, they can't keep up poetically. Sometimes they'll start off with a good rhyme scheme and then abandon it, or try to keep it going with faux rhymes. This gives away their modernity. That never seemed to be an issue for Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts and co., because the English language was taught more thoroughly and respectfully in the world's education systems then. Other times they'll get tangled in a long thought and then just lurch on without realizing they left an incomplete sentence behind them (see the entire second verse of "In Christ Alone"). And their melodies, while simple and pretty, sometimes lack the musical sparkle and variety of the classics.

It's interesting that "In Christ Alone" has caught on so, when I think they've improved their craft dramatically since then and come up with far more interesting pieces of music and better-crafted lyrics. Perhaps it's because the tune, though somewhat dull and repetitive, sticks in the head better than, say, "See What a Morning."

"See What a Morning" is indeed a fine hymn. Also, I'm mortified by my rendering of hymnody as "hymnity." Good heavens, that's embarrassing.

yfr suggests;

If we really need to sing in Church we can sing in Latin. I think churches need less singing and more chanting.

Chanting can be done in the vernacular as well as Latin, Greek, and Old Church Slavonic. My preference is for Anglican Chant, and Plain Song chants. A nice contemporary example of the older Genevan style of singing which is similar to Anglican Chant can be found at http://www.genevanpsalter.com/music-a-lyrics

Chanting can be done in the vernacular as well as Latin, Greek, and Old Church Slavonic. My preference is for Anglican Chant, and Plain Song chants. A nice contemporary example of the older Genevan style of singing which is similar to Anglican Chant can be found at http://www.genevanpsalter.com/music-a-lyrics

Yes, yes. Plain Song is an excellent vehicle for Christian cultural (and Scriptural) literacy. Thanks very much for the link.

I'm with Tony Esolen, who obviously loves hymns, including those written in (gasp!) the nineteenth century, has no problem with hymn singing as opposed to chant in church (!), and is just appalled at what the vandals have done to the glorious heritage of hymns we have received. What particularly strikes me is how Philistine the vandals' whole approach is. These are allegedly educated people, yet they never said to themselves, "This is poetry. This was written by someone who is a million times better a poet than I will ever be. What the dickens do I think I'm doing making major changes and revisions, even rewriting whole verses, of someone else's top-notch poetry?" They would presumably snicker at someone who colored over all the "indecent" bodily parts on prints of the Sistine Chapel. What I find almost frightening is the megalomaniacal ideology that cannot see that this sort of axe-wielding hymn revision is the same type of thing, only far worse, because its effects are so wide-ranging and multifaceted.

From my limited knowledge, I would say that we can be thankful for the existence of modern hymn writers who aspire to write in the vein of the great hymn writers of old; however, it is perhaps not surprising that they haven't yet risen to the height of their predecessors.

Here is a question: Would it be worthwhile for modern hymn writers to avail themselves of the poetic benefits (Esolen mentions these) of an older version of the language? Thee, thine, thy, -eth endings, etc. These provide a richer linguistic texture as well as a variety of rhyming options that contemporary English does not have. No doubt there would be criticism of such deliberate anachronism, but I think it could be valuable. We shd. remember that those linguistic forms were already obsolete in the 19th century, yet 19th century hymn writers made good use of them.

I would certainly be open to the deliberate anachronism, but trepidatious about misuse.

By the way, Lydia, if you're not familiar with Getty/Townend, don't judge by the youtube offerings of their quality. That can be played better.

The "extol the stem of Jesse's rod" verse can be found in the text of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' name" as printed in the Hartford Selection of Hymns, Compiled from the Most Approved Authors published in 1799 (a reproduction is viewable here: http://archive.org/stream/hartfordselectio00stro#page/72/mode/2up). Object to the text all you like, but don't blame the twentieth century for it.

Very interesting, Cassiopeia. You shd. get hold of Dr. Esolen's e-mail from somewhere and send the link to him. Now arises an interesting question: Since the verse we all know, presumably added somewhere between 1799 and the revision Esolen is using (presumably, indeed, some time in the much-maligned 19th century) is obviously far better poetically and biblically, why did the revisers revert to the older version? Let's look at it: The changed line is "Praise him whose way of pain ye trod." It fits better with the passage in Revelation. Its meaning is clearer. It has something to do with martyrdom. Why did they change it back? I'm going to guess because "way of pain" was uncomfortable. Sometimes it can even be the case that a sudden unaccountable enthusiasm for antiquarian restoration has some other agenda behind it. Considering that we are talking about revisers who could do all the things Esolen chronicles (I will bet my hat and several kitchen sinks that you won't find that verse of "A Mighty Fortress" in a 1799 version of the hymn), I think we can rule out genuine zeal for historical accuracy as a motivation.

I am reminded of B. B. Warfield's observation:

Lydia offers a bet that:

you won't find that verse of "A Mighty Fortress" in a 1799 version of the hymn

Lydia is right because Ein' Feste Burg was not sung in English in 1799.
The Hymnal Revised and Enlarged published by the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1889 does not include any of Luther's hymns.

An Anglican Hymnal, The English Hymnal with Tunes of 1933 translates that verse:

God's Word for all their craft and force,
One moment will not linger,
But spite of Hell shall have its course'
'Tis written by His finger.
And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all,
The city of God remaineth.

The Lutheran Hymnary published by Augsburg Publishing House in 1924; translates that verse:

Still must they leave God's Word its might
For which no thanks they merit;
Still is He with us in the fight,
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And should they in the strife'
Take kindred goods and life,
We freely let them go.
They profit not the foe;
With us remains the Kingdom.

An even older Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal published by order of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Ohio and Other States translates the verse:

The Word of God they shall let stand
and not a thank have for it.
Here Christ Himself leads the command
With his great gifts and Spirit;
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child and wife,
When their worst is done,
They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.

The standard English translation of Ein Feste Burg, which Esolen quotes, is even today not accepted by much of English speaking Lutheran orthodoxy. They are especially troubled by the translation of verse 2; which they thinks leaves an opening for a heterodox understanding of the divinity and humanity of our Lord.

The verses made fun of (with house/spouse) are actually a more literal translation of the original German text. I do not have an opinion as to which version should be preferred for speakers of English, but it seems only fair to point out that the "vandalized" stanza is closer to Luther's text (and somewhat irritating that a professor couldn't be bothered to check this in his rant). The last translation quoted in the comment above is probably the closest, except lin 7+8 which are rendered most literally in the second one: We freely let them go/They profit not the foe.

Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn
und kein’ Dank dazu haben;
er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
Nehmen sie den Leib,
Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib:
lass fahren dahin,
sie haben’s kein’ Gewinn,
das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.

Ah, well, Johannes, there's nothing like a more _literal_ translation to show that one is being a good hymnodist and poet! Not to mention the small matter of the gender-neutral "spouse" rather than "wife"--rather typical of a certain way of thinking, which is not represented in Luther's German

I must express a certain amount of frustration at what seems to me a kind of pedantic, willful blindness here to the phenomenon Tony Esolen is exposing at great length. Even the "retranslation" of Luther's hymn is full of that peculiarly modern ugliness, and if one has an ear made of flesh rather than tin, one should be able to hear that, as evidently the new "translators" were not, or else they didn't care. Notice the ugly use of the elision of the i in "is" in the phrase, "The kingdom's ours forever." Or, again, the gender-neutral "spouse."

But of course these are only examples. The vandalism of "For All the Saints" is also there in the main post. Does anyone seriously want to claim that changing "all are one in thee for all are thine" to "all are one within thy grand design" (!!) is a result of some kind of passion for antiquarian accuracy? Of course not! And it can't be, because this isn't a "restoration" of anything. It's just a disgustingly hideous, modern attempt to avoid the verboten words "thee" and "thine."

Esolen's article is chock-full of examples of this same kind of thing. Let's please not simply ignore that.

Here are a few more of the new and mangled lines:

Though the eye of sinners thy glory may not see.
Praise him, now his might confess, Alleluia! Father, Son and Spirit bless. Alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long, Then from the distance sounds the triumph song, And hearts are brave again, and courage strong.

May your voice entreat him,
(instead of "Crown him as your captain" in the hymn "At the Name of Jesus")

The replacement of "brothers" with "Christians" in

Christians, this Lord Jesus Shall return again,

Do I need to go on? C'mon, folks, let's not miss the forest for the trees, here.

The brilliant Anglican cleric, Julian Mann has some observations on this topic on his blog.

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