Tuesday, February 5, 2008

You May Have Noticed...

I believe that every full hymn text I have posted thus far (not so many, but it's early days) has been capped with the mysterious "alt.". So what's up with that?

As you probably know, "alt." is a long-standing convention in the world of hymnody, meaning that something in the text has been altered from the original. Could be one word, could be several. Could be for any number of reasons. Sometimes the revision is so extensive that "alt." is insufficient and it becomes "adapt. by ___." But let's not go there just yet.

Sometimes an "alt." is from so long ago, or is so universally accepted that modern hymnal editors don't even acknowledge it anymore. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called
Hark, how all the welkin rings back in 1739, but everyone knows it today as Hark, the herald angels sing. Would we still be singing it today if the first line had not been changed? (We also generally only sing three of the original five verses, but that's another blog entry for another day.)

There are many reasons why hymn texts have come to be changed over the years. Sometimes theological differences between denominations forced rewrites. Sometimes archaic words have been updated. In some modern hymnals, words like "thee" and "thou" have been modernized to "you," forcing further changes in declension, syntax, rhyme, and meter.

For myself, many of the changes in the texts I'm posting are made for reasons of inclusive language, or perhaps, better called expansive language. Nearly twenty years ago I was involved with a project to develop a hymnal for use in the Metropolitan Community Churches. We developed a set of guidelines around inclusivity and expansiveness which are close to those found
here (developed by the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ). The guidelines on that page are not dated, but I suspect ours were developed earlier. In some instances we went even beyond those guidelines, and a few (not all) of those instances, twenty more years of perspective have led me to believe that we occasionally went a bit too far, but not often. If you make your way through the UCC guidelines, they lay out most of the precepts I'm going by with hymn texts.

Here in the beginning of the twenty-first century, the concept of "inclusive language" dates back more than thirty years, yet it sometimes seems that it is just as controversial in some circles as it was back then. Many denominational hymnals have made modest attempts at changing the predominantly male-focused language of hymnody, at least with regard to humankind and the people of God, but few are willing to go further. On this blog, I'm going to go further, as we did nearly twenty years ago.

Most blogs that I have found on the topic of hymns are pretty conservative, even downright reactionary (and not always in a particularly informed way). They have lots of rules: "a hymn must do THIS" and "a hymn cannot be THAT," and "a hymn can never never say THAT OTHER THING." Most of them are also bitterly opposed to inclusive language in even its most mild form. On the other hand, I have a reeeeeally broad definition of what a hymn is. Since I couldn't find a blog with a similar viewpoint, I had to make my own. In the earlier MCC project, we drew from a very wide range of material across many denominations (and theologies) and vastly differing musical styles. I may not go quite so far musically, due in part to my own musical tastes and in part due to the issue of copyright (modern stuff simply can't be posted online, even though "everybody does it") but you'll see a broad theological spectrum.

So, I'm proceeding with "alts" that you may not have seen before. You may not like 'em. That's fine, but I'm not going to argue about it. I already know your arguments and it's very unlikely that you can convince me that you're right. I also know that I probably can't convince you, if your mind is made up (and it usually seems to be, online), and it doesn't bother me. As Biblical scholarship has progressed, so too should our hymnody. The world is moving on, but I'm not forcing anyone to keep up. The fourth verse of
Washington Gladden's hymn Behold, a Sower from afar begins

Light up thy Word; the fettered page
From killing bondage free;
Light up our way; lead forth this age
In love’s large liberty.

That's what I think "alt." can do, with our hymns as well as our Scripture. Expansive language makes everything fit better in "love's large liberty."

P.S. As you can see, I have no problem with "thee" or "thou." I'm not pleased that
The New Century Hymnal took them all out (even though they did a lot of things right). Bad poetry! Probably more to say about that at another time.

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