Hymns: Some improved, some too broken to fix

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) endeavors to be a big tent and is loathe to create theological tests for measuring the validity of one’s faith. But that doesn’t mean the church doesn’t respond to changes in the ideology of its members, including its clergy. For example, there is an effort to combat the excessive use of masculine descriptions of God in hymns. “All praise to the Father, from whom all things come” becomes “All praise to Creator, from whom all things come.” Or more dramatically, the Doxology:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above the heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A-men.


Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise God, all creatures here below;
praise God above the heavenly host;
Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. A-men.

I’m generally down with such conversions, although I think there is a danger in making something overly awkward to the point that I think, “eh, maybe we don’t use than hymn”. For me, this version of the Doxology walks pretty close to that line.

Aside from working to counter act the God is Man trend, we also generally work against the God is Warrior King imagery. Again, I generally support it, but last weekend I heard the Battle Hymn of the Republic on Prairie Home Companion. Man that is a great song. And written by a great lady, Julia Ward Howe. One of the great technical choices about Ray Charles’ version of America the Beautiful is that he starts with an unfamiliar verse. Prairie Home Companion did a similar thing with the Battle Hymn. Consider this stanza:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with the least of these*, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

Or what about this closing stanza:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

I find these lyrics stirring. I am convinced that seeing your cause as just and worthy of sacrifice is not troubling. When I reflect back on the fight for civil rights of racial minorities, and is there any doubt that it was a fight, I wonder if these songs feed the wrong wolf. I don’t know.

(*I’m pretty sure this is how PHC translated contemners when I heard it on the radio, and I like it.)

Now, I’m posting this in the middle of a larger conversation within the Church. So, let me be clear that I think it is harmful to use exclusively male images of God. I also think there are churches that employ the Christian Soldiers motif in a dangerous way. I am not generally opposing either effort described above. Rather, it’s like when you were a kid and taking a box of junk out of your room and you pick up your Boba Fett toy, look at your mom and say, “I want to keep this one, is that okay?”

64 replies on “Hymns: Some improved, some too broken to fix”

And on Sunday several people told me they really like "these words to the Doxology." Some also have commented that they liked singing the Doxology because it conjures up comforting memories. So the message may be, "keep change enough a part of what we do that we have a chance to find out what soothes & what jarrs." Also, that will increase the possibility of all of us being happy part of the time — the challenge of "blended" worship is that everybody's upset some of the time.

The Chalice Praise book is a great collection for the very reasons you've addressed. The compilers of that book worked hard at culling out the warfare language and minimizing the male dominant language — not an easy thing to do in this neo-sexist era when we seem to have lost ground re: inclusive language.

We seminary students brought in our denominations' hymnals to study & compare. There was the Unitarian Universalist hymnal with very few references to God at all, and almost none to Jesus — but some great resources for care of earth and humankind. And there was the United Church of Christ hymnal, which probably did the most thorough job with inclusive language. The work that goes into hymn selection and permission-granting and re-writing of lyrics is phenomenal. I hope we can be careful with our critiques to understand that none of this work is done frivolously. The integrity of the original music is a valued component. The Chalice Hymnal is full of newer hymns partly because that was the freshest way to preserve our inclusive values and the historical pieces of music from throughout church history. A hymn has to have entered public domain (100 years old, I believe) before we can change the words without permission from the composer/author.

Then there was my father, born in 1912, who grew up on the old hymns, and who was nearly blind and unable to read a hymnal. He sang from memory and knew all the words. You should have seen his aggravation if the words were changed. The opening hymn at his funeral was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (all verses), one of his favorites. He wept every time we sang it. I always checked.

That's how we know a hymn is right, like the toy we want to keep.

Interesting. For myself, I don't really see the "harm" in the male imagery of God. To be more specific, I don't see the benefit about going through all the gyrations to strip away that imagery, and it makes me a little sad for the loss of the cultural richness of the churches as that portion of their history is expunged.

I mean, it's just self-evident that it's silly to talk about the immortal sky fairy as having a gender, right? But OTOH, people seem to want/need to anthropomorphize their God, so it needs a gender. It would be nice to split time — to use both God-Father and God-Mother language, but that doesn't fit terribly well with the western tradition. And the alternative of neutering Him makes God less human which in turn makes it harder for people to relate to God intellectually, I think.

I've also always been uncomfortable with retro-re-engineering language. Too orwellian.

I'd be interested in hearing why you think it is harmful that the hymns & al use the gendered God, because it's something that I would describe as "harmless" if someone had asked me.

As for the christian soldiers bit — completely agree.

It’s mostly harmful because we have daughters and mothers. Hammering an image of God as fundamentally unlike you does not lead to a healthy understanding of the almighty as a starting point. Women and girls are outside all the time and that is bad.

It is also harmful to use exclusively male imagery because it foster the notion that it is more than imagery. It bolster’s the notion that many people have of the immortal sky fairy. And, even if they don’t literally believe God has a penis, they may believe God has gender. This limited view of God leads to things like spiritual people who have been raised in the church rejecting it as irrelevant and never returning. Just as one example.

Lin asked that we “be careful with our critiques to understand that none of this work is done frivolously.” That’s fair, I don’t think I was suggesting anything was frivolous. If anything, I was suggesting an overly mechanical application of a rule.

This stuff is tough because much of it comes down to taste, but taste is really, really important in worship. I wouldn’t describe the altered lyrics to the Doxology as jarring (I just checked to make sure I didn’t), but I would put myself on the fence as to whether this is one we should maybe pass on rather than re-write. But it doesn’t surprise me at all that others loved this words.

It’s also the hornets nest you get into when you’re allowed to do whatever you’re moved to do in worship.

I can lend you my perspective, Shadowfax. (there are many) Especially because the Judeo-Christian view of God is relational, anthropomorphous images are handy tools for articulating the relationship.

I see no harm in masculine imagery for God. (There’s a subtle difference between masculine imagery and male imagery, but that may be another discussion.)

The harm occurs when masculine imagery is the only imagery used. For me the best solution is not supplanting gender-neutral images for gender-specific ones (stripping God of gender-likenesses), but to use language that is inclusive of all three.

It is always harder for us to recognize prejudice from the dominant position. As a girl growing up before the feminist movement which created that “straining at a gnat” intentionality about language, I was acutely aware of the subliminal message in church and elsewhere that males matter way more in terms of power and authority than females do.

As a pastor I will work hard at offering both masculine and feminine images in worship, in prayers, in sermon, in scripture (yes, I sometimes change the words). I want our boys and our girls to experience an inclusive God. The practice is theologically sound. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NRSV) I have long understood God to have both masculine and feminine qualities that we reflect.

An interesting exercise, to learn whether or not we are sending subliminal messages of gender bias is this — simply change every occurance of a male pronoun to a female pronoun and read your text aloud again. The degree of the reader’s discomfort, I believe, will reveal the degree of subliminal message. The real danger of male-dominant language lies in the fact that we are conditioned by its frequent use not to hear it.

For instance, “So God created humankind in her image, in the image of God she created them; male and female she created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NRSV, modified)

There’s a great book by Brian Wren, who has written texts for many contemporary hymns: “What Language Shall I Borrow?” subtitled “God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology.” Great book, if you’re interested.

Listen closely to President Obama. One of the things that thrills me about him is his inclusivity, noticeably his gender inclusivity. He demonstrates that if the attitude is genuinely inclusive, the language flows congruently.

Jim, I'm thinking my comments must have come across as countering your comments — not as I intended. In fact I read your commentary as reflecting openly & honestly, & generally affirming regarding a complex subject. Jarring is simply my opposite-of-soothing adjective. Your post opened up a topic I love a lot & also opened a space for me to make those statements.

I appreciate and respect your sensitivity to why our language matters — to both males and females. I wrote a lengthy tryste while you were writing your response, so we cross over a bit.

I like that you said taste is really, really important in worship. I so agree. And of course, we have varying tastes, so there we go again. Not changing things is a relatively safe way to avoid offending at least the people who regularly attend — supposing they wouldn’t have returned if they didn’t like what we did last week, etc.

I didn’t quite understand your closing comment: It’s also the hornets nest you get into when you’re allowed to do whatever you’re moved to do in worship. Can you clarify?

Just pulled my UU hymnal from the shelf. Here’s a Brian Wren text that a Unitarian Universalist composer set to music:

Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known, Gloria!

Beautifully moving, ceaselessly forming,
growing, emerging with awesome delight,
Maker of Rainbows, glowing with color,
arching in wonder,
energy flowing in darkness and light:

Name unnamed…

Spinner of chaos, pulling and twisting,
freeing the fibers of pattern and form,
Weaver of Stories, famed or unspoken,
tangled or broken,
shaping a tapestry vivid and warm:

Name unnamed…

Nudging Discomfort, prodding and shaking,
waking our lives to creative unease,
Straight-talking Lover, checking and humbling
jargon and grumbling,
speaking the truth that refreshes and frees:
(was that last line written for us?)

Name unnamed…

Midwife of Changes, skillfully guiding,
drawing us out through the shock of the new,
Woman of Wisdom, deeply perceiving,
never deceiving,
freeing and leading in all that we do:

Name unnamed…

Daredevil Gambler, risking and loving,
giving us freedom to shatter your dreams,
Lifegiving Loser, wounded and weeping,
dancing and leaping,
sharing the caring that heals and redeems.

Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known, Gloria!

(Words: Brian Wren, 1936-, Copyright 1989 Hope Publishing Co.; Music: W. Frederick Wooden, 1953- , Copyright 1992 Unitarian Universalist Association; from “Singing the Living Tradition,” Beacon Press:Boston, 1993, #31.)

First, I clarified for Lin via email, but my hornets next comment was just a reflection on the fact that freedom is a double edged sword. When you are without a dictated liturgy to follow on Sunday morning, you have the hard work of figuring out exactly what to do.

Second, I love the UU hymn for two reasons. One, I actually dig the message it sends. But two, it is such a UU hymn.

Well I have a few comments–sorry to come in late on this, I’ve been out of town.

First a disclaimer: I am *all for* including female imagery when invoking God. Our girls should not be given the constant, hammering message that the image if God is male (and a penis the obvious and inescapable part of that) and we are made in His image, then our girls are a deviation from the divine. Screw that.

The problem with my saying that is about nine-fold. First of all, I am not Christian, so it’s perhaps a tad unfair of me to go about advocating the wholesale change in the imagery of a massive religion. Second, and Jim I think this is important, the guys (males) who wrote this, and whose vision somehow lasted until the year 2009, not only intended to make God a male, but they presumed it with all of their beings, and would object mightily to its change. This is very much the case where our secular morals are imposing a change on Christianity and not the other way around (to harken back to a much earlier conversation).

Imagine for a minute what Peter (and I choose him for a variety of reasons) would say if you asked him to be gender neutral in his descriptions of his God. If he didn’t think you were kidding he’d be completely dismissive, in fact he’d think you were a crazy person. We have the dilemma of believing we know God better than Peter, and that’s an odd notion, is it not? If the world-view of the founders of your religion couldn’t even get their minds around the very ideas that are fundamental to your faith, how disconnected are you from their religion? You and Peter may both be Christians, but you’re not of the same religion.

“You and Peter may both be Christians, but you’re not of the same religion.”

That is true. Peter was Jewish and I am not. And besides being a fun non-concession, there is a bigger point. You claim that forbidding an exclusively masculine understanding of God is “This is very much the case where our secular morals are imposing a change on Christianity and not the other way around.”

I caution you about such certainty. There is a tendancy to think that today’s orthodoxy has been around forever. The notion that God is male, is a direct afront to the Hebrew prohibitions on idolatry. Remember, this is a people that would not even use God’s name. This is a people that represented God in the holiest of holies with empty space. This is a people who used a gender neutral pronoun to describe God because to assign gender to God would be a sin.

Is there an idea of Father God in Hebrew Scripture? Sure. There is also an idea of Sophia, female incarnation of God as Wisdom. There is also the exquisitely non-gender God of the first Creation Story.

If you asked Peter about God’s gender he would have called you a heretic, but for asking the question, not because he would have thought he knew the answer.

the guys (males) who wrote this… not only intended to make God a male, but they presumed it with all of their beings, and would object mightily to its change.

I don’t think we can know that, though many contemporary Christians are that protective of the idea of God as male. God as male is not the religion. (That is idolatry, as Jim pointed out — and the Judeo-Christian tradition is quite opposed to idolatry — one of the big 10.)

The faith system that became Christianity emerged in a social context that was patriarchal. Therefore, the language in which it was codified was male-dominant. The mistake some contemporary Christians make is interpreting the male-dominant language as being about God rather than about the common language of the day in which it was written. The authors of our canon wrote for their day, not ours.

All religions are born in social cultures (contexts) and are sustained within social cultures. It isn’t only Christianity that has taken on nuances from the particular cultures. Consider the various sects of Islam.

Yes, Christianity in the US in 2009 bears some nuances that reflect our particular event or era within history. It is right and proper and to be expected. I just pray that my grandchildren will look at the tracks we’re making and find them to be life-affirming and moving their generation toward wholeness. That is why inclusive language is worth all the effort.

The notion that God is male, is a direct afront to the Hebrew prohibitions on idolatry.

Yes! You said it well.

That’s interesting. I am hesitant to make such a connection because I have never been Catholic, and I know that Catholics would find the notion of Mary as Goddess pretty offensive. Of course, perhaps that is because sometimes she fills exactly that role.

My father-in-law thinks the that the masculine war god YHWH ultimately won out over the feminine goddesses like El in the pre-radical monotheism of Israel. And that the evil sorceress cults mentioned in the Hebrew scripture are really just an example of the winners writing history. That’s way above my paygrade, but I mention it because to acknowledge that maybe cramming masculine imagery down the throats of female adherents will naturally result in raising up of goddesses in response.

Of course, this stuff turns into Clan of the Cave Bear/Divinci Code pretty easily too.

Josh, I love your question. My seminary training was at a protestant school, so I must confess utter lack of information about a contemporary Catholic response to the question. So if I err ignorantly, forgive me.

In that seminary setting as we delved into the history of Christianity, we happened upon your question exactly. In Europe, by the end of the 12th century images of Mary in religious art were frequent. And by that time, sermons and other patterns of devotion, previously focused on the religious and the wealthy, now were addressed to the common laity. Mary’s popularity as a gracious lady and mother grew among the laity. The Virgin’s miracles were especially important in Catholic culture during the Reformation.

Latin American culture of the mid-1800’s gave rise to Mary’s popularity. Pope Pius IX, resisting the wave of liberalism in Latin America, encouraged “enthusiasm for the Virgin’s miracles.” (p. 430) In faith practice, the intercessions of wives and mothers was important for salvation, and among the saints that emerged, many were women. A popular cult of Mary developed. “Indeed, in Latin American Catholicism, the Virgin’s importance was such that she came, always unofficially, to be seen as a member of a quaternity that challenged the Trinity stipulated by orthodox theology.” (p. 431) (“The Feminine Principal in Catholicism,” The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity , ed. John McManners, Oxford University Press 1990.)

So if the question is about orthodoxy, the answer is no. Is she equal to God, as a female God — perhaps to some in personal practice, but secretly. Is she important? Absolutely. Is she a counterweight equal to a male God? No. Do I think her presence in worship has been salvific for women of all faiths? Yes.

Complex. Great question.

Lin, I am glad that you enjoyed the question about Mary, and I appreciate your response. My thoughts are similar to yours. My background also is Protestant, and I’m projecting, but I would think that while Mary is not given as much weight as God the Father, she is a powerful symbol of a woman of importance, authority and value.

But you are right, it is complex. At the same time that Catholicism provides perhaps the most important valuing of a feminine figure in Christianity, the Catholic Church also refuses to ordain women as priests.

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