A couple of years ago I started what I thought would be a nice devotional moment for the week. Like many of my ideas for this blog, when the new wore off, my imagination ran out. I think the difficulty with the original “Weekly Hymnsing” series is that I wanted to just pick my favorite hymns and blast you with what a wonder they were to me. I may still do this kind of thing from time to time, but will not label it “weekly” nor will it be part of this series. Now, I have a little more direction for this article (which I hope to present on Mondays if I can keep my discipline up).  I’ll start with a bit of background, suggest my premise and in my next post begin the actual “singing.”

Background

My Blushing Bride shared a conversation she had recently. A young Christian woman who happened to be working with my Bride for a time said that she knew she should be in church, but that the hymns didn’t hold any meaning for her. She wished that someone would write a book of definitions to help her understand what the hymns were saying. Note that she was not necessarily interested in changing the songs sung in worship (which is what we church people often think is the answer when someone doesn’t understand) but asking for help in knowing what these great hymns of faith that she knew held great meaning meant. (It’s okay to read that sentence two or three times to see if I said what I meant to say–because I did.)

One solution that some worship leaders are latching onto today is to change some of the archaic language so that it speaks to the hearts of modern worshipers. I don’t have a big issue with this, because we do much the same thing when we translate a hymn from one language to another so that it can be sung in a praiser’s native tongue. I do think sometimes though that the changing of the language weakens what is being said (and sometimes we can strengthen a lyric by adjusting a word).

Let me illustrate both sides to that coin: With a mind to “modernizing” an old hymn some have changed the following lyric from Fanny J. Crosby’s hymn “To God Be the Glory” (find it in verse three) — “But purer and higher and greater will be/Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.” Some modern hymnals (not all) have opted to exchange the word “transport”  for the contraction “vict’ry” (I’ve seen this mostly in Baptist Hymnology). While this change may seem insignificant and address some of the concerns that some hymnological theologian might dream up, the depth of what Crosby said in that one word, transport, is missed.

At other times, I find myself changing words that speak more to me than the author’s original. For example, I like to listen to or to sing “God of Wonders” written by Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong. It is a song that draws our attention to the greatness of our God. However, when I reach the chorus instead of the written “God of wonders beyond our galaxy” I sing, “God of wonders beyond all galaxies.” I don’t think that I’m misinterpreting the authors’ original intent here, but adding a vastness that they would perhaps agree with.

Action Plan

So what do I propose? I will start with my favorite hymnal–that is the Baptist Hymnal 1956 edition–and work through the text of the hymns there. These will necessarily be older hymns because the book is older than I am. (And I’m pushing half a century.) In doing this I want to try to find the Scriptural basis for the hymn, dissect the language to shine a little light on some of the more archaic terminology. I’ll also try to include a variety of hymnals which include the week’s choice. And when appropriate, I’ll try to include a little history of the hymn and maybe even include a devotional thought.
Recently and older minister (now retired) shared with me his view of hymns. In preface, he remarked that he was not complaining, and then he proceeded to do just that. His statement was that the older hymns always included the Gospel message. I don’t want to disagree with that statement outright, but I believe that our study to follow will help us get to that point–namely, do all the hymns include the Gospel or is it just a perception by those who have determined that the praise songs and choruses of the 1980s and ’90s are worthless. This won’t be our focus, but it will be interesting to see if this assumption is good or not.

With all of this in mind, join me each Monday as we learn more about what the ancient hymn writers were saying. Keep in mind that my background is in theology, literature and history (with my comfort being in the order I’ve listed these areas) and not necessarily hymnody, so if I don’t understand why a hymn would be included/excluded from a particular edition of a hymnal, then you can trust that it’s because I’m probably talking out of school on this one.

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