Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Raising Ebenezer

Gary Parret, associate professor of educational ministries and worship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has an article over at Christianity Today bemoaning the changing of hymns for the sake of making them understandable for the vast majority of church goers. Read the article here. Parret adds an interesting voice to the debate and forces those of us who do "update" language in hymns to give an account.

Using the hymn "Come Thou Fount" as an example Parret writes, "I seize every opportunity to publicly lament modern revisions of that beloved hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," written by Robert Robinson in 1758. The revisions all seem to agree on deleting "Ebenezer" from the hymn's second verse, which begins, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer." Some of the "improvements" offered through the years include: "Hitherto thy love has blest me," "Here by grace your love has brought me," and "Here I raise to thee an altar."

Parret makes three points about changing the wording of hymns.

1. He protests first on artistic grounds. The hymn writer knew what he/she wanted to write who are we to change it.

2. Second, the revisions are, at best, inconsistent attempts to be culturally relevant. He suggests that the revisions are done haphazardly and inconsistently.

3. Third, he protests on biblical grounds. By changing a word like "ebenezer" we are robbing people of biblical literacy.

Let me react in turn.

1. As to the protest on artistic grounds I would suggest that the hymn writer's intent was not to once and forever have an indelible hymn. I would think the hymn writer's intent was to help people experience God. If that means changing a word or two to make in more understandable for persons and thus help them to be transformed by the grace of God I think they could probably give a rat's you know what. We will have to ask them in the "sweet bye and bye" (notice I didn't change the words of that wonderful hymn)- translation- we will have to ask them in heaven.

2. As to inconsistency I do not think an argument that generalizes like this has much power. Has a study been done that shows churches that change words have done so inconsistently?

3. Professor Parret's third protest is kind of funny. I am sorry. But I am willing to bet in the churches that have sung "Come Thou Fount" over the last twenty years and among the parishioners that have sung the hymn, that I can count with all nine of my toes the number that know what in the world ebenezer means (even among people who have been in the church all their life). I am sure they ran home and got their concordance. Now I think an argument can be made that the worship leader might explain what it means for persons and therefore bring more meaning out of the hymn. I must confess that I went to seminary for three years, took two Old Testament courses and until a couple of years ago had no idea what was meant by "I raise my ebenezer." Then again, I didn't go to Gordon-Conwell.

1 comment:

kroppcircles said...

Lately at New Season we have been using the old anonymous hymn "I Have Decided". I arranged it in a bluegrass style, tweaked the lyrics to verse 3, and wrote a new verse 4. This is a song that is definitely blessing our church.

From a songwriter's point of view...I feel confident in saying that if Robert Robinson were still alive today he would be absolutely flattered that the church is still using "Come Thou Fount" in worship.

Changing arrangements and tweaking lyrics is a way of keeping old hymns alive...almost essential to make them relevent to today's culture.