Thursday, June 21, 2018

Revamping the Mormon Hymnbook -- My Feedback

As you've probably heard if you're on social media and Mormon, the LDS Church has announced that they're revising their hymnbook and children's songbook. They're even asking for feedback from members via an online survey! So naturally I wanted to think through what I'm going to say, and what better way to do that than by blogging about it?

The four most interesting questions to me are (1) what are your favorite songs? (i.e., which ones should they be sure to keep); (2) what new songs should be added?; (3) what songs "might be candidates to drop from a new hymnbook or songbook?" (how diplomatic!); and (4) other general feedback about hymns and songs. Here's what I want to say in each category (space permitting):

Favorite Hymns

In no particular order, these are the ones I came up with:
  • Be Still My Soul - just gorgeous, reassuring music.
  • O Say What is Truth - in the Age of Trump, we need this one more than ever [1]. Plus the lyrics are just poetic.
  • There is a Green Hill Far Away - the best sacrament hymn, by far.
  • O My Father - lovely tune, and important as the first published mention of the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother.
  • Lead Kindly Light - beautiful imagery/message, and one of the best tunes in the hymnbook.
  • Nearer My God To Thee - stunning evocation of Jacob's Ladder and the ascension--and exaltation--of mankind that it represents.
  • How Great Thou Art - nature is awesome, powerful, majestic, and overpowering. This captures that.
  • A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief - perhaps the most Christlike of hymns, embodying Jesus' timeless doctrine that if you've done it unto the "least" of all people, you've done it to Him.
  • Abide With Me - we need a reminder of the solidness of God in a world where too much often feels malleable, fluid, and impermanent.
  • Abide With Me Tis Eventide - probably the best use of night-time/dusk as gospel symbol in the whole hymnbook.
  • How Firm a Foundation - exuberant and bold, a true classic.
  • All Creatures of Our God and King - nature is also a quiet, simple, omnipresent gift. This captures that.
  • Rock of Ages - I love the old-timey poetry sound of these lyrics (e.g., "Let the water and the blood, / From thy wounded side which flowed, / Be of sin the double cure, / Save from wrath and make me pure."), as well as the emphasis on grace (see: all of the second verse).
  • More Holiness Give Me - I love the humility in this hymn, as well as the desire to become free of "earth-stains."
  • Jesus the Very Thought of Thee - this is the oldest hymn in our hymnbook that I'm aware of--the author, Bernard of Clairvaux, lived about 100 years before St. Francis of Assisi, who (sort of) authored All Creatures of Our God and King--so you know it's stood the test of time. And the lyrics, which perfectly describe the deep friendship with Jesus we're all seeking after, show why.
  • The Lord is My Shepherd - love the harmonies, love the message.
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic - I'm generally not a big fan of militaristic hymns (more on that below), but this one uses military imagery pretty minimally, actually, and in a particularly metaphorical way (God is the one with the sword and trumpet). Add to that the amazing third verse (Christ born among the lilies, let us live to make men free!, etc.), the perfect tune, the fact that it's one of the few hymns written by a woman, and the inspiring history of this being an anthem in the fight against slavery in this country, and I'm more than happy to fight to keep this one in.
  • Ring Out, Wild Bells - I know this one isn't particularly popular, but in my opinion it has a lot going for it: it's our only real New Year's hymn (I might argue that Come, Let Us Anew can sorta be used in that context, but it's a bit of a stretch), the tune is beautiful (especially that very final note key change! chills!), it was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (when you have a comma in your name, plus a title in the middle of it, you know you're cool [2]) and has a wonderful, liminal message. What's not to love?
  • I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - a song that ends on an optimistic note that it earns by seriously acknowledging the despair and evil that exists in the world.
  • Ye Elders of Israel - I probably love the tune of this one more than the lyrics, though that chorus is lots of fun. It's a good missionary hymn too.
  • High on the Mountain Top - a truly Mormon hymn with a zeal for Zion, and a perfectly peculiar reference to temple work for the dead in the last line. I also randomly love the unfurled/world rhyme.
  • Redeemer of Israel - another prototypical Mormon hymn that I can't imagine not having in our hymnbook.
  • Come, Come Ye Saints - the most Mormon of Mormon hymns. I don't even need to include this in the survey because there's literally no way it could be taken out (but I probably still will anyway).
  • If You Could Hie to Kolob - the most insider-Mormon of Mormon hymns, this one really celebrates our most creative, unique theology. Endless worlds, endless Gods, endless space, the name of the planet/star [3] that (our) God lives on--it's all there! And those last two and a half verses! Talk about gutsy with the "there is no end to" repetitions!
  • Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy - powerful imagery that teaches us to reach out to our storm-tossed, struggling siblings in love, reflecting the light of God to them.
  • Far, Far Away on Judea's Plain - this one is not really a true "favorite" of mine, but it should be kept as the only Mormon Christmas song semi-well known outside the church.
I know, that's too many to call them all "favorites," but believe me, I restrained myself from including a number that I just "really like"! :)

Hymns to Add

Unfortunately I don't know a lot of non-Mormon hymns, but here's what I came up with, including after a search for traditionally black church hymns:
The reason I have a question mark on Lift Every Voice and Sing is because of its particular significance to African-Americans--known as the Black National Anthem [4], it would feel weird for mostly white congregations to sing it without any knowledge of that history or context (especially because we'd mangle it like we do with all hymns we haven't heard a million times). But then again, for wards with a significant black population (or for special musical numbers, or on occasions like Juneteenth where the song's history could be taught before singing it), it would be great for the option to be there. So I’m torn. Maybe include it but with a usage note along these lines? I dunno. Any thoughts?

I also considered recommending Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Thoughts are Free) in place of Know This, That Every Soul is Free for our go-to free agency song, but I figured it was a bit too out there for the church to accept, sadly. But give it a listen, I love it!:

Hymns to Remove

Ah, where the real fun is! 😂 I actually don't have that many suggestions here. I mean, I could go through and list the ~75 or so hymns that I don't think I've ever sung when we do I realize why, but I'm more indifferent to those than anti. So I'm limiting myself to at least semi-popular songs.
  • Who's on the Lord's Side? - this is a stupid song, and it sounds like a drinking song.
  • With Wondering Awe - I hate the tune of this one, and the phrase "wondrous little stranger" just sounds weird.
  • Carry On - as I've blogged before, the chorus sounds like it was written by vultures. It's also very Utah-centric ("Firm as the mountains around us" and "we hear the desert singing" sound weird when sung in Kansas or Estonia).
  • Follow the Prophet - way too cult-y. [See also below for edits to make if it's kept in]
  • A bunch of the militaristic hymns:
    • Hope of Israel - this is probably the worst offender in the "militaristic" category. That third verse!: "Strike for Zion, down with error; / Flash the sword above the foe! / Ev'ry stroke disarms a foeman; / Ev'ry step we conq'ring go." Being in error is worthy of death; dismembering opponents with a single blow; the colonialist overtones of the "conq'ring" line--it's all here! And don't forget, when the fourth verse says "Ev'ry foe of truth [will] be down," they're talking about dead bodies littering the battlefield. Disgusting. Needs to go.
    • Behold! A Royal Army - this one also really gets into the army-fetish game. That "Victory, victory" chorus is creepy, in part due to the low, machismo basso profundo it starts with, and in part due to the marriage of Jesus with the military imagery. As one prophet said, "If God's on our side, he'll stop the next war."
    • Who’s on the Lord’s Side? - I know I mentioned it above, but it should be removed for this reason too. It's really my least favorite hymn.
    • O Thou Rock of Our Salvation - the only good thing to say about this war-song is that its descriptions of battles and fighting and contending are all pretty much abstract cliches, so at least it's not exulting in lopping off people's arms. That abstractness also makes it boring--another reason it should go.
    • Onward, Christian Soldiers - this one does have the silver lining of at least employing imagery of the cross in a positive manner, but it's not enough to redeem the war imagery.
    • We Are All Enlisted - another positive reference to the cross, but a really, really creepy picture of war and army service as super-sunny-happy-shiny-joy-joy. *shudder*
    • Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion - at least this one is never sung (to my knowledge).
    • [probably some more I'm forgetting and/or unaware of--feel free to chime in with them]
And yep, I did not include In Our Lovely Deseret in the removal list:I actually kinda like it! It's a fun lilt, and has such cute, naive Mormon wording :) But I feel pretty sure that it will be the most-requested song to drop, so I'm resigned to not having it in the next hymnbook. Oh well.

Other Feedback

I have two subcategories here: edits to make to specific songs, and other miscellaneous things I'd like to see.

Edits to Make

  • Follow the Prophet - as noted above, it should probably just be taken out of the children's songbook. But if it isn't, at least the words should be softened so it's not so cult-y: maybe something like "Listen to the Prophet" for the chorus? Also, I'm not a fan of the lines "Now we have a world where people are confused. / If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news"; it enforces an us/them paradigm that implies we have truth and no one else does. Maybe change that to something like "Living in this world, we sometimes feel we're lost / But Jesus reaches out to all the tempest-tossed"? I dunno, that was my first draft, I'm sure someone can come up with something better.
    • And while I'm at it, change the chorus in the Jonah verse to "Swallow the prophet" -- kids deserve some fun! :)
  • The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close - remove Native American language ("Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band"); it's just weird. (Though at least the LDS hymnbooks have been getting better about this issue! [5])
  • Faith of our Fathers - alternate in "faith of our mothers" every other verse/chorus. And if you're feeling really gender-equality-y, change the title to Faith of Our Parents.
  • If You Could Hie to Kolob - Change "There is no end to race" -> "There is no end to grace." I think (though I guess I don't know) that "race" here is meant in the now-somewhat-archaic sense of "the human race," but the meanings of words change, and especially given our troubled past (and present) regarding race, it just makes sense to change this. Plus, this change has the added benefit of continuing to rehabilitate the theological concept of grace, which--surprise!--we really do believe in, despite what too many members may tell you.
  • Have I Done Any Good? - change "Love's labor has merit alone" back to “The world has no use for a drone." This is a bit tricky because the original couplet--"Only he who does something is worthy to live / The world has no use for a drone" [6]--comes across as really harsh, saying that lazy/apathetic people don't deserve to live (!). That first line can certainly stay out, then, but I think the "drone" line is more colorful and evocative than what's in there now.
  • Choose the Right - take out the line “there’s the right and the wrong to ev'ry question” - way too binary in a messy world. Maybe change it to something like "Seek the right when presented with a question"? I feel like that better conveys (or at least implies) that it can be a challenge to actually discern the "right" in many situations and requires seeking out, rather than the current black/white implication.
  • Rock of Ages - in addition to keeping it (see above), I wouldn't mind seeing the original third verse added back in: "Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to Thy cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress; / Helpless, look to Thee for grace; / Foul, I to the fountain fly; / Wash me, Saviour, or I die!" [7]
Honorable mention:
  • I would titter if they changed the last line of the first verse of How Firm a Foundation from "Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?" to the original "To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?," resulting in the multiply-repeated "to yoo-hoo for refuge" (which is why they changed it in the first place). 

Miscellaneous

General thoughts/requests:
  • In general, be as gender inclusive as possible throughout the hymnbook.
    • See, e.g., my above recommendation about editing Faith of Our Fathers.
    • And in general, trying to take out instances of "man" or "men" when "person" or "people" is meant would be great.
    • Relatedly, wherever possible change "Heavenly Father" (or similar) to "Heavenly Parents."
  • Include foreign-language hymns translated into English.
    • Unfortunately, I'm not actually familiar with any hymns that fit this category (that I can think of, at least), but if you know of good examples please leave them in the comments!
  • Use more tunes from the great classical composers.
    • Joy to World's tune is by Handel, O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown's is adapted by Bach, O God, The Eternal Father's is by Mendelssohn, Be Still My Soul's is by Sibelius, and apparently we have songs in the French and Portuguese hymnbooks with music by Mozart and Beethoven, respectively. More of that kind of thing, please.
    • Also requested: a note somewhere in the hymnbook that classical pieces are perfectly appropriate for prelude and postlude music, as well as special musical numbers.
  • Use more folk tunes--and not just ones from Great Britain/Western Europe.
    • Use "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" (Johann Schop/Bach) as a tune (or even add it as a full hymn with these lyrics: https://hymnary.org/text/jesu_joy_of_mans_desiring).
      • Include more diverse hymns (in relation to nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. of author/composer).
        • Accept more new hymn submissions that talk about Heavenly Mother!
        Phew, that was a lot! Sorry. I apparently have a lot of thoughts about this. [8] What about you? Have you responded to the survey, or will you? If so (or even if not, really), what did/will/would you say? Are any of my suggestions completely off the mark? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Unless you're going to argue to keep Who's on the Lord's Side?--you people can gtfo.

        ---------------

        [1] See Jeff Flake speech on the Senate floor, Jan. 17, 2018 (beginning at 2 min. 31 sec. into this video); or this article by Herb Scribner, "Flake praises truth, quotes LDS hymn in speech criticizing Trump," Deseret News, Jan. 17, 2018.

        [2] See this page for an explanation for the unusual name. The system of peerages (I think that's what it's called?) will never make sense to me.

        [3] Yep, it's unclear from the Book of Abraham whether Kolob is a star or a planet. From Wikipedia:

        The Book of Abraham is unclear about Kolob being a star or a planet, and Mormon writings have taken positions on either side of this issue. One part of the Book of Abraham states that Abraham "saw the stars ... and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; ... and the name of the great one is Kolob." Thus, Kolob is referred to as a "star". However, the book defines the word "Kokaubeam" (a transliteration of the Hebrew "כּוֹכָבִים" [c.f., Gen. 15:5]) as meaning "all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven". This would appear to include planets as among the "stars", and the Book of Abraham refers to Earth as a star. In addition, the Book of Abraham text appears to classify Kolob as among a hierarchy of "planets". On the other hand, in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar paper, Kolob is classified as one of twelve "fixed stars", in distinction with fifteen "moving planets". The term "fixed stars" generally refers to the background of celestial objects that do not appear to move relative to each other in the night sky, generally including all stars other than the sun, nebulae and other star-like objects. Though "fixed", such objects were proven to have proper motion by Edmund Halley in 1718. Apparently referring to proper motion, Smith said that Kolob moves "swifter than the rest of the twelve fixed stars". Also, the Book of Abraham refers to "fixed planets", thereby including planets in the set of celestial objects that may be "fixed". He also refers to the sun as a "governing planet", which further complicates the terminology. So, from the variety of terminology Smith used in referencing Kolob and other astronomical objects, it is unclear whether he understood Kolob to be a planet or a star.
        I don't think it really matters, of course, but I definitely find it interesting. Though if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd say it's a planet just because they're a lot more habitable (and even stand-on-able) than stars, but hey, what do I know about celestial physics.

        [4] Though the church has said that "national anthems will not be included in the printed hymnbooks," so maybe that disqualifies this one? I hope not! :)

        [5] Douglas Campbell, Dialogue 28:3 at 70–71, Changes in LDS Hymns: Implications and Opportunities; P. Jane Hafen, Dialogue 18:4, “Great Spirit Listen”: The American Indian in Mormon Music.

        [6] Catherine Reese Newton, The Salt Lake Tribune, "Sing, sing, ye Saints — Mormon hymnbook marks 30 years of praising God in song," Oct. 2, 2015, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2961783&itype=CMSID

        [7] Fun tangent: the author of this hymn wrote the original version of it while he took shelter in a rock cleft during a bad storm, and we're pretty sure where the exact cleft was! From Wikipedia: "Traditionally, it is held that Toplady drew his inspiration from an incident in the gorge of Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills in England. Toplady, a preacher in the nearby village of Blagdon, was travelling along the gorge when he was caught in a storm. Finding shelter in a gap in the gorge, he was struck by the title and scribbled down the initial lyrics. The fissure that is believed to have sheltered Toplady (51.3254°N 2.7532°W) is now marked as the 'Rock of Ages', both on the rock itself and on some maps."
        The actual Rock of Ages! (probably) Source: Wikipedia
        [8] The blog Wheat & Tares also had two posts about this back in 2015: Hated Hymns and Hymns to Add? So if you want still more thoughts on this topic, feel free to peruse those posts+comments.

        3 comments:

        1. wow...you have been very busy abd thoughtful. I was shocked you wanted to keep Wild Bells---one of my favorites.

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        2. wow...you have been very busy abd thoughtful. I was shocked you wanted to keep Wild Bells---one of my favorites.

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        3. I get the concerns with the militarism of the battle hymns, but I actually really love most of them. "Hark All Ye Nations" is one of my favorites, as is "True to the Faith". And I actually like "Carry On" though I agree it's pretty Utah-centric. I feel like with the battle hymns it's the one chance we get to sing faster - anything with a tempo that's not a funeral march is a good thing! Thanks for sharing your detailed thoughts. I nominate you for the committee! :)

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