Darkness isn’t evil: editing hymn texts

Oct 28, 2019 by , and

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The words we sing in worship carry tremendous power to form our theological imaginations. The poetry we sing can become ingrained in our memories in ways that sermons and readings cannot. Songs learned in childhood remain with us throughout our lives.

What language do we hope will form the generations that will grow up using Voices Together, the hymnal coming in 2020 from MennoMedia? We strive to balance the needs of today’s church with the repository of congregational song handed down for hundreds of years.

Every hymnal committee wrestles with changes in language and theology. The Voices Together committee has invested considerable energy and time into these issues.

For every song in Voices Together, the committee has discussed text, tune and accompaniment and considered possible changes. Subcommittees determine whether such changes are available already in other denominational hymnals, or they propose new options.

Sometimes copyright status prevents changes. If the authors are still living, we attempt to contact them to discuss possible alterations.

One ‘correct’ version?

Older texts present additional issues to consider. Many hymns in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal and 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book were changed from their original form.

Older texts first written in non-English languages have often been published in multiple translations over decades or centuries. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Be Thou My Vision” are two of these.

Many texts written in English prior to the 20th century have multiple variations in early published sources.

Songs from oral traditions are difficult to pin down on paper. African-American spirituals and European folk tunes can often be found in multiple variations. “O Waly Waly” (“When Love Is Found” in Hymnal: A Worship Book) is an example of a tune with multiple “correct” versions.

For each historical text, we examine the earliest available publications to determine whether they might inform changes. We consider literal meanings of the original languages to assess the quality of our received translations. We balance the idea of “the original” with the way our received versions have become known in our congregations.

Father or Creator?

“This Is My Father’s World” is an example of many of these issues. The first publication of this poem included 16 stanzas, and Franklin L. Sheppard combined six of them into the three verses often published in hymnals. The Voices Together sampler, published in the summer issue of MennoMedia’s Leader magazine, includes several lines from a stanza that wasn’t in the Hymnal: A Worship Book version: “a wanderer I may roam / what­e’er my lot, it matters not, / my heart is always home.”

We also used a text change already published in other hymnals — “This Is God’s Wondrous World” — because this text is not primarily about God as father but as creator. By contrast, “Children of the Heavenly Father” weaves the father meta­phor throughout its text.

The committee’s goal is for Voices Together to include a variety of images for God, both familiar and fresh.

Darkness isn’t evil

Gendered language for God and humans is one of the most visible and formative aspects of language, but it is not the only issue the committee considers. We also recognize that the language we use related to darkness has the power to shape our imaginations.

“Darkness” has overwhelmingly been associated with sin, suffering and evil, which extrapolates too easily to the way race has traditionally been discussed.

Likewise, if terms like “blind” and “lame” are only ever presented as maladies to be healed, we are not singing the lived experiences of many people in our communities.

We have worked to receive counsel from a variety of people who may be affected by or who will see themselves in the language we employ around race, gender, ability and more.

The poetry and theology of the material guides our choices. It is generally not enough simply to substitute one word for another. The flow of the phrase must be taken into account. Our goal is that a person encountering the text for the first time would not recognize what has been altered.

There will be changes to some texts in Voices Together that may seem startling at first, but there will also be many songs with subtle changes that may go unnoticed. And some will appear exactly as in Hymnal: A Worship Book, even when there might have been compelling reasons to make a change.

We hope that as worshipers adjust to the new collection, they will receive our work with grace and curiosity as they find new ways to worship a God who is beyond all our words.

Katie Graber is an ethnomusicologist who studies race and ethnicity in a variety of contexts, including Mennonite music, American music and European opera. She leads singing at her church in Columbus, Ohio, and chairs the intercultural worship committee for the Voices Together project.

Adam Tice is text editor for Voices Together. His hymn texts appear in numerous recently published hymnals. He lives in Goshen, Ind., and attends Faith Mennonite Church.


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