This essay begins with a rant against the clumsy, tin-eared redaction of beloved hymns. But I also want to ask, Why does this matter? And because our ministry is to children, what does it say about how we tell our story to children?
I’m an English major and a choral singer, so let’s get to the strictly aesthetic questions first.
“For All the Saints,” written in 1864 by Bishop William Walsham How, praises Christ for all those who have gone before us, confessing his name, and who now rest from their labors. Its second stanza sets the frame for the entire rest of this long hymn: the saints who are now at rest have served honorably in a long and fearsome battle against evil, in which Christ himself was their champion and protector.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light,
The stirring tune, “Sine Nomine” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was written for Bishop How’s words. Vaughan Williams was a consummate hymn-tune writer, and his tune is tailored to this stanza above all others, and particularly to the crucial second line of the stanza. In melody as in words, that second line lingers lovingly on “Thou, Lord,” then picks up forward momentum to end with a robustly punctuated cadence—the vigorously percussive words, “well-fought fight” set to three falling blows down to the dominant tonality.
Here’s what one committee of hymn revisers has done with this stanza:
You were their rock, their refuge, and their might:
You, Christ, the hope that put their fears to flight;
’Mid gloom and doubt, you were their one true light.
Never mind that “You, Christ” is a hopelessly inadequate substitute for the lilting, euphonious syllables “Thou, Lord”—that the mere replacement of those two words eliminates layers of scriptural allusion and emotional nuance conveying tenderness, loyalty and trust, and replaces them with a synthetically manufactured phrase that echoes no prayer or scripture and whose phonetics fight against the meter and the music. Never mind that “Christ” was obviously stuck in solely to avoid the use of “Lord,” a word that conveys primarily a relationship of leader to loyal follower but must have been too masculine (or, worse yet, too hierarchical) to suit the censors. Never mind that the intense, prayerful repetition of “thou” at the beginning of each line is casually tossed overboard, or that a mere shadow of the percussive consonants of “well-fought fight” survives incongruously in the phrase “put their fears to flight,” no longer perfectly matched to the music. Never mind all that. Just look at the effects of the censoring of the martial imagery.
The fortress becomes a refuge (a place in which you hide but from which you don’t fight back). The captain in the fight becomes “the hope that put their fears to flight;” the darkness drear becomes gloom and doubt. Most importantly, the beloved, trustworthy captain, by our side, leading us on, wiser and stronger and braver than we are, has vanished into thin air, replaced by a mere idea, a mere “hope.” The promise of victory is withered down into the hope of just not giving up hope; the faithful—the saints—become passive, helpless victims; the most we can hope for from Christ is merely that the thought of him will raise our mood, and help us believe that we’ll somehow make it through safely.
Finally, the substitution of gloom and doubt for darkness drear—presumably because “darkness” could be construed as racist—once again changes the meaning of the stanza. “Darkness drear” implies objective external conditions which make an already hard struggle even harder; “gloom and doubt” refer only to subjective perception: the dangers are all in our heads.
It’s astonishing how much damage can be done to a piece of communal speech by the replacement of a mere dozen or so words.
To the credit of the Episcopal Church, our hymnal revisers have been far less heavy-handed than those of other denominations. “For All the Saints” is untouched in the 1982 Hymnal (though who knows about the next edition?). But I have been to Episcopal churches where the revised version was substituted for the one in our own hymnal. And with less and less reliance on bound hymnals and denominational authorities, such well-meaning rewriting is everywhere, and we need to think about its implications.
Metaphors matter. What authors actually wrote matters, especially when we are professing to connect to that cloud of witnesses that came before.
Christ, or God, as our refuge, hope and light is a lovely, important, and scriptural image. It is found in many psalms, as well as hymns and prayers. But it is not the only way of envisioning our spiritual life, and it happens not to be what Bishop How was actually writing about.
Bishop How’s language is concrete and physical. He insists that we are called to act and choose, not merely to hope and feel. He reminds us that Jesus is here to help us struggle hard and to overcome in a resoundingly “well fought fight,” not merely that Jesus will “put our fears to flight” by assuring us that nothing bad can really happen to us. His vision of the Christian life is that we struggle not just with our own moods and the ups and downs of a journey, but with real evil—in the words of the baptismal covenant, “the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” The original hymn affirms the Incarnation—that our God is not only an abstract idea, ideal, or hope, but has come to be visible among us, to be known and followed as our beloved Lord; that Christ is not a distant, reassuring beacon but is right beside us in the struggle, and has met and overcome the Enemy.
To put it in the simplest terms: Bishop How’s vision of the life of faith, the Christian hope, in this hymn is not that because Jesus loves us, there are no monsters under the bed. It is that there are monsters, and they are very scary, but with Jesus’s help we can fight and defeat any monster we may have to face.
And here’s where the children come in. It is not for nothing that children are fascinated by monsters and dinosaurs; that they love fairy tales, Spiderman, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Though adults worry endlessly that stories and imaginative play about life-and-death struggles encourage children to resort to violence to solve real-world problems, the actual evidence is that such stories and play are an essential developmental tool. They are the primary means for children of working through the issues of right and wrong, courage and loyalty, and many other existential and spiritual concerns. They are the way that children, who have so little power in their real lives, find the imaginative power to tackle their real fears.
Unwelcome as the news may be to liberal egalitarian parents, there is little doubt this is particularly true of boys. As Carol Zaleski said some years ago in The Christian Century, “Try keeping a 13-year-old boy interested in visions of a peaceable kingdom on earth without rallying his imagination to the battle between good and evil that is its necessary prelude.” Or as Jonathan Turley, a law professor and father of three young boys, noted in an article in The Washington Post in 2007,
Like most of our friends, we tried early on to avoid any gender stereotypes in our selection of games and toys. However, our effort to avoid guns and swords and other similar toys became a Sisyphean battle. Once, in a fit of exasperation, my wife gathered up all of the swords that the boys had acquired as gifts and threw them into the trash. When she returned to the house, she found that the boys had commandeered the celery from the refrigerator to finish their epic battle. Forced to choose between balanced diets and balanced play, my wife returned the swords with strict guidelines about where and when pirate fights, ninja attacks and Jedi rescues could occur.
… Still, when their best friend recently invited them to his Army-themed birthday party, it didn’t bother us a bit (though some parents did refuse to let their children attend). In fact, I was struck by how, more than combat fighting, the boys tended to act out scenes involving rescuing comrades or defending the wounded. What I saw was not boys experimenting with carnage and slaughter, but modeling notions of courage and sacrifice. They were trying to experience the emotions at the extremes of human conduct: facing and overcoming fear to remain faithful to their fellow soldiers.
Or, as child psychologist Penny Holland put it in her book, “We Don’t Play with Guns Here,” their make-believe games were “part of . . . making sense of the world, [imitating] timeless themes of the struggle between good and evil.” This explanation is probably all the more important in a world filled with violent images of war on television and in the news.
All of these issues—and also the related but distinct issues of girls’ relationship to fantasy violence and fantasy sexuality—are fascinatingly explored in Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, by Gerard Jones (Basic Books, 2002). Jones defends not only the classic myths and fairy tales that well-meaning parents and publishers have so often censored and bowdlerized, and the toy guns and swords that well-meaning parents and teachers have forbidden; he also, more controversially, mounts a broad-based defense of the commercialized, mass-media violence in found in superhero comics, action movies, action toys, and violent video games.
Reading Jones’ book, I found myself agreeing in principle, but repeatedly balking at his conclusions simply because (to my eyes at least) the media he defends are so aesthetically repugnant—so ugly, so tasteless, so … tacky. I’m much more comfortable with violence in folk material and high art than in pop culture. I deeply distrust the capacity of the “invisible hand” of the market either to produce good art or to do a decent job of responding to children’s (or anybody’s) real psychological needs. Whether this is a sound instinct or regrettable snobbism I have yet to discern.
What Jones makes crystal clear is that children’s actual need for fantasy violence is sufficiently strong that if we suppress its expression in folk material and high art, if we censor it out of the stories and games we share with our children, the market will move right in to fill the void. We cannot wish it away. As Lynn Ponton, M.D. states in her foreword to Jones’ book:
It is not easy to listen to the violent stories that fill the lives of our children. It is far easier to pretend that these themes either don’t exist or should be completely eliminated.
The church is the worst possible place for such adult wishful thinking. We, of all people, should be able to admit that yes, there most certainly are monsters under the bed. You are not imagining them. The world is a scary place. Our life is not merely a journey in which we may sometimes get tired or lost or discouraged; it is a dangerous venture through a war zone, in which we may be attacked, ambushed, or tempted to join the Enemy’s side; in which we may be assigned to missions calling for all the courage and intelligence we can muster. And in that cosmic battle, we have by our side the unlikely superhero from Nazareth, the meek-and-mild carpenter who proved to be stronger than sin, stronger than death; who by his courage and loyalty has faced and defeated the Enemy, and who invites us, and empowers us, to follow him through the darkness to the final victory, with the saints who “nobly fought of old.”
Originally composed as a Sunday Paper Editorial; slightly revised.
© 2009 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.
Illustration: “The Church Militant,” Russian Icon, ca. 1550 – 1560. Tretyakov Gallery. From Wikimedia Commons.