When Contextualization Diminishes Meaning (Or, Missing that Sweet and Awful Place)

Over the past several years I have carved out an interesting role in planning and executing the musical elements of corporate worship at Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford. Having long ago determined that I would rather spend most Sunday services worshiping alongside my family rather than occupying a role “up front” (I discussed this at length in a previous post), I have nevertheless been able to use my musical training in service to our church by typesetting all of the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we take from various sources in a uniform format for placement in our bulletin. I like to think that this helps those in attendance to keep up with what is happening because they are not shuffling back and forth between a bulletin, a hymnal, and perhaps separate printouts of various newer songs with different fonts, etc. (We only print the melodies in the bulletins in order to save space, though, so those who want to sing parts will still want to find and use a hymnal.) While music literacy is regrettably low in our country, I like to think that providing all of the melodies and texts in our bulletins communicates even to those who do not read music that we are making a real effort to enable everyone to participate in congregational singing.

While my role is essentially secretarial and includes no real responsibilities as a liturgist, the elders and staff members who plan our liturgies have nevertheless periodically asked my opinion about the suitability of certain melodies and texts for our worship. Like many churches, our congregation has folks who complain weekly if the proportions of “traditional” and “contemporary” tunes are not to their liking, though I have said before (here, here, and here) and still believe that this whole debate misses the point. My emphasis is always on which texts are most edifying and which tunes best suit the texts and are easiest to sing, regardless of style. Nevertheless, I typically end up taking a rather conservative and traditionalist position on these questions, not so much because I don’t like new songs as because I am loath to see the church discard centuries of hymnody in the interest of contextualization. Having worship that is intelligible to the current generation is important, but maintaining a connection to those Christians who have gone before is important, too. It is a delicate balancing act to be sure, and while I am thankful that those who plan our liturgy value my opinion enough to ask for it on occasion, I am also glad that I am not the one ultimately making these decisions—and thus receiving the complaints!

One way that many churches in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition of which I am a part have tried to balance the needs for both context and tradition is the setting of old texts to newer music. This started largely in our college ministries of a generation ago and has since become a major part of the “musical diet” of our churches. On the whole, this is a good thing. Some of the tunes are good, and some of them are actually more easily singable than the older melodies traditionally associated with those texts. Even where entirely new tunes have not been written, editors have in recent years made a regular practice of replacing archaisms in texts with more current usage, mostly replacing “thou” with “you” and similar changes where rhythm and meter are amenable to that. This also is mostly unobjectionable, though I’ll confess to often singing the archaic texts even when the newer versions are right in front of me.

Still, these updates are not always for the best. While the folks at Indelible Grace Music (which publishes the Reformed University Fellowship Hymnbook and associated resources) and others have written some good melodies, others sound too trite and sometimes even too much like commercial jingles to adequately bear the weight of the texts set to them. Remember, the test for a good hymn tune is not its age, but rather its singability and its suitability for the text being set. Sometimes there is simply a mismatch between text and music, and sometimes the newer tune is actually harder to sing for untrained singers than the older one. In these cases perhaps a better new tune would serve just fine, but we must always be careful not to discard the old just because it’s old. Sometimes, like a fine wine, the old is better.

Likewise when updating old texts. The replacing of “thou” with “you” is usually harmless, but there is nevertheless a clarity that comes from having different pronouns for second-person singular and plural, as well as a certain gravitas that accompanies the “King James-ish” usage. These aren’t the only words that are changed in newer hymnals, though. Consider the first verse of this favorite hymn:

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.

I’ve included the entire hymn text here for context, but I want to draw attention to the very first line, “How sweet and awful is the place.” The word “awful” here is used in an older sense, meaning not something that is “bad” but rather something that inspires reverence, that is “full of awe.” I like to think that the average congregant can figure this out from the context, but the editors of the current edition of the Trinity Hymnal (1990) disagreed, and changed the word to “awesome.” While the two words are technically synonymous, our society’s present colloquial usage of the word “awesome” is such that the desired meaning is lost. I am sympathetic to efforts to recover that word as one that should refer only to the majesty of the Almighty, but for the moment I’d rather have to take five seconds to remember when “awful” meant “full of awe” than to try to drum up that same feeling from the other word when just a few hours before I might have said “this is an awesome donut.” I fear that the change has actually brought about a loss of the desired meaning, though that was certainly not the intent of the editors who made the change.

Then again, maybe there’s a loss of meaning in both cases, especially considering that our society and even our churches rarely seem to appreciate or promote a real sense of reverence when engaging in God’s worship, regardless of the language used. That being the case, maybe I’ll just be glad that we sing a text with that message at all, whether “awful” or “awesome.”

But I’m still going to sing the original word, even if I’m the only one doing it!

Oh, and if you’re unfamiliar with this great hymn, here it is as sung at the Together for the Gospel conference several years ago.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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