STLT#26, Holy, Holy, Holy

Hymns that make you go “hmmm….”

Holy, holy, holy, author of creation!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty;
who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy, though the darkness hide thee,
hindered by our vanities we have not eyes to see.
Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy, author of creation!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;
holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty;
who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

I need to say right off the bat that I have no problem with a transcendent, omniscient God reflected in our hymnal.  I don’t even mind when that God is reflected through famous hymns that are found throughout Protestantism.

What I’m not crazy about is when our propensity to change language to make it palatable to sensitive ears actually changes the intent and meaning of the hymn.

So – we’ve seen shifts already in this series; For the Beauty of the Earth’s original chorus reads “Lord of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.” We change it “Source of all” – which shifts out the language of empire for a more loving (and indeed, more Universalist) name for the Divine.  We also sometimes shift out gendered language to welcome a broader image of God and to remove the binary so trans* folk can find themselves (and cis folk remember that there is a spectrum). Recently, Jason Shelton himself rewrote language in one of his hymns to remove ablelist language – Standing on the Side of Love is now Answering the Call of Love.

I am glad we think about language in this way – because words do matter.

But what bothers me here is when we shift the original meaning right out the song, we are doing a disservice to the author and the meaning.  “Holy Holy Holy” is a ode to the Trinity. Full stop. Its original last line for some of the verses is “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” It extols the three natures found in the trinity. This is a Trinitarian hymn. And yet we include it, with words changed to emphasize one God, a Unitarian view. This isn’t just shifting language to include many, this is changing the intent and meaning of the song.

And if we’re willing to do this to the music of an old white guy, then how easy is it for us to do this to the music of other groups – women, people of color, indigenous peoples, etc.? For example…

  • Natalie Sleeth refused to let us change the lyrics of Go Now In Peace to read “may the spirit of love surround you” because her meaning was clear in the lyric “may the love of God surround you” – and yet congregations all over sing the unauthorized, changed lyric.
  • I remember a moment when a group of UU religious professionals misused I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table as a happy gathering song, and one of our group was brave enough to call us out, reminding us white folk that this was not a song of happy Caucasians, this was a song of righteously determined enslaved Africans.
  • In GA choir last year, we raised the question of changing some lyrics in a gospel tune, and Glen Thomas Rideout rightly refused, saying we would be changing the intention by changing the lyrics and thus would be colonizing the music of another culture.

We need to be very careful in our language of inclusion to not change the intent or colonize the meaning for our own comfort. Music is radical expression of our souls and spirits, our hopes and fears, our anger and determination, our joys and triumphs. Music is radical – and when we try to make it palatable, we take the teeth right out of it, and we miss the lessons and energy that music seeks to provide.

Okay, yes, I’m on a rant about this in a post about one of the whitest hymns we have – but maybe it’s not a bad thing to look at how white people even do this to each other, no less to others. Maybe we can begin to see how damaging a change of intent can be in a song like this, we can see how damaging it would be for songs that aren’t ‘ours.’

I couldn’t sing more than a verse of this hymn today before I got angry at what I saw that we had done. Maybe others are okay with this, but I’m not.


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