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The Difference Between Grooming and Taxidermy

I ran into a situation recently where I was searching high and low for the original wording to Watts’ “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” set to the tune MARTYRDOM. I was looking for the tune MARTYRDOM so I wouldn’t have to deal with Ralph Hudson’s degenerate refrain; but I was also looking for text that included Watts’ line “for such a worm as I.” It seems that somewhere in the tradition someone took offense at the effrontery of that line and substituted “for sinners such as I.” The update certainly has more of a “we’re all in this together, so it must not be a big deal” feel to it. But that’s not what Watts said, and it is significantly weaker than what Watts meant.

Disclaimer: I am not against taking things that are difficult to understand and making them more understandable. Take, for example, Henry Beveridge’s translation of Calvin’s Institutes, and then compare it to the Battles edition, which I find much more readable. It can be done: you can comb out some of the tangles in a dog’s coat without destroying the dog. But there is a difference between grooming and taxidermy. At some point the efforts to make something more attractive and user-friendly end up killing the subject. A stuffed dog, nice as it may be to look at and as easy as it may be to maintain, is significantly less doggy than a live dog. In the same way, I wouldn’t go thinking I understood Calvin if I’d read a modernized or blunted caricature of Calvin. An explanation or clarification ought to preserve the scope of the ideas being explained or clarified.

If you’ve not read this article by Barton Swaim, I commend it to you. In it, he decries a recent ‘update’ of John Stott’s helpful little book, Basic Christianity. It’s not as though Stott’s volume was opaque to begin with: why not simply put a new foreword to it, as Carl Trueman did with Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism? As Swaim rightly points out, there is a difference between an update and an evisceration. What comes across in this ‘update’ is significantly less than what Stott meant.

Sometimes such dumbing is not so obviously mendacious. One of the things that makes me groan about some Bible translations is that the translators, in an effort to make English play nice with unpracticed or indifferent readers, smooth over many Old Testament allusions. The unintended result is a Bible that may be more easily digested at the sentence level, but is actually less integrated at the Big Story level. We lose the sense that the authors of the New Testament actually believed, and were saturated with, the Old Testament. That is a problem, because what comes across in English is something less than what the authors meant.

Hymnals are often plagued with this sort of thing. We sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” rather than “Hark How All the Welkin Rings,” and we don’t think much of missing out on the unique privilege of singing the word ‘welkin.’ But, for example, Margaret Clarkson’s unnecessary adaptation of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” removes, among other things, an apt allusion to Scripture! For argument’s sake, the editors of the hymnal could have simply supplied a footnote explaining what an ‘Ebeneezer’ is for those new to the concept. In the same hymnal, under “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” there is exactly that: a footnote explaining what a ‘panoply’ is. Clarkson’s edit of ‘Come, Thou Fount’, passing as it may be on its own, is less profound than what Robert Robinson meant.

At any rate, I ended up finding Watts’ proper wording to “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” with the tune MARTYRDOM in the Trinity Hymnal, which, incidentally, also invites the reader to raise his or her Ebeneezer.

About Christopher Ames

Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Bicycle owner and operator. I used to play in a Campus Crusade band.

9 Responses to The Difference Between Grooming and Taxidermy

  1. Hymn mutilation is, unfortunately, the favoured hobby for many a hymnal editor.

    Julian gives a memorable quote from T. Darling under his entry for another of Watts’ hymns, “When I Survey”, regarding one of the more severe mutilations of the text. He says,

    “There is just enough of Watts left here to remind one of Horace’s saying, that you may know the remains of a poet even when he is torn in pieces.”

    The omission of stanzas is another way that hymns are frequently tampered with. A hymn originally written with twelve or more stanzas is printed in the hymnal with only four or five. While it is not practical to sing an entire twelve-stanza hymn, I think it is preferable for hymnals to provide more, if not all, stanzas and allow churches to select which they will sing. Churches that use a projector for their hymn lyrics can overcome this problem, but I am of the view that a printed hymnal is still preferable.

    “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed” originally had six stanzas, the second indicated as optional. However I have noticed that in most hymnals, the fifth is also omitted:

    Thus might I hide my blushing face
    while his dear cross appears;
    dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
    and melt mine eyes to tears.

    These lines of mourning gratitude lead on directly to the final stanza’s reference to “drops of grief”, and also capture Watts’ original intention for the hymn, which he entitled, “Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ.” The hymn feels incomplete without them.

    To describe what Hudson did to this hymn as “degenerate” is far too kind. Here is a hymn intended to make us sorrowful for the vile sins that our Saviour suffered on the cross for, drawing us to surrender ourselves in sacrifice to Him; and Hudson turned it inside out and made it into a vacuous ditty about how happy I feel.

    It is a crime against hymnody.

  2. Brendon,

    Thank you for those observations. I’m no historian of hymnody, and I’m pretty sure anyone who is a historian of hymnody has a second job. But I agree with your sentiment: I think we need to be much more careful before we go mangling a hymn or ‘freshening’ tunes.

    But, devil’s advocate moment: does there ever come a time when we could repair a hymn in good conscience? I think so, although I’m not the guy to do it. I can only imagine that before Catherine Winkworth came along there were some inferior translations in use. Also, I think there is room for reworking some of the gospel tradition: dumping refrains, setting the texts to more fitting tunes, etc.

    Your point about supplying all of the stanzas is spot on. I like that because I can select the four or so that best fit the theme of the service, and I can commend the rest for devotional reading.

    I also agree about Hudson. The man was a bipedal forerunner of Facebook: he cheapened everything he touched.

  3. At some point, you asked about Clarkson’s reason for editing the text of this great hymn. I have been trying to determine this myself, but I have yet to find any information. It is the kind of adaptation that I believe encourages Biblical illiteracy in the modern church (along with the “meatless”, marshmallow-fluff writing of much contemporary Christian music).

    It may interest you to know that Robinson’s text had five verses. What is now verse two (assuming you are not having to deal with the Clarkson revision)is a combination of the end of his original verse two, and the beginning of his original verse three. His final verse is quite something:

    O that day when freed from sinning,
    I shall see Thy lovely face;
    Clothed then in blood washed linen
    How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
    Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
    Take my ransomed soul away;
    Send thine angels now to carry
    Me to realms of endless day.

    Now, that is a verse that should be included in every hymnal!

  4. Joel,

    Biblical illiteracy among other types of illiteracy. We are not a particularly literate people anymore.

    Robinson’s final stanza is…interesting. Maybe unsettling. I’d have to think about it before I gave any verdict. But thanks for sharing, I hadn’t seen it before!

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