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.