Saturday, January 7, 2012

Us and Them

As long as I am ranting there’s another syntactic offense that surfaces in my world every year at this time.  The one minor downside of the two great feasts of the Christian year is that the feminists have butchered the great songs with their inclusive language.    I find myself repeating as a mantra as I sing these revised hymns:  all worship is inadequate even the kind I like all worship is inadequate even the kind I like all worship is inadequate… Even so the revisions in these songs I learned as a child continue to irritate me.  Try as I may, I can’t get past it, so I end up offering up a lot of my Christmas and Easter worship as penance and suffering, rather than joy. 

The revisions irritate me in part because I am something of a purist when it comes to art.  My position is that if you don’t like someone’s art (1) don’t use it and (2) find someone else’s you do like or (3) make your own but (4) don’t go messing with the original, if for no other reason than respect for the creator.  And for me, that is as true for the words of a song as they are for the Mona Lisa.  It makes me absolutely nuts that the inclusive language police have decided that any reference to “man” must be scrubbed from the hymnal because, God forbid, it might offend some poor feminist who feels excluded by the language.  Inclusivity, after all, must reign.

And if inclusivity is the standard than, yes, it trumps such concerns as artistic integrity and grace and poetry.  If inclusivity were the goal—and if the revisions reached that goal—I would put up, more or less cheerfully, with the grating, thudding inelegance of inclusive language that changes pleased as man with man to dwell  to pleased as one with us to dwell.

But the revision doesn’t do that.  It isn’t inclusive at all—in fact, when you get right down to it, it’s more exclusive that the original and in a way that offends my Christian sensibilities. And I pray, fervently, for a return to the original language, not just for artistic purity but because it teaches me something profound that the revisions have heedlessly excised.

First of all, it really doesn’t take much erudition to understand that in the context of the hymn, the second man refers to mankind, not to male human beings.  To think otherwise takes, in my never to be humble opinion, a certain amount of willful obduracy.  To suggest otherwise is to suggest that Isaac Watts was a misogynist and really believed that the Redeemer of the world came to save only those with an XY complement in their chromosomes. 

Not to put too fine a point on it—it’s silly.  And I am not fond of accommodating silliness by a wholesale revision of another man’s (a particular one with XY chromosomes) art.  Entering into art, even by singing a hymn, requires a good-faith attempt to understand what the artist is trying to convey, and that might mean leaving one’s own prejudices behind.  Is it too much to expect that we might find ourselves (including our hurts and our prejudices) changed by art, rather than demanding that the art change to suit us?

Then there’s the matter of  pleased as one …last time I checked Christ is, in fact, a man.  That’s the whole point of the Incarnation—God became a real, live, human man.  Rephrasing that impossible, wonderful truth by the use of one is the kind of revision that makes me suspect it isn’t delicate sensibilities that are at work, it’s a real animus against anything male.  And that brings to mind another of those atrocious revisions, one that underscores the avoidance of man for no particular reason:  God in Flesh Made Manifest.  Aside from the fact that it raises images in my mind of prime rib rather than humankind and utterly destroys the poetic rhythm of the refrain,  it reinforces the sense that the word man is the problem, not a real sense of exclusion.  Jesus is--I repeat--a man. In man, as man made manifest.

But more to the point is the use of us as an attempt at inclusion.  It fails on its face, for wherever there is an us, there is also a them.  Christ didn’t come to dwell with us and not them, he came among men, to dwell with all—and the jury is still out on which group is which, us and them.   In an attempt to launder language imagined to be sexist, the revisionists change the whole meaning of the phrase. God was, if I get the Incarnation even partly correct, pleased as man, as a male member of humankind to dwell with all of humankind—not just those who are singing the song, in this particular parish or group, and not just the elect.  My guess is that just might be the reason Watts penned the phrase that way in the first place—to transcend both time and divisions, to state both truth and hope. 

Born to raise the sons of earth has morphed these days in to born to raise us from the earth.  Not only does this little manipulation set in motion the us/them divide, it seems a weak statement of the reality.  Christ came to save all mankind (not just us); whether all accept is another matter.  But He came for all the poor children of Eve—the sons of Earth—whether they ultimately accept Him or not.

Think of it—sons of Earth.  For that we are, or that we were.  When I hear that phrase, my mind ricochets among images: God creating man from the slime of the Earth, or James Weldon Johnson’s image of God kneeling on the banks of a river carefully molding man out of the clay of the riverbank, of Ash Wednesday and ashes, dust to dust.  In three little words, the hymn brings into play the great sweep of creation and redemption—what we are before and until we receive the divine life through Christ and what we are after.  The revision dilutes the universality of the Paschal Mystery to a simple statement of redemption for the saved.  Granted, the latter is still true (assuming the us involved persevere to the end) but the former is so much more sweeping, dramatic, profound and…inclusive.

But the true divisiveness of the new language finally got driven home to me when I heard a glorious, pre-revision recording of Jesu, Joy of Man’s (not our)  Desiring on my way to work yesterday morning.  Because, after all, if Augustine is right, every human heart, every one, not just ours, is restless until it finds its home in God, in Jesus the Christ.  All of mankind.  All men, in the great and wonderful sense the hymn writers knew.

Not just us.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad I don't sit behind you in church. While I'd enjoy exchanging peace greetings with you, I'd be annoyed at all the smoke coming out of your ears and blocking my vision whenever a hymn was sung.

    (but, of course, I agree with you 1000%)