I created not just one new song, as we’ve already discussed, but two new lyrics inspired by a Christmas concert by Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum. Both are rough translations—or loose paraphrases—that allow us to sing great Danish music in English.
The second one is on deck today. It extends my recent train of thought on this blog about what constitutes good Christmas music, which began in earlier posts on Staffansvisa and Every Star Shall Sing a Carol. If you’re getting tired of the theological path I’ve veered down lately, I almost have it out of my system, although tomorrow it continues one more day with the theology of Miley Cyrus. UPDATE: here it is.
To close the holiday concert, Helene sang “Dejlig er Jorden,” a Danish lyric to a familiar tune that I learned as “Beautiful Savior.” Harald tells me “this is the Christmas song in Denmark.” The performance was superb, sounding similar to this.
Onto this music I projected standard English lyrics. But here began some disquiet. When those lyrics were bundled with the tune, it functioned, for me, to end the concert on a slightly deflated note. Everything else rang perfectly true, but this final selection seemed, not exactly bad, but pointing a few degrees off center.
I wondered if Helene was singing other lyrics than what I imagined. A quick search established that there are Danish and German versions—significantly different—and I was thinking of the German ideas as she sang the Danish ones.
When I learned the gist of the Danish and wrote some new lyrics that try to capture its spirit in singable English prose, this seemed to put me back on track. Let’s start there. Sing along with Helene:
This earth is beautiful
Strong and pure the skies above
Filled with the songs of our pilgrim choir
Rising falling empires
We move with song toward paradise
Hard times will surely come
Waves of time roll over us
Like our elders, we too must pass
Always we hear the sound
Ringing true through all our strife
To train our ears and guide our path
Angels once taught this song
Shepherds learned it the night
Still it sounds from soul to soul
Peace to a broken world
Joy to all broken hearts
The grace of God proclaimed for all.
If you don’t like to overthink your songs, that could be a wrap. (Update: you can download a pdf of the lyrics here). But there may be more to learn if we reflect on its differences from the standard version and why they matter.
Falling Out of Love With This Tune
Sometime in my teens, I stopped thinking that the middle-of-the-road Lutheran theology I had been taught—encoded in the standard form of this song—made much sense. Especially I couldn’t make heads or tails of a theory called “substitutionary atonement” that sought to explain why I should care about Jesus. This theory holds that Jesus’s teachings were not especially important, nor was he especially important as role model in his life as a prophet or (as “Every Star” says) “brother of our blood and bone,” nor even because of the historical tradition he started—a tradition that I now understand as deeply conflicted internally, and definitely prone to fly off the rails in spectacular train wrecks, yet worth fighting to keep on track in its stronger forms.
Rather, I was told that Jesus was important mainly because of his role in an ahistorical metaphysical scheme. He was born to make a blood sacrifice that somehow paid (substituted for) a metaphysical debt. This was a debt incurred by humans whom God would otherwise condemn to hell. I gathered, whether because I was badly taught or just a bad pupil, that “the Christian tradition” basically reduced to people who believed this—and did so “on faith” rather than supported by arguments that made sense to me. Similarly, if we looked to “Jesus’s teachings” for wisdom, this same sacrifice theology was mainly what “his teaching” supposedly reduced to.
All this was bound up with the political sensibilities of the churches that I knew at the time. I was raised to take my place as a moderate Republican (what are now called RINO’s, Republicans in name only) in a conservative part of Iowa. But by my late teens, I wanted no part of Christian Republicanism, whether RINO or further rightward.
Nevertheless, because I was raised to be a good midwestern Lutheran, I learned to cultivate positive emotional attachments to ideas in the above vein. When such emotions were fused with better-quality renditions of better-quality Lutheran music, this was potent. It was probably the last attachment to mainstream Lutheranism that dissolved for me before I broke away.
Thus we circle back to the tune typically sung as “Beautiful Savior” or “Fairest Lord Jesus.” You can learn in this fine piece how the tune is from Silesia, how although it is called “Crusaders Hymn” it has little to do with the Crusades, and many more interesting points. But the point at hand is how, as I grew up, I liked the song—not in the way I liked the best popular music, but reasonably well. I especially liked its second verse, which compares Jesus to the words “fair are the meadows” and to wildflowers in these meadows. That is, its imagery for Jesus evokes the presence of the divine in the natural world.
True, this verse has potential to distract a budding doubter. It does presuppose, in addition to what I just said, that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God in a trinitarian scheme. Nevertheless we might say (as “Every Star” underlines) that it can makes perfect sense to sing about Jesus as (male) child of God given that we can also say we are all children in the image of God. This enables a sort of truce. More orthodox singers can assume that Jesus is an exceedingly special case among God’s children, a paradigmatic older brother—but without necessarily pressuring everyone to agree with them if (for example) someone else thinks the Buddha and John Coltrane were also pretty special. Likewise the orthodox can project assumptions about atonement theology onto the song—the Son of God preparing for a blood sacrifice—even if the song itself does not necessarily take any position on substitutionary atonement one way or the other. That’s because it is too busy, as its primary meaning, using the image of God’s presence to evoke the creative powers of the universe, as expressed in lovely meadows.
So far so good. But sadly this verse, which overtly celebrates the beauty of creation, was typically sung like a dirge, making its final line a disaster: “Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, he makes our sorrowing spirits sing.” (Think: sowww-RRRRRR-rowing spirits, like an anemic siren rising and falling.) Meanwhile the first and last verses, bookending the second one we’ve been considering, accent the same “King,” “Lord,” and trinitarian imagery that I wanted to recast with “brother of our blood and bone” imagery in “Every Star”—but now with more insistent atonement theory. All of this makes my positive engagement with the song iffy. I want to ruminate less, as I sing, about whether I am recycling and reinforcing emotions that are fused with political priorities I deplore and a theology of “personal Jesus” that doesn’t make sense to me. The standard lyrics cannot fight against such distractions.
The Danish lyrics steer around many of these problems by accenting other parts of the Christian tradition. Written by Bernhard Severin Ingemann, they stress respect and admiration for creation. They touch lightly on trinitarian doctrine, and instead put angels who promote peace on earth at the center of the story. They use the idea of music in two ways. First, they focus on songs carried forward by a historical tradition leading back to Jesus—let’s stipulate this tradition at its best, steering away from imperialist crusading songs that wouldn’t fit this melody anyway. As my friend Henrik Strandskov noted, there is a key rhyme in the Danish that is hard to translate exactly: “You have two words “pilgrimsgang” (pilgrimage or pilgrim’s way) and “pilgrimssang” (pilgrim’s song). The similarity and rhyming suggest an identity.” I don’t know Danish well enough to judge whether I am discovering this implication in the original or projecting it into my paraphrase, but for me the lyric’s stress on angels singing evokes classic ideas about the music of the spheres, at one with the deep truths of the universe.
What I’ve mainly tried to do is freshen existing English translations of this lyric. In the process my paraphrase naturally accents the parts that most resonate for me. (I don’t care much about precise translations of song lyrics—I try to build lyrics with the best possible flow and resonance “by any means necessary.”) By extension my version probably steers slightly further away from conservative theological implications that are bundled with past versions, as compared not only to standard translations from German but also to other existing translations from the Danish.
Can This Tune Be Saved?
As I moved beyond my teens—finding better teachers and/or paying more attention—I came to understand that substitutionary atonement is only one among several theories of why Jesus was/is important. In fact, this is not even the most authoritative theory, historically, even before we broach the question of whether it makes the most sense today. I also came to understand that the Lutheran parishes I knew as a kid are far from the only kind of Christianity. Here I’m not thinking about variations that are like one flavor of Coca-Cola among a dozen more. Rather I’m thinking of differences like how the term “drink” covers both beverages that are good for you and those that are poison. Again, I’m thinking of differences like how “language” includes sentences that are lies and sentences that are true and backed by clear evidence. Then there are sentences that, although true enough, dramatize cluelessness—such as responding to a shocked friend who exclaims “My mother just died!” by saying “Cool, I had a cherry coke for lunch!” (Would it even matter if that wasn’t true?) This latter sort of irrelevance and/or inattention to what matters, as opposed to the outright toxic lies often propounded by the religious right, is the signature weakness of middle-of-the-road Lutheranism.
Once I had understood all this, I did not leave my upbringing behind—as if I needed to start speaking in some other language instead of steering toward true and useful sentences in a language I knew. Rather I rethought and become selective about which Christian “flavors” I will tolerate and which truth claims, expressed in a Christian vocabulary, I can get behind. That included more than rethinking what makes Jesus important. It included rethinking how best to understand creation, leading toward a discovery that surprised me, that the smartest trinitarian theologies can help articulate true and useful thoughts about creation. Sometimes I rethought all this so much that conservative Lutherans consider me heretical. Either I don’t think that’s true or I don’t care. But in any case, there are excellent reasons for Lutherans to spend serious effort rethinking inherited theologies.
There are also good reasons for atheists to think harder about this, even if they do not embrace the ideas in the end. If you are in that camp, please don’t assume I’m proselytizing! I’ve been around this block long enough to suspect that you might. But evangelical conversion is not at all what I have in mind—and if you can’t imagine that, you extend the mistake of thinking there is only one kind of Christianity. What I do imagine is strictly optional. It’s just that I’m tired of people who dismiss straw versions of the best theological insights. Some of the most brilliant intellectuals and artists in human history—since we are talking about music, let’s say Bach and Coltrane for starters—have worked within Christian streams of thought and art. Their ideas and achievements deserve to be translated well into our present contexts, at their strongest rather than as caricatures conflated with people who are ruining the Christian tradition. Very often this does not happen, largely because conservative evangelicals have done so much to undermine the credibility of the tradition and bundle it with reprehensible political practices. But disregarding straw versions of good ideas does not make us smarter. It only stunts our imagination.
This unsolicited advice of mine to selected atheists—to think twice before assuming a priori that nothing expressed in theological language can be valuable—also holds relevance if recast as advice from more orthodox Christians toward me. Accordingly, I try not to assume that standard Lutheran lyrics are necessarily hardwired to every problem that they pose for me. Some of my best friends like some of these songs, enough that I sometimes wonder what I’m missing. Just as I try to learn from a range of artistic depictions of “God,” or “powers of creation,” or “love”—all of which may articulate fine insights from case to case, although merely repeating a given idea doesn’t guarantee this—so also different ways to think about Jesus make sense in different contexts.
Nevertheless I like to work with ideas that make sense to me. I much prefer modest theological claims, whether about Jesus or other topics of theology, that strike me as solidly grounded, as compared to more sweeping claims that don’t. I suppose that implies that some people will prefer the standard German-based lyrics to the Danish ones, and prefer existing translations from Danish to my new one. But others might like my version better against this same background.
Does This Matter?
If we don’t want to engage with any hymns whatsoever—although would that thought extend to Bach and Coltrane too?—then none of this matters. But in the long run I didn’t break with Lutheranism across the board. I found the books and teachers that helped me rethink the theology. Although I left behind many childhood forms of religious thought and practice, I proceeded to evolve within a leftish wing of church networks—especially university-based and social activist parts. I am happy with my local church, where I met Harald and Helene as part of our cultural programs.
The leftish networks of liberal Protestants deserve far more respect than the extremely low amount they get. That’s an argument I’ve made before and won’t rehash—a tricky argument because it is framed to push back against the common wisdom that perceives liberal Protestants like a cup that is only 1% full, 99% empty, and leaking. I contend that this cup remains 30% full and only leaks half of the time. Is that bullish or lukewarm? That’s unclear, but clearly I am more bullish than the common wisdom, which greatly overplays both the degree of recent decline and how full this cup ever was, even in its supposed golden era. The one-third-full part is a network that enables people who carry forward real value.
These “one-third-full” churches need good music. They leak more when the music is worse, and fill up more when it is better. For me at least, this new lyric breathes life into a song that I hadn’t realized I missed. I hope it might do so for some others too.
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