It turned out that the concert by Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum that I have been writing about inspired me to create not just one, but two new lyrics that are roughly “translations”—singable free paraphrases—from Danish. Both might possibly introduce some worthwhile music to culturally-deprived Americans.
Today’s song triangulates with what I recently wrote about both “Staffanvisan”/“Christmas Party,” as well as my update of “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol.” Let’s finish up this train of thought. Skip ahead to the lyrics if you wish, but it may help to reflect a little.
(If you are tired of the theological and Scandinavian-centric path I’ve veered down lately, you could also skip the entire day. I nearly have this out of my system—although tomorrow will be a “one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other” day featuring theology and Miley Cyrus. Stay tuned.) UPDATE: here it is.
At the end of their concert, Helene sang “Dejlig er Jorden,” a Danish lyric to a well-known tune, onto which I projected some standard English lyrics. Harald tells me “this is the Christmas song in Denmark,” and the performance was superb—but the ideas bundled with it functioned, for me, to end the concert on a slightly deflated note. Whereas everything else came off ringing perfectly true and impeccably selected, this closing selection seemed, not exactly bad, but pointing a few degrees off center. Sadly the live concert is no longer posted, but it sounded similar to this.
I wondered if Helene was singing different lyrics than what I imagined. A quick search established that she was, indeed—there are Danish and German versions, overlapping but substantially different, and I was thinking of a translation from the German.
When I learned the gist of the Danish and wrote some new English words to try to capture it, this seemed to put me back on focus. Let’s start there before getting too distracted. Sing along with Helene.
Our earth is beautiful
Pure and strong the skies above
Home to the songs of our pilgrim choir
Through every season
We move toward paradise with song
Hard times will surely come
Waves of time roll over us
Like our elders, we too must pass
Sounds from God’s universe
Ringing true throughout the years
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 the beaten down
Mysteries of grace proclaimed in sound
If you don’t like to overthink your songs, maybe that could be a wrap. But there is more to reflect on for those who want to pursue differences with the standard US version. Here’s why I think it matters. If your mileage varies, let’s compare notes.
Falling Out of Love With This Tune
Growing up, I stopped thinking that the middle-of-the-road Lutheran theology I had been taught—and that, for me, is encoded in the standard version—made much sense. Especially I could not make heads or tails of a theory called “substitutionary atonement” that sought to explain why I should care about Jesus. This held that he was important, not mainly due to his teachings, nor as an exemplary role model as prophet and “brother of our blood and bone,” nor because of the historical tradition he started—which I later came to understand as deeply conflicted internally, and prone to going off the rails in spectacular train wrecks, yet at its best commendable and worth fighting to keep on track. Rather, I gathered that Jesus was important within an ahistorical metaphysical scheme: he was born to make a blood sacrifice that somehow paid (“substituted for”) a metaphysical debt, incurred by humans whom God would otherwise condemn to hell. I gathered, whether by being badly taught or a bad pupil, that “the historical tradition Jesus started” basically reduced to people who believed this, and that is was what “his teaching” meant.
Beyond this was my growing divergence from the socio-political priorities of Lutheran churches, in which I had been raised to take my place as a moderate Republican in what for years was Steve King’s Congressional district. By my late teens, this was not anything I wanted any part of.
Still, being raised midwestern and Lutheran included, at least for a time, cultivating emotional attachments to conceptual assertions in the above vein. Such emotions, when fused with quality musical versions of the better hymns, were the last positive aspects of this teaching to dissolve for me.
So we circle back to this tune, which most North Americans know as “Beautiful Savior” or “Fairest Lord Jesus.” As we learn in this excellent piece to which I am indebted, the tune is from Silesia and is named “Crusaders Hymn” despite having little to do with the crusades. The tune is far better than average, and I especially like the second verse which compares Jesus to the words “fair are the meadows, fair is the sunshine” and to wildflowers in this meadow. This is not devoid of tension for a budding doubter, since Jesus is still the incarnate Son of God in a standard trinitarian scheme. But one could say (echoing Sydney Carter’s song) that it makes sense to sing about Jesus as a child of God, just as one could say we all are children created in an image of God—however much Jesus is a paradigmatic teacher or “older brother” in this vein. Likewise one could detect shades of atonement theology in the mix—but the accent is on God as a name for the creative powers of the universe.
So far so good. But sadly this verse was often sung like a dirge, making the final line a disaster for group singing: “He makes our soww-RRRRR-rowing spirits sing.” Meanwhile the first and last verses accent the same “King,” “Lord,” and trinitarian imagery that soured me on parts of “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol”—but with stronger associations to atonement theology. Together it makes my positive engagement with the song iffy. At best I get distracted.
Digilent readers may remember that I wanted more stress in “Every Star” on Jesus as teacher, prophet, and “brother of our blood and bone”—and less on “Cosmic Christ-ness.” Turning to “Beautiful Savior” I want to ruminate less, while I sing, on whether I am cultivating pious emotion about a “personal Jesus” that doesn’t make sense to me, but does remind me of political priorities I deplore. The song cannot fight such distractions, no matter how well Helene sings.
Can This Tune Be Saved?
Later, I learned that substitutionary atonement was just one of many theories about why Jesus was important, and not necessarily the most authoritative one historically, much less the one that made the most sense to me. And I rethought much more I was taught about Christianity—not only about Jesus, but also things like the understanding of creation and how the smarter trinitarian theologians can help us think about it. Sometimes I rethought it so much that conservative Lutherans consider me heretical.
I don’t think I’m a heretic, though, or maybe I don’t care, depending on our background definition of non-heretical. In any case I submit that there are excellent reasons for Lutherans to spend some effort rethinking inherited theologies—even for atheists to think harder about it, whether or not they embrace the ideas afterward.
Don’t worry, I’m not proselytizing. Evangelical conversion is not what I have in mind when I say “embrace,” and what I do imagine is strictly optional—it’s just that I dislike straw arguments. As to the good arguments, some of the most brilliant intellectuals and artists in human history have worked within these streams of thought and art. Their insights and achievements deserve to be translated well into our present contexts, at their strongest rather than as caricature. Very often they aren’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, conservative evangelicals are especially prone to destroying the credibility and reputation of these traditions, then bundling them with off-putting politics. But disregarding straw versions of important ideas does not make us smarter, it stunts our imagination.
This same advice—to think twice before assuming that nothing can be valuable about long-standing theological images—applies to me too. Accordingly, I try to to suppress my appetite for insisting that standard lyrics/theology are always bad. Some of my best friends like them, and more than one way to think about Jesus can be valuable, somewhat like many artistic depictions of the “powers of creation,” “God,” or “love” could all have partial truths and appropriate uses in different contexts.
Sill, when I write, I like to focus on things that make sense to me. And I prefer less ambitious theological claims that strike me as well-grounded to more sweeping ones that don’t. By extension I’m sure, as in the earlier case of “Every Star,” that some will like the traditional lyrics better—yet some might like mine better for the exact same reasons.
If I didn’t want to engage with any hymns whatsoever, even in Harald and Helene’s concert, none of this would matter. But I did not break with Lutherans across the board. Instead, I evolved within a leftish wing of church networks—especially the university and social activist parts—and I am happy with my local church, where I met Harald and Helene at our fiddle camp.
The leftish networks of liberal Protestantism deserve far more respect than the extremely low amount they get. That’s an argument to make another day—and tricky since I make this in dialogue with people who see liberal Protestants as a cup that is 1% full, 99% empty, and leaking. My contention is that the “cup” is 70% empty, 30% full, and only leaks about half of the time. Is that bullish or lukewarm? Sadly it is quite bullish compared to common wisdom. Meanwhile I am not lukewarm about the one-third-full part carrying forward value.
Does It Matter?
Is this getting too long? Perhaps. But a friend asked why I bothered to rewrite “Every Star”—and now by extension this one. I’m trying to address the question.
It matters because these “third-full” churches can always use better music. They leak more when the music is worse, and fill up more when it is better.
Also, recall that I’ve been focusing on my mixed feelings about the German form of this lyric. The Danish, by Bernhard Severin Ingemann, accents respect and admiration for creation. It touches fairly lightly on the trinitarian doctrine, and instead gives us angels promoting peace on earth. It uses the idea of music powerfully, both to focus on (1) songs carried forward by a historical tradition that leads back to Jesus (I’m stipulating the tradition at its strongest, steering away from imperialist crusading songs that are a bad fit for the tune anyway) and also (2) the music of the spheres, at one with the deep truths of the universe.
For me, this breathes life into a song that I hadn’t realized I missed.
It is not easy to translate! As my friend Henrik Strandskov wrote about the first verse: “You have two words “pilgrimsgang” (pilgrimage or pilgrim’s way) and “pilgrimssang” (pilgrim’s song). The similarity and the rhyming suggest an identity. Thus, the song is our journey and vice versa. Or, pace John 1, “In the beginning was the song.”
But yes, this is starting to run long. So I will refer translation geeks to this and this other Danish-to-English versions—they aren’t bad, I just like mine better—and give a second shout out to this reflection, to keep this a little shorter and focused on the music.
The upshot of all the above—burying the lede, no doubt—is that I hope some others may like this new version, too. Sing it along with Helene and see what you think.
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