The concert by Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum discussed here inspired me to create not just one, but two lyrics that are rough “translations”—singable free paraphrases—from Danish.
Today’s song triangulates with what I 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. (If you are tired of the theological path I’ve veered down lately, I nearly have it out of my system—although tomorrow it continues with a day featuring the theology of Miley Cyrus. Stay tuned.) UPDATE: here it is.
To end their concert, Helene sang “Dejlig er Jorden,” a Danish lyric to a well-known tune, onto which I projected standard English lyrics I learned as “Beautiful Savior.” 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 rang perfectly true, this closing selection seemed, not exactly bad, but pointing a few degrees off center. It sounded similar to this.
I wondered if Helene was singing other lyrics than what I imagined. A search established that there are Danish and German versions, but 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 words to try to capture their spirit in singable English prose, this seemed to put me back on focus. Let’s start there; sing along with Helene.
Our earth is beautiful
Pure and strong 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 proclaimed for all.
If you don’t like to overthink your songs, that could be a wrap. But is also more to reflect upon if we pursue differences with the standard version.
Falling Out of Love With This Tune
Growing up, I gradually came to stop thinking that the middle-of-the-road Lutheran theology I was taught—which, for me, is 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 held that Jesus was not important mainly due to his teachings, nor as a role model in his life as prophet and “brother of our blood and bone,” nor even because of the historical tradition he began—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 worth fighting to keep on track.
Rather, I was taught that Jesus was important as part of 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 Christian tradition” basically reduced to people who believed this, and that is was what “Jesus’s teaching” meant.
All this was made far worse by the socio-political priorities of most Lutheran churches I knew. 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 wasn’t anything I wanted a part of.
Neverthless, being raised midwestern and Lutheran included, for a time, emotional attachments to ideas in the above vein. Such emotions, when fused with quality musical versions of the best Lutheran hymns, were the final positive aspect of Lutheran teaching that dissolved for me.
Thus we circle back to the tune for today, most often sung in the US as “Beautiful Savior” or “Fairest Lord Jesus.” As I learned in this excellent piece, the tune is from Silesia and is named “Crusaders Hymn” despite having little to do with the crusades. I liked the tune and a verse which compares Jesus to the words “fair are the meadows” and the wildflowers in this meadow. True, this lyric has potential to alienate a budding doubter, since it still affirms that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God in a standard trinitarian scheme. Still one could say (echoing Sydney Carter’s song we recently discussed) that it could make perfect 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. If so the orthodox could still assume, without necessarily pressuring a doubter to sing, that Jesus is a paradigmatic teacher or “older brother.” Likewise the orthodox might still detect shades of atonement theology in the mix—while the song mainly accents “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 its final line a disaster: “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 more insistent atonement theology. All in all, it makes positive engagement with the song iffy.
Digilent readers may remember how 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 standard English lyrics cannot fight such distractions.
Can This Tune Be Saved?
Later, I learned that substitutionary atonement was only among of several 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. In any case there are excellent reasons for Lutherans to spend some effort rethinking inherited theologies—even for atheists to think harder about this, even if they do not embrace the ideas in the end.
Don’t worry, I’m not proselytizing. Evangelical conversion is not what I have in mind, and what I do imagine is strictly optional. It’s just that I dislike straw dismissals of the best theological insights. Some of the most brilliant intellectuals and artists in human history have worked within these streams of thought and art. Their ideas and achievements deserve to be translated well into our present contexts, at their strongest rather than as caricature. Very often this does not happen. Conservative evangelicals are especially prone to destroying the credibility of these traditions, then bundling them with reprehensible political commitments. But disregarding straw versions of good ideas does not make us smarter. It only stunts our imagination.
This same advice—to think twice before assuming that nothing can be valuable about traditional theological images—also applies to me. According, I try to suppress my appetite for assuming that standard lyrics/theology are usually bad. Some of my best friends like them. Moreover, just as like many different artistic depictions of the “powers of creation,” “God,” or “love” could all have partial truths and appropriate uses in different contexts, so also more than one way to think about Jesus can be valuable in different contexts.
Sill, I prefer to focus on things that make sense to me. I like to make ambitious theological claims that strike me as well-grounded, rather than sweeping ones that don’t. No doubt this means some will like the traditional lyrics to this tune better—yet some might like mine better for the exact same reasons.
If I didn’t want to engage with any hymns whatsoever, 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. And I am not lukewarm about the one-third-full part carrying forward value.
Does It Matter?
Is this getting long? Perhaps. But a friend asked why I bothered to rewrite “Every Star”—and by extension this hymn. It matters because these “third-full” churches need good music. They leak more when the music is worse, and fill up more when it is better.
And I’ve been focusing on my ambivalence about the German variant of this lyric. The Danish, by Bernhard Severin Ingemann, accents respect and admiration for creation. It touches lightly on trinitarian doctrine, and instead gives us angels promoting peace on earth. It uses the idea of music, both to focus on (1) songs carried forward by a historical tradition that leads back to Jesus (let’s stipulate the tradition at its best, steering away from imperialist crusading songs that don’t fit this 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 me: “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 are OK, but like mine a little better—and give a second shout out to this reflection, to keep this a shorter and more focused on music.
I hope some others may like this new version, too.
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