A New Lyric for a Classic Christmas Song

A year ago, I published an earlier version of this essay. Since then I’ve revised significantly, so I’m going back to the well for Christmas 2021. Most of this reworked version also appears here.

I am pleased to share a new English translation—or singable free paraphrase—of an iconic Danish hymn, Dejlig Er Jorden. It shares a tune familiar to U.S. Christians as “Beautiful Savior,” but with ideas that are significantly different and, to my mind at least, fresh and underappreciated.

I did not know there existed a Danish version of this hymn until recently. However, I was raised with Scandinavian traditions (from Norway and Sweden) on both sides of my family. Accordingly, when a 2020 Christmas concert by the great Danish musicians Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum closed with a lovely version of “Dejlig Er Jorden—which Harald subsequently told me “is the Christmas song in Denmark”—I projected the standard English words/meanings onto this music.

Here began some disquiet. It turned out I had been taught the wrong—or at least different—words. The sound of Helene and Harald’s performance was superb, yet the ideas bundled with it functioned, for me, to end their concert on a slightly deflated note. Everything else they played had rung perfectly true, but the closing selection, while not bad, seemed to be pointing a few degrees off center. For me, it brought into the room aspects of Lutheran tradition that I left behind in my teens because of theological and political resonances that made no sense to me.  

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 and wrote some new lyrics that try to capture its spirit in singable English prose, this seemed to put me back on track. Try singing along with this. Remember this is the same tune as “Beautiful Savior,” which is easy to find in most hymnals or with a Google search.

This earth is beautiful 
Strong and pure the skies above         
Filled with the songs of our pilgrim choir
Through generations 
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  
Comfort to the beaten down  
The grace of God proclaimed for all.

If you don’t like to overthink your songs, that can be a wrap. You can download a pdf of the lyrics here. (UPDATE: my preferred lyrics have changed as discussed here, where you can also access the revised lyrics with notation included. I believe the changes sing better while keeping the spirit intact, but the first verse in the version on this current page is closer to the literal Danish meaning if you are a stickler for that sort of thing.)

But there may be more worth considering. In what follows, I discuss why I prefer the Danish version and what is at stake in how I translated it. For me, these new lyrics breathe life into a song that I hadn’t realized I had missed.

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 standard forms of this song—made sense. Especially I couldn’t make heads or tails of a theory called “substitutionary atonement” that explained why I should care about Jesus. This theory holds that Jesus’s teachings were not especially important, nor was he very important as a role model in his life as a prophet or (as Sydney Carter puts it in “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol,” discussed in this companion essay) a “brother of our blood and bone.” He was barely even important 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 look to “Jesus’s teachings” for wisdom, this same sacrifice theology was the main thing that “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. 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 these emotions were fused with better-quality renditions of better-quality Lutheran music, they were potent. This 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 other interesting points. But the point at hand is how, as I grew up, I liked this song—not in the ways 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. In other words, the imagery evoked a 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 Carter emphasizes in “Every Star”) that it could make 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 (which is not solely male.) This enables a sort of truce. Orthodox singers can assume that Jesus is an exceedingly special case among God’s children, a paradigmatic older brother—without necessarily pressuring everyone to agree with them if (for example) someone else thinks that 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 born to be a blood sacrifice—even if the song itself does not take any position on substitutionary atonement one way or the other. That’s because it is too busy, as its core meaning, using an image of God’s presence to evoke the creative powers of the universe, expressed in meadows and forests.

So far so good. But sadly this verse, which overtly celebrates 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 Carter’s “Every Star” recasts as “brother of our blood and bone”—now with more insistent atonement theory. All of this makes my positive engagement with the song iffy. I want to ruminate less, while I sing, about whether I am recycling and reinforcing emotions infused with political priorities I deplore and understandings of Jesus that don’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 Christian traditions. Written by Bernhard Severin Ingemann, these lyrics 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 the historical tradition that leads back toward 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 notes, there is a rhyme in the Danish that is hard to translate precisely: “You have two words ‘pilgrimsgang’ (pilgrimage or pilgrim’s way) and ‘pilgrimssang’ (pilgrim’s song). The similarity and rhyming suggest an identity.” Second, although I’m not sure whether this is actually implicit in the Danish or I only projected it into my paraphrase, the stress on angels singing can evoke classic ideas about the music of the spheres, at one with the deep truths of the universe.

I’ve mainly tried to freshen existing English translations of this lyric, notably one by S.D. Rodholm. But my paraphrase naturally accents what resonates for me. (I don’t care much about precise translations of lyrics—I want to build songs with the best possible flow and power by any means necessary.) By extension my version steers further away from conservative theological implications that are bundled with past versions, not solely in the standard translations from the German but also in other translations from 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, it is not even the most authoritative theory, historically, even before we ask if 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. And I’m not thinking about variations that are like one flavor of Coca-Cola among a dozen more. I’m thinking of how the term “drink” covers beverages that are good for you and beverages that are poison. I’m thinking about how “language” includes some sentences that are lies and others that are true and backed by clear evidence. Then there are sentences that, while true enough, communicate cluelessness—such as responding to a shocked friend who exclaims “My mother just died!” by saying “Cool, I had a cherry coke for lunch!” This latter sort of irrelevance and/or lack of attention 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 Lutherans.

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. I rethought and become selective about which Christian “flavors” I will tolerate and which truth claims, expressed through a Christian vocabulary, I can get behind. This did not only include rethinking what makes Jesus important. It also included rethinking how to understand creation, leading toward a discovery that surprised me, that good trinitarian theologies can articulate true and useful thoughts about creation. Sometimes I rethought all this so much that conservative Lutherans consider me a heretic, but either that’s not true or I don’t care. 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 about this, even if they don’t embrace the ideas in the end. If you’re in that camp, please don’t assume I’m proselytizing! I’ve been around long enough to suspect you might, but evangelical conversion is not what I have in mind—if you can’t imagine this, you’re extending a mistake of thinking there is only one kind of Christianity. What I do suggest for you is strictly optional. It’s just that I’m tired of people dismissing straw versions of the best theological insights. Some of the most brilliant intellectuals and artists in history—let’s say Bach and Coltrane for starters—worked within Christian streams of thought and art. Their ideas deserve to be translated well into our present contexts, at their strongest and not as caricatures. Often this does not happen, largely because conservative evangelicals have undermined the credibility of the entire tradition and bundled it with reprehensible political practices. But disregarding straw versions of good ideas does not make us smarter. It only stunts our imagination.  

My unsolicited advice to 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 to me. Accordingly, I try not to assume that more traditional Lutheran theologies are necessarily hardwired to every problem they pose for me. Some of my best friends like these songs, enough that I sometimes wonder what I’m missing. Just as I can learn from a wide range of artistic depictions of “love,” or “God,” or “powers of creation”—all of which can articulate fine insights in their preferred contexts while misfiring in other contexts—there also may be different ways to talk about Jesus that make sense across varying settings.

Nevertheless I like to work with the ideas that make the most 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 sweeping claims that don’t. I suppose this 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, then none of this matters. (But does that thought extend to Bach and Coltrane, too?) For myself, in the long run I didn’t break with Lutheranism across the board. Rather I found books and teachers that helped me rethink the theology. Although I left behind many childhood forms of religious practice, I evolved within a leftish wing of church networks—especially university-based and social activist parts. I see no good reason to concede “the” Christian tradition to conservatives, even in contexts where the conservative parts are numerically dominant.

The leftish networks of liberal Protestants deserve far more respect than the very low amount they get. That’s an argument I’ve made many times before and won’t rehash here—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? It’s unclear, but I am certainly more bullish than the common wisdom, which overplays both the degree of recent decline and how full this cup’s baseline ever was, even in its supposed golden era. The one-third-full part has always been a minority, and it continues as such, in 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 they fill up more when it is better. So we return to a point I made above. For me, this new lyric breathes life into a song that I hadn’t realized I missed. I hope some readers can also benefit from it.

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

One thought on “A New Lyric for a Classic Christmas Song

  1. Pingback: Beauty Surrounds Us | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

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