on authenticity and finding our own voices: a rant

Has this happened to you? You have a song that fits the theme of a service perfectly, but a problem arises during rehearsal: someone objects to a phrase or a word. It doesn’t fit their theology, or it’s not inclusive in some way. They insist on changing the lyrics, or they refuse to sing it altogether.

Can you imagine someone saying “I have theological objections to major keys. I can’t sing this unless we change it to a minor key.” (Sound familiar? Remember that major keys were banned by the Catholic church in the 1300s.) But we do this with lyrics all the time.

I understand this. We UUs can be a testy lot, but it’s usually when we have our antennae out for injustice or oppression. This is clearly a good thing, and has brought about many good results.

But is it always a good thing? I don’t think so. At some point this insistence on every word being perfectly in line with our own (personal) theology becomes a credal test (“We can’t sing that because I don’t believe in _____”). That’s not who we are. It fails to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”and it is not “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”. (“We honor you, except that your theology doesn’t agree with the altos, so we’re going to put our own words in your mouth.”)

I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with this. Because we don’t have a common creed, we have to recognize that not every song is going to be a personal statement of faith for everyone singing it. But we are going to be singing music that has deep meaning for someone in the congregation, if not for us. And that is what our ministry as musicians should be about: bringing musical expression of everyone’s faith into worship, one song at a time.

For a long time, I was of the opinion that we would never be able to sing “Jesus is Just Alright” in a UU service. Then one day, it fit the service perfectly, so we scheduled it. We sang it absolutely straight; we did not try to adjust the theology, we did not try to make the language more inclusive, we just sang it, in honor of what the writer had to say about his own faith. It felt good to do this, and it was (mostly) accepted in the spirit in which it was created. Another time, we sang Meg Keene’s “Hymn to Her”, knowing that it would resonate deeply with some and totally fly by others in the congregation. Again, the respectful presentation of a particular theology was accepted as the gift it was, without controversy.

Why can’t we do this every time we sing?

Here’s my New Year Resolution (yes, it’s March, but I’m a slow decision-maker): I will sing every song we do with respect for the writer, without changing lyrics to fit someone else’s thoughts, sentiments or philosophy. I will not force my (or someone else’s) theology on anyone else by putting words they did not write into their mouths.

We may have to drop some music from our repertoire. That’s OK. If we feel strongly enough that a subject should be sung about, but in our own particular way, then we should write our own song about it. Which is a more desirable outcome in many ways.

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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9 Responses to on authenticity and finding our own voices: a rant

  1. Amanda Udis-Kessler says:

    In general I agree with this, but with one substantial exception: hymns that refer to all humankind as “men.” I can’t go there because, as a feminist sociologist, I see clearly how male-identified religious culture takes women out of the picture and how problematic that is for women. (Vance knows, but others may not, that I am also a UU church musician, songwriter, and choral composer.) I struggle with this a bit less with pop music of earlier eras though I’m not sure why. I would be comfortable (I think) with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” even though it refers to people as “brothers” if memory serves. Hmmm.

  2. This has long been my personally-held philosophy and one on which the choir I founded at UUSD was schooled: every song we sing feeds someone’s spiritual need. This allowed our small congregation to enjoy a lot of traditional hymns from other faith traditions without the choir having had to debate whether or not we could sing about Heaven and Hell and Jesus and the Holy Ghost. With a lot of recovering Catholics, Baptists and others in our small fellowship, it always felt good to be able to offer some of those folks a bit of what they were raised on but in a new context. It’s another way to bridge the gap and promote spiritual healing.

  3. Melinda says:

    Vance, this is a provocative subject and your post is eloquently written. However, I have to say that I disagree with the idea that a direct rendering is the best way to sing every song, every time. For instance, take Singing the Living Tradition as an example. We have changed the words to many songs (#206, 212, 225, 245, 409, etc., etc.) given options for others (205), and left some as is. There is already a strong precedent in our history for singing familiar music with words that speak to us. I really do think it’s OK to change some words sometimes, if we do it with thought and care.

  4. Robert Werme says:

    Thanks Vance. Here’s my piece.
    Hymns, in particular, are included in our services to imbue our minds with language via music, and are intended to help shape our beliefs. Texts presume, often tacitly, con-texts. I believe this is why it is essential that when we craft our services, there be deep collaboration between the minister/leader and the music leader. When we work together, it then is possible to present texts in musical form that can be exposited by the “textual leader”, placed in context, and congregations can be put on notice that it is THEIR task to work with the text, having been given the context. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that “man” and “men” are single syllables, whereas “humankind” takes 3 syllables. For me, these rhythmic adjustments are as jarring as anything theological.
    Jeremy Geffen’s text of “Mystery” includes the use of “man” and “men have tried”, and Jim Scott and others have performed arrangements using “one” to replace the first, and “we’ve tried in vain” to replace the second. I suppose if I were asked to perform this piece without the opportunity to contextualize it, I might make those adjustments, too. My preference would be to use original texts to honor the writer’s aesthetic integrity, and ask for contextualizing contributions from the “textual leader” of the service.

  5. Kim Hampton says:

    I’m on the opposite side from Melinda….I think the grey hymnal shows how bad changing lyrics can be. Sometimes we really do need to sing the word “wretch” when singing “Amazing Grace”. It’s like UUs want to deny all the icky-wicky stuff of theology. And I’m damn tired of it. So bravo for this message.

  6. I will argue that even the “universal man” construct should be honored. First, if that’s what was written, that’s what should stand, like any other word in the text. It’s not a profession of our faith, it’s recognizing someone else’s. Second, in almost all cases, it was not meant as deliberately oppressive language. Yes, the net effect was exclusionary, but that doesn’t justify altering the text any more than substituting “love” for “God” in “Go Now In Peace”.

    BTW, does anyone remember a song called “Imagine”? The one that talks about “a brotherhood of man”? The guy who co-wrote “Woman is the Nigger of the World”. I don’t think he wrote “brotherhood of man” to oppress anyone, or even in shameful ignorance of the issues involved. Sometimes, you just have to go with words that work in the rhythmic and rhyme structure, even if they’re not exactly what you’d use in an essay.

    But in the end, he’s dead and can’t tell us what he meant, and trying to “fix” his language is rewriting history to suit our own views. I’m not doing it anymore. Nor will I try to make “Hymn to Her” more inclusive of male dieties. It just ain’t right.

    I see this as another ministerial opportunity. If someone in a congregation gets bent out of shape because we are singing lyrics that are “wrong”, should we scurry to remove the offending word, or should we start a dialogue about real, true acceptance of each other’s spiritual paths?

  7. Bryan Davis says:

    I’m the choir director at Peoples Church UU in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I couldn’t agree with you more. We are so proud of our openness that we sometimes totally miss our own narrow-mindedness. And that’s how I feel about insistence on changing words to be theologically “correct”. And by the way, we only ever want to change Christian lyrics. If I had a Rastafarian song for a service, I don’t think anyone would suggest or expect to change that song even though I’m sure hardly anyone in our congregation would agree totally with that theology either.


  8. Paul says:

    How many UUs sing along with the car radio tuned, not to NPR, but, say, some classic rock station? Do they really agree with the values inherent in all of those songs? Really?

    But on the other hand, it is the history of hymns in the West that the same tune gets as many hymns (the sets of words) applied to it as people have the energy to write. So switching out words is no issue. Even adjustments of words to fit a theology is at least within the edges of that tradition. So it seems to me that it is an ahistorical hullabaloo to get one’s knickers in a twist over bowdlerized hymns.

    As for Amazing Grace, I refused to sing it at all for decades. Now I sing it when it comes up and treat it like classic rock. Nice tune. The word “grace” is nice. Most of the rest of the hymn is crap, but who cares? It has entered the broader culture and ain’t leaving. But I do prefer when it is sung, “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved and set me free…” So sue me.

    Screwing around with what people previously did is the nature of religion.

    • Paul says:

      That said, our starting point should be dialog, no, polylog about the theologies and paths present in the congregation and what the participants in the conversation need.from each other around those areas of distinction. In too many congregations, that is the implicitly verboten conversation.

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