Sunday, January 3, 2010

Traditional non-sense

January 2018: Slightly updated; see postscript.

Regular readers know how a major focus of this blog is preserving traditional hymns. I love the old hymns, and am particularly suspicious of changes in hymn doctrine that have occurred in the 30-40 years.

Tradition is even formally part of our theology, at least for Anglicans who argue that our theology is based on a “three legged stool” (scripture, tradition & reason) or “four legged stool” (scripture, tradition, reason & experience) attributed to Richard Hooker. (A minor problem with such formalizations is that they are a 19th or 20th century fabrication because Hooker never said that.)

Certainly tradition is certainly an important (if not more important) consideration for our Catholic and Orthodox brethren. At the same time, one of the major arguments for Luther and the other Protestant reformers was that Tradition had improperly subordinated the plain text of Scripture.

During the 12 days of Christmas, I’ve found two good examples where older, popular, long-established hymns do not make sense when laid against what we know from Scripture. As it turns out, on Sunday I sang both of the hymns in church — one twice at two different churches. (Providentially, these are the same two hymns that I selected on Christmas Day to blog about later on.)

Exhibit A is Epiphany’s greatest hit and certainly one of my childhood favorites: “We three kings of Orient are.” The antiphonal arrangement of Hymnal 1940 (#51) as opposed to more prosaic presentation of Hymnal 1982 (#128). The carol was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857 and published in his 1863 book of carols. (The 1872 edition is on Google books).

Various modern sources (correctly) note the dissonance between Hopkins and the story of the Wise Men given by Matthew 2. We know they brought three gifts, but there’s no direct Biblical evidence that they were three, let alone kings. In general, Many of today’s theologians might be comfortable with “Wise Men” or even “Three Wise Men,” but would say that the “kings” are a fanciful concoction. (In addition to scripture and tradition, we also have external astronomical evidence that suggests of a “star” that appeared over Bethlehem appeared around 2 B.C.)

So what should we do with the hymn that has misled (if not indoctrinated) generations of Americans into assuming that the visitors from the East were kings? It’s a fun song, but what if it’s unbiblical? Should a rector schedule this hymn believing that it is in knowing the error? Does it even belong in the hymnal? Or is it up to the PC police to bowdlerize the text for the next edition of the hymnal?

Exhibit B is the poem (ca. 1872) by Christina Georgina Rossetti: “In the bleak midwinter.” Certainly the major attraction of the hymn is that English composer Gustav Holst composed a tune for the poem for The English Hymnal (1906). While the details have more ambiguity, the condensed argument against the hymn is that “bleak” is a description of 19th century English winters, not 1st century winters in Palestine.

Bethlehem is only 6 miles from Jerusalem, and Wikipedia says both are at an elevation of 2500’: it seems reasonable to assume a nearly identical climate. Anecdotally, snow does fall in Jerusalem — occasionally dumping several inches on the city. However, such heavy snow is not frequent, according to a scientific study of the mid-20th century, and in recent times, the snow quickly turns to slush or melts off.

Of course, today’s TV-era climate is neither Rosetti’s 19th century or that of Mary and Joseph. In terms of long-term climate, we know that in the middle of the “Little Ice Age,” 1600 A.D. was more than 2°F colder than the 4000-year average, while 2-4 B.C. and 2009 are right near the average.

Even if there was an occasional snowfall 2000+ years ago in the ancient capital of Judah, the image conveyed by Rosetti implies a much deeper and more durable cold:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Based on my travels, “water like a stone” seems like a place with daytime highs below 32°F for several days. Nowadays, the median winter high in Jerusalem is in the 60s, even if the lows are in the 40s. While random variation would be outside this range, it seems highly unlikely that the Bethlehem high today (or during any similar climatic period) would be below freezing for any significant period.

Here, this is just an error of fact rather than doctrine. (As far as I know, no denomination has a doctrinal position about mean winter snowfall or low temperature in Bethlehem.) But is this also a case where a rector (or hymnal editor) should nix a hymn due to errors?

The rest of both hymns are less problematic: who can argue with a description of gold, frankincense and myrrh? If the suspect verses were buried later on, they could be dropped — but in both cases, these are the opening, most familiar, title verses.

I don’t have an answer to either case because I am personally torn: they have been such a part of my worship life for so long. Still, if a theologian, musicologist or cleric identifies a gap between lyric and doctrine (or lyric and fact), it seems dishonest not to advise the congregation of this. And if the song is flawed, how can you keep it and use it? I don’t want to lose either one, but on the other hand I don’t see how to keep them, either.


Northland Al said...

It think, it may be best to consider the larger theological (and teaching) message of a hymn than all of the detailed facts. There is a great use of metaphor and symbols through hymns:

In the case of We Three Kings, the larger message to be received is that three important people (King is an important term to Western Europeans), not from Israel (i.e. God's incarnation to the entire world), by faith, come to pay homage to Christ. Our language, especially when put to prose, has limitations.

With "In the Bleak Midwinter" some of the same metaphore exist. The Earth is in it's "winter" until God breaks forth on this Earth as Christ. The metaphor would likely need to be culturally understandable by those singing it. Since the point is to reach the people singing the hymn, it helps not to use too much that makes little sense culturally.

As an example, "Twas in the Moon of Wintertime" is written specifically with the Huron in mind. The point is not factual details but teaching about the Christ as the Incarnation of God.

Of course, there are thousands of arguments against what I just said, and I had have probably used them from time to time. Just some thinking out loud.

Katherine said...

I love these hymns as well! Perhaps one solution is to continue singing them, with an awareness of the setting in which they were written (e.g. bleak, wintry England) as well as with an awareness of how they can draw us closer to God. Which, as Northland Al points out, may be in the form of a metaphor. Or it may simply mean recognizing the beauty of the song and the sacred subject matter that moved the writer to create it.

Still, I don't really know a good way to keep singing the songs without perpetuating misconceptions. I suspect that, as a child, I had much more exposure to the story of the wise men from "We Three Kings" than from the actual Bible text. And even more so from Nativity scenes, picture books, etc. These are all great storytelling tools! Perhaps the power with which the overall message is conveyed outweighs the relatively small inaccuracies presented? I'm a bit cautious about expanding that logic, but it seems to work here.

On a related note, I recently had a conversation with my mother that went something like this:

Me: I have a question about the star and the wise men. Which direction were the wise men coming from?
Mom: From the east.
Me: "Westward leading, still proceeding," right?
Mom: Right.
Me: So how come they "saw a star, shining in the east beyond them far? Noel noel?"
Mom: Hmm..."The First Noel" is a lie!

Katherine said...

Also, I'm a geology student and was pretty excited to read about the Little Ice Age on a blog about Christian hymns! Talk about speaking to two of my (usually) entirely unrelated interests!