Sunday, September 11, 2011

And Help You to to You Impart

Today in church one of the congregational hymns was Improve the Shining Moments. The lyrics of the final verse conclude with the phrase, "And God will love and bless you And help to you impart." Every time our congregation sings this song, many sing, "And help you to impart" rather than, "And help to you impart."

I suspect that the word "impart" is mainly to blame for the mix up. If you ask the average American youth what the word impart means, you will likely either get a blank stare or a guess that turns out to be incorrect. Many adults have some kind of foggy idea of the word's definition, but few are sufficiently familiar with its usage to know what they are singing regardless of whether they sing "you to" or "to you."

If you know what the word means, I guess that either way presents a good message. If you sing the hymn's actual lyrics, you are testifying that God will give those that rely on him help when they need it. If you switch the words and sing, "And help you to impart," you are testifying that those that rely on God will be helped to help others in their times of need. Either way, it's a good Christian message.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about hymns. There are hymns that I dearly love, hymns that are OK with me, some that I prefer to sing rarely, and a few that I would prefer to completely avoid. I noted, for example, that there is a whole section of absolutely dreary hymns in the current LDS hymnal. Personally, I find no comfort or peace from these depressing odes.

One challenge with any words that get recorded is that the record stays in its original format while the language of the culture continues to evolve. Without anyone really designing or being in control of language, words and phrases come into being, develop new meanings, and drop from common usage on an ongoing basis.

We have all experienced generational differences in understanding of language. Our kids start throwing around terms or usages with which we are unfamiliar. A couple of years ago I heard a teenager say, "Man, that is sick!" From the tone of his voice I could tell that he was expressing approval. When my friends and I uttered the precise same phrase at that age, we meant that something was depraved or highly distasteful.

It happens the other way too. Older people use terms that the younger generation doesn't understand. They also user terms that are dated. Although the younger generation understands the term, they don't use it. Usually this means that the term will die out within a generation.

Nowhere is the example of time-framed linguistic alienation more clear than in scripture. The LDS Church uses the King James Version of the Bible. This version is noted for its beautiful prose and linguistic quality. It is felt by many that the KJV Bible preserves the original scripture in English better than other versions.

But the fact that the translation is more than 400 years old presents a difficulty for modern readers of the scripture. There are many cases where the phraseology differs so drastically from current language usage that it is very difficult to understand without special training. Some words have changed meaning so that some passages read by moderns can even appear to mean the exact opposite of their original intent.

A similar condition exists for hymn lyrics. As the language evolves, the phrases and words used in some hymns become unfamiliar to those singing the hymns nowadays. The problem can be compounded by the fact that hymn phrasing may vary from accepted sentence structure in order to achieve the lyrical qualities that make words work with music.

But hymns differ from scripture. While both hymns and scripture are meant for spiritual and moral edification, scripture is canonized while hymns are not (except for Psalms). Thus, it is far more acceptable to change the wording of hymns to meet currently common understanding than it is to alter scripture for the same reason. It is completely acceptable to write new hymns and stop using hymns, whereas, this isn't general the case with scripture.

Still, it isn't a simple thing for a church with thousands of congregations to switch hymnals. As I noted in last year's hymn post, the current LDS hymnal was published 26 years ago in 1985. The previous edition was published some 35 years earlier. It takes time and resources to change out millions of hymn books.

I opined to my son that it may not be many years before this will become a moot point. Given the rate of technological evolution, I can imagine a time not too distant when few new books are published in hard copy format. The ability to publish a new edition of a hymnal to thousands of meeting houses and millions of homes could be as simple as changing a file on a server.

Perhaps I'm too optimistic about the rate of technological adoption, if not about the rate of technological advance.

At any rate, I suspect that we're probably a decade away from a new edition of the LDS hymnal. I also suspect that when such a publication is released it will still include many hymns that I consider too archaic to be of much use. I'm also guessing that there will still be a smattering of numbers that are odd enough by modern standards that they end up never being seen or heard by the vast majority of church members.

Even when a new hymnal is released, I will continue to find solace, edification, and spiritual enlightenment through the hymns in the book. Sacred music will continue to speak to my soul in ways unmatched by other music.

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