Our ward choir was recently practicing a version of the hymn Lead, Kindly Light. A brother who is a few years my senior leaned over and asked, "What is a garish day?"
The dictionary.com entry says that garish can mean crudely or tastelessly colorful, lurid, etc. Not being able to think of that at the moment, I said, "It's like a day at Lagoon," referring to a well known local amusement park. I added, "Or most Super Bowl halftime shows." Seeing that my brief explanation lacked clarity, I said, "It's a day of worldliness. The author suggests that he used to like that kind of thing but that he now finds contentment in humbly following God."
While the choir women were working on their part, I had a moment to review the lyrics of this well known hymn. Although another friend of mine says that this is one of his favorite hymns, it has never been a favorite of mine. I realized that at least part of the reason for this is demonstrated by the question posed by my choir brother.
This man is an intelligent person. He is well versed in art and has a deep love for many master works that depict faith, especially paintings. Yet he found it difficult to understand some of the archaic language in this hymn.
All cultures and subcultures have unique language forms; even fictional cultures. Anyone that has read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or better yet, The Silmarillion, has had to grapple with unfamiliar terms and linguistic constructs. Star Wars is rife with unique vocabulary. In the real world, many sources, including the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, recognize peculiar Mormon language usage.
So maybe it's OK that Mormons have some antiquated hymn lyrics and scriptures in Early Modern English, and are encouraged to use EME forms in prayer (see Dallin H. Oaks, April 1993 general conference talk).
On the other hand, I admit that I am at least somewhat sympathetic to complaints that retaining outmoded language forms in prayers and congregational hymns renders these forms of worship inaccessible to an increasing number of English speaking worshipers and potential worshipers.
While I don't foresee modernization of the language used in English editions of LDS canonized scripture anytime soon, let's be honest about the fact that this language will always remain a secondary language to nearly all faithful English speaking Latter-day Saints. Moreover, it will become increasingly foreign to English speakers as Modern English continues to evolve.
I will try to explain why I think this is significant. The most common EME forms people (try to) use in prayer are the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine. These were originally the informal versions of the formal you, your, and yours. That is, a person would use thee, thou, thy, and thine when addressing close family members and associates. (This usage has been obsolete for about four centuries now.)
My father was a visionary man. As the result of a number of spiritual experiences, he was able to explain to me that in the premortal life we had a very intimate relationship with Heavenly Father. He said that endearing terms such as Daddy or Papa would be the closest words in our language to describe how each of us related to our Eternal Father in that realm.
Prayer is intended to access that intimate link between child and Eternal Parent. So it would seem best when praying to use language that is most respectfully accessible to us, avoiding language that interferes with that close relationship. Joseph B. Wirthlin advised worrying "about speaking from your heart" in prayer, rather than worrying about the wording of the prayer.
While using currently familiar language might be appropriate for personal prayers, what about prayers said in public? Shouldn't we strive to use the EME forms then? We should probably strive for something like that, since that's what you see modeled in general conference and other meetings where general authorities and officers pray. But it's an acquired skill.
Hardly a Sunday goes by that I don't hear an otherwise erudite adult utter some kind of cringe worthy awkward phrasing in an attempt to use EME forms in public prayer. Hardly a public prayer is said (at least where I attend church) where EME forms are employed correctly. How many generally intelligent people really know how to say, "Wilt Thou please...," "...that Thou wouldst...," and the like?
While it is incumbent upon us as Christians to tolerate the inadvertent foibles of others, this kind of stilted phrasing seems more inclined to alienate us from Deity rather than drawing us closer into our relationship with God. Moreover, it causes people to avoid praying in public for fear of stumbling over unfamiliar phrases that they believe are required. Can't we just focus more on genuinely loving God when we pray publicly rather than trying to use wording that seems weird to us?
I would say that hymns with obsolete language will soon fall out of usage. Except Latter-day Saints seem to have a great love for the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, despite the hymn being omitted from the most recent edition of the Church's hymnbook. The lyrics include a fair amount of outdated language. How many people know what "Here I raise my Ebenezer" means? Yet modern people seem to love the hymn because it speaks to their wandering souls.
I suppose what I am saying is that I'm not a purist on this issue. That's because I feel that it's generally not the language forms that are essential; it's the relationships with God and fellow souls that are imperative. That's where our focus should be: doing what draws us closer and more lovingly into these relationships.
So, the next time you hear someone in church pray using modern familiar language, just chill and feel what the Holy Spirit has to say on the subject. I'm certain that God loves it when faithful people humbly pray to Him, whatever language forms they use.
I guess you don't speak Spanish--Because in that language the words used that are equivalent to thee, thy, thou, etc. are the verb forms used ONLY with intimate family and friends. I really like the intimate language of prayer which sets it apart from the language of our daily world. I like the archaic poetic language of the hymns too. There is nothing wrong with learning new (to you) words as we participate in church. Can't we keep something intact so that we don't sound like the rest of the world?
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