November 4, 2015

Inclusiveness Does Not Trump Truth

I did not watch the installation of Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church; I was in church at the time. (The timing of the service was something of a mixed bag.) As soon as I had time, however, I began reading the sermon that the new PB preached at Washington National Cathedral. I was not far into the sermon when I was stopped dead in my tracks by this passage:

Many centuries later, Julia Ward Howe, writing in the midst of America’s Civil War, spoke of this same movement, even amidst all the ambiguities and tragedies of history. This is what she wrote:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me,
as he died to make folk holy
let us live to set all free,
while God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
God’s truth is marching on.
Of course, as even someone ignorant of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” might suspect, the above is not what Julia Ward Howe wrote. (The Wikipedia article on the text includes a facsimile of the original publication in The Atlantic Monthly—see below.) In particular, the stanza quoted was originally
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me:
as he died to make men holy
let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.
The important lines here are the antepenultimate and penultimate ones. (I have no idea what lilies have to do with anything or what glory in one’s bosom is.) The lines were written, as Curry notes, during the Civil War, when men—almost exclusively men—were dying, Howe and others hoped, to eliminate slavery. (The Emancipation Proclamation was still a year off.)
“Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Howe poem as originally published

The “quotation” in the sermon is, quite simply, incorrect, and Curry’s assertion about what Julia Ward Howe wrote is a falsehood—not a good way to begin tenure as presiding bishop. I don’t think it was necessary to put words in Howe’s mouth to illustrate the “Jesus movement.” Knowing the context of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we know that (1) “men” was often used to mean people, and (2) human males were actually dying for a cause.

Dying to make men free is a concept that might be scary in a sermon, and Wikipedia notes that, in many modern recordings, the penultimate line is rendered “let us live to make men free.” This makes the line more relevant in a 21st-century context, but it isn’t what Howe wrote. Curry substituted “folk” for “men,” which is an informality out of character with the rest of the poem. The use of “folk” and (on the next line) “all” make for much weaker poetry than do the original words.

No doubt, a concern for “inclusiveness” was responsible for the substitutions for “men.” I can appreciate the impulse for such changes, but there are times when they are inappropriate. Sometimes the substitutions just do not work. (The Hymnal 1982 changed “Rise up, O men of God!” to “Rise up, ye saints of God!” though the original title is cross-referenced in the index. Mercifully, “God rest you merry, gentlemen” was not similarly “fixed.”) At other times, changes rewrite history, and history deserves to remain, well, historic. I am reminded of the consistent rendering of “brothers” in the epistles as “brothers and sisters” in the New Revised Standard Version. This may make feminists feel good, but we deserve to know what was actually written. Whether Paul, by convention, referred to the saints collectively as brothers or whether he was a male chauvinist pig, I don’t know. That’s another conversation.

I do not, in principle, object to “inclusive” language, though achieving it is often a writer’s nightmare. As an objective, however, achieving inclusiveness is not as important as being truthful. Curry could easily have paraphrased Julia Ward Howe. He had no right to misquote her.

15 comments:

  1. Good grief Lionel - perhaps that is how he learned it? A much better version IMO

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  2. I expected to get grief for this, but the speed of the criticism was a surprise. I stand by my essay.

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  3. You posted it on Facebook - of course it gets replies.

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  4. * Many modern recordings of the Battle Hymn of the Republic utilize the lyric "As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free" as opposed to the lyric originally written by Julia Ward Howe.(wiki) Perhaps this is how he has always heard it? Accusing the new PB of lying is a pretty strong accusation.

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    1. “Lying” is a bit strong. One is on thin ice, however, when changing something likely to be familiar to one’s audience. This is why we cringe when a singer screws up the words to our national anthem.

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    2. Semantics. "A falsehood" is a pretty way of saying "a lie"; you did say Curry lied. I think it's more likely (and certainly more gracious!) to assume that he made a mistake or was simply incorrect. Unless you've obtained proof that he did this in order to mislead, it seems incredibly mean-spirited to refer to it as lying.

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    3. OK, so I did use the word “falsehood.” I don’t think there was any evil intent here. I found the “quotation” jarring because I knew it was wrong and because the modified lines changed the meaning and drained the poetry from the text. I said that it stopped me cold. I still have not read the rest of the sermon, though I want to.

      That said, I am happy that Michael Curry is our new PB, and I anticipate that he will do great things for The Episcopal Church. But I do hope that he will be more careful when using quotations.

      I have an academic background and was taught to be scrupulous about quotations. I am the sort of person who puts initial letters in brackets if I quote a passage that requires a capital or lowercase letter where the original text used the opposite case. What Michael Curry did, though, was not a close call.

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    4. Thank you for the follow-up; your post felt very incendiary!
      I know nearly nothing about Curry; after reading your post, I asked my spouse, a liturgist & ordained priest who solo led a church of 100 for 3 years about that specific hymn; she recalled it as 'live' and not 'die'.
      When something is commonly used, it's very easy to think that it's the original wording; I suspect that Curry simply copied the hymn down, saw the name of the person who wrote it, and didn't realize that it had been changed or that someone on the internet would say he was being untruthful :D.

      I think it's good to set the record straight on what the hymn really says, but I'm unconvinced that the record has to be set straight in a way that certainly feels antagonistic! Thanks for clarifying.

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  5. You've confused a sermon for an academic essay. Preachers paraphrase (w/o noting it) All.The.Time. (especially in more pietistic, less academic traditions, such as the Black Church).

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  6. Even Jesus and Paul quoted scripture in a way you would call "falsehood" and most Episcopalians are not at all familiar with Battle Hymn of the Republic in my experience.

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  7. My suspicion is that he took the lyrics from memory, and consequently they went the way of many a religious text. The original words are stronger, and real inclusiveness can be incorporated by emphasis the sex of the writer. But if, like me, he grew up singing the hymn on a regular basis, the inclusive language is probably, in some way, jarring for him as well. It certainly is for me as a child who grew up in a culture of high illiteracy in which everyone nonetheless could sing every lyric of this hymn. I have three uncles who never read a book in their entire lives. In the families of my fellows growing up there was usually someone who couldn't read, but most houses had a Bible and the works of Shakespeare nonetheless. Visiting almost anywhere, I could find Shakespeare to entertain me while the adults talked about apple crops and the productivity of their hens, or worse, listened to the "Hog Report" on the radio.

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    1. The video of the sermon reveals that there was a tablet on the pulpit. I may have displayed the complete sermon, or it might have displayed an outline.

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  8. I can't say the way he read it shook me. I did notice it. I simply assumed it was either from memory, or a modern rendering.

    I think Bp. Curry will bring a new and exciting atmosphere, even if he annoys poets. His voice will from time to time err. I am sure he expects to err. But I rather think the theme is what matters.

    FWIW

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  9. On Facebook, someone pointed out that “Batte Hymn” appears in Lift Every Voice and Sing II. For what it’s worth, the penultimate line in the final verse in LEVAS II is “let us live to make all free.”

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