the thees and thous

I was going to make a comment on Songbird’s blog, Reflectionary, on the entry, O Store Gud, but realized it would be much too long to be a mere comment. Songbird writes about singing the updated version of “How Great Thou Art” on Sunday Morning and people’s absolute antipathy to the changes. I found the new words on the Wikipedia page for “How Great Thou Art” (scroll down to New Century Hymnal). I think they’re really quite lovely and powerful, too. I could sing that. Yet one of the reasons I balked at the United Church of Christ six years ago when Computerguy and I were looking for a church was because of the hymnal. It was just too disconcerting to have all those familiar hymns changed. I don’t think that would trouble me now. And in the Presbyterian church, I just outright don’t know most of the hymns. Maybe 1 in 5 is familiar to me. But that’s beside the point.

Anyway, even though I am a Medieval/Renaissance scholar (that sounds lofty–I don’t really think of myself that way, but I guess I am), I’m not a big proponent of the thees and the thous because I don’t think we understand them. I get the feeling people think it shows extra reverence to God to use Thee and Thou (at least that was always the idea I got.) How surprised I was to learn, in a college English class, that “thou” was actually the familiar form, the “tu” form, if you know Spanish. And it was really outdated, even in Jacobean England (King James Era–Latin James=Jacobus). The King James translators were being intentionally archaic in the early 17th century. Shakespeare uses the “thou” form occasionally, but it is inconsistent and generally seems to be intentional when he does.

So I think it’s fascinating that the “thou” form (and when it was written it likely rhymed with “you” not “cow”) is kept alive in the church in (a) hymns that were not written in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but were modeled after King James Psalms (I guess) and in (b) the Lord’s Prayer (because that’s how everyone knows it and that means everyone can say it together) and (c) the 23rd Psalm for, I think, the same reason as (b). And people feel reverent using the form. And if people understand that it’s the familiar form, there is that lovely idea that the Psalm translators were making these poems and prayers personal, intimate conversations with God, and that we can do the same. But if people think it’s a more reverential form, then that puts God at a distance, and I’m not sure that is what we want to convey. Yet, going back to “How Great Thou Art,” if Songbird’s teenager can be upset by the new words, how would the vast majority of our church who have been saying and singing these things for 60+ years feel? How many times do we have to sing new words before we like them just as well? And in a church that follows the liturgical calendar, certain hymns are for certain seasons and don’t get repeated every couple of months, a concept I’m still getting used to. So if you sing it once a year, how in the world would you get used to new words. Of course “contemporary” churches just ditch all the old hymns altogether and sing praise songs which don’t take a lot of parsing to understand. I guess that’s a solution. Or not.

And here’s my confession: I love the inclusive language. I am learning to think of a bigger God than the one given to me by the church of my youth and I think that’s wonderful. But boy was I startled the first time we sang the doxology in our church. And every time we sing it, which is every week, I have to be conscious about it or actually looking at the program or I will sing “him” and “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” instead of “God” and “Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.” Even though we didn’t sing it every week, we sang it often enough that those words are just ingrained in my mind. So I do have sympathy.

I made this a language lesson, but Songbird tied the words of the hymn in to a discussion of the oil disaster, and I think that’s a little more important than whether we say thou or you. Madeleine L’Engle talks about the root words, dis-aster, separation from the stars. I wonder if we even know how to connect to the stars anymore?

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