Imagine, in the not too distant future, that you come into sacrament meeting. You reach for the hymnbook for the opening song (or the sacrament song depending on how punctual you are) and you notice it is a completely new hymnbook. You start flipping through the hymnbook, and you notice some changes. A lot of songs are the same, but there are some new ones. Some you recognize and some you don’t. Some familiar ones have been modified. You flip to your favorite hymns to see if they are still there and if any of them have been changed. How do you feel? Are you happy with the changes? Are you upset? Was there something you wish they added? Was there something you wished they changed?
This scenario is soon going to be the reality facing members across the world. Hopefully, this will be a joyful experience. The Church says it wants a hymnbook that is relevant to a modern, global audience. It seeks to comfort the weary and teach core doctrine with clarity. These are noble goals, but not easy to achieve. It is impossible for any committee to completely understand the needs and experiences of a worldwide Church. I think that is why they are asking for feedback. Let’s go through the process now of discovering and articulating what we want in the new hymnbook.
Let’s imagine several years have passed after the new hymnbook has been released. You are going through a difficult trial and you come to sacrament meeting with your heart aching. What songs are you going to hear? How will that affect you? Are you going to find a place to come and mourn together, or feel isolated as everyone else seems to have homes where “hate and envy ne’er annoy” and “roses bloom beneath their feet”? Will the songs be about finding peace or wielding a sword? If you are mourning a wayward loved one, are you singing about how dear to the heart of the Shepherd they are, or how the wicked will surely be smitten?
We need to assume that there are going to members in our congregations who are struggling and need the peace and assurance the gospel brings. The hymns are an ambassador to the gospel message for those who hear it. It isn’t enough that our hymns are fun or sound pretty. They need to be free of hate and envy. They need to set realistic expectations. They need to bring comfort to those in need.
Let’s go a bit further in the future, maybe thirty years. The hymnbook has been around for a while now. All the youth and young adults will have been raised completely in the future. Are people going to complain that it is out of date, or is it going to be as relevant as it was when it came out? Let’s say some young people are coming to investigate the Church. They will probably have grown up with both genders being portrayed positively and equally and with racially sensitive language being the norm. Will they understand that phrases like “sons of men” actually refers to both women and men? Will they understand that the gathering of Israel doesn’t have anything to do with race? How will songs about the chosen race, about Babylon being wicked or about Ephraim being crowned be received in a racially hyper-sensitive culture?
We shouldn’t be writing our hymnbook for a modern audience, but for a future audience. As a culture, I think we are becoming more aware of how small nuances in our language affect people. We have studies about the psychological impact of everything from Disney movies to Barbie dolls. I believe the upcoming generations are going more aware and more sensitive to these nuances. Our hymnbook needs to be able to withstand future scrutiny.
We need to make sure our hymns are beyond reproach. Every hymn needs to bring peace, love, and inspiration to everyone in all circumstances. They need to portray women and men equally and positively. They need to be racially sensitive. Even the grouping of topics, as shown by ElleK over at the Exponent, can portray bias.
These are complicated and delicate issues that have no obvious answers, but it is better to have these conversations now rather than after the hymnbook is published. There are many other issues, which I can’t dig into on a single post, which I have gone into more depth on my web site fixldshymns.com, a place to discuss changes to the new hymnbook. We need to be educated about the issues and share our experiences so we can develop sophisticated and mature responses in our feedback for the Church.
Let’s come together and imagine the ideal hymnbook, and then work together to make it happen.