Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hills of the North Rejoice

The English Hymnal didn't have Charles Edward Oakley's hymn "Hills of the North Rejoice" in it.

Nor does the New English Hymnal have it.

But the New English Hymnal has a kind of fraudulent version that is apt to catch you unawares. There's a hymn in that book that begins "Hills of the North Rejoice" and if you're not on your guard, you'll think you're going to be lucky, when hymn 7 is announced, and that you're going to be treated to those lovely bits about "river and mountain spring", "deep in your coral caves", "lulled be your restless waves", "soon shall your sons be free", and "Shout while ye journey home!".

But look out! Don't let them sell you a counterfeit. The version you'll get if you're in a NEH church won't give you any of that. All those lines have been torn out (and not just those). In fact what you'll get from the NEH is not Oakley's hymn at all, but a kind of low grade pastiche, written by the EDITORS. (According to the book it's based on something by Oakley, and indeed the first line of every verse is plagiarised from Oakley's "Hills of the North", but nothing else remains of that hymn, apart from a very badly distorted version of the last verse).

Let's do a few comparisons:
Verse 1. Here's what we should get:
Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain spring,
Hark to the advent voice;
Valley and lowland, sing;
Though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
He judgment brings and victory.

Here's what we get instead from the EDITORS:
Hills of the North Rejoice
Echoing songs arise,
Hail with united voice
Him who made earth and skies:
He comes in righteousness and love,
He brings salvation from above.

Now why do that? The point of "river and mountain spring" was that it was supposed to be something typical of the northern lands (as the rest of the verses had something typical of the other corners of the compass). Cut that out and the whole point of the hymn is lost. Well, guess what? The editors have cut all those out. So why, I ask you, are we singing about hills of the north and so on? Why?

And here's another puzzle. Why have they cut out the reference to the advent voice? And why have they cut out the reference to the "absent long" and to the judgement? Don't they understand that advent is about the Lord coming in judgement? Why do we substitute righteousness, love and salvation for judgement and victory? Is it that the editors, doubtless themselves inhabitants of these northern hills, don't much fancy having the Lord come in judgement? No, I should think they don't...

Now take a look at verse 2. Here's what it should say:

Isles of the southern seas,
Deep in your coral caves
Pent be each warring breeze,
Lulled be your restless waves:
He comes to reign with boundless sway,
And makes your wastes His great highway.
Here's the Editors' rather sad pastiche in place of verse 2:

Isles of the Southern seas,
Sing to the listening earth,
Carry on every breeze
Hope of a world's new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
His word is sure, his promise true.
Gone are the coral caves. But what does it mean "sing to the listening earth"? What? And what has happened to the idea that Christ at his coming in judgement will still the waves and stop the winds? Wasn't that rather a picturesque and imaginative motif? And notice the loss of that biblical image of making the waste places plain and the highway for the coming of the Lord.

Well, I could go through verse by verse. Let's just observe that Oakley's authentic verses about the East ("on your dark hills, long cold and grey...") and the West ("ye that have waited long, unvisited unblest") get their delicate beauty partly from the neat way in which they sum up something of the history of Christianity and its transmission to lands that had a prior history before the arrival of Christianity. They get their beauty from the combination of that senstivity to the history of these lands, combined with a sense that the Second Coming will be to all, and that all will be gathered into the City of God without prejudice concerning their origin or how late they came to Christianity. All of that is, of course lost, in the new version, and no doubt those features have been deliberately lost, probably because the editors couldn't understand the meaning and thought it expressed a kind of racism.

Yet it wasn't Oakley who was racist. It's the NEH editors. Just take a look at the last verse.

Here's verse 5 in the NEH version:

Shout, as you journey on,
Songs be in every mouth,
Lo, from the North they come,
From East and West and South.
In Jesus all shall find their rest,
In him the sons of earth be blest.

Aside from the sexist language "sons of earth" which was not there in Oakley's original, and the fact that they can't do punctuation, you'll see that in this verse the words are spoken by a third party observer. As we sing this hymn we do not identify with the people coming from the four corners of the earth: rather we stand apart and comment that "they" are coming from funny far away places. And we order them to shout. But we, we are somehow out of it. Superior? People from the ancient lands that got there first? Or what?

Not so in Oakley's. No, for Oakley we belong to a great fellowship of members from all corners of the globe and we are all summoned together into God's kingdom, despite the fact that we were (all of us) so late receiving the gospel. In Oakley's version it is "we" who journey home, not "they", and the you in "shout while ye journey home" is us addressing each other; it is thus "we" who have songs in our mouth, not "you" or "they". We are all arriving together; we are drawn from all corners into Christ's undivided kingdom. "Lo from the North we come, from East and West and South". This is precisely not racist: we are all in it together and we all become free from having been bondsman:

Shout, while ye journey home;
Songs be in every mouth;
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South.
City of God, the bond are free,
We come to live and reign in thee!

I have to say that I can't really imagine why this bizarre surgery has been carried out on an innocent hymn, which was very much a favourite with many ordinary sound and upright Christians. But this much is clear: the finished product is not only entirely lacking in the poetic imagery of its superior model, and in any theological significance or content, but has also introduced a quite offensive selection of racist and sexist thinking, that was entirely lacking from its predecessor's rather elegant egalitarianism.

And I should say that although Little St Mary's is a church that generally uses the NEH, we have now resorted to supplying a printed sheet with the real words for "Hills of the North Rejoice", on the relevant Sunday in Advent. There are limits to the rubbish we are prepared to sing. Some day we'll get rid of it all, but this one is so bad we've scrapped it already.

For the real thing, you need only go here: