Thee and Thou in the Here and Now

Being at least partially, though unwillingly, a product of modernity, I somewhat understand the forced evolution of language.

Photography by Andy Coan

While the generations before us melted words over decades, following the natural flow of tribal vernacular that morphed ‘Caesar’ into ‘Czar’ or ‘Kaiser,’ today’s progressive culture has pushed the hand of language to eliminate and replace language at an even more rapid pace.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “updating” of hymn lyrics to reflect modern language.

My problem with this forced linguistic evolution has little, if anything, to do with politics or gender inclusion. My beef with the postmodern push has almost everything to do with poetry.

Recently, I attended a service wherein Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was sung, albeit with horrifying alterations. All of the ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ had been replaced with ‘yous’ and ‘yours.’  Hence, radiant lines like “all thy works with joy surround thee” was reduced to “all your works with joy surround you,” and a majestic phrase like “call us to rejoice in thee” was supplanted with the amateur “praising you eternally.”  This may be a touching overture to modernity, but it’s terrible poetry.

I remember putting a handwritten note to the same effect in a Christmas collection plate as a confused middle schooler, shortly after hearing the artful turn of phrase “pleased as man with men to dwell” sterilized to “pleased in flesh with us to dwell.” In that case, not only the words but also the nuances of the original meaning had been altered. It’s not dissimilar to the time I heard the Apostles Creed carved up to render “the holy catholic church” as “the holy Christian church.” ‘Catholic,’ even when rendered in the lowercase, has a nuance to it that gives us insight into an attribute of Christianity. To switch the terms effectively meant replacing an adjective with a noun. But I digress.

The question of re-rendering hymns in inclusive language is perhaps a bigger piece of jerky than is appropriate for me chaw off in this forum. I can somewhat see how someone who might not affiliate themselves with a Christian community would consider doing so if it seemed less patriarchal. What I cannot see is someone deciding whether or not to attend a service based on whether or not “Joyful, Joyful, we adore” is followed by a “Thee” or a “You.” I can imagine that anyone with any sensitivity to classical music or poetry would have a negative reaction to the change, and anyone who didn’t have that sensitivity wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.  As a matter of fact, Christian communities that are in a constant attempt to modernize often find that their membership becomes more and more apathetic, not because they’re not modernizing fast enough, but because of the very fact that they’re trying to modernize.  Once you try to make liturgical action crowd-pleasing, you quickly find that you can never quite please the crowd to their full satisfaction.

In religious language, words like “Thee” and “Thou” add gravitas to our dealings with the Almighty. We have enough voices in our culture and even our Church that help us to understand God as our pal; it wouldn’t kill us to have a few more venues that remind us that he is also our Lord.  The question becomes, is our attitude more worshipful when we say, “Thy kingdom come,” as opposed to “Your kingdom come?” I would contend that the former calls us upward, while the other calls God downward. The former forces us outward toward the Other, the latter pretends to make mystery familiar.  If worship is truly about God rather than us, then the more we demand that our liturgical peas be smashed for us, the more we will remain trapped in an infantile and self-centered worship mentality that demands that God graciously accept whatever gift is most convenient for us to give him.

Lastly, I would like to make mention of the ridiculous notion, which I have heard voiced many times, that nobody knows what “thee” and “thou” mean anymore. I’m not sure how to even address that, but suffice to say that the people from whom I’ve heard it also tend to think other ridiculously intelligence-insulting things, like that children should come up with their own curriculum, or that text messaging isn’t having a negative effect on the English language. In the last case, I am a full two stages behind; my “thee” is unlikely to become a “u” anytime soon.

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