When I was a freshman at Georgetown, Father von Arx, a history professor, handed back my first paper marked with the following: “May I suggest you try using inclusive language?” Now, I didn’t have the slightest idea what he meant by that, and I didn’t find out for years. And a good thing, too, since that’s a suggestion I mostly don’t care to follow.
I tried to find a good definition of inclusive language but the problem is that the defnition is slanted based on the opinion of the source providing it. I will attempt to be objective and say we use inclusive language when we use words like humankind instead of mankind, chairperson instead of chairman, and he/she instead of he (most people are resorting to using “they” as a singular, however). Proponents of this approach say that women are excluded by the usual words, which are reflective of a male-dominated society. Opponents say that inclusive language is clunky and sounds stupid and that these people are making a mountain over a molehill. I say that even if we start using inclusive language from now on there is no reason to go back and rewrite old songs and even re-translate the BIBLE to fit in with modern ideas of what is appropriate.
And here’s some of what one of my favorite authors (Madeleine L’Engle) had to say:
[The] generic his and he, [is] not exclusively masculine. I am a female, of the species, man. Genesis is very explicit that it takes both make and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both . . .Therefore I refuse to be timid about being a part of mankind . . . Nor do I want to be stuck in the vague androidism whcih has resulted from the attempts to avoid the masculine pronoun . . . language is its own creature; it evolves on its own . . . it does not do well when suffering from arbitrary control. Our attempts to change the words which have long been part of a society dominated by males have not been successful. Instead of making language less sexist they have made it more so . . . To substitute person for man has ruined what used to be a good, theological word, calling up the glory of God’s image within us.
Sorry for the long quotation, but I certainly cannot say it so well. I don’t think of myself as a typical feminist. Men and women are not equal. If I had to pick a superior sex, I’d pick the female, frankly. We have proven ourselves capable of doing just about everything men can do just as well, and we have more endurance, are emotionally stronger, AND bear children. Men are physically stronger and can parallel park better. No contest, right? I don’t see how being referred to as “he” or part of “mankind” diminishes my power in any way!
But a lot of people feel that way, and have convinced others that this is the “politically correct” and “sensitive” way to feel. They are in the ascendance, and they have changed our songs. They have, in my opinion, mutilated our songs, changing not just words but meanings and turning some of them into nonsense. Let’s look at a few, shall we?
Let There Be Peace on Earth is one of the few songs I remember fondly from the 70s–it’s so fun to sing, especially as it crescendos dramatically toward the end. I chose it for the recessional at my grandmother’s funeral. Needless to say, we sang it the “right” way. The line that was changed originally read: “With God as our Father, brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.” (Okay, the poetry was never the best.) The powers that be changed it to “With God as our Father, neighbors all are we. Let us walk with each other . . .” I think we can all agree that brother is a stronger word than neighbor because it implies a closer, familial relationship. But what is even more annoying to someone who delights in the English language is that the new phrase is nonsense. Having God as our Father makes us brothers, or brothers and sisters if you must, not neighbors. Therefore I have spent the last ten or more years singing (under my breath) “With God as our Landlord, neighbors all are we.”
Apparently someone finally realized the problem and attempted a new rewrite. Newer versions say, “With God as our Father, we are family.” Come on! Can anyone take this seriously? Is there anyone who doesn’t think of Sister Sledge when they hear that? It takes me right out of the song every time.
Here’s another one that has been ruined. I Am the Bread of Life is hated by the people who make the worst hymns lists anyway, because it features the people singing the part of God, apparently a big no-no. But it’s biblical, and the congregation sings it loudly and well, and I always enjoyed it pre-change. Now I dread it. Why? They replaced every instance of the pronoun “he” with “you” but that’s not the worst of it. I always loved this line: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father draw him.” I loved it because of the oh-so-rare use of the subjunctive mood, even though most people substituted “draws” in practice! Here’s the new line: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father beckons.” Am I the only one who sees a problem here? Aside from the lost subjunctive, isn’t it obvious that “draw” and “beckon” don’t mean the same thing? The original line connotes the power of God pulling one toward Him irresistibly. The new line is more like, “Yoo-hoo! It’s Me, God! Come on over here if you feel like it.” Yuck! Can you tell I feel strongly about this?
How about Be Not Afraid? This is not the only change, but the line that once read “and if wicked men insult and hate you” now reads “and if wicked tongues insult and hate you.” One amusing thing is that when other parts of this songs were changed, this line was originally left alone, as though it were okay to specify “men” as long as they were being wicked! But eventually someone must have realized that wasn’t really fair, so now we have this nonsense. I’ll buy tongues insulting, but hating? What, do Christians taste bad or something?
These three are the worst examples that come to my mind, but inclusive language subtly changes the meanings of many songs. I just discovered that The Servant Song, sung ad nauseam at my parish, loved by most and loathed by me, wasn’t quite as bad before it fell prey to inclusive language. It used to be “Brother, let me be your servant” instead of “Will you let me be your servant.” See the difference in tone? And in the second verse it once said “We are brothers on the road” where it now says “We are travelers on the road.” Lots of people are traveling on the road. So what? Saying they are brothers makes ALL the difference and then the following lines make sense: “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (Sadly, it doesn’t help the poetry or the icky way the words don’t go with the music, but that’s the subject of a different post!)
Finally, worst of all are the songs that have eliminated the use of “He” to refer to God, awkwardly saying “God” over and over again to avoid it. For crying out loud. Do any of us really think that God is an old man with a beard? Don’t we all know that God must have feminine qualities if all of us are made in His Image? Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself called God Father? Do we really need to change “I am He that comforts you,” to “I am God that comforts you” to make some point? (If we really want to change those lines from Turn to Me–which has inclusive language tampering in almost every line now–we’d do better to exchange “that” for “who” to make it grammatically correct!)
Plainly, I could go on for days on this topic. I probably will return to it from time to time. Please feel free to share in the comments your feelings about the changes in your favorite hymns. And look with a more critical eye at the changes the next time you notice them at Mass.