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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Flannelgraphs and Hymnody

The Sunday school teacher gave my five-year-old daughter scissors and felt and a flannel graph board. Didn't know flannelgraph could be freestyle, did you? Noah's ark never looked finer.

Today I sat with three other women of River Valley Presbyterian and cut out flannelgraphs. Do you remember those? Characters and scenery from Bible stories are printed onto felt (not actually flannel) and the Sunday School teacher puts the felt characters onto a felt background to illustrate the Bible story. Flannelgraphs have never gone out of style. Even in the era of iPads and Minecraft, kids still love flannelgraphs.

But I did not know that we needed to cut them out. It is one of the many labors of preparation that happen behind the scenes. The flannelgraphs come printed on big sheets, carefully positioned to fit as many Davids, sheep and sling-shots on one piece of felt as possible. It takes a skillful hand and a sharp pair of scissors. It also takes hours. Our children's minister had been cutting till her hand was sore, and we showed up to help.

While we were there, we also looked at hymnals. Our parent church has promised us forty of their hymnals, or we could use the hymnals that are already in the sanctuary of our host church. We looked at the two options.

Hymnals are not just books of songs. They are expressions of the beliefs and identity of the church that uses them. The songs in the hymnal will be used to shape the life and faith of congregations for the future. A congregation usually only buys a new hymnal once a decade or so. When a denomination makes a new hymnal, they may reject favorite hymns of the past if they think those hymns have failed to stand the test of time, or are embarrassing, or no longer express the beliefs of their denomination.

My worship professor in seminary (yes, in seminary you take classes on subjects like worship) collected old hymnals, and he said that he had some old hymnals in which half the hymns were about mothers. Mother featured more largely than Jesus. I am glad those hymns were culled (even if my grandmother requested "Tell Mother I'll Be There" for her funeral). I love my mom, but the Christian faith is about something bigger than fondness for her.

But sometimes instead of removing hymns, the hymnal committee decides to change them. They change the traditional words to something they like better. This often has serious theological implications. But even when it doesn't, imagine for a moment what can happen to poetry when it is rewritten by committee. 

I've been through the hymnal wars before, so I knew which songs to look for in the two hymnals before us. I turned to "O Worship the King" and "Be Thou My Vision." These two are favorites for bastardizing lyrics because they both use male imagery for God. Progressive hymnal editors rewrite the hymn to get rid of the male metaphors. 

Gentle reader, this drives me batty.

Sure enough, one of the hymnals had changed the lyrics. God was no longer "true Father" and I was no longer a "true Son."

If I write too much about this subject, my opinions will get intense and I may rant a little, and I don't want to do that. So I'll just say this instead: good hymns are not like computer operating systems, needing to be updated every few years or they're useless. Good hymns are like flannel-graphs; they don't need to change for evey generation. When they get it right, the right lasts a long, long time. 

And unlike flannelgraphs, no scissors are required.

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