Earth Transformed with Music! Inclusive Songs for Worship
A hymnal by Jann Aldredge-Clanton and composer Larry E. Schultz
Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2015
Spiral bound, 157 pages
Reviewed by Marg Herder
Lisa looked over at me. Her expression conveyed her feelings about the third verse of the hymn we were singing (“Rock of Ages”). It is seldom that Lisa and I end up in a “regular” church, so the words and concepts of self-loathing can be jarring.
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
And of course the fountain alluded to is the one described in another hymn:
“There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flow,
Lose all their guilty stains.”
I shook my head and rolled my eyes in agreement with Lisa’s assessment, but kept on singing. I was taught as a child that good people always sang the hymns, in full voice, because singing together meant something. It wasn’t so much about the words, but about the act of singing together.
After the service I couldn’t get those words out of my head. I sang hymns with words like these for the first two decades of my life. I didn’t think about them that much back then. They were just the language of God’s church, of God’s music. They weren’t all bad. Some had very positive and uplifting messages. But so many of them didn’t. So many hymn lyrics reinforced a patriarchal religious hierarchy, portrayed following Jesus in terms of conquest and war, and spoke often of our individual worthlessness, our shameful existence, and our inherent brokenness.
I wondered if singing those words over and over influenced my thinking. Like many of us, I had been reading and singing those words while I was growing up, as my faith was forming around my thoughts and actions, as my concepts of myself and others were developing.
Had those words somehow created certain perceptions, perceptions that were hard to shake, that got wedged deeply inside of me?
I have to work very hard, be very intentional, to overcome my inclinations to think of the world in terms of hierarchy, in terms of conflict and conquest. I have to work very hard to remember that I am not the “other,” that I am created in the divine image. And I cannot seem to overcome perceiving of myself as worthless, shameful, and broken.
Maybe singing those kinds of words over and over each time we stood and sang together at church helped create that in me.
I don’t want to sing words that reinforce any of those problematic concepts. I want to use my voice to sing songs that are inclusive, positive, healing, and life-affirming. I don’t believe the classist, violent, and sexist words and concepts of “traditional” Christianity do any of us any good anymore.
But what to do with my love of the music, of hymn melodies and harmonies? I love the tunes I have been singing since I was a child. I sing them in the car all the time. “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” “For All the Saints.” “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.” “Holy, Holy, Holy.” “Amazing Grace.” And there are so many more I love dearly.
Enter the deeply meaningful work of Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, a composer, teacher, minister, and prophetic champion of the need for inclusive language and divine feminine metaphor in Christian spiritual practice.
Eakin Press has published the third hymnal created by Aldredge-Clanton and composer Larry E. Schultz. Earth Transformed with Music! Is a collection of 65 hymns and short songs, with words that are beautiful and uplifting. Words that are meant to heal and transform the earth, society, and each individual singer.
Aldredge-Clanton understands that the lyrics of sacred songs are extremely important.
“Words we sing in worship have the greatest power to shape our beliefs and actions because the music ingrains the words in our hearts. We can contribute to transforming the world through music, through inclusive songs in worship services” (p. 7).
In the introduction to the volume, Aldredge-Clanton explains she has included hymns with the social justice themes of “racial equality, marriage equality, economic justice, and care of creation…” (p. 8). There are several hymns that “feature biblical women, like Mary Magdalene and Miriam” (p. 9). The lyrics “bless and affirm all genders” and recognize “LGBTQ persons as equal participants in church and society” p. 10). Peace and non-violence are important ideals as well. As Aldredge-Clanton notes, “Peace is closely linked to justice for all people” (p. 12).
While the introduction provides a brief glimpse into Aldredge-Clanton’s philosophy of hymnody and prophetic work, the “Notes” section at the end provides more specific information on individual hymns, including the organizations, people, and situations that inspired the work. Reading the introduction and the notes section is like reading an introduction to contemporary Christian feminism. It’s great reading and really made the selections come alive for me.
I can’t pick favorites from this collection; I like them all. I’ll just share a couple of examples here so you get a better picture of what you’ll find in Earth Transformed with Music!.
Hymn #14 puts lovely new words to one of my favorite tunes, NEUMARK (which some may know from the hymn “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”):
All day and night Shekhinah guides us; within our spirits She abides.
Kindness and wisdom deep inside us, She keeps our spirits open wide;
so we affirm and welcome all, joining with Her to take down walls.
Hymn #21, “A Stranger, Starving on the Street,” sung to the hymn tune KINGSFOLD (some may know as “O Sing a Song of Bethleham”), tells the story from Matthew 25:35-40 with a contemporary twist. Here’s how it starts:
A stranger starving on the street, from travel, tired and sore,
has found a place to rest her feet beside our church’s door.
We bring her water, give her food, then offer swift good byes;
yet, with her hunger unsubdued, she takes us by surprise:
She moves into our sacred space, where, from the table spread,
she gives to us the cup of grace, for us breaks living bread.
There’s more, but I didn’t want to spoil it! I really like these lyrics by composer Larry E. Schultz. It’s cool to have a hymn tell a story, especially a story as unexpected as this one.
The hymnal is arranged by the categories of gender equality, racial equality, marriage equality, economic justice, care of creation, peacemaking, expanding spiritual experience, interfaith collaboration, comfort and healing, thanksgiving and celebration, and short songs for worship. It’s easy to find what you need by using any of several indices included. Look for hymns by topic, scriptural references, composers and sources, tune names, titles, or meter.
This collection brings timeless melodies, made sacred by years of being sung in worship, and places them firmly in the present with words that make sense and relate to today’s issues. When the words make sense, the message easily rides on the breath right to the singer’s heart.
Check out Jann’s other hymnals on Amazon:
Inclusive Hymns for Liberating Christians
Inclusive Hymns for Liberation, Peace, and Justice
Marg Herder is a writer, musician, photographer, and sound artist who serves as the Director of Public Information for Christian Feminism Today. She manages the CFT website and is the author of the Where She Is blog. More of her work can be found on Where She Is, her personal website, margherder.com, or the Emerging Voices blog on Patheos.
© 2015 by Marg Herder and Christian Feminism Today