Mockery? OR a Lesson in Gospel Translation?

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One of my all-time favourite songs—Christmas or other times—is “Ere zij God”/”Glory to God” (Psalter Hymnal #214). We’ll surely be singing it again during Christmas Day worship, perhaps other times as well. I had never heard this song until we moved to Canada from Venezuela in 1986. When I first heard it, only the Dutch was sung.  As a long-time fixture in Dutch services, this wonderful song gained new life in the English translation made for the 1987 grey Psalter Hymnal.

As the years passed, I thought the Dutch would fade out and the English take over. Yet it still seems in the churches where I’ve worshiped on or around Christmas that most of the people sing it in Dutch—or as near Dutch as a number of definitely UN-Dutch folks in our somewhat diverse congregation attempt. It’s wonderful, if somewhat comical, to hear a Scottish lady work over “In den hoge!” (“in the highest”). More moving still is “een welbehagen,” (rendered “delights in” in English) coming from the lips of Rwanda natives who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. Their lives for years had found little to delight in. Yet hearing them sing of Christ’s birth in a mightily foreign tongue is surpassingly lovely, albeit a little odd. There is room for all languages in the words of heavenly angels coming to earth.

Now, though, to take a seriously comical (or comically serious) turn, I’ll relate the story of “Ere zij God” that I recently heard from the spouse of a second-generation Canadian of Dutch heritage. This Irishman joined the CRC at marriage. He loves the church, the city they live in and where his wife is director of a Christian Reformed-founded urban ministry. Since he is Irish-born and bred, though, one would expect comedy—serious comedy—from him, if stereotypes ever hold truth.

So the first time this anonymous fellow heard “Ere zij God” one Christmas without benefit of English translation, he was moved to write what he heard in his Irish mind and ear. His rendering starts “I have a car”—and putters and sputters on from there. This newcomer to once-complete Dutchness in North America, produced a comical, irreverent take on a lovely song with deep resonance and memory. His knowing parody can, I suppose, be taken as offensive (spotterij/mockery in my grandmother’s tongue). OR, it can be understood as an unforgettable example of what happens when Gospel beauty in one language and culture is not explained, interpreted—or exegeted—to preach a universal message beyond its origins.

Below I give you the four main phrases of the dubious “translation” and original Dutch. If you honestly believe it is offensive, don’t read on. If, however, you can understand a serious point of learning to communicate the Gospel clearly in all languages, enjoy the Irish humour, savour the wit and withal “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” English or in Paul Gerhardt’s original German—“Lobet den Herren.” My hope is that this Christmas my Irish friend will be singing ”Ere zij God” in some language the Lord God will delight in.

I have a car/Ere zij God.
It's a Honda./In den hoge.
It's not a Ford./Vrede op aarde.
Did I mention a Volkswagen?In de mensen een welbehagen.

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Participant

Thanks for your comment Jim.  In the church I serve, we have a little tussle near each Christmas about not singing this song last.  We haven't sung it last for 8 years now, but still some people persist that it has to be sung last, because that is what they grew up with.  We sing it second last in the Christmas day service.  This year a choir will lead us to sing it in Dutch in deference to our senior members who immigrated int he late 1940's and 50's and founded CRC churches in this area and then we will sing it again in English.  It is sung with gusto (or as one young lad once said to me: "We sing that song violently!"   It is not sung with gusto by all though.  There are a few members for whom this song represents a somewhat dark period in the Canadian CRC history where new immigrants pushed a few of our oldest CRC's in the west (CRC's predating the 2nd World War) back into Dutch immigrant mentality when they had already made the transition to being a Canadian, English speaking CRC that were engaged in their communities.  One gentleman even shared the story of his being beaten up as a lad by other boys for not being able to speak Dutch.  We also have recent immigrants from Iraq, Sudan, and Vietnam whose only linguistic connection with this congregation is English.  So a number of years back the Worship Committee with the support of Council decided that the final sound in the ears of worshippers on Christmas day ( a service in which there also attends a smattering of no longer churched family members) would be an English song (usually Hark the Herald Angels Sing).  We do this to try to convey the message that we are not a Dutch church ( a perception still lingering in the community) but are open to anyone. And English is the common linguistic connector right now for the many immigrants arriving in our area.  The little tussle we experience each year is really not about the song but about change and the percieved loss of something.  Sometimes that loss is perceived to be the loss of our "Reformedness" as one lady pointed out to me, which for her was all enmeshed for her in being Dutch.  Thankfully we are in a transition and these little tussles give us oportunity to talk together about who we are, what is God calling us to be and do, and who is our neighbor.  Being a multi-ethnic gathering in Christ certainly does not happen all by itself.  It is a gift to receive and a task to engage.  I wonder if I could get someone to translate "Glory to God" into Armenian? ...

Community Builder

Thanks, Colin, for your comment. It has been a while since I've been able to spend time reading all the comments and keeping up, but yours grabbed my attention. We're actually doing something similar to you next week at our Christmas service. We're placing "Songs from Around the World" near the end of the service with "Ere zij God"/"Glory to God" following a presentation by a group of Korean grade school students who have been worshiping with us (different groups) for four years now.

Two years ago an earlier group of Korean kids moved forward to sing a Korean Christmas song, all dressed in their cool red "Port Weller Public School" sweatshirts and wearing reindeer antlers; their twenty-something sponsor (more like drill sergeant!) directed them wearing a Santa Claus hat. Shoulda seen the looks on the faces of LOTS of folks who'd never seen that one before! But they love the contribution of the kids to the culture of the congregation that blessings abounded where several years earlier there would have been griping.

Hurray for multi-culturalism in Christ!