By MARK HULSETHER
I am pleased to share a new English translation—or singable free paraphrase—of the iconic Danish hymn, Dejlig Er Jorden.
Because I am only Danish indirectly, through being part of West Denmark Lutheran Church in Luck, Wisconsin, I did not know this song until recently. However, I was raised with Scandinavian Lutheran traditions (from Norway and Sweden) on both sides of my family. Accordingly, when a 2020 Christmas concert by Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum closed with a lovely version of “Dejlig Er Jorden”—which Harald subsequently told me “is the Christmas song in Denmark”—I projected standard English language words/meanings onto this music, which I learned as “Beautiful Savior.”
It turned out I had been taught the wrong—or at least significantly different—words. The sound of Helene and Harald’s performance was superb, yet the ideas bundled with it functioned, for me, to end the concert on a slightly deflated note. Everything else they played had rung perfectly true, but the closing selection, while not bad, seemed to be pointing a few degrees off center. For me, it brought into the room aspects of Lutheran tradition that I had left behind in my teens because of theological and political resonances that made no sense to me.
This started me wondering whether Helene was singing different lyrics than what I projected. A search established that there are Danish and German versions and that I was imagining the German ideas as she sang the Danish ones.
When I learned the gist of the Danish and wrote some new words to try to capture their spirit in singable English prose, this seemed to put me back on track. Try singing along with this. Remember it’s the same tune as “Beautiful Savior,” which is extremely easy to find in most hymnals or with a Google search.
This earth is beautiful
Strong and pure the skies above
Filled with the songs of our pilgrim choir
Rising falling empires
We move with song toward paradise
Hard times will surely come
Waves of time roll over us
Like our elders, we too must pass
Always we hear the sound
Ringing true through all our strife
To train our ears and guide our path
Angels once taught this song
Shepherds learned it the night
Still it sounds from soul to soul
Peace to a broken world
Joy to all broken hearts
The grace of God proclaimed for all.
If you don’t like to overthink your songs, that can be a wrap. But there may be more to consider. What follows is my reflections on why I prefer the Danish lyrics for this music to the German ones and why my own translation is somewhat different from the one most often used in the US, by S.D. Rodholm. For me, both these English lyrics breathe life into a song that I hadn’t realized I had missed. I hope some readers can also benefit from it.
What I write here is repurposed from my blog, “MBE: Mark’s Blogging Experiment” (https://marksbloggingexperiment.com) and was posted January 4, 2021 as part of the series “12 Songs for Christmas.” If you care to track it down, you can download a PDF of these lyrics and follow hyperlinks that enhance the reflection with sound files and information about the song’s history. You can also find a reflection on my fresh lyrics for the song “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol” (posted December 27, 2020), which you will see referenced in this piece.
Falling Out of Love With This Tune
Sometime in my teens, I stopped thinking that the middle-of-the-road Lutheran theology I had been taught—encoded in the standard form of this song [“Beautiful Savior”]—made much sense. I especially couldn’t make heads or tails of substitutionary atonement theory, which sought to explain why I should care about Jesus. This theory holds that Jesus’s teachings were not especially important, nor was he especially important as a role model in his life as a prophet or (as “Every Star” says) “brother of our blood and bone,” nor even because of the historical tradition he started—a tradition that I now understand as deeply conflicted internally, and definitely prone to fly off the rails in spectacular train wrecks, yet worth fighting to keep on track in its stronger forms.
Rather, I was told that Jesus was important mainly because of his role in an ahistorical metaphysical scheme. He was born to make a blood sacrifice that somehow paid (substituted for) a metaphysical debt. This was a debt incurred by humans whom God would otherwise condemn to hell. I gathered, whether because I was badly taught or just a bad pupil, that the Christian tradition basically reduced to people who believed this—and did so on faith rather than supported by arguments that made sense to me. Similarly, if we looked to Jesus’s teachings for wisdom, this same sacrifice theology was mainly what his teaching supposedly reduced to.
All this was bound up with the political sensibilities of the churches that I knew at the time. I was raised to take my place as a moderate Republican (what are now called RINOs—Republicans in name only) in a conservative part of Iowa. But by my late teens, I wanted no part of Christian Republicanism, whether RINO or further rightward.
Nevertheless, because I was raised to be a good Midwestern Lutheran, I learned to cultivate positive emotional attachments to ideas in the above vein. When such emotions were fused with better-quality renditions of better-quality Lutheran music, this was potent. It was probably the last attachment to mainstream Lutheranism that dissolved for me before I broke away.
Thus we circle back to the tune typically sung as “Beautiful Savior” or “Fairest Lord Jesus.” You can learn from a fine piece “the carol that traveled,” a post from December 21, 2016, on the blog foundintranslation.me, how the tune is from Silesia, how although it is called “Crusaders Hymn” it has little to do with the Crusades, and many more interesting points. But the point at hand is how, as I grew up, I liked the song—not in the way I liked the best popular music, but reasonably well. I especially liked its second verse, which compares Jesus to the words “fair are the meadows” and to wildflowers in these meadows. That is, its imagery for Jesus evokes the presence of the divine in the natural world.
True, this verse has potential to distract a budding doubter. It does presuppose, in addition to what I just said, that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God in a trinitarian scheme. Nevertheless we might say (as “Every Star” underlines) that it can makes perfect sense to sing about Jesus as (male) child of God given that we can also say we are all children in the image of God. This enables a sort of truce. More orthodox singers can assume that Jesus is an exceedingly special case among God’s children, a paradigmatic older brother—but without necessarily pressuring everyone to agree with them if (for example) someone else thinks the Buddha and John Coltrane were also pretty special. Likewise the orthodox can project assumptions about atonement theology onto the song—the Son of God preparing for a blood sacrifice—even if the song itself does not necessarily take any position on substitutionary atonement one way or the other. That’s because it is too busy, as its primary meaning, using the image of God’s presence to evoke the creative powers of the universe, as expressed in lovely meadows.
So far so good. But sadly this verse, which overtly celebrates the beauty of creation, was typically sung like a dirge, making its final line a disaster: “Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, he makes our sorrowing spirits sing.” (Think: sowww-RRRRRR-rowing spirits, like an anemic siren rising and falling.) Meanwhile the first and last verses, bookending the second one we’ve been considering, accent the same “King,” “Lord,” and trinitarian imagery that I wanted to recast with “brother of our blood and bone” imagery in “Every Star”—but now with more insistent atonement theory. All of this makes my positive engagement with the song iffy. I want to ruminate less, as I sing, about whether I am recycling and reinforcing emotions that are fused with political priorities I deplore and a theology of “Jesus as sacrifice” that doesn’t make sense to me. The standard lyrics cannot fight against such distractions.
The Danish lyrics steer around many of these problems by accenting other parts of the Christian tradition. Written by Bernhard Severin Ingemann, they stress respect and admiration for creation. They touch lightly on trinitarian doctrine, and instead put angels who promote peace on earth at the center of the story. They use the idea of music in two ways. First, they focus on songs carried forward by a historical tradition leading back to Jesus—let’s stipulate this tradition at its best, steering away from imperialist crusading songs that wouldn’t fit this melody anyway. As my friend Henrik Strandskov noted, there is a key rhyme in the Danish that is hard to translate exactly: “You have two words--pilgrimsgang (pilgrimage or pilgrim’s way) and pilgrimssang (pilgrim’s song). The similarity and rhyming suggest an identity.” I don’t know Danish well enough to judge whether I am discovering this implication in the original or projecting it into my paraphrase, but for me the lyric’s stress on angels singing evokes classic ideas about the music of the spheres, at one with the deep truths of the universe.
What I’ve mainly tried to do is freshen existing English translations of this lyric. In the process, my paraphrase naturally accents the parts that most resonate for me. (I don’t care much about precise translations of song lyrics; I try to build lyrics with the best possible flow and resonance by any means necessary.) By extension, my version probably steers slightly further away from conservative theological implications that are bundled with past versions, as compared not only to standard translations from German but also to other existing translations from the Danish
Can This Tune Be Saved?
As I moved beyond my teens—finding better teachers and/or paying more attention—I came to understand that substitutionary atonement is only one among several theories of why Jesus was/is important. In fact, this is not even the most authoritative theory, historically, even before we broach the question of whether it makes the most sense today. I also came to understand that the Lutheran parishes I knew as a kid are far from the only kind of Christianity. Here I’m not thinking about variations that are like one flavor of Coca-Cola among a dozen more. Rather I’m thinking of differences like how the term “drink” covers both beverages that are good for you and those that are poison. Again, I’m thinking of differences like how “language” includes sentences that are lies and sentences that are true and backed by clear evidence. Then there are sentences that, although true enough, dramatize cluelessness—such as responding to a shocked friend who exclaims “My mother just died!” by saying “Cool, I had a cherry coke for lunch!” (Would it even matter if that wasn’t true?) This latter sort of irrelevance and/or inattention to what matters, as opposed to the outright toxic lies often propounded by the religious right, is the signature weakness of middle-of-the-road Lutheranism.
Once I had understood all this, I did not leave my upbringing behind—as if I needed to start speaking in some other language instead of steering toward true and useful sentences in a language I knew. Rather, I rethought and become selective about which Christian flavors I will tolerate and which truth claims, expressed in a Christian vocabulary, I can get behind. That included more than rethinking what makes Jesus important. It included rethinking how best to understand creation, leading toward a discovery that surprised me—that the smartest trinitarian theologies can help articulate true and useful thoughts about creation. Sometimes I rethought all this so much that conservative Lutherans consider me heretical. Either I don’t think that’s true or I don’t care. But in any case, there are excellent reasons for Lutherans to spend serious effort rethinking inherited theologies. . . .
I like to work with ideas that make sense to me. I much prefer modest theological claims, whether about Jesus or other topics of theology, that strike me as solidly grounded, as compared to more sweeping claims that don’t. I suppose that implies that some people will prefer the standard German-based lyrics to the Danish ones, and prefer existing translations from Danish to my new one. But others might like my version better against this same background.
Does This Matter?
If we don’t want to engage with any hymns whatsoever, then none of this matters. But in the long run, I didn’t break with Lutheranism across the board. I found the books and teachers that helped me rethink the theology. Although I left behind many childhood forms of religious thought and practice, I proceeded to evolve within a leftish wing of church networks—especially university-based and social activist parts. I am happy with my local church, where I met Harald and Helene as part of our cultural programs.
The leftish networks of liberal Protestants deserve far more respect than the extremely low amount they get. That’s an argument I’ve made many times before on my blog and elsewhere, so won’t rehash—a tricky argument because it is framed to push back against the common wisdom that perceives liberal Protestants like a cup that is only 1% full, 99% empty, and leaking. I contend that this cup remains 30% full and only leaks half of the time. Is that bullish or lukewarm? That’s unclear, but clearly I am more bullish than the common wisdom, which greatly overplays both the degree of recent decline and how full this cup ever was, even in its supposed golden era. The one-third-full part is a network that enables people who carry forward real value.
These one-third-full churches need good music. They leak more when the music is worse and fill up more when it is better. Sometimes, at least for me, trying to breathe new life into classic old tunes is the best way forward.
Bridget Lois Jensen