Monday, April 7, 2014

Do you mind when they change the lyrics to 'Amazing Grace' and leave out "wretch"?

Words matter. I was a newspaperwoman for 7 years and let me assure you, the words we choose to put in print color our perceptions of the world, of people, and of concepts. The same goes for poems, stories, and textbooks. I can't imagine any writer who doesn't take care with choosing exactly the right word to use at particular points of his or her piece. (Except maybe Proust).

Consider this sentence,

"The large group of activists marched through town"
"The large group of protesters walked through town"

A different take, depending on which word was chosen, isn't it?

On March 11, 2003 an actual NY Times headline read:
Iraq forces suspension of U.S. surveillance flights

And on the same day the headline reporting the same incident in USA Today read:
U.N. Withdraws U-2 Planes

This is known as bias. As the essay from 'News Bias Explored: Word Choice' defines, "Words are very precise building blocks that form the basis for all communicated ideas...Bias, in many forms, is not necessarily explicit in the words that have been used but can be recognized when seen in the fuller context that the words represent. Journalists do this by manipulating single words in such a way that whole sentences' meanings are subtly changed...and sometimes not so subtly.

I wasn't saved by grace until I was 43 years old. That meant I had many years as a youth and a fully grown adult to reject Jesus and all He stands for. I remember several times being in places where the hymn "Amazing Grace" by John Newton was sung. Whether it was a concert or a church wedding, the hymn is usually familiar to even the most oblivious of a non church-going person, like me, because it is played even at so many places other than church where the lost tend to congregate.

Wikipedia says of the song:

"Author Gilbert Chase describes "Amazing Grace" as "without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns." Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually. "Amazing Grace" stands as an emblematic Negro spiritual and exemplar of Appalachian shape note hymnody. In the nineteenth century the hymn was sung by Native Americans enduring the ordeal of the Trail of Tears, by abolitionists, by soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, and by homesteaders settling the Prairies. Today it has attained international popularity..." (Left, John Newton, author of Amazing Grace")

What an opportunity the lost person has to learn of the grace of the Great Savior! That they are lost, which they do not know! That grace awaits, which they do not understand. They they are a wretch but can be saved, that they need but do not want. In places where bibles are banned and sermons are stopped, songs can be sung with loaded words which carry the grace of Jesus and the first, dawn-like whiffs of hope and deliverance.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)When I was lost, I liked the hymn. I thought it was pretty, and had a good message and stirred me somehow. Except one part I hated. When it got to the lyric that said, "saved a WRETCH like me." When it got to that part, I closed my mouth and refused to sing the line. 'I'm not a wretch' I'd think to myself. 'I'm a good person! How ridiculous to have such low self-esteem!'

Of course, that was the point Newton was trying to make. He was a very great sinner, but so are we all. No matter who is singing this song, save one exception in the universe (Jesus), that wretch lyric can and does apply.

Now that we are in such an apostate world, no one likes to believe they are a wretch. But unless we understand how very great of a wretch we are, we will not understand how very great a Savior we have. I heard "Amazing Grace" this week by a new artist. The lyric had been changed. This is what she sang-

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a SOUL like me."

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
We all have a soul. Even the most atheistic of people believe we have a soul and it goes somewhere after we die, if even to be annihilated or changed into a centipede. What's so amazing about grace that saves a soul? Nothing. It is the wretch that is saved that is so amazing.

"but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us". (Romans 5:8)



Jesus didn't die for souls, He died for sinners, wretched sinners. If you are confronted with a lyric or a verse where it has been changed, please know that it makes a difference. Remember that what you read or hear are words, and words communicate ideas. The most important idea in the universe is that we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and that Savior IS Jesus Christ and no other. We are all wretches, and Jesus as the Sinless One lifted us up and gave us new life in Him. As the article above I'd quoted and linked to states, the lost world likes to change ideas and they do "this by manipulating single words in such a way that whole sentences' meanings are subtly changed." Wretch and soul are not the same. Words matter.

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Further Reading:


Here is a short documentary about the song and how it came to be written.

Amazing Grace: The Story Behind the Song

Wretched Radio with Todd Friel

6 comments :

  1. As for old songs and hymns being altered, added to or in any wise changed I have no use for ANY of them, without exception. To do such a thing is, in the first place, to plagiarize another's work (plagiarism being ok for Mark Driscoll). But further than that, it is theft plain and simple. It is stealing the work of another and then selling it (in any numbers of ways) as if you had improved upon the original and now people should pay for your "new" work. This is done in the secular world on a regular basis with music deemed to be "public domain" and now in what passes for the Christian world as well. If the new aspiring artist is so bereft of musical talent and originality that he/she must resort to these tactics, they should find something that they are good at and do that, because music is not their forte. As a concert percussionist for ten years and music major for two, it irks me to see these "new" songs, especially in the church. no glory is brought to the Lord Jesus because it is a product of theft (there will be no thieves in heaven, only those forgiven, who do not continue to steal). This will no doubt not be a popular stance, but it is biblical, no matter the hoops one goes through to excuse the theft.

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  2. It wasn't until I was saved that I realized the power and true meaning behind the lyrics to Amazing Grace. I can't listen to it without shedding tears for what my Savior has done for me, a wretch. I remember reading one of John MacArthur's books in which he devoted a chapter to the life of John Newton. That sparked my interest in church history and so now I study it when I have time.

    Great post Elizabeth!

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  3. It's definitely theologically offensive, because it is changing the meaning of the song. Wretch is the word Newton chose, and for good reason. It both correctly captures the state of an unsaved soul, as well as magnifies the grace of God.

    You are right, Elizabeth, words do matter, and I also agree with your assessment of how media uses words to bias issues and manipulate the readers.

    It's like how false teachers label discerning believers "Pharisees" or "Sanballats". Another example of using biased word choices to obscure the truth. :)

    -Carolyn

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  4. Aww....but the word 'wretch' is SO offensive! (sarcasm)

    Absolutely it's offensive...and convicting!

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  5. Did you see the story last year about the Presbyterian Church (USA) asked Keith Getty and Stuart Townend to change a line in their song "In Christ Alone"? They wanted to put "there on the cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified" instead of "there on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied". The song's authors denied their request, and the song didn't make the cut for the church's new hymnal. (Ramona)

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  6. I DO mind when they change the word. I think that, other than the spiritual aspects which others have mentioned, the changing of "wretch" to "soul" is a symptom of our discomfort with the reality and depth of our wretchedness and and suffering. You have to go THROUGH that suffering to be redeemed. There seems to be no other way. Wretchedness is the doorway. The tool to bring us to God. Also, it is an antiquated word. One we should make friends with.

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