Garrison Keillor, righteous Christian, defender of Christmas

Dan is still down with a chest cold so Mr. Crankypants is ba-ack!

Mr. Crankypants finally decided to read the Garrison Keillor column in Salon that trashes “Unitarians.” It’s a mildly amusing little column; there are enough factual errors that one can’t help chuckling now and then.

For instance, Garry Keillor says that “You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit….” Except Emerson never preached at First Church. A simple Web search would have revealed that First Church in Cambridge is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The Unitarian Universalist church in Camnbridge, where Emerson delivered the famous “Divinity School Address,” is called “First Parish.” (A more obscure point is whether Emerson in fact ever actually preached at First Parish.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer does not know how to do simple online fact-checking.

Garry Keillor also says: “Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice…, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite ‘Silent Night.’  ” Except that Keillor’s favorite words are the rewrite, or more precisely a bad translation of the original German. The current Unitarian Universalist hymnal offers two translations of the German words written by Josef Mohr in 1816: there’s Keillor’s favorite (woefully inaccurate) translation; and on the facing page there’s pretty good translation along with the first verse in the original German. (If you want to be a real Christmas purist, be like Mr. Crankypants and sing the original German words, which are much prettier.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer tries to be a pompous purist but winds up being an ignoramus.

And Garry Keillor says: “Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation. Just… sing softly in dim light about the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el….” Except that the line about “gathering winter fuel” is from the song “Good King Wenceslas,” which is a song about St. Stephen’s feast day, which is December 26. Sure, most people sing it at Christmas time. But a Christmas purist like Keillor, who despises “all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys,” should know better. It’s definitely amusing when a self-declared “Christian” writer tries to be a Christmas purist, but lacks the requisite liturgical and theological knowledge.

The sad thing is that with people like Garrison Keillor advocating for Christmas, it’s no wonder the New Atheists dismiss Christians. Come to think of it, those who consider themselves Christians may prefer not to be associated with a bitter, ignorant, intolerant ass like Keillor.

German words to “Silent Night / Stille Nacht” below the fold:

Original German words to “Stille Nacht”, as written by Josef Mohr in 1816:

1. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute heilige Paar.
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

2. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn! O wie lacht
Lieb aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da schlägt uns die rettende Stund.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!

3. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt seh´n
Jesum in Menschengestalt,
Jesum in Menschengestalt.

4. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt,
Jesus die Völker der Welt.

5. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Lange schon uns bedacht,
Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit,
In der Väter urgrauer Zeit
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß,
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß.

6. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Alleluja,
Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah:
Jesus der Retter ist da!
Jesus der Retter ist da!

Note to theologians: It should be obvious by now that Mohr was Catholic.

22 thoughts on “Garrison Keillor, righteous Christian, defender of Christmas

  1. Tom

    The conventional wisdom is that Emerson delivered the “Divinity School Address” at the Divinity School and “The American Scholar” address at the First Church (Unitarian). When I lived in Cambridge the UU church on Harvard Square had a sign out front saying it was the “First Church (Unitarian)”. I suspect this sign may have misled Mr. Keillor. He was guilty of believing his own eyes without first checking with the internet.

  2. Jean

    Mr. Crankypants? I think I see your difficulty. You are cranky BECAUSE of your pants: as we say here in the Midwest, you’ve gone and got your knickers all in a knot, your britches in a bunch. No wonder the world looks so bad.

    Tell Dan to feel better. We miss him.

  3. Victor

    My first reaction was similar to Mr. C’s. But, Keillor is right (I think) about one point – the English words to Silent Night have been changed. Specifically, the two refrains “Christ the Savior is born” and “Jesus Lord at they Birth” were removed and replaced by the refrain “Sleep in heavenly peace” (which is sung 3 times instead of only once). Even if the removed words aren’t similar to the German version, they are the words that most of us grew up singing. I’m sorry that the authors of “Singing the Living Tradition” removed them. I do think it’s somewhat disrespectful to Christian tradition, and to Christian theology.

  4. Victor

    Here are the words as translated by Mohr:

    So, the UU Hymnal doesn’t provide the translated words – it “corrects” them by omitting key phrases to make them palatable to UU humanists. The original words, as recently translated by the Silent Night Museum, are actually much more powerful. These words are the words that should be sung in every UU church – I particulary like the refrains in verses 4 and 5 – which are closer to what most UUs believe. The Silent Night museum, BTW, has the original manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting.

  5. Dan

    Tom and Philocrites — Thanks for the correction on the location of RWE’s “Divinity School Address.” You’d think I could’ve done some simple fact-checking on the Web….

    Tom @ 3 — Not that I want to bail out Mr. Crankypants, but the current sign on First Parish says “First Parish” — as can be seen by zooming in on this Wikipedia image.

    Victor @ 8 — For what it’s worth, the Web site you reference says the English translation is by Bettina Klein, not Mohr.

  6. Owen

    This is Owen, here, Owen the dog. I just want to say that people make a lot of fuss over the strangest things. Mr. Garrison Keillor is a big dopey guy who says things he thinks are funny but sometimes they’re not. Even I can see that, and I’m a dog. Which is probably why I saw it. Cuz I’m a dog. And dogs know things. Like good cat jokes. Here’s one:

    How many cats does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    None. Cats aren’t smart enough to replace lightbulbs. HA HA HA HA!

  7. Rolf

    hi owen. rolf the dog here. thats a pretty funny joke. i laughed so hard i spewed biscuits all over the computer keyboard.

  8. Beargrass

    It’s got to be satire. GK knows that Christians have co-opted most of Christmas’ symbols, including the date; his comment about Emerson sounds like a compliment; and he knows that most Christmas carols were penned by Jewish songwriters. It was not well-crafted satire, but it did get people talking.

  9. Beargrass

    Owen and Rolf – love the jokes. Maybe you could get on Prairie Home Companion, maybe raid Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and spew Powdermilk Biscuits.

  10. Ron Newman

    First Parish in Cambridge also goes by the name The First Church in Cambridge Unitarian-Universalist, so I’d leave Keillor alone on that one.

  11. Ron Newman

    Dan @ 10: The sign says:

    First Parish
    in Cambridge

    The First Church

    From their website at :

    “By 1829, most of the Parish became Unitarian. Dr. Holmes and the more conservative members of his flock departed and founded the Shepard Congregational Society. In 1899, it was agreed that the church associated with that society should be called the First Church in Cambridge (Congregational), now part of the United Church of Christ, and this church, the First Church in Cambridge (Unitarian).”

  12. Dan

    Beargrass @ 15 — OK, but I assume when a skilled writer is writing, I’ll know when something is satire or not. And in this case, I don’t know.

    Ron Newman @ 18 — Sorry, but Keillor and his editors don’t get a pass on this one from me. The current official name, as prominently displayed on both the congregation’s Web site and building, is “First Parish.” I might give Keillor and his editors a pass if First Church of Cambridge weren’t right next door. This is an error, albeit not a serious one, and should be acknowledged as such.

    And I apply this same standard to my own Web site — if someone alerts me to a factual error in what I write, I will correct that error (either in the comments to a post — see e.g. comments 10 and 13 above — or for more serious errors in the body of the post). My Web site is pretty rinky-dink compared to — surely Keillor and his editors can live up to my low standards of journalism.

  13. Owen

    Hi, me Owen again. I think Beargrass is right (and not just cuz he likes dog jokes, but that didn’t hurt!!) — it’s satire, kind of satire done in broad strokes — like a CAT would do! That’s it! Garrison Keillor is a CAT! That explains EVERYTHING!

  14. Rolf

    hi owen. rolf here. let’s go chase garrison keillor up a tree. that was satire by me, rolf. beargrass is right, owen, you and me should be on the radio. i’ll contact you via bark-o-tron, ok.

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