COULD NEW HYMN WARS HELP US THINK?

keith-kristyn-getty-eliza-joy  The recent flap over the Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee’s decision to omit what is arguably the most popular modern hymn of recent years, In Christ Alone, continues to rage on.  The blogosphere, in which I also strive to have a small voice, has been aflame with essays and responding comments by bloggers and readers.  The tension stems from the lyric line, “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”  Hymn-writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to grant permission to change that lyric to “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified,” as had been done without the authors’ permission in a previous hymnal publication.  That publisher is currently “taking steps to make the correction in all distributed copies of the song, including the Celebrating Grace Hymnal,” according to The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper.  The Celebrating Grace Hymnal comes from a group of Baptists and/or former Baptists with its own story.  For my initial reply as a fellow Baptist see:  http://paulclarkjr.com/2010/03/10/celebrating-grace/

The controversy has drawn attention from plenty of my fellow Baptists, including theologians of note, such as Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, publishing leaders such as Lifeway’s Thom Rainer, and denominational leaders including Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head, Russell Moore.  There are others, but this should suffice to get the point, which is that it matters.   Words matter.  As a theological lightweight by comparison, there is nothing I could or would add to this specific debate by parsing words, or speculating on theological intentions of Presbyterians, Baptists, or any other denominationally identified position for that matter.  Rather, I would utilize this moment to join Lifeway’s Mike Harland in first applauding the very discussion of sung lyrics that this controversy has evoked.  I would perhaps go a step further to call for an opportunistic pause in the proliferation of worship material as a genre.  I wonder if we do not need something of a selah (pause and listen).  Perhaps we should catch our breath to provide the mental, emotional, and spiritual space we need to more carefully evaluate whether our worship language and intention honestly serves to reveal God’s story (the Gospel), or if it too often relishes in our own experience.  While I realize this call for pause strays from the current debate over one of the most theologically rich, Gospel-conveying songs from the pen of some of the most theologically careful writers of our day, nevertheless, I wonder if we evangelicals have not become such worship music gluttons, demanding more music done the way we want, that we have completely lost any sense of balance.  Perhaps we should expand this discussion to include

In this quote from Russell Moore look, if you would, past the specific argument, but rather to the ethos reflected in the manner of worship singing he references:

As an evangelical, I would argue that it’s necessary to sing about the wrath of God because we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences. There’s a reason why evangelical congregations reach a kind of crescendo when they sing out that line in the Gettys’ song. It’s not because, per the caricature, we see ourselves as a “moral majority” affirming our righteousness over and against the “sinners” on the other side of the culture war.

Instead, it’s just the reverse. When Christians sing about the wrath of God, we are singing about ourselves. Our consciences point us to the truth that, left to ourselves, we are undone. We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else. And God would be just to turn us over to the path we would want to go—a path that leads to death. It is only because Jesus lived a life for us, and underwent the curse we deserve, that we stand before God. The grace of God we sing about is amazing precisely because God is just, and won’t, like a renegade judge, simply overlook evil. (Washington Post, July 30, 2013)

Note that he says, “we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences.”  The mention of “a kind of crescendo,” I believe indicates a head and heart connection, which is what the Apostle Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 14.  In Moore’s words I sense a kind of singing that reveals humility.  As he states, “We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else.”  Oh that our worship singing would move us toward and reflect a servant spirit, humbled by the truth that though we deserve God’s wrath, we have received mercy and grace that is amazing.  Indeed, our prideful spirit has sometimes resulted in a moralistic attitude.  Is such an attitude not really just another dirty sin, one of those included in the song’s phrase, “for every sin on Him was laid?”  In fact, when we are convinced that we are pretty darn good it can be difficult to think of others as better than ourselves. (Romans 12; Philippians 3)

As we continue this debate that helps us think more carefully about a word or phrase in this carefully crafted hymn, let us not stop there, but rather press on to once again consider every phrase of every song, and while we are at it, let’s engage again in meaningful conversation as to the appropriateness of our accompanying instrumentation, the benefit or detriment of our acoustical environments, and perhaps most importantly, the overall spiritual health implied by the active participation, or lack thereof, in worship singing by our congregations.  As for me and my house, and for whatever small measure of influence I might have, I will seek to champion singing that prioritizes the congregation and their collective voice, that holds to theological integrity and liturgical function keeping mindful of its doctrinal emphasis within the context of its singing, that seeks to engage worshipers in a larger voice of praise that includes not only those in the room at a given time, but stretches from shore to shore, and from eternity to eternity.  Recognizing our fallen nature and God’s grace provision, I will attempt to always recognize that singing, as all of our worship, “in spirit and truth” is possible for us “In Christ Alone.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Choir Ministry, Church Music, Congregational Singing, Hymnals, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

One Comment on “COULD NEW HYMN WARS HELP US THINK?”

  1. AJ Sharenberger Says:

    This is an instance of where changing the words makes a significant difference in the meaning of the song. If one owes a debt, the best news one can get is it’s satisfied, e.g., paid in full. The good news is that God’s wrath towards sin has been fully satisfied by Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

    The writers obviously knew what they were writing, meant it, and mean for it to stay the way it was written for good reason.


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