Singing Lies in Church

In a previous post entitled “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret” I summarized the logic of redemption in the Scriptures—that God loves this world and intends to redeem it. Grounded in the holistic worldview of the Old Testament, the New Testament envisions God’s renewal of creation at Christ’s return, rather than God taking us out of this world to “heaven,” conceived of as an immaterial realm. Indeed, contrary to much popular eschatology, nowhere does the Bible ever say that “heaven” is the eternal destiny of the righteous.

The Eschatology of Classic Christian Hymns

So why do so many in the church assume a heavenly afterlife? The answer lies in Christian hymnody. It is primarily from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology, especially their eschatology. And the trouble is that a holistic vision of the future is found only rarely in popular Christian piety or in the liturgy of the church. Indeed, it is blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs) sung in the context of communal worship.

Preparing for Heaven

From the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “changed from glory into glory/ till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to—and assimilate—an otherworldly eschatology.

Some hymns, like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” inconsistently combine the idea of resurrection with the hope of heaven: “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,/ And the glory of His resurrection share;/ When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,/ And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Some hymns even interpret resurrection without reference to the body at all, such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” which in one stanza regards death as liberation (“Till death shall set me free”) and in another asserts: “O resurrection day!/ When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down/ And bears my soul away.”

A hymn like “When We All Get to Heaven” may be too obvious, but notice that “The Old Rugged Cross” ends with the words, “Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away/ Where his glory forever I’ll share.”

And “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” climaxes with the lines: “When my feeble life is o’er,/ Time for me will be no more;/ Guide me gently, safely o’er/ To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

A Perpetual Worship Service

This notion of a perpetual worship service in an otherworldly afterlife is a central motif in many hymns, like “My Jesus I Love Thee,” which affirms that “In mansions of glory and endless delight,/ I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.”

Likewise, “Come Christians, Join to Sing” affirms that “On heaven’s blissful shore,/ His goodness we’ll adore,/ Singing forevermore,/ ‘Alleluia! Amen!’”

In a similar vein, “As with Gladness Men of Old” asks in one stanza that “when earthly things are past,/ Bring our ransomed souls at last/ Where they need no star to guide” and in another stanza expresses the desire that “In the heavenly country bright/ . . . There forever may we sing/ Alleluias to our King!”

From Hymns to Contemporary Praise Songs

Thankfully, most hymnals no longer have the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which predicts: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/ The sun forbear to shine;/ But God, who called me here below,/ Will be forever mine.

Yet Chris Tomlin’s contemporary revision of this classic hymn, known as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” reintroduces this very verse as the song’s new climax, ready to shape the otherworldly mindset of a fresh generation of young worshipers unacquainted with hymnals.

And this just begins to scratch the surface of worship lyrics that portray the final destiny of the righteous as transferal from an earthly, historical existence to a transcendent, immaterial realm.

As the popular theologian and preacher A. W. Tozer is reputed to have said: “Christians don’t tell lies; they just go to church and sing them.”

Perhaps that is too harsh; nevertheless, I can testify to the steady diet of such songs that I was exposed to, growing up in the church in Kingston, Jamaica, which certainly reinforced the idea of heaven as otherworldly final destiny.

An Alternative Vision of the Future

I am, however, perpetually grateful that along with such exposure I came to know, through sheer proximity, the this-worldly theology of Rastafarianism, especially as mediated through the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. While I am a committed Christian and thus cannot affirm everything found in Rasta theology, I nevertheless discern a deeply rooted biblical consciousness in the lyrics of many Wailers’ songs.

For example, the song “We an’ Dem” (on the Uprising album) claims that “in the beginning Jah created everything/ and he gave man dominion over all things” and “Pass It On” (on the Burnin’ album) asserts that “In the kingdom of Jah/ Man shall reign.” These lyrics express (in androcentric language, admittedly) the biblical vision of this-worldly dignity granted humans at creation, a dignity which will be restored in the kingdom of God.

And Peter Tosh’s version of “Get Up, Stand Up” (a song he co-wrote with Marley), understands well the implications of eschatology for ethics, when it contrasts the doctrine of the rapture with a desire for justice on earth:

“You know, most people think,/ A great God will come from the skies,/ And take away every little thing/ And lef’ everybody dry./ But if you know what life is worth,/ You would look for yours/ Right here on earth/ And now we see the light,/ We gonna stand up for our rights.” (From the Equal Rights album.)

The song goes on to critique the “preacher man” for taking the focus off earthly life and affirms that the singer is “Sick and tired of this game of theology,/ die and go to heaven in Jesus name.”

This is the very theology that leads Marley, in the song “Talkin’ Blues” (from the Natty Dread album), to admit, “I feel like bombing a church,/ now that you know that the preacher is lying.”

But if Tozer is right, it isn’t just the preacher who is lying, but also the worshipers who blithely sing hymns of escape to an ethereal heaven—when the Bible teaches no such thing.

What the Bible does teach is the theme of my new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).

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15 thoughts on “Singing Lies in Church

  1. Richard,
    once again you “hit the right note” but it will go over like a lead balloon. And fortunately/unfortunately it is “music” that is the carrier/medium of the message of half truths and partial truths and what makes most of what is said inside the walls of ‘church’ sellable to most. And once the message is largely reduced to the “sweet by and by” it becomes, as it has in many cases, completely irrelevant to the grizzle of life in the present moment, the moment when human beings transformed into that imago dei are capable of acts of justice and mercy. It has become clear to this observer for some time that it isn’t Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that profoundly changes all things for us but simply “my dead body” that does the dirty work. At least that is what I observe most waiting for. Good to read and hear from you again.

  2. Michael,

    I take your point seriously that we need more than “ideas” to influence the mindset of the church. If worship and liturgy indeed shape our imagination by inducting us into an alternative vision, we need to attend to worship renewal in the church (something close to my heart). Christian leaders need to be involved in intelligent worship planning and we need good songs to sing in church (where “good” refers to the quality of both music and lyrics).

    This is a point made by Brian McLaren in an article called “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters,” written some time ago and recently revised. He makes the very point you do, that we need theology in more than books if we are hoping to impact people today—and music is an important part of that.

    Interestingly, when McLaren comes to make concrete suggestions about what topics worship songwriters need to address, the first thing he says is eschatology! His other suggestions (songs about mission, historic spirituality, God, and lament) are helpful too.

    McLaren’s article can be found on his website (http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/open-letter-to-worship-songwrite.html).

    We definitely have to have coffee next time I’m in Cleveland.

    Richard

    • I brew the best coffee this side of Cleveland. LOL So let me know when you’re around.
      Thanks for your response and your work.

  3. Could you suggest some hymns and contemporary worship songs that do give a positive Biblical eschatology? A song that comes to mind with a more this-worldly ethic is “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” which has received a nice update by Vito Aiuto. It does have the line “His reign on earth begun”.

    • There are many hymns and songs that are not other-worldly. I could suggest a few off the top of my head. They would include “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” (one of my favorite hymns) and “Take My Life and Let It Be” (a classic hymn that addresses a holistic form of life service). I also love “Amazing Grace” (minus the sixth verse).

      But there are many others as well. Since I’m not a worship leader I don’t have a ready stock of such music at the tip of my fingers. But I can go through my files and see what I have accumulated (I tend to make a note of songs from church that I’ve been impressed by, either in the music or the lyrics–usually both).

  4. I’ve been enjoying this series. I was introduced to this sort of renew-restore-recreation idea when I was a student of Rikk Watts at Regent College. What amazes me is that as I teach it in a University, Bible College, and small church context, very few people are resistant to let go of the “Home Far Away” idea. I think that in this generation of church folk, eschatology is thin in any case. We have a very confused, sort of distasteful sense of hell, purgatory slips away, judgment passages are no longer read in services or featured in bestselling books, and our hymnwriters are not soaked in the afterlife.

    And myself, coming to Christianity as a nontheist from a nonreligious household, I’ve never much connected to afterlife teachings. I’ve not invested much in either fear or hope.
    So I don’t think it will be hard to retrain our preachers and hymnwriters on this idea of heaven.

    But it will be a big job to retrain funeral directors, these shadows of pastoral support, The professionalization of death has a great stake in distance. They sell distance: a detached, withdrawn, restrained, de rigeur death. A death of dignity. Death is pain and lack of dignity, so they won’t give up this myth easily.

    Finally, our church only captures these ideas really when we sing remakes of hymns. I’m not sure I want to pull these ideas out. Our worshippers lie all the time: “I surrender all…” “All my heart is yours…” “I come now…” “Lord…” For many, for me, these are lies being made into truth by the Spirit’s regeneration of life in me. So we lie in any case.

    But we also sing as disagreeing communities. Some do not allow Rev 21 and the new creation promises to deconstruct their world. My little amillenialist church has its folk in it who will watch Nicolas Cage (or Kirk Cameron) miss the rapture and take notes for real life. We have Catholics with a far more invested eschatology. So singing what they believe is not bad for me who cannot say Amen in that moment, we say Amen to fellowship in communion.

    • I myself often refrain from singing certain lines of certain songs, or sometimes I reframe the line to say something different. I can do that, no problem.

      The issue for me is that worship ought to shape our devotion and our vision of God’s telos, so that we might be empowered to live towards that vision.

      So otherworldly songs prevent worship from being quite so empowering for me. And they deform (in my opinion) the devotion of many worshipers.

      That’s why I long for worship reform that is attentive to these matters.

      • I think we should aim for the best, which just means that theologians and pastors have to do their job in forming artists, hymnwriters, and authors.
        I don’t know you at all, but can I poke? Is this your thing? I get frustrated about otherworldly eschatology, gender inequality, consumeristic Jesus images, a lack of reference to the Spirit… these are my things. But aren’t their other things to focus on? I mean, I think the narrative arc of Scripture moves to eschatology; eucharist is eschatological. But it isn’t the whole thing? Are you in danger of getting lost in that one thing if you step out mentally or spiritually because of certain perspectives?
        I ask this not to nail you to the wall or anything like that, but to really consider to what degree we must have patience and acceptance for those with whom we disagree.
        Now, on this point, I think most of the songs you referenced could be cycled out, and we would lose little.

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  6. Brenton, thanks for the gentle probe. Perhaps I should say something about my own situation.

    I’ve been working on a holistic worldview since I was an undergrad student; it has been formative for my own faith and life. And I have taught this in every church I’ve been a part of over the years. By no means do I reduce a holistic biblical vision to eschatology in the sense of “end times.” But I really believe that where we place our hope affects how we live now.

    I used to be impatient about worldview dualism and other-worldliness when I was younger. But over the years I’ve learned to be patient and to pick my battles carefully. I’ve also learned how to address the question without turning people off; in fact, I’ve cultivated a pedagogy that engages people’s desire for more whole-hearted discipleship as a way to explore a holistic vision of life.

    One more thing: over the years I’ve noticed a shift in the evangelical church. It used to be that a heavenly-minded focus on the future led to a world-avertive attitude in the present. It has now come to legitimate a consumerist, me-first lifestyle. That is probably worse, in my opinion.

    So there are some real questions about lived ethics that are generated by eschatology.

    But I can be patient. The Spirit is at work in the church through many faithful people. My church is a really beautiful community of people seeking to be true to the ancient-future Gospel. And Northeastern seminary (my work environment) is really a fantastic community of staff, students, and faculty colleagues who share a very humane, biblically-rooted theology and way of life.

    I hope that helps give some perspective.

  7. Can’t wait to get a copy! I do think that saying these hymns are lying is a bit strong. Perhaps saying they are based on misunderstandings of biblical theology might be a bit “nicer.” I lean towards a Reformed theology. But, I do not think Weslyean or Arminian hymns are intentionally lying. In any event, I applaud you for your courage in taking on the sacred cow of the hymns. Some people put hymns on par with the doctrine of inspiration. On a different note, I am curious if you touch on theories of the mind/ body distinction? Also, where do you think the great judgment will take place? I won’t ask you anymore until I have read your book. I would like to write on the soul and the view of Nancey Murphy and her so called “Non Reductive Physicalism” someday, so I’m hoping you might touch on some of these topics in your book.
    Blessings- Kerry

    • Hi Kerry,
      This is also in part a reply to your comment on Richard’s post on the soul. You should also be aware that the choice is not just one between some form of materialism (reductive or not) and substance dualism. I strongly recommend you take a look at this article by Henk Geertsema:
      http://www.koersjournal.org.za/index.php/koers/article/viewFile/5/5
      It may not directly deal with the dualism vs materialism issue in great detail but I think he has a very fruitful approach to philosophy of mind issues from a perspective that gets well beyond those alternatives. Apologies Richard if this moves away from your focus on this blog, but I do think that this is a christian philosophical perspective that is not well known but should be!

      • No problem responding, Rudi. I actually haven’t done much work on this topic. And I don’t say much about it in the book; but I guess that I do assume a holism of the person (but that is more implicit than explicit). It is more a background assumption.

        But to answer Kerry, I have to say that I’ve never believed in a substance dualism (and I began to explore my theology as early as age 16). All through my undergraduate studies in Bible and theology (and philosophy), it always seemed to me that the Bible taught a holistic unity of the person (though with an inner and outer point of view, if you will). And I never experienced myself in terms of mind/matter split.

        Today, my teaching focuses on reading the Bible for what it says in the context of its ancient worldview, without importing contemporary assumptions into our reading (or being aware when we do). Since the OT predates the origins of substance dualism in philosophy, it is pretty clear the biblical writers don’t utilize any schema like that.

        In fact, the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach) also means “breath” or “wind.” God gives ruah to the animals, and when he takes away their ruah they perish. The Greek word pneuma, as used in the NT is similar (though not identical). In neither case is the emphasis on the immateriality of “spirit”; it might be conceived as immaterial in some texts, but certainly not in others. Instead, the main idea seems to be force or power or energy for life and vitality. That is why the coming of the spirit/Spirit becomes a sign of the new age in Second Temple Judaism; it is God’s power for renewal and life.

        There is a fascinating exploration of the use of “spirit” in the OT for the ordinary powers of (human) life, vitality and flourishing, in John R. Levison’s Filled with the Spirit (this is part 1 of the book).

  8. Great use of “secular” (i do not like the distinction) music. Some very cool tunes indeed. I have noticed many this-worldly chrisitian themes in american music from the seventies and have alwayse wondered about incorporating some of them into worship. Too radical? I have only seen this done one time when I was in catholic school in the 5th grade. The priest let one of the students play the song “feelings” (not sure i would pick that particular song as a fine example though my memory escapes me on many of the lyrics at present) on a record player during Mass.

    • I’ve played in the worship band in two churches during the nineties, and both often used popular music in worship. Among the songs used were “In the Middle of the Night” (Billy Joel), “Counting Blue Cars” (Dishwalla), “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U2), “Lord of the Starfields” (Bruce Cockburn). Of course, the latter two songs are by Christians, but not typically part of “contemporary Christian music.”

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