One of our goals this year was to host times for doing theology together. Theology, just like being the church, isn’t something that you can just consume systematically, it’s something that you build, create, and buy into together. If it’s just something that you need to believe or not, we just create reactionary rebels or robots that aren’t thinking for themselves.
A week ago, we gathered to discuss the theology of the music we sing. We called it “How a song gets into ‘quarantine’” or “When the pastors invade into your playlist for Jesus’ sake.” The title was pretty fun and so was the event! That group of nearly forty people could have kept talking all night. It was amazing to observe the emotional and intellectual discussions we had.
Because songs are so so emotional, we might not always stop to think what we are actually singing. Probably more than anything, my theology has been formed by the contemporary Christian music that was a central part of my conversion growing up. I’m still recovering!
Music can so often get stuck in our head, it actually is a very good mechanism that we can use to learn and teach. But sometimes, we unconsciously float through a song and it gets implanted in our brains and without even knowing it those songs can violate how we relate to each other and God.
I’m not really looking to codify theology here that guides how we select the songs we use to worship at our public meetings, but I do want to assert some of my thoughts about some of the songs that I think might give us an image of God or a perception of reality that does more harm than good. Ultimately, I prefer to relate about a song then just to ban it. So often that relating helps us get closer to God more than a hard-and-fast rule does.
Sometimes the theology of a song makes it unfit for worship. Truly, sometimes the messages aren’t the ones that we want to convey. One example of a song that has theology I wouldn’t want to teach is is “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.” Our design team leaders know that this song has problems with it, but many still love it because of the meaning it had for them as a teen. There are myriad problems with this song, but I’ll highlight a few.
The song goes like this: “How deep the Father’s love for us, / How vast beyond all measure / That He should give His only Son / To make a wretch His treasure.” The question of course is were we not His treasure before Jesus died for our sin? Why would Jesus die for wretches? We are certainly His creation and even the greatest sin couldn’t destroy the Lord’s distinct mark on us. Sometimes this theology does more harm than good, especially when it comes to our self-image.
Here’s another: “How great the pain of searing loss, / The Father turns His face away.” Did the Father turn his face away? One of our pastors has long said that when Jesus utters, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, he is reciting Psalm 22, which contains a prophecy about Jesus and this very moment—furthermore, it could have been a call to worship. Jesus finds comfort in John 17 that the Father will never leave him.
Propositional atonement theory always has trouble with me. I prefer to think of atonement as perspectives on the power of the cross, not something that we can definitively answer with human logic. It is a great mystery after all; perhaps the best atonement theory is the one that’s best for a time, not for all of time.
But more than anything, this is a song written by someone specific to their purpose. I don’t want to sing someone else’s song written from his perspective as if I also believe it and understand it. Never mind the bad theology, the message of the song is so personal, it doesn’t make sense to be used as a worship song.
Sometimes a classic hymn needs to be rewritten to help people worship again. As if it wasn’t enough that we might not to a song that was important to individuals in their childhood, it seems like it is even more blasphemous to rewrite a song! We get in trouble often with this one: “You Are My Vision.” We do it with less “ohs” then this band, but you get the idea. We also change “son” to “child” and “man’s empty praise” to “vain empty praise,” to get some of that residual sexism out of the song.
One the reasons that this people get up in arms when this song is played adulterates is because it’s a song that was popularized by David Bazan. I do like the sound of Bazan’s version more than the other one, in all honesty But “Be Thou My Vision” is really hard to understand! After all, what does, “naught be all else to me save that thou art” even mean? And even if you know what it means, who speaks or prays like that anyway? I figured if someone translated it from its original Celtic to King-James-Version English, updating it again would be good.
Aside from the fact that not all of are experts in Old English and none of us even pray in it, when we alter the lyrics, we might shake us up enough to not just think of David Bazan, and it might get us to worship God in a new way. It could give the words new meaning—just like we do when we translate the Bible into better versions.
Sometimes a whimsical song is too nostalgic to be given a new meaning. But some songs can’t be written to be given new meaning because at their core they are too well-known and too non-nonsensical to even be offered a new meaning. “I’ll Fly Away” is my case-in-point.
What is this song even about? It certainly hardly connects to Jesus at all. It highlights the importance of dying and how our hope will only be there, and it doesn’t really honor the power of Jesus’ resurrection to save us from our current circumstances.
I understand that some of us think this that song might be a Negro spiritual written from the perspective of a slave looking to be freed, and looking to be flown away. But that’s not its origin. It is the most recorded Gospel song ever, so it is really hard to undo the meaning we have associated with it and given it new meaning. Nevertheless, I suppose you could give it new meaning, but it be worth it? Is it the best song to sing? There are hundreds of other choices, so to make this one work in a worship setting is not only a stretch, it might be a waste of time.
In conclusion, I think that all of the above songs have problems. And for me I would either re-write them, or if they are too far-gone just not use them to worship in our Sunday meeting. I know those kinds of rules aren’t very acceptable among those concerned with personal experience or the right systematic theology, but the question we need to answer is whether or not our choice is about Jesus and his Kingdom or if it’s just a song we like to sing.