Thursday, May 25, 2006

Songs and doctrinal correctness

Some of these thoughts originated in another forum, discussing songs that are not completely doctrinally correct. The songs mentioned here are mentioned because they were mentioned there. They may or may not be familiar to you. The songs are for examples and their use doesn’t necessarily mean I endorse all their sentiment.

Some people seem not to care whether a song is doctrinally correct if they like it (tune, beat, tempo, etc.). Others seem so critical that they wouldn’t like the words of anything they didn’t write/right. Perhaps somewhere in the middle of this is the place to be.

I can think of four options a person might have for handling this: sing the song without comment; sing the song but with a comment about the problem; sing the song with altered wording; or don’t sing the song. There may be other options, but I can’t think of any right now. My personal opinion is against altering the wording of someone else’s hymn/poem. Either use it or find another hymn. It just seems honest not to tamper with someone else’s song.

Here are some questions that might be helpful to ask when considering what to do with songs that could be “suspect”.

1. What is the hymn writer trying to communicate?
Perhaps we may be overly critical of some point in a song when we don’t really understand what the songwriter is trying to say. “Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of Gloryland” – seems the writer is trying to express that he doesn’t deserve a mansion – “I feel I’m not worthy, to receive all of this” – and that a cabin up there is better than a mansion down here (“Don’t care for fine mansions on earth’s sinking sand”). Not bad thoughts to express, in my opinion. I suppose the main problem is that it falls short of recognizing that Jesus has nevertheless promised us a mansion.

2. Is the overall message solid with a few questionable words, or is the overall theme of the hymn suspect?
“O What a Savior”; “they searched thru heaven and found a Savior” – the hymn writer used a literary device that doesn’t come off well in this song, IMO (though in Revelation 5, John seems to see something in a vision that uses a similar device). The writer is hopelessly straying in sin and a Savior is sought out to save him. Overall the hymn writer seems intent on glorifying the Savior, giving His death credit for saving even the vilest of sinners. He probably didn’t intend to imply that God wasn’t sure what He was doing and had to look around to see if He could find a Saviour. Yet it does give that impression to many people.

3. Does the rest of your church see a problem with these words? If not, could it just be you?
“There is a fountain filled with blood” -- Perhaps one might not like the particular poetic picture drawn by Cowper, but the point that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin comes through clearly. Not only my church, but many churches over several hundred years seem to have approved of the text. That doesn’t make it right, but should give reason for me to consider it carefully if I think something is wrong with it.

4. Is it a factual error, a doctrinal error or perhaps only a minor interpretational thing?
I suppose all errors are ultimately doctrinal errors, but a song that presents Jesus as not born of a virgin would be a different type of error than one that puts the wise men at the manger rather than a house, as Matthew says. Further, this factual error about the house is different from the interpretational error where some people interpret certain Old Testament verses as prophecy of this event and believe there were three wise men and that they were kings.

5. Is it wrong because it doesn’t tell the whole story, or does it tell the wrong story?
“Jesus is coming soon”; “all of the dead shall rise” – all of the dead certainly are going to rise. Perhaps the writer thinks all indiscriminately will rise at Jesus’ 2nd coming, or perhaps he believes the resurrection of the just and unjust will be separate and didn’t explain it in detail. Some think the resurrection of all will be at the same time, while others believe it will be separated by 1000 years or so. It seems that whatever one’s millennial persuasion, most believe that “all of the dead shall rise.”

6. What would you do if a preacher or teacher taught what is being sung? If he were a visiting preacher, would you invite him back? If he is the pastor, would it be ignored? would he be reprimanded? run off? Another way to put this is to ask if we are harder on our songs than we would be on our teachers? The songs are easy victims – can’t talk back, don’t get their feelings hurt and we don’t have to challenge them face to face. Someone criticized the song “My Sins Are Gone” because “...The chorus has a line that says, ‘In the sea of God’s forgetfulness that’s good enough for me’ but, one cannot find the phrase sea of forgetfulness in the Bible.” How many times do we preachers preach using some phrase or word that is not found in the Bible?

7. Is there another song that expresses the same truth without the objectionable feature?
“Just a little talk with Jesus” was criticized because it mentions a little “prayer wheel turning” -- which is something Tibetan Buddhist monks do/use. Cleavant Derricks (1910-1977) was a black Baptist preacher/songwriter. The idea of a prayer wheel seems a little strange to me, but I find it unlikely that he had a Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel in mind. More likely it was something like an attempt to describe a feeling that incited him to prayer. It is very unfortunate that those familiar with a Tibetan prayer wheel might think of that rather than what Derricks meant. Perhaps there is another song that similarly exhorts one to prayer, without such an objectionable phrase. This question should probably ultimately follow up all of the other questions. If we can express the same truth without the objectionable features, shouldn’t we do it? But also we should extend grace towards those who don’t come to exactly the same conclusions as we do.

Finally, remember that the only inspired songs are found in the book of Psalms! If we cannot bear to sing any perceived error, however minor, perhaps we should adopt the same mentality as some of the Reformed brethren – sing the Psalms only and exclude all hymns of human composure. Rather than that, I think I would apply some or all of the questions above and then follow one of three options – sing the song without comment; sing the song but with a comment about the perceived problem; or not sing the song.


Jim1927 said...

All very good points, Robert. Sometimes we try to think beyond intended meaning, and we lose the value of what has been said.

In all my ministry, I never allowed someone else to choose the hymns for the service. The hymns of choice were integrally part of the service, and tied in with the sermon.

A great deal of criticism is levelled at secular singers who happen to be Christian, rather than rejoice that they mention faith at all.

As we understand scripture by determining the intention of the speaker, so in hymns we ought to determine the writer's intention rather than theological accuracy.



clinch64 said...

A very thought-provoking subject. A song that comes to me off the top of my head that generated criticism for being incorrect, had the lines, " I can almost hear the Father, as He says, Son go get your children" .

I am reminded of a humorous sort of story regarding secular vs religious. Albert E. Brumley took criticism by some for writing a few secular songs, when the majority were gospel. He told one of his detractors, " i promise to always write sacred songs from here on out, if you promise me that for the rest of your life, your conversation will only be about God and nothing else". That would be kind of hard to do.

Neil Vaught

R. L. Vaughn said...

Albert Brumley's point shows how high up on our sanctimonious high horse we can often get when criticizing someone else.

Jim1927 said...

Along these same lines, I think of the late entertainer, Johnny Cash. It is no secret that he professed to be a twice-born believer.

I have heard a lot of criticism about his lifestyle in relation to living for Christ. How could he possibly be a Christian.

The way I looked at it was I know nothing about the paths he follows. All I know is what others have said. Other entertainers have testified that Johnny Cash was "there" in their darkest hours of booze, drugs and near-death experiences. They told how Johnnny Cash went out of his way to tell them about a better way; the Christian life. All I know is that he took time to talk about the Lord, and how the Lord lifted him in his darkest hour.

I kept hearing these little things that this Johnny Cash did in the name of the Lord, and not taking any credit whatever.

Who am I to decide that he was not being the instrument of the Lord to reach the unreachables of that industry?

It may not be the lifestyle that I fit together with a Spirit-filled life, but.........

What is that old saying, "don't criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins..."

When I was teaching at the university, I took some students to the downtown area of the city. Sitting in the gutter was a man, clothed in the filthiest garments you could imagine. He was drunk as a skunk. I invited the students to go sit with the man and even put their arm around his shoulder. Some students held their nose, and some just plain said they couldn't do it.

We went back to the classroom and I posed the question; "If you couldn't show compassion for that poor drunken and filthy man, how on earth can you minister to the needy souls in your congregation?"



clinch64 said...

Yes Jim, you are right about Johnny Cash. He was an inspiration to many. It seemed that people from all walks of life and music were drawn to him. It is believed that he was the first big name entertainer to share his faith in God on national television. This was on his variety show, The Johnny Cash show, which ran from 1969 to 1971 on ABC. He was my mother's favorite entertainer.

Neil Vaught

amity said...

I wouldn't have problems with any of the songs that have been mentioned so far. I think a comprehensive answer has to do with the group one is singing with.

For example in Sacred Harp one might sing anything in the book as it presently stands, regardless of doctrinal orientation, even though one disagrees privately with a good deal of it. I suppose that is because Sacred Harp is a very "promiscuous assembly" to borrow an old term, and is not really about preserving correct doctrine, but rather recognizes that even among people with important doctrinal differences there is still common ground. I suppose that common ground is what we mean by "spirituality," which necessarily involves getting beyond purely intellectual understanding of the words to focus on the genuine praise that is in them. Even if we think the doctrines themselves are misguided, it may be obvious that they were written by people who loved the Lord and we can identify with that. In that context I would say if the song glorifies God I would sing it without comment. (There is no point ever in commenting, really, since that would just serve to highlight one's personal doctrinal viewpoint, which is beside the point in such a context.)

In practice in Sacred Harp I am not comfortable singing some of the "hell-fire and brimstone" songs like Huntington, and I always find myself saying a little prayer that it doesn't scare some young child that might be present. But I do sing those songs and wouldn't have commented if you hadn't asked! ;) "Forgive the song that falls so low beneath the gratitude I owe." But if a songbook was too diverse, for example with a number of songs in it expressing humanism or Buddhism, I wouldn't sing them, and would probably not sing from that songbook or with that group anymore. But as long as a song does not involve idolatry I would probably sing it without comment.

On the other hand, there is church, and it would be wrong to sing something that was at grossly at odds with the beliefs of the church. In church greater selectiveness seems in order. It is very important to try not to offend members of the congregation with song choices or in any other way, of course, but to sing songs that enable them to draw nigh unto
God. If the song has words in it that give people doctrinal qualms, it will be a distraction from worship. To me that is the difference between church and Sacred Harp. Oftentimes sensibilities have changed about some expressions as new issues have arisen. It isn't that unusual for someone to call a song and ask the congregation to omit a certain verse, and that seems legit to me.

If I were putting together a new songbook I would have no problem with altering the poet's words to suit the purpose of the book. That has often been done in the past, and the authors knew it would happen. These songs are not about honoring their authors. The authors aren't important outside of an academic setting. These songs are just a means to an end, which is why we say they are "used." Used for what, to honor the composer, or to worship God?

Edwin Fountain said...

What about this "in the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the see with a beauty in his bosom that trans figures you and me"or
Faith of Our Fathers...where non catholic took it whole into our song books and left off verse 4 where Mary is praised and said to be waiting to welcome England back into her bosom..The author was Catholic and the 3 verses we have in our books were refering to the persecution of the catholics by the English Anglicans. Not for Bapitsts.
Edwin Fountain

Jim1927 said...

Years back Baptist Churches either used the Canadian Baptist Hymnal or Sankey's Sacred Songs. Couldn't go far wrong with most of that music. In our Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Hymn Book, the selection is also quite good and sound in doctrine, albeit Anglican.

You add merit to what I said about selecting my own hymns for services where I preached.



amity said...

I hate to admit I am this dense, but what is wrong with "in the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea with a beauty in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Or at least what are its doctrinal underpinnings?

I'm sure there are some Catholic songs I could sing, no problem. Not the ones to Mary, no... A song ABOUT Mary, yes, very possibly.

I had to look up "Faith of Our Fathers" since I guess I live under a rock in some respects, and was surprised to find that the words to this song are addressed to "our faith." The worship of religion itself? It sure seemed so.

I guess my reasoning is that God sees what is in the heart and that is what counts as worship. Like Robert says, none of these songs except Psalms claim to be inspired... (although some possibly are, who knows?).

R. L. Vaughn said...

A lot of thought-provoking comments, I see. Bro. Fountain, I was just thinking about "Faith of our Fathers" this morning, because I heard it sung. It was never in any of the song books that I grew up singing from. The words as found in most non-Catholic hymnals have no features I find objectionable (the verse about Mary is left out, and others may be altered, I'm not sure). But I must say that I've never quite thought of this song in the same way after I found out Faber's faith was Catholic and the persecution was of Catholics by the Anglicans. Perhaps this is one of those things where "ignorance is bliss" or "what we don't know won't hurt us". Everyone who knows not the history are singing along with wonderful thoughts of the faith of THEIR fathers, while some of the "enlightened" are troubled by thoughts of someone else's faith. Anyway, all that to ask, how far should we go with the idea of the writer's intention? Certainly in Faber's case, the writer's intention is not agreeable with many singers' intentions.

Concerning the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- I've heard different parts of it discussed as to scriptural or no, but I guess I'm just "too Southern" to care. I just don't like the song as a matter of principle!

Amity, for 'Huntington' in the Sacred Harp, make a comparison of Psalm 73, especially verses 22,3,6,17-20. Huntington's words are the first two verses of Isaac Watts paraphrase of those verses in Psalm 73, entitled "The prosperity of sinners cursed".

Jim1927 said...

This is a site talking about the hymn in question and Faber's move from the Anglican ministry to the Romish Church.



amity said...

Thank you Robert for the info on Huntington. That does console me somewhat. But we don't preach one chapter of the Bible to the exclusion of other parts that ameliorate the meaning it might have taken by itself. I still have not heard a sermon based on some of the OT verses that I think are called 'deprecatory'(?) yet. I mean the ones that call down condemnation on one's enemies and glorify in dashing chiildren's heads against rocks, etc. We know they might be a stumbling block to some. I think songs about hell sort of fall into that category, esp. in a group where many people are not really familiar with scripture, like at a Sacred Harp singing. I still think Huntington is enough to make some little kid scared of God. BUT I sing it!

R. L. Vaughn said...

Concerning the original thought of songs and doctrinal correctness, it might be explanatory for me to state that the original motivation for the post is the extreme position that some people (usually preachers) take, in which almost no songs are acceptable -- only the dozen or so they approve of! But my thoughts are not intended to advocate choosing unscriptural songs, just a little moderation and consideration of others. I think the verses posted on my "Tri-directional Singing" thread is a good guide in what to look for -- does it glorify God, edify others and can we sing it from our hearts (not just our lips only).

Amity, concerning your last post, all I can say is that Paul said all Scripture is inspired and all Scripture is profitable. That would include even the ones that might call down condemnation on one's enemies. I wouldn't expect any preacher to preach a sermon glorifying dashing children's heads against rocks. But if such verses are never dealt with in any fashion, doesn't it seem that we are not dealing with the whole counsel of God?

amity said...

Why not write a deprecatory song, then? Isaac Watts was very specific in not dealing with those verses in his poetry. He just left them out.

I guess my point is just that NOT the whole Bible is meant to be "returned to God in praise," even though it is all true as the word of God. We wouldn't sing a song or preach a sermon about David's adultery and murder without including references that make it clear this was wrong, and that he later laments the loss of "the joy of my salvation." Everything in its context, elaborating each verse by reference to other verses.

I guess I just don't think cackling over the damnation of sinners is very edifying!

R. L. Vaughn said...

I think perhaps you are mixing objections. I don't think I have suggested that every verse of Scripture would make a "good" song -- though it would be nevetheless scriptural. When I spoke of verses not being dealt with, I was referencing your mention that implied that certain verses are (or perhaps should be?) consistently not mentioned in sermons. Singing on the other hand, has no necessity of dealing with all the Scriptures -- does it glorify God, edify others and can we sing it from our hearts.

I did not originally set out to convince you to accept Watts' "prosperity of sinners cursed", just to point out that his language is very close to Scripture. Even when we don't agree with his interpretation, we will still nevertheless usually find Watts' language based on some portion of Scripture -- like when he seems to criticize envious Jews based on Psalm 118:22. One thing that we must keep in mind is that the Sacred Harp is a tune book, so it was never intended to give all the verses to a song. The original purchasers of White's book could go to their hymn books to find the rest of the poetry (or another piece of poetry) to sing with his tunes. Perhaps this is one area where the revisions of the book haven't kept up. On the other hand, denominational hymn books and song books will usually give the complete hymns, or at least as much as is agreeable to their theology. This cuts out much of the problem of lack of context, as is seen with Huntington in the Sacred Harp. The last verse kind of contextualizes it with the intent of the Psalmist in Psalm 73. The main point was the writer was envious at the prosperity of the wicked until he understood what their ultimate end was like. That changed his "tune", so to speak!
Watts' Psalm 73

I wouldn't call it cackling [is that how we sound when we're singing ;-)], but Bible verses dealing with the damnation of sinners is certainly not confined to the Psalms or the Old Testament. Unlike dashing children's heads against rocks, the damnation of sinners seems to be a New Testament doctrine.

amity said...

And seeing the rest of that poetry really has "changed my tune." I do wish we would include more verses of these songs in the SH. Still not sure that just painting a graphic picture of hell without reference does anyone any good atall. Yes, the whole Bible does need to be preached, or at least read and dealt with. I don't think the whole Bible needs to be sung, though!

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