as we worship so we believe

Here in Grand Rapids we are snowed in today, just as we were on Friday and expect to be again on Tuesday.  The stores were busy yesterday as Christmas shoppers used a break from the storms to get out while they could. 

Nearly every church in Grand Rapids cancelled services today, except the one that made a point of saying on the scrolling cancellations that they are having services today, “as usual.”  If one of its members has a fatal accident on the way to church, the church will likely bury him as a martyr, saying that there is no better way to go than on your way to the house of God.

I thought I’d use this break in the action to share something that bothers me about the way we Christians worship.  If you’ve read my first book, “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” you know that I believe that the church desperately needs to recover a holistic vision of the Christian life that culminates in a restored life on a new earth.  While this message is making significant inroads in the evangelical community, thanks in part to the success of N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope,” I don’t think that we will ever eradicate our distorted, Platonic vision of the gospel until we change our worship songs. 

Nearly every Sunday many of us sing some line of a hymn or chorus that encourages us to yearn for escaping earth to our blessed home above the skies.  Besides the obvious ones, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” and “I’ll Fly Away,” here are a couple hymns with troublesome lyrics that I ran into recently (I’ve italicized the offending words).  I don’t think that these hymns are the worst offenders, but they illustrate how even our best songs are permeated with Plato.

Verse 4 of “Rejoice the Lord is King”:  “Rejoice in glorious hope!  Our Lord, the Judge, shall come, And take His servants up to their eternal home.

 

Verse 4 of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:  “Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be.  Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee.  Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place.  Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

 

Why does this hymn think that the new creation will occur when we get to heaven?  We will be disembodied souls there, awaiting our resurrection and the restored earth at Jesus’ return.  In light of this, shouldn’t we change these lyrics about heaven to “Nearly finish thy new creation…”?!

 

Some may think that I am being overly sensitive, but I reply that it matters a lot what we sing.  In fact, the words we sing—especially if the tune is catchy—stick with us long after we forget the sermon. 

 

Basil the Great said it well in the 4th century.  Commenting on the deity of the Holy Spirit, he said that the church must believe that the Holy Spirit is God because it has always baptized in the threefold name of the Trinity.  He concluded that “As we worship, so we believe.” 

 

So it is here.  Despite the increasing number of preachers and books that rightly speak of God’s cosmic redemption, we won’t entirely eradicate Plato from evangelical Christianity until we get our worship leaders on board. 

17 Comments

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  1. From the opposite end of the spectrum, I also hear emergent leaders such as Doug Pagitt deny a literal hell as platonic dualism.

  2. I’ve noticed that tension quite a bit myself, especially after reading your “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”.
    There are of course the obvious offenders, like “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop” or I’ll fly away”, and many other songs that, however subtly, reinforce the idea that our real goal is to escape earth to our real home in heaven, since “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through”.

    I spoke on heaven and new creation at church a couple years ago, but did not pick the music since I was essentially guest speaking, and on that day your point here was driven home in a dramatic way for me. As I finished speaking I was struck by the question, how can I speak to these people about new creation and expect it to register for them if the songs we sang before and after tell a very different story?

    Even the now popular remake of “Amazing Grace” adds the line “when the earth dissolves like snow…” what do you think can be done though?

  3. Wow… NO ONE canceled services in Lansing today… You must have gotten hit much harder than us. We were buried on Friday, but have mostly dug out by now.

    Re: Platonic worship, why don’t you link to your medley of Platonic songs as sung at Talking Points?

  4. Yooper:

    Such over-reactions certainly don’t help. Even on this site I’ve had an emergent person accuse others of being Gnostic, when it is obvious that he has no idea what the word even means. Education will go a long way to help such people!

    Mason:

    That is also what needs to happen here. The trick is to do so without sounding whiny or becoming a jerk. Some people may think that we are picking on something unimportant, so we have to be careful here. But we can gently explain why it is important. I am dreaming here, but wouldn’t it be great if we had a church where enough people were paying attention to the words of our songs that they either hummed the offending lines or stopped singing at those places altogether? I guarantee the songs would change then.

    Zach:

    I thought everyone had already heard my Platonic medley by now, but if they haven’t, they can here it near the beginning of my talk with Brian McLaren here: http://grts.cornerstone.edu/resources/tpoints/fa05

  5. I’ve always found it interesting that ministers and other church leaders have no problem quoting the Psalms to back up their theological beliefs, but they cannot see the connection between the hymns and choruses we sing and the theological education of the congregation. It’s no coincidence that the longest and most often quoted book of the Bible is a songbook!

    Mike, on the flip side, which hymns would you recommed as teaching a healthy, biblical view of our final state?

  6. Here’s some more evidence of just how far reaching the Platonic mindset is: people who criticize songs that express a proper view of creation.

    I’ve heard a few negative comments about the song “This is My Father’s World,” mostly along the lines of, “That’s not true, this world is way too far gone. It belongs to the Devil now, not God.”

    Along those lines, though, do you have a list of songs that you think accurately portray creation, new creation, humanity, etc…?

  7. I think there is a real need for some more contemporary worship songs that follow the themes of renewal of all of creation ect. One place to start is songs around the Lords prayer. One would be “As it is in Heaven” Matt Maher. also or worship leaders can highlight good theology in our songs. For example verse three fjoy to the world has taken on new life for me. “No more let sin and sorrowgow,nor thorns invest the ground – He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found”
    Sin has had a crippling grip on God’s good creation but redemption has come and is coming. Salvation exstends as far as the effects of sin.

  8. Yeah, I have been noticing more and more of this same problem in our songs. One of the things that bothers me is that I contantly hear that the reason we sing hymns rather than new choruses is because the hymns are deep in theology while the choruses are not. Unfortunately, the theology those hymns teach is often not biblical, but Gnostic.

    I think one solution is to get our theologically trained pastors to start taking the music ministry seriously and set a standard for what is acceptable in our worship services. Too often, especially in smaller churches, the music ministry is left to lay people who do not understand the issues involved. Of course, this assumes that the pastors understand the problem and are solid in biblical theology themselves. I know many who are teaching Gnostic theology and do not even know it.

    Maybe the education needs to begin with our pastors. How do we do that when they think they already know everything?

  9. Chad:

    I love that song! Last September I spoke on the Christian worldview for a men’s retreat at Tullian Tchividian’s church in Fort Lauderdale, and that was their theme song for the weekend. It also goes great with their church, which is appropriately named “New Community.” You should check out Tullian’s blog, posted on my home page. Anyway, it’s great when a catchy tune puts great lyrics in your head!

    Jonathan:

    I’m sure there are some good ones, though Plato has so infiltrated our thinking that even the ones that get it right often have lines that take back what they just said (see my example of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” I was enthusiastically singing about the new creation and then felt like I was sucker punched with the words about heaven. Brian Walsh has an extreme though effective remedy. He said that he tells his worship leader to simply avoid any song with a reference to heaven. I won’t go that far, but I appreciate his point.

  10. Interesting discussion, years ago I heard an old school preacher (Lehman Strauss) discuss the exact same issue. In his remarks he said that he had pondered writing a book titled “Humbugs In Hymbooks”. (even that title rings old school) I don’t know that he ever got that written but I think it reminds us that weak theology in hyms is not a new problem. Very often the poets who write the songs we sing are not trained theologians but individual believers who have had what they view as a deep experience with Christ.

    Obviously even the average persons weak theology could be laid at the feet of some pastor who has not got things right himself. While this certainly is a part of the problem I believe the issue is deeper than that. David Wells has written about the “Democratization of faith”, the idea that ultimately the individual is supreme or at least gets a say about what is true.

    Sadly in a misdirected effort to avoid loving the world too much some people have gone the other way and talk as if it is all bad. Strange…

  11. It seems to me the problem runs deeper, and discussion on it ought to tie in with your second book. At least in the circles I run in, the problem is that very few people honestly think that what we believe and subsequently articulate about our faith truly matters. Most would laugh today at Athanasius, willing to die over an iota. The martyrs to admire are not the people willing to stand with Martin Luther on a point of doctrine and on pain of death declare that they can do no other. True contemporary martyrs are those who die in Grand Rapids on their way to church despite excessive snow.

    I don’t mean to suggest that this doctrine is on the par with the essential unity of the Godhead, the authority of Scripture or justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. I only intend to suggest this problem is merely a symptom of a far deeper disease…

    …one that could have damning consequences…

    …unless you are one of the emergent leaders previously spoken of…

  12. The church today needs the people of God to utilize both sides of their brain: reason and art. It is true that the church needs worship leaders who are well-trained in good theology. It is also true that the church needs pastors and theologians who are willing to utilize the artsy side of their noggin. Theology must be free to take on various artforms. This art form (whether music, painting, etc) must invite one to participate in the message it conveys. Art based on good theology must help one discover who/whose they are. Quite frankly, many of our hymns simply do not bring about this kind of result. Sure, we may tap our toe or clap our hands but the catchiness of the tune may not help in providing meaning and definition to our lives.

    The church must also move beyond style of music because this, too, is a platonic discussion. Style and rhythm of music is a product of creation. It may be true that fallen creation has utilized style and rhythm for sensual purposes but to label anything with a beat as sensual is simply ignorant of God’s role in the creation of culture.

  13. It really is something to experience the drawing power of God – especially when you don’t come from a Christian family. Shortly after I was born again at a small Grace Brethren Church in the U.P., I lead the congregation in singing most of these songs. 🙂 I don’t recall getting caught up in the theology of the location of heaven and the bad planet earth, but what stuck with me is how I eternally belong to God!

  14. This is all the more reason to stick with the Reformation Hymns.

    Also, if you want some good newer hymns with GREAT theology, check out Boice’s hymnal (you can get a songbook and CD together on the cheap). I LOVE those songs!

  15. I read your blog with interest. But it seems to present a skewed view of the Christian life. It is not irresponsible to long for our heavenly home. The Apostle Paul did (Phil. 1:23). But he also recognized that as long as the Lord left him here, he had duties to attend to relative to this present life (vs. 23).

    Later, he reminds believers that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for the Saviour” (Phil. 3:20). And he commends the Thessalonian believers for attending to the present service for the Lord, and for “waiting for His Son from heaven” (I Thess. 1:9-10)

    You seem to reject Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord Is King,” because it speaks of His return to judge the earth. But that is a truth taught in many, many Scriptures (Ps. 98:9; Acts 17:30-31; II Tim. 4:1, etc.). As to Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” I think you’re misreading the hymn. The “new creation” spoken of in the last stanza is not the new heavens and new earth. He is expressing a longing that the Lord would complete the work of salvation begun in him and other believers. (“Pure and spotless let us be.) Again he’s on biblical ground (cf. Rom. 8:18-25; I Jn. 3:2).

    Being responsible citizens of planet earth here and now should not negate our longing for the glorious consummation described in the Word of God!

    Finish, then, Thy new creation;
    Pure and spotless let us be.
    Let us see Thy great salvation
    Perfectly restored in Thee;
    Changed from glory into glory,
    Till in heav’n we take our place,
    Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
    Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

  16. Hey rcottrill, thanks for piping up. I always admire examples of gracious disagreement. I cannot presume to speak for Dr. Wittmer, but I had some thoughts regarding your critique of this post.

    Point 1
    RCOTTRILL: “You seem to reject Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Rejoice, the Lord Is King,’ because it speaks of His return to judge the earth.”

    ADAM: I read Dr. W’s critique differently; he emphasizes the lyric “to their eternal home” as the offending part — in other words, the song implies that we will remain disembodied souls forever. This point is being questioned, but not the reality or appropriateness of God’s judgment.

    Point 2
    RCOTTRILL: “[Paul] reminds believers that ‘our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for the Saviour’ (Phil. 3:20).”

    ADAM: You raise an interesting point here, because I know little of Paul’s understanding of the Kingdom of God, and Christians’ citizenship within in.

    However, as I read the passage you’re quoting in Philippians I see that the preceding verses (vv. 17-19) appear to set up a contrast between two groups of people: on the one hand, there are the sinful “enemies of Christ” (v. 18); on the other hand, there are the “citizens of heaven” who eagerly await Christ’s return (v. 20). I believe Wittmer and Wright are arguing that this second group isn’t eagerly awaiting an eternal home in heaven, but rather they await a transformation of their bodies (v.21) and by extension, a renewal of all creation. Again, the point being that Christians will not stay in Heaven forever but will be “redeployed” to a new Earth.

    So I don’t believe Wittmer is trying to eradicate our hope for Christ’s return. Rather, Heaven is a Place on Earth and Wright’s Surprised by Hope are raising our awareness of what Christians are told to hope for: rather than an eternal dwelling in heaven, we are to to hope for a renewal of our bodies and all creation.

    This does raise the question of how Heaven should figure into our hopes. What do you guys think?

  17. RCottrill:

    Thanks for your post. My response is that Christians should long to be with Jesus and so we should pray for his return to this earth. Paul was willing to die and go to heaven if that was what it took to be with Jesus, but he preferred to be with Jesus by his Savior coming here (1 Cor. 16:23).

    In short, I don’t see how my view detracts at all from the Christian hope. It only celebrates its fullness, something which longing for heaven qua heaven can never do.

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