John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.
Why this popularity?
The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes. The poetry is rich. The song presents the Gospel of Grace. Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity. It’s the complete package.
Almost everyone who has recorded this incredible song has thought that John Newton’s song was sufficient.
Chris Tomlin does not think so.
He added a chorus/refrain to this old favourite.
Why we feel the need to add a new refrain to the good ol’ hymns
I get it. Times are different. We like choruses now. The old hymns don’t have choruses.
Why do we like choruses? Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very sentimental. Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large. More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.
We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing. Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings. The original “Amazing Grace” was not written to engender these feelings, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with some climaxing high notes that pull our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.
It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings. Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose. I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.
Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us. My problem is when thought is completely ignored, as it is in Tomlin’s version.
The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form. Fine. Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite. They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.
Metaphors are Magic
Metaphors are amazing things. They are comparisons, but something magical happens in the comparison. “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:
- Life is a path with hidden snares.
- Heaven is home.
- Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
- Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
- God is our shield.
Somehow these metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations. And they contribute to holistic worship. Let’s look at one of these metaphors.
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield. All kinds of meanings flow from this comparison. Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives. But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection. It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one. This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.
Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous
The chorus Tomlin added to “Amazing Grace” can only be sung seriously if one ceases to think. This is because he uses a mixed metaphor in his refrain.
On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a ludicrous comparison.
First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:
“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”
These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have
I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.
The comparison is nonsensical.
Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic. It just leaves us confused.
Tomlin’s Terrible Metaphor
The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns is an assault on the mind–it climaxes on a mixed metaphor. It seems to me that a good worship song would take our hearts and minds and souls and imaginations into the worship of our Gracious God.
Here is the offending chorus from the song called “Amazing Grace (Chains Are Gone).”
My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace
“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor. It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood. But floods don’t reign, kings do. This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.” Or soars, or melts, or skates.
The comparison is ridiculous.
Floods flow. They overwhelm. They cover and destroy. They glut, stream, spate and surge. For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry. If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.
Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing. It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations .