TagChris Tomlin

Sentimental Worship

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

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.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.

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.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.

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.

And Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

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 .

 

Bad Theology in the “New” Doxology?

Praise 1New doesn’t necessarily mean improved.

This is certainly the case for “The New Doxology” by Gateway Worship.

The first verse of the new one is the same as that of the old one, but they’ve added a chorus.

This recent fad of taking some of the greatest hymns of the Christian faith and adding a little ditty of a chorus, presumably, to make it more palatable to a contemporary audience, is not bad in itself (unless, of course, as the cynic in me wonders, it’s just a cash grab–to produce a popular song without having to go through the trouble of writing one).  We like to sing choruses these days, so it’s fine to write one for the ol’ classics.

But at least make it a good one!  By “good” I mean that it ought well crafted poetically and it should be Biblical.

This is where “The New Doxology” misses the mark.  It has us singing bad, or at least weak, theology.

The original song, published in 1709 by Thomas Ken, emphasizes the extent of the praise that the Triune God deserves as the source of all blessings.  It is a call for all “creatures . . . below” to praise him.  Importantly, “creatures” doesn’t mean animals, but all things that were created.  “Creatures here below” is the entire physical creation–which he called “very good.”   The inclusion of the “heavenly hosts” in the injunction emphasizes that there is nothing that is not called to praise him who made it.  The scope of this particular line is cosmic.

With man’s sin, everything fell, so the Fall is cosmic too.  But God set into motion his plan to redeem everything–a Cosmic Redemption.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 19:28, where he speaks of the “the renewal of all things.”  In Colossians, Paul says that God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20).  We see the consummation of this Biblical theme in Revelation 21:1, with the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.  Genesis to Revelation point to a Cosmic Redemption–not just of human souls, but human bodies as well; not just of humans but of trees and mountains as well.

All this is packed into the old doxology.  But to make the new doxology we’ve added this:

Praise God, praise God, praise God, Who saved my soul
Praise God, praise God, praise God from Whom all blessings flow

In the light of the original hymn, which talks of creation in it’s broadest possible sense, the new chorus speaks of redemption in it’s most limited sense–God is the saviour of a single soul.  If it was a single believer, perhaps we could argue that, as we move from verse to chorus, we move from cosmic to individual.  That’d be kind of cool, but this chorus is not talking about a whole believer, but a piece of him.  The cosmic nature of God’s redemption has been reduced to a single human soul, simply so that we could use it as a rhyme for the word “flow.”

Christ Tomlin is up to much the same thing.  He added a ditty to one of the greatest (and most popular) hymns of the faith, Amazing Grace.  Besides the new bridge showing a complete lack of understanding of how metaphors are supposed to work (the line, “And like a flood His mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor; floods don’t reign, kings do), he brought back the sixth verse of the song, which had been dropped from hymnals, presumably because of its theology.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine

Here again salvation is brought to the level of the individual; the rest of creation will “dissolve” and “forebear” to do what it was created to do.  It seems to me, if God is only able to redeem human souls from all that he made and called “very good,” the devil will have won and “all creatures here below” can give up their praising, for they are all doomed.

The idea that God saves only human souls to live with him in a spiritual heaven is contradicted by the Bible.  So where does this idea come from if not in the Bible?  Plato.  Plato believed that the physical world was distinct from and inferior to the rational world of Ideas.  When Christianity interacted with Greek culture, the ideas of Plato became Christianized.  The world of Ideals sounded a lot like heaven and we accepted the idea that physical and spiritual things are separate, and we took on the idea that the physical world is evil.  These are Greek ideas, not Biblical ones.

To sing of “The God who saved my soul” we are in danger of reducing God to a mere saver of souls.  Are we perpetuating the pagan idea that material things are not “good.” If so, we are reducing God’s concern, and consequently ours, from all things to just some things.

It was my impression, from listening to many sermons and podcasts of several different denominations, that the reductive “souls only” redemption was fading out.  After all, we no longer sing the old hymns that promulgated the idea.  But we’ve got song writers stepping in to mess up the theology of a new generation of Christians.

If the good folks at Gateway actually believe that Christ redemption is for individual human souls then my critique still stands for the chorus still contradicts the verse.  For those congregations that believe in a cosmic redemption, please, let’s just use the “old” doxology, or write a chorus that represents the greatest of all blessings–Redemption–in its cosmic scope.

For more on this vision of holistic salvation:

 

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