Monday, 21 April 2008

Sinning while singing... - A critique of modern hymnody part 1

Isaac, in a Facebook note has shared a poem entitled "an Essay on Modern Hymnody" by someone critique modern sung worship. I hope to give that poem some biblical backing, looking at the different complaints and providing a Biblical basis to them.

This first section of the critique should be fairly obvious what's wrong with the songs, yet so many people pick these songs for worship services.
I. On hymns in the indicative

It's difficult to know where to begin
Our catalogue of folly, crime and sin.
I think it's best if we start with the worst,
So let us start with sin, with the accursed,
Those wicked hymns in the indicative
That make us sing of how we ought to live
As though we do—that is, they make us lie
When they should teach us truths for which to die!
Or make us sing of feelings we don't feel
Thus make the ones we do feel seem unreal;
—They make the false seem true and real seem fake,
And just as bad as these are those that make
Our mouths make promises we cannot keep.
—Such “hymns” make devils smile—and angels weep.
These pretty, pious perjuries we chant
Do nought but school us in religious cant.
What should we do when asked to sing such dross?
Stand silently? Or sing with fingers crossed?
Stand silently, I say, with folded arms
And to yourself recite your fav'rite psalm.
(for those, like me, who aren't grammar experts, the indicative is the grammatical mood used for objective truths).

So we have several things here
  1. singing about how we ought to, but don't, live as if we do live like that
  2. singing about feelings we don't have
  3. singing about promises that we can't keep
All of which is lying. I shouldn't need to tell you that lying is wrong, is sinful. We were called to worship in spirit and truth (John 4), not spirit and lies. However I feel that there is more to these songs that is bad, than just that we're lying while singing them (as if that wasn't bad enough!). I feel that these songs lead to wrong theology and are idolatrous in nature.

Singing about how great we're living (even if it's true) is not something that we should do, nor is going on about how much we love Jesus, or making grand promises. It's showing off our righteousness, going 'look at me, everyone, aren't I great'. If it's true, it's fine for the private domain to go on about how we love God, and how we're going to do something for him, however it could lead to accusations of showing off if done publicly.

A quick look at some people who try to use their righteous acts to petition Jesus:
Jesus says:
"On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’"(Matt 7:22-23, ESV)
These people's salvation seems to rest on what they have done for Jesus, not what he has done for them. This is perhaps the greatest problem of 'songs in the indicative' - they give people false theology - the false theology mentioned in these verses. And heresy is catchy in song: Arius, whose heresy caused the council of Nicea to have to be held to stop it, spread his false teaching about the Trinity by making up little songs and ditties; the indulgences business, that caused Luther to write his 95 Theses to rebel against the whole church going against the gospel, had the refrain "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs". Catchy no? Deadly too!

We're also talking to God, effectively praying, when we sing these songs - what does Jesus say:
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matt 6:7, ESV)
Don't heap up empty phrases - like "I'll do this if you do that", or even just "I'm going to do this" if you won't actually do it.

Don't think that you'll be heard for your many words - don't try and get God's attention - you're his child, he listens to you - you don't need to heap up all sorts of phrases about how we love him and so on to get his attention. If I had a child and he/she asked me for a sweet by saying something like "Daddy, you know I love you - can I have a sweet?" then that's pretty much emotional blackmail into getting a sweet off me and (I hope) the child will be told 'no' (they may then get given it, not because he/she loves me, but because I love him/her - and that would be made explicit). I'm not saying that we shouldn't tell God we love him, but you really haven't got the gospel at all if you think that it matters that we love God when we petition him, or that it matters when we tell others about why he's great.
"Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1John 4:10, HCSB)
We don't need to make promises - it's not a we do and God responds, it's God does and we respond. There are so many songs out there that ignore the God does bit of this, and focus solely on our response. They may even give a nod to the fact that it's a response - that God deserves it, that he is worthy, however they don't have the why of his worthiness.

We are, in these songs, focussing on ourself, not God - we will do this for God, that for God, etc. Isn't that basically idolatry?

In summation
  • These songs cause us to sin through lying about what we have done, feel and will do.
  • They give us a false and heretical view of salvation - based on our actions, not God's.
  • They cause people to feel that those singing them are showing off because it's all 'look at how great I am', which is ignoring Jesus' teaching. It gives the impression of self-righteousness.
  • They are basically self-centred songs, praising yourself, or asking others to praise you for what you've done.
These songs are among the best tools of the Devil, turning us into emotional legalists (must feel the right thing) who worship ourselves, our works, feelings and promises, as an idol; think that God's blessing is dependant on our opinion of him, not his of us; and lie - all while we think we're doing good things, worshipping God.


Anonymous said...

Not sure I'm entirely persuaded by this Si. Though I agree with the overall sentiment, I struggle to see how this fits with, say, some of the psalmody. I did a quick search on "all" in the concordance and it's quite instructive. Is it not possible to sing about something in the sense of what we'd like it to be?

When I sing Psalm 9.1 - I am basically lying if you take it at face value. The doctrine of indwelling sin means I am not praising God with "all my heart." Yet, it is a biblical injunction, and a right desire to express.

I get where you're coming from! And agree with it. I just wonder if we can be too precise about what we sing...?

Anonymous said...

Just read that last sentence which makes me look like a paid up post modern liberal. I think you know what I mean (I hope so, anyway!).