Volume 10, Issue 1: Poetics
A Singing Faith
S. Stephen Thomas
Christianity is a singing faith and rightly so. We have much to rejoice in and singing is a natural expression of that joy. Singing is also essentially religious for it is from the heart that the mouth sings. This may or may not be very comforting when we realize that our corporate singing tells what is inside us as a people.
For all their heresy, the mainline Protestant denominations have managed, somehow, to retain much music from their glorious history. The older hymns, rich in Biblical theology, are often the only vestige of sound faith remaining in their worship service. A happy paradox. Another paradox is that church which has a reasonably sound doctrinal statement (if one can be found in print) and eschews prolixity if it concerns God, especially when a tune is included. This is true of those of the contemporary evangelical stripe who, like good moderns, proudly reject history and tradition. Their ensign, that of the worship impaired, snaps in the wind of some doctrine or other as they mock the faded glory of their liberal counterparts. As the old hymns were for those of another era, so the "new and improved" praise choruses are for us—either soundbites of Scripture or barrel house jingles that urge us to belly-up to the bar of God.
Another group, the "hymns as usual" crowd, also have some deficiencies. The first has to do with God as He is. The Word informs us that the God who is, and dwells in unapproachable light, has also tabernacled among men—Immanuel. The transcendence and immanence of God is a wonderful doctrine which none but the unorthodox deny, yet it is practically denied in much contemporary church singing. The Psalms and the older hymns are rich with praise of the ontological God, the One who is, the great "I Am." It is true that God has a relationship with man, acts in history and is not only "out there" somewhere. This should be sung often and with vigor. But too often the hymns chosen are strangely silent about God himself as if He is worthy of our praises only for what He has done and especially so when we are somehow in the picture.
The second trend displayed in much church singing has to do with man as he relates to God. Christians love to sing of God's salvation, yet is seems that the objective work of god for us goes unsung while His subjective work in us gets the volume. And His work in us is so wonderful that we cannot praise God enough for it. But the work that Christ performed for us, outside us, is considered by many as seminary subject matter and thus irrelevant to God's people and His worship.
Singing hymns and Psalms of God's immanence, or of Christ's work in us, is of course not deficient just because it is silent concerning other relevant truths. The issue is not the song, nor singing it. Praise God we have such songs, and have them in abundance. The issue is what drives the Christian church's boycott of God himself and Christ's historic, objective work toward His Father. Today's church is strong on subjective, but not a subjectivity which is God-ward, but in-ward. This brings us back to the heart-theology from which the mouth sings. The guilt feelings and felt needs of those lacking self-esteem have replaced true guilt and the real need of sinners. The god-who-is-here-to-meet-my-needs has replaced the God who is and (concerning us) doesn't have to be. The answer is not to be abstract about God. The antithesis is not between praising God for who he is as opposed to what He has done for us. It is between praising the God who is versus the god who isn't. While we must maintain the truth of God's immanence and his great saving work within us, we must reclaim in our corporate worship the singing of God Himself and His work for us. However, this cannot be accomplished by a "just do it" mentality. To start singing different words, or just praise Jesus from the heart is not the answer, it is more of the problem. This is so because the old heart is the problem.
The church, tolerant of the false sons and false doctrine in her pale, has for some time now been content to carry out its anthropocentric theology to its logical end. Whether soteriological or social issues the assumption is the same—the heart is not really all that bad. We invite Jesus into our hearts because we really believe it a suitable place for the King of Glory and not the dark, stony tomb that needs plucking out and replacing with a heart of flesh. Jesus taught that what stumbles us is not our eyes, hands, alcohol, tobacco, or firearms, but our hearts.
The solution? The church needs radical surgery, not on her eyes, hands, nor voice, but on her heart. She needs to recover what her fathers knew. Far from being opposed to new expressions of truth in song, or despising the old, she should eagerly seek, as did they, the reforming of her singing. We must plead with Him to turn the hearts of His people so that all the chosen race may with one heart and voice and soul sing His redeeming grace. Then will be heard a most wondrous song—when He joys over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17).