Most of us have heard the possibly apocryphal story of theologian Karl Barth answering a student’s question about the most important thing he’s learned in his decades of study. Barth responded with words from a Sunday school hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
What always struck me about the story was that in his answer Barth affirmed that we learn lots of theology through the words of hymns. It’s still true.
That’s one reason the folks putting together a new PC(USA) hymnal decided that a phrase in the hymn “In Christ Alone” reflected unbalanced theology and voted to leave the hymn out. I agreed with the decision because the line in the hymn that says “the wrath of God was satisfied” in Jesus’ death reflects the idea that his death was somehow pacifying God’s anger, which is an interpretation of the atonement I find, at best, inadequate.
That theory emphasizes the point that God saves us because Christ died for us, whereas I believe the more important point is that Christ died for us because God loves us.
So what do we do about all of this? Well, I have to trust that the people putting together our hymnals have their heads screwed on right and will try their best. But I also think churches could create fascinating classes where participants would go through hymn words and talk about the theology they teach.
For instance, in the hymn “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” you will find these lines:
“There’s not a plant or flow’r below, but makes
Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order
from Thy throne … ”
Are we to take them literally, as televangelist Pat Robertson obviously does as he describes hurricanes and tornadoes as God’s punishments for various alleged sins? Or are such words metaphorical, pointing us to a foundational idea of Reformed Tradition theology that says God is sovereign, or gloriously free?
I suspect a lively group of adults, youth or a combination could fill up an enlightening hour unpacking such hymn words. And in the process, I’m betting we’d hear wonderful stories about how meaningful certain hymns have been to some of us.
For instance, when I was a boy I lived in India for a couple of years and attended a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas (which I sometimes spell Hymnalayas for reasons that will become clear soon).
Each morning students gathered in an assembly hall, and as we did the orchestra played the hymn “As Morning Gilds the Skies.” That hymn has run through my head every morning of my life since then.
Some years ago I was part of a task force in my congregation to create a hymnal supplement and I shared that story. After that, every time our congregation sang that hymn, a friend who was on that task force would make eye contact with me as a way of saying that we understand part of each other’s story. It was always a warm church family moment, and I’d think, “Blest be the ties that bind.”
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.