The theology of hymns, for better or worse

Bill Tammeus

Having written a few hymns, I’ve learned this: They teach theology, and sometimes that can be problematic.

For instance, think of the beloved Christmas hymn, “Away in a Manger.” What does it ask Jesus to do? To “fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” But is fitting us for heaven what Christianity is all about? Wasn’t Jesus more focused on his ministry-opening message: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”? And doesn’t that mean living today with compassion, mercy, justice and love?

A hymn with a message more about earthly struggles for justice is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” based on poetic words by the great African American writer James Weldon Johnson. He doesn’t ask to be fit for heaven. Rather, he asks God to “keep us forever in the path” of working for freedom for all.

Or what about that old standard, “I Come to the Garden Alone”? Hymns that focus on our personal walk with God (like “Blessed Assurance”) are fine. But personal salvation and being part of the covenant community should be in creative tension. Singing this self-focused hymn now and then is no problem, but if its message is that all I need is Jesus alone with me in the garden, that’s distorted theology.

Another example: In the widely-sung Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the awaited Messiah is asked to “ransom captive Israel.” Anyone familiar with the complicated field of atonement theory might suspect that the Ransom Theory is being advanced. There are boatloads of atonement theories, but none exhaustively explains what happened on the cross. Do you want this hymn to raise all that — as well as the sticky question of exactly who has held Israel captive?

Sometimes hymns can send a dreadful message. One is the popular “I Danced in the Morning.” As New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School tells me, “It was written as an antiestablishment piece in the 1960s, but in more recent times it not only signals a negative view of ‘the holy people’ — it charges them with killing Jesus” in this verse: “I danced on the sabbath and I cured the lame; The holy people said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped and they hung Me high, And left Me there on a cross to die.”

In “The Misunderstood Jew,” Levine notes, “Congregants and the choir will not think that the ‘holy people’ refers to the Romans,” but to Jews. And she adds: “There is no need to reintroduce the idea that Jews are Christ killers in a major key.”

So, we must be sensitive to messages hymns send by hearing them through the ears of others.

The church has hymns that are mostly a great treasure. But the job of pastors and music directors is to be aware that sometimes they can miscommunicate or throw our worship out of proper balance.

If you’re with me on this, then onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.