Saturday, July 08, 2006

Church Songs for Whiny Brats




A few days ago I came across The Sacred Sandwich’s satirical advertisement for “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, American Edition.” You’ll just have to visit it to believe it. What was funny about it is the fact that it truly captured the modern church’s “whimpiness” in many ways. We in America really are strangers to persecution - and we often fail to recognize that fact. I especially chuckled when I read this imagined review from Christianity Today:

“Read this modern version of a Reformation classic and see why Christianity Today calls it ‘a thin book perfect for rolling up and using to smack whiny Christian brats upside the head!’"

Their satirical advertisement was not only funny (at one level), but it was also rather sad. What was sad about it was that it is more true to life than it should be. I must confess that it is too easy to be a whiny brat in our affluent, American culture. As Christians, we must guard ourselves against the superficiality and shallowness that saturates our culture. We must guard against shallowness in our relationship with the Lord; shallowness in our doctrine; shallowness in our relationships with brethren and with the lost; and we must also guard against shallowness in the books that we read, the movies that we watch and songs that we sing and listen to. In this last area, I would suggest to you that the church has been steadily losing ground for many years. Especially when it comes to church hymnody, the church has been systematically substituting doctrinally sound songs which the modern mush that the masses love to hear. Even when it comes to theologically sound hymns, many today are redacting their contents, one verse at a time. Tim Challes recently posted on the interesting habit that some worship leaders have of failing to sing all of the verses in a hymn. This common practice in the church runs the risk of reducing, or even altering, the message of a hymn. But there is another problem with the modern church’s approach to ancient hymnody, and it has to do with how hymns are actually published. Many times hymns are published in an abbreviated form such that the worshipper is unaware that the hymn has already been truncated - even before the worship leader gets to it. Last Wednesday evening, during our Bible study and prayer meeting, I led our flock in that classic hymn, The Church’s One Foundation, by Samuel J. Stone. In part, I did this after thinking more about Sacred Sandwich’s satire on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, American Edition:


(1) The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ her Lord she is His new creation by water and the word; from heav’n He came and sought her To be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.


(2) Elect from ev’ry nation, yet one o’er all the earth; Her charter of salvation: One Lord, one faith, one birth; One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food, And to one hope she presses with ev’ry grace endued.


(3) ’Mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war, she waits the consummation of peace forevermore; Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, And the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.


(4) Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One, And mystic Sweet communion with those whose rest is won; O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we, like them the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with Thee.


This is the most common version of this hymn in print today. I have a collection of over 50 hymnals from the past 100 years and I can attest that nearly all versions of this hymn (with very few exceptions) contain the above four verses; and I’m sure that everyone who is reading this is familiar with them. What you may not know is that The Church’s One Foundation was one in a series of 12 hymns written by Samuel Stone amidst a great torrent of doctrinal controversy. Stone was so concerned about the weak doctrine of the church, and the encroaching error that was threatening it, that he resolved to write 12 pedagogical hymns that were designed to remind the children of God of what our calling and mission in life is. Consider the following summary offered by Osbeck in his work 101 Hymn Stories:

“[The Church’s One Foundation] was written by a Church of England pastor, Samuel J. Stone, in 1866. It was during this period that there existed much turmoil within the Anglican Church over a book written three years earlier by one of the influential Anglican Bishops, John William Colenso, in which this liberal bishop attacked the historic accuracy of the Pentateuch. The book, The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, Critically Examined, was vehemently opposed by another Anglican leader, Bishop Gray. Soon the theological dispute between these two leaders became a widespread controversy throughout the entire Anglican Church. Samuel Stone was deeply stirred by this matter and in 1866 wrote a collection of hymns, Lyra Fidelium (”Lyre of the Faithful”), containing twelve creedal hymns based on the Apostles’ Creed to combat the attacks of modem scholarship and liberalism which he felt would soon divide and destroy the church. This particular hymn was based on the Ninth Article of the Creed, which reads, “The Holy Catholic (Universal) Church; the Communion of Saints: He is the Head of this Body.” It was Stone’s conviction that the unity of the Church must rest solely with a recognition of the Lordship of Christ as its head and not on the views and interpretations of men.” [Osbeck, K. W. (1982). 101 hymn stories. Includes music and index. (243). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.]

The background of The Church’s One Foundation is fascinating. Part of the original pedagogy of Stone’s hymn deals with the difficult subjects of doctrinal heresy, false brethren, suffering, church schisms and persecution from within and without.


You caught all that in the four verses listed above...right?


Maybe not. Actually, the verses that are typically left out of The Church’s One Foundation are the very ones that we whiny-brat-Americans need to hear the most. Let’s look at this hymn once again, but this time with the verses that are typically omitted:


(1) The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ her Lord she is His new creation by water and the word; from heav’n He came and sought her To be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.


(2) Elect from ev’ry nation, yet one o’er all the earth; Her charter of salvation: One Lord, one faith, one birth; One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food, And to one hope she presses with ev’ry grace endued.


(3) ’Mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war, she waits the consummation of peace forevermore; Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, And the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.


(4) Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.


(5) The church shall never perish! Her dear Lord to defend, to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end; though there be those that hate her, and false sons in her pale, against or foe or traitor she ever shall prevail.


(6) Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One, And mystic Sweet communion with those whose rest is won; O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we, like them the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with Thee.


Verses 4 and 5 are absolutely loaded with difficult, but very real truths: doctrinal heresy, false brethren, suffering, church schisms and persecution from within and from without.


No wonder they are often left out of most modern hymnals!


This reality of hymnal redaction makes it an even greater challenge for the modern worship leader to know whether he is dealing with a complete hymn or not. Many times he is not, and therefore it becomes necessary to have multiple resources with which to compare to his own resources. Such work may seem excessive - but it has become necessary in the modern day.


Samuel Stone wanted to leave the bride of Christ with the encouraging truths and sober warnings that she needed in order to face the many battles that surround her. But most modern publishers have taken it upon themselves to truncate Stone’s important message for reasons that are beyond me. Although I suppose that in a generation that seems to want to live in denial of the trials of life, along with the harsh realities of bearing Christ’s cross, such redactions should offer little surprise. For myself - I need Mr. Stone’s godly and sober reminders. I need to be reminded that following Christ means taking up His cross. I need to read this constant message in the Scriptures, and I need to meditate upon this truth in the songs that I sing. Yes, even the hymns that we sing should help us to remember that were are but strangers and aliens in this world. Because of this reality, we will face opposition for the Gospel that we proclaim; and for all we know, our generation may face persecution like that of the church’s past. Therefore, may the Lord make us His ready solidiers who stand in the strength of His might - lest we too become a bunch of whiny-Christian brats.