Sacred Songs Gone Wrong? You Decide

The good, the bad, and the cloying.

 

Disclaimer: Beliefnet loves sacred music, and recognizes that writing it--combining music, lines from scripture, and theology to create a memorable hymn--isn't an easy job. Still, we think George Weigel has a point: some hymns contain questionable theology. So with all due respect to poetic license, and with apologies for taking lines out of context, we offer the following sampler of hymns that have lost their way (or were simply too annoying to escape mention). Vote on each song to let us know what works for you--and what doesn't.

Once to Every Man and Nation

By James Lowell



Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight...

New occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.



Bad theology alert:

Seems to endorse relativism; idea of absolute truth undermined. Plus, since when is a cause, even a righteous one, "God's new Messiah"? And does the opportunity to choose the good come only "once"? No wonder this hymn, originally a protest song about the Mexican-American war, was booted from the Episcopal hymnal in 1982 (on the plus side, different lyrics were written so the church could keep singing the stirring tune).



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Onward, Christian Soldiers

By Sabine Baring-Gould

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!



Problem:

Though subsequent verses make it clear that the "battle" is against sin and the devil, some Christians feel uncomfortable with this hymn's martial tone.



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The Aye Carol

By John Bell

Who is the man who looks on at the door,
Welcoming strangers, some rich but most poor,
Scanning the world as if somehow unsure?
Joseph, the father of Jesus.


Bad theology alert:

According to Christian doctrine, God is the father of Jesus. Joseph is sometimes called Jesus' "foster father."



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Earth and All Stars

By Herbert F. Brokering

Classrooms and labs,
Loud boiling test tubes
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Athletes and band,
Loud cheering people
Sing to the Lord a new song!

Problem:

Yes, we should be able to find God in all creation, but "loud boiling test tubes" is just dopey.



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Those Who Love and Those Who Labor


By Geoffrey Dearmer



Jesus says to those who seek him,
I will never pass you by:
Raise the stone and you shall find me
Cleave the wood, and there am I.

The prince of common welfare
Dwells within the market strife...

Let the seeker never falter
Till the truth is found afar
With the wisdom of the ages
Underneath a giant star.

Bad theology trifecta:

First, the "raise the stone/cleave the wood" line is straight out of the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical Gnostic text. Second, "the prince of common welfare [dwelling] within the market strife" sounds like a Jesus out of Marx's "Das Kapital." Finally, what "giant star" are we talking about--the sun? The Star of Bethlehem? What's going on?



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This Bread That We Share

By Dominic MacAller

This bread that we share is the body of Christ,
this cup of blessing his blood. ...
When we love one another as Christ has loved us,
we become God's daughters and sons.
We become for each other the bread, the cup,
the presence of Christ revealed.

Problem:

An Episcopal minister we polled takes issue with this hymn's "absolutely awful theology...Christ is to be identified with the bread and the wine, not us."



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Gather Us In

By Marty Haugen



Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven,
light years away,
But here in this place, the new light is shining,
Now is the Kingdom, now is the day...

Problem:

This verse from a popular Catholic song could be interpreted as dissing church buildings--and even the afterlife.



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Now Join We to Praise the Creator

By Fred Kaan

We thank you, O God, for your goodness
For the joy and abundance of crops
For food that is stored in our larders
For all we can buy in the shops.

Problem:

Starts out as a nice harvest-themed verse, appropriate, perhaps, for Thanksgiving; but ends with a thud in its paean to malls.



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From Greenland's Icy Mountains

By Reginald Heber



In vain with lavish kindness
the gifts of God are strown;
the heathen in his blindness
bows down to wood and stone!
Can we, whose souls are lighted
with wisdom from on high,
can we to those benighted
the lamp of life deny?

Problem:

Ugh. Luckily, this patronizing British Empire clunker lives on only in dusty hymnals.



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Remember All the People

By Percy Dearmer

Some work in sultry forests
Where apes swing to and fro,
Some fish in mighty rivers,
Some hunt across the snow.
Remember all God's children...



Problem:

As a whole, this hymn doesn't even approach the colonial condescension of "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" (above). But we just can't get past the swinging apes line.



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Bread of Life

By Rory Cooney

I myself am the bread of life
you and I are the bread of life
taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ
that the world may live.

Bad theology alert:

The first "I" seems to refer to Christ, while the second "I" refers to the singer. It's a bit too close to a Messiah complex for our taste, especially given that Christ appears as a third person just a few words later. Though Paul's epistle makes it clear that believers make up the body of Christ, it seems like a theologically questionable leap to identify individual Christians as the bread of life.



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For the Healing of the Nations

By Fred Kaan



All that kills abundant living,
let it from the earth be banned...
dogmas that obscure your plan.

Problem:

We could see this hymn working in a UU church, but should a song in a Roman Catholic hymnal really be slamming dogma? Where does this leave Sunday School teachers?



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Anthem

By Tom Conry

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another. ...
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

Problem:

If human beings are a creed, we're all in trouble.



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