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The Lord’s song in a strange land

04 March 2016

Ashley Cocksworth and Richard Sudworth explore bad theology in popular hymns


Lost in translation? Hark! the herald angels sing in Japanese

Lost in translation? Hark! the herald angels sing in Japanese

HYMNS are part and parcel of the worshipping life of the Church. They are also one of the most effective vessels through which theological wisdom is transmitted across the ages.

Anglicans may well be familiar with the Methodist sensibility of “singing the faith”: Christians learn to think theologically as we worship. The question is what kind of theology is being woven into our doctrinal consciousness through the words of the hymns we sing.

At their best, when the words of hymns hit the theological high note, the mind and the soul are nourished in equal measure. But, at their worst, under the auspices of a hymn can lurk the most dangerous of all theological beasts: the idol.

It is tempting to place good and bad hymns on either side of a narrative of decay and decline: a story that laments the theological impoverishment of the contemporary worship song and harks back to the good old days of hymn-writing. The “golden age” would almost certainly include Charles Wesley, John Newton, and Isaac Watts, who were instrumental in canonising congregational hymn-singing in the 18th century.

But, if the past appears to be full of great hymn-writers, that is, at least in part, due to the liturgical Darwinism that weeds out the theologically weak. What survive from earlier centuries in today’s hymn-books are the theologically fittest of hymns. After all, only a slim minority of the 6000-odd hymns penned by the great bard of English hymn writing, Charles Wesley, are sung regularly in church today.


GIVEN this process of natural selection, it is surprising that our hymn-books still contain so many easy targets for examples of bad theology.

There are those hymns that fail to offer a critical voice to nationalistic self-promotion, patriotism, empire, and imperialism. Building Jerusalem on the “green and pleasant land” of England may warm the hearts of those on the search for a new English national anthem, but good theology it is not.

There are those hymns that adopt a liturgical language (King, Lord, Almighty) that conceal troubling ideologies of power, and could, cumulatively and if left unchecked, validate relations of dominance over others.

Think of the oft-omitted third verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by one of the 19th-century’s prolific brigade of women hymn-writers, Cecil Frances Alexander: “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high and lowly / And ordered their estate.” There is little that is particularly beautiful or, indeed, theological in this endorsement of classist power structures, which is uncharacteristic of Alexander’s otherwise more theologically subversive hymns.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those hymns that address God so intimately, and with such surety, that the cloud of unknowing is rendered worryingly thin.

And, of course, there’s the leitmotiv of the modern hymn: me. Here, cultural currents of individualism are channelled into the hymn without repudiation. Shine Jesus, Shine — but please, please “shine on me”. Hymns regularly miss the theological mark.

Then again, one person’s theological hymn failure is for someone else a great theological success. Loved by some, hated by others, the “Marmite” songs of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty — to take an irresistible target — have an infinite capacity to divide.

“In Christ Alone” made the church news not long ago for having been ejected from the new Presbyterian Church (US) hymnal. The controversy focuses on the oneline: “the wrath of God was satisfied”. For some, this puts to song a very valid, even biblical, understanding of the cross, well deserving of its number two spot on a recent Songs of Praise “UK’s Top 100 Hymns”. For others, it has come to represent bad theology at its worst: an example of what Steve Chalke has labelled “cosmic child abuse”, a phrase that finds its origin in some feminist critiques of the atonement.


THERE are times, then, when the hymn-writer, like the theologian, just gets it wrong. And there are other times when hymns appear almost contradictory in their struggle to put to word the mysteries of the Word. Of the hymns that have been preserved in the Wesley corpus, Charles’s hymns on the incarnation are among his most celebrated. For all their beauty and continuing potency, however, there remain some doctrinal tensions.

In “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, Wesley has us “Hail the incarnate Deity” who came “as man with man to dwell” — a full-bodied Christology. But, in the preceding line, a less radical doctrine of the person of Christ suggests that the Word is only “veiled in flesh”: God is disguised as human but not really human.

If Wesley emphasises Jesus’s deity at the expense of his humanity in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, he perhaps makes the opposite error in his beloved conversion hymn, “And Can it Be That I Should Gain?” Here, Jesus is God “emptied … of all but love”. If it is only in the “love” that Jesus embodies that we find anything of God, then we risk singing of a Jesus divorced from the fullness of God and a theology of self-emptying that relativises the incarnation.

Efforts to articulate too much of God sometimes trip writers up. A cautious silence might draw people more fully into the worship of the God who is “in light, inaccessible”.

The error of saying too muchabout Godis also characteristic of hymns where, all of a sudden, God becomes a “thing” of the world: a rather bigger, more powerful version of other items in the universe. Children surely deserve better than “Our God is a great big God” to be loved “more than any other thing”, as if size and scale were so neatly applicable to the God who creates all things. God becomes too comfortable, too easily spoken about, too easily hijacked to serve our own ends.

The liturgical year gets off to a rather bad start with a medley of carols that gift-wrap the grace of the gospel into something neat and comfortable: “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, we sing lovingly, year in, year out. But this “passive and docile” image of the Christ-child, Rowan Williams would say, needs interrupting with the “shattering strangeness of God”. This is “the God who, in St Augustine’s unforgettable words, penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying” (Open to Judgement, 1996).


GIFT-WRAPPING the Christ-child into a babe that never cries, and confusing God with great big things are examples of what the Bible calls idolatry. Hymn-writers, as theologians, undertake their task under the ever-present threat of idolatry — that is, the mistake that turns God into something like them, and then sings to it.

The curious thing about idolatry is that it takes place within (rather than outside) worshipping communities. But if hymns can manifest the disease, they are also the place to find the cure. Idolatry and iconoclasm converge in the same hymn. In worship, all human description of God is “handed over” to God to be remade into something good and beautiful as its joins the choruses of heavenly praise (Matthew19.26).

There will always be hymns that need theological tuning. That’s part of the impossibility of the task of speaking (or singing) about God. Theology can help to identify the places where hymns go astray, and offer tools for their repair. But, in song, theology is also reminded of its true vocation, which finds its expression in the praise and worship of God. 


Dr Ashley Cocksworth is Tutor in Systematic Theology at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and the author of Karl Barth on Prayer (T&T Clark, 2015).

The Revd Dr Richard J. Sudworth is a parish priest, and Tutor in Anglican Theology at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. He is the author of Distinctly Welcoming, Christian presence in a multifaith society (Scripture Union, 2007).

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