June 13, 2007

Consistency, Anyone?

2007 1516 page5 capdvocates of change love to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, the celebrated nineteenth-century poet and philosopher: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
In their mouths, Emerson’s memorable warning against tenacity for its own sake morphs into a
double-barreled blast at all things conservative and traditional. Consistency, upon which personal character, religious faith, and the future of the race so much depend, is linked, ergo, to superstition and small-mindedness—a clever feat  for those who find themselves inhibited by either the law of God or the history of their church.
Those who dare to urge greater consistency in almost any area of contemporary religious life stand an excellent chance of being scorned as “narrow-minded” or “reactionary.” Nowhere is this tendency more marked than in the vesuvian reactions to any call for either increased depth or theological accuracy in the worship music of the church—a topic, I grant, on which many wiser tongues than mine have recently gone silent.
Let some unwary believer innocently inquire why the praise music sung in his congregation reflects theology at variance with Adventist understanding of the Word, and a gaggle of voices—now that there is no longer a choir—will demand retractions and apologies for violation of the First Law of Religious Emotion. This largely unrecognized but underlying principle of existence declares that “No one really listens to the lyrics anyway,” and that a beautiful melody line is always to be preferred over some old theological statement.
2007 1516 page5Roll out the red-hot lava, folks. Someone is about to break the First Law of Religious Emotion.
At two recent worship events I listened in bemused amazement as talented young vocalists did their best to reverse 150 years of Adventist teaching about the state of the dead. One, whose native language is not English, could perhaps be forgiven for choosing David Phelp’s soaring anthem, “Fly Again,” as a suitable song for an Adventist worship service: like so many others who speak the language perfectly, he simply didn’t know what he was singing. But I still couldn’t help but wince to hear these lyrics about a dead believer “Amen”-ed and applauded:
   “And on that day when he left for the sky
I saw him smile as he told me goodbye . . .
I know that he’s in a better place.
I still dream of the day when I’ll see his face.
Then we’ll embrace, and . . . We will fly once again . . .”
One week later, I was stirred—in several senses—by the haunting simplicity of Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn” (Come to Jesus) at a worship service I attended. The earnest, heartfelt appeal of an otherwise lovely lyric could not redeem for me the final stanza of the song. Instead of being reminded that they will rise from their graves in resurrection power at the second coming of Christ or else be caught up together in the air, believers are given this counsel:
            “And with your final heartbeat
            Kiss the world goodbye;
            Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side, and
            Fly to Jesus; fly to Jesus,
            Fly to Jesus and live.”
This stuff makes excellent theological sense—and lovely lyrics—for those Christians who believe that death is the doorway into eternal life, a gentle glide on gossamer wings into uninterrupted and unconditional immortality. But the Bible truth as Adventists know and teach it—and ought to sing it—is never so wispy or insubstantial. Death is an enemy conquered by Jesus Himself, soon to be vanquished by the very substantial power of Him in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17, NRSV).* Deep calls to deep, and out of the earth Christ will call His own—
 “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who like thee His praise should sing?Ӡ
Here’s a call for biblical consistency throughout our worship services, in what we preach and what we sing. It makes precious little sense to borrow the lyrics of those enraptured with the rapture or overwhelmed by unfounded emotion when we offer up our praise to the author of Truth. Adventist praise, whether traditional or contemporary, should be just that—Adventist—informed, well-grounded, warmhearted, and hopeful.
And if that requires a new song or two—or 10—so be it.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
†“Praise My Soul the King of Heaven,” Henry Francis Lyte.

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.