Archives For Chaplaincy

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 21 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”

Suspicious Séances

June 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

lincolnsDid you hear about the séances that were held at the White House? It’s true, but it’s not recent news. They were conducted for Mary Todd Lincoln, and her husband, the president, apparently joined in attendance at some of them.

The Lincoln’s had lost their eleven year old son Willie to Typhoid in February 1862. Nearly all historians describing Mary’s grief accurately use the word “inconsolable”.

Since the Lincoln’s were not Christian, Mary sought the illusion of comfort in spiritualism, a thriving movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism typically contends that the spirits of the dead survive in a manner where they can, and do, communicate with the living. This interchange is typically facilitated by a “medium,” someone particularly attuned to the “spirit world.”

Mediums sometimes allow themselves to become physical vessels for these spirits.

Christians either dismiss such experiences as fraud, or as demonic possession. Which depends on their own worldview. Some Christians dismiss the spiritual realm, while others recognize it is quite real.

C.S. Lewis would be in the latter camp, as his preface to The Screwtape Letters amply illustrates.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Christians who acknowledge the spiritual warfare which is waged beyond our physical senses understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Returning to the 1800s

The reason I have been thinking about Mary Lincoln—who would later be institutionalized and attempted suicide—is because I’m finishing up an article for the online journal I edit about the military chaplaincy. It’s called Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and the new issue will be posted by the end of the month.*

The specific article relates the story of Ellen Elvira Gibson (Hobart),** who was the first woman chaplain in the American military. She served a Wisconsin regiment, and her story is nothing short of fascinating.

Hobart was a spiritualist, and “ordained” by a group of the same who banded together to provide just such credentials. Interestingly, although she gave hundreds of (paid) lectures in a spiritual “trance” state, she would ultimately reject spiritualism. She turned to a more radical and secular “freethinking” as spiritualism was waning in popularity, but still a formidable presence.

Chaplain Hobart would gain renown in anti-Christian circles for her book The Godly Women of the Bible by an Ungodly Woman of the Nineteenth Century. Numerous atheist websites cite a quotation from the volume. “The abominable laws respecting [women in the Bible] . . . are a disgrace to civilization and English literature; and any family which permits such a volume to lie on their parlor-table ought to be ostracized from all respectable society. . .”

Contemporary readers will find it odd that one of the reasons spiritualism received a warm welcome in Europe and America was precisely because it seemed to offer measurable, “scientific” evidence of the afterlife. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust writes:

To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, ‘proof palpable of immortality’” (180-81).

Returning to the Inklings

One of Lewis’ dearest friends was Owen Barfield. Sadly, the two remained separated throughout life by their religious beliefs. Barfield had helped Lewis come to believe in God (i.e. theism) but could not journey with Lewis on to Christianity. Barfield, instead, became one of the greatest of Anthroposophist evangelists.

Anthroposophy possesses elements of philosophy, but is also inarguably a religion in its own right. It also holds a view of the afterlife distinct from both Christianity and historic spiritualism.

But the nature of the religion created by Rudolf Steiner (which evolved from his involvement in Theosophy) is not the subject of our reflections here. However, if one is interested in learning more about Owen Barfield, a 1992 documentary can be viewed here.

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The image above is a famous example of “spirit photography” taken by William Mulmer, who made it popular. He was once placed on trial for fraud, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

* I may delay publication of this particular article since the issue will already carry the biography of another chaplain.

** The reason “Hobart” is bracketed, is because it was her married name at the time of her military service. However, the marriage was short lived, and most of her life she went by “Ella E. Gibson.”

Boot Camp Religion

September 23, 2013 — 20 Comments

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.

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* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Many people who don’t write live a bit in awe of those who do. Even in this POD age, an almost mystical aura surrounds those who “successfully” write. This is especially true for those who are published, but not restricted to them.

Over the years, many friends and family members have asked why I “like to write.” Some years ago, the vague responses I once offered assumed clarity. It was, in a sense, due to a personal epiphany. I now answer such queries with the words, “it’s not that I enjoy writing itself . . . but I find the satisfaction of having written to be deeply rewarding.” (Well, that’s not a verbatim quote of how I respond, but you get the idea.)

One of my driving desires when I retired from the Air Force was to spend more time pursuing my lifelong avocation. Toward that end, I’ve devoted a serious amount of time to publishing a free online journal about the military chaplaincy. It is semi-annual, and even at that, it’s currently behind its publication schedule. (Mea culpa.)

I’m happy to share that the latest issue of the journal is now ready for free download. You can find it here. In fact, all four issues of the journal are available for download in PDF.

Curtana features new articles, editorials, poetry and reviews. In addition, since a major purpose of the journal is to gather chaplaincy history from disparate sources, we also compile biographical notes and other material.

As Curtana’s editor, I’m proud of the international scope of the journal. We’ve received contributions from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Great Britain, Haiti, Ireland, and even the United States. Most articles have been written by chaplains, but that’s not a requirement. Skim the contents of the issues and you’ll note the breadth and depth that characterize Curtana.

C.S. Lewis recognized the value of thoughtful literary works. Good literature might be fiction or nonfiction, but it bears the mark of genuine reflection.

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

I hope that in some small way Curtana: Sword of Mercy helps irrigate the arid minds of modern men and women. Please share news of its existence with your acquaintances who may be interested in ministry within the armed forces.