Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bad Lyrics?

Keith and Kristin Getty are bright-lights in the emerging worship movement. Irish and based in a church in Ohio, I have heard them live several times, once even at MCC. Their tunes are singable and melodic lines easy to memorize (since there is usually no printed music, just words). The college community loves their well-known hymn "In Christ Alone". It starts slowly and quietly and with a good drum and key change, intensifies into a proud and triumphal march.
But what should we do with bad theology and insensitive lyrics? The "bad" theology is the substitutionary atonement language of verse 2
"In Christ alone, who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on Him was laid here in the death of Christ I live."
Is that the theology we preach and believe; that God's wrath was satisfied by Christ's death? Did Jesus have to die to turn God's anger and wrath into love for us? Or is Christ's death a stronger evidence of God's outpouring love for us and it was human sinfulness that killed Jesus?
So is it appropriate to re-write the third line with something like this?
"Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified?"
Then in the last stanza, there is the phrase:
"No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand"
I have intentionally avoided using the word "man" when referring to humanity of both genders since the 1980's. I think it is sensitive to be as inclusive as possible. So here again, would it be right to re-phrase that line to speak more inclusively?
This is a delicate conversation in our house because Martha is a lover of english prose and poetry and has often ranted at the "dumbing down" of some of the hymns in the hymnal, the removal of "here I raise my Ebeneezer" to "here I raise to thee an altar" or the wholesale elimination of "thee" and "thou" for "you". Some of the great poetry within hymnody has been eviscerated by committees that were propelled by the same impulse I am propelled to change Getty's lyrics.
As contemporary music entered my worship language more and more, I found myself evaluating the music by its singability more than its language. Because it was newly written by committed Christian artists, all they wrote must be theologically ok. It's not. What then is being done to theologically fine-tune and culturally clean-up the language without violating the integrity of the artists?


At 9:39 AM , Blogger drgtjustwondering said...

Yeah and amen. I have substituted the word 'love' for 'wrath' each time we sing that song, but have not yet figured out how to change 'man' so that it flows well. In light of the excellent article on atonement in the recent Covenant Companion, this is a good time to visit this tender subject. Thank you.


At 9:23 PM , Blogger Kalon L said...

It's a fascinating topic. But if you're going to take issue with the implied theology in this song, what about the Apostle's Creed where "he descended into hell" seems to reflect the same "penal substitution" theology? (I do, incidentally, agree with your thoughts on this subject.)

I would love to see discussion of this at a Sunday School topic.

At 6:42 PM , Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

I guess I see wrath as an expression of God's love in taking on the just punishment for humankind on the cross in his Son. So I don't see the Father punishing the Son or anything of the like. So I guess at the moment, I don't see a problem with the song, nor do I see any problem with your change of its lyrics.

I see penal substitution as one aspect of the Atonement (cf.: Scot McKnight).

At 7:03 PM , Blogger Rick said...

My comment is at


At 6:37 AM , Blogger Kim said...

Did Jesus have to die to turn God's anger and wrath into love for us?

Wow - I didn't read that meaning into those lyrics at all. Jesus took the punishment that was ours - but that doesn't mean God didn't love us, rather it was the ultimate expression of His love for us. Keep in mind I'm a lay person, and this is what I've been taught.

At 9:39 AM , Blogger Dan said...

For some reason, John Piper has become the lead theologian for the Worship Together crowd, so that kind of theology seems to work its way into their music all the time. Which is unfortunate, because I love their music. 90% of it is the perfect combination of deep theology and singable lyric. But every once in awhile you have to fiddle with it. As to that line in "In Christ Alone," we change it to "The curse of sin was cast aside." Keeps the rhyme, I think it sticks closet to the original intent, I think it carries deeper atonement imagery than "the love of God was magnified". . .as to the "man" word, I've never even tried. I think this is one of those places where it can be generic enough to pass.

At 11:54 AM , Blogger Kate said...

I really appreciate your viewpoint on this, Don. We sang this song on Saturday at a wedding and I had the same thoughts then. I like the alternative you came up with. Kalon, that's interesting about the Apostle's Creed - we studied that line in one of my Religious Studies classes and determined that there's not adequate biblical support for the "descended into hell" line - so I always just keep quiet there. I do the same thing for the line in "Away in a Manger" where everyone sings "no crying he makes" - I actually wrote a poem once about how Jesus would have cried, he was a real baby and babies aren't sinning when they cry, they are expressing needs!
- Kate Schwass


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