Tuesday, January 6, 2009

More Than Semantics

What we say is extremely important. Ideas are important. And how we say what we say, and express our ideas, is also important. Many would like to downplay ideas, downplay theology, downplay Orthodoxy. To do so, however, would be to the peril of our souls.

One of my church members e-mailed me something a few weeks ago that I just finally had a chance to look at yesterday. My initial reaction was a bit standoffish and I was tempted to discount it immediately. But then I got to thinking about it in relation to some things that I had already been thinking about, and part of me wants to give the concepts some more thought, while another part of me wonders where we draw the line.

The member is concerned - justifiably so, in my opinion - about some of the "compromise" that is creeping into our church. He is concerned that many "New Age" ideas, among others, are finding their way into our "conversations." One of the examples he gave is something that Eugene Peterson's Message translation utilizes when quoting the Lord's Prayer. Whereas most translations quote Jesus as saying something to the effect of "on earth, as it is in heaven," Eugene Peterson instead utilizes the allegedly-loaded phrase, "as above, so below." This, apparently, is a common phrase that was utilized within the Hermetic movement, which is based primarly upon the Hellenistic Egyptian writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Today, the New Age movement has adopted it as one of their "slogans."

Like I said, my initial reaction is to quickly discount any connection. And perhaps I should leave it at that. After all, who knows if Eugene Peterson deliberately put the phrase in there, or whether it is just a coincidence, or some other explanation. Even if he did utilize this phrase, knowing full-well where it came from, are we to conclude that anyone who unwittingly reads it will automatically be set up to accept New Age ideas? This would be akin to reading, elsewhere, the phrase "Just do it," and supposing that reading such a phrase will necessarily lead me to buy a pair of Nikes.

Of course, as I said earlier, semantics are extremely important. And sometimes we may be opening ourselves up to influences we may not otherwise be open to.

This has been a burden of mine with some of our contemporary "praise songs." I fear that we are setting ourselves up to buy into some bad theology when we - almost mindlessly - repeat lines from choruses over and over again. Do we actually give much thought to what we are singing?

I like to "exegete" such songs, and I happened to exegete the same song that N.T. Wright did a few months ago, which I mentioned here. After we sang the well-known contemporary hymn "In Christ Alone," Wright pointed out that instead of singing, "Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied," perhaps we should sing, "the love of God was satisfied."

My problem with this particular song is elsewhere, however. I will quote the last verse and see if you can identify some of the challenges in the theology:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.
Did you catch it? The first six lines are problematic because they hearken heavily upon a Calvinistic predestination/once saved, always saved idea. Jesus "commands" my destiny? Nothing can pluck me from His hand? Yes, that line is taken from Jesus, Himself, but knowing the theological perspective of the songwriters - who have openly said in Christianity Today that they want their hymns to be faithful to Calvinistic teaching - they are definitely promoting the idea of once saved, always saved - that if Jesus has destined me to be saved, I can never lose that salvation. Even my choice cannot undo that.

More than that, what about the second to last line, which is even more overtly problematic? One little conjunction - "or" - calls the whole idea into question. Is Jesus' return, and calling us home, two separate and distinct events, as if being called home possibly takes place at a different time than the Second Coming? The conjunction "or" gives this impression, and were it changed to "and," there would be very little to worry about.

Interestingly, Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, also made similar points about another song in an editorial a year or so ago. Are we setting ourselves up to accept certain winds of doctrine because we are unknowingly - or perhaps knowingly - regurgitating what popular Christianity and spirituality would like us to believe?

Of course, as I said before, how far do we want to take this? Can we really make a case that just because I read soemthing in a book, or sing it in a song, that I am necessarily going to subscribe to whichever philosophy that author is trying to establish? That's what I'm not completely sure of. I do believe that it is harder to keep bad theology/ideaology out when reciting it in song (as opposed to reading it in a book, where our logical and reasoning faculties are more intact),because there is a certain mindlessness and hypnotization that is taking place when we are influenced by not only words, but melody and rythm. But I am still grappling with the question beyond that.

This I do know: as I read in 1 Corinthians 10:12 this morning, "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." Many of us flatter ourselves into thinking that we can fend off the deceptions of the devil. After all, we are reasonable and logical people. We can analyze truth and error. But lest we think too much of ourselves, we constantly need to be falling upon the Rock - Jesus Christ - lest the devil deceive us in a way we are not expecting.

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