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Lessons from the Greatest Hymn List

Friday, May 22, 2020

Last week, I posted my take on what the 50 greatest hymns of all time were, and I revised the list a few days later.  Though the exercise was interesting in itself, I think the process generated some lessons that were even more interesting.  I think they are as follows:

ALL HYMNS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL.  The unspoken assumption behind my compilation of the list, an assumption shared by the hundreds of Christians who interacted with me on the various threads about it, is that hymns are not all the same, and that the differences between them matter.  To put things another way, there is such a thing as a good hymn, so there necessarily must be such a thing as a bad hymn.

Whenever I posit the latter online, I invariably get pushback from somebody who insists that a hymn cannot be bad unless it teaches false doctrine.  In a sense, I suppose that’s true.  A poorly written, low-content hymn does not directly send people to hell, any more than a sermon that’s a stand-up comedy routine or a Bible class that’s about pop psychology does. 

However, most brethren will critique the pulpit comic and the pop-psychologist Bible-class teacher not for what he says, but for what he does not say.  The same critique applies with equal force to bad hymns.  It’s not enough for a hymn not to be actively harmful.  It must be actively helpful.  It must present the worshiper with meaningful spiritual content (the more the better) in a usable form, because all of us need all the help we can get.

OLDER IS BETTER.  When I revised my list, I replaced the four most-critiqued hymns on the list with the four whose absence was most lamented.  The oldest hymn that I removed was more recent than the most modern hymn I added.  Indeed, three of the four additions (“O Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Rock of Ages”, and “Amazing Grace”) hailed from the eighteenth century, and two of the hymns I removed came from the twentieth century.

I was not surprised.  As a rule, the older a hymn in our repertoire is, the better it is.  This is not because all the hymns written in the eighteenth century were good, or even because most of them were good.  It’s because the less-than-excellent ones have been eliminated by successive generations of song leaders and hymnal editors with all the ruthlessness of a farmer shooting rats in a barn.  Bad old hymn?  Mediocre old hymn?  Bang!  Dead.

This should call today’s hymnal editors, CD compilers, slide-deck creators, and song deacons to caution in adding to the repertoire.  Most new hymns and praise songs today are not good either, and when we shove aside the great hymns of the past to make room for them, the quality of our song worship suffers.  There are hymns that deserve to be added (“In Christ Alone” is a shining example here), but there are not nearly as many of them as many brethren think.

POP HYMNS DON’T MEASURE UP.  Because this was my list, the most heavily represented category was nineteenth-century American gospel hymns.  Mostly, nobody complained about that.  Compared to our repertoire, the most under-represented category was 20th-century Southern gospel hymns, the hymns of the radio era.  Only two of the hymns on my list were written in true Stamps-Baxter quartet style, “This World Is Not My Home” and “Victory in Jesus”.  “Victory in Jesus” endured significant critique, to the point where I reasonably could have cut it instead of “Teach Me Thy Way”, which was my fourth strike.  Nor did I sense much of a groundswell of support for adding more Southern gospel hymns to the list.

Those hymns were the first to come from an era of mass-media performance.  Everybody in the South listened to gospel quartets over the radio back in the day, and those songs transformed the repertoire of churches of Christ.  I would estimate that half or more of the hymns in Sacred Selections are from this genre.

Today, though, the Stamps-Baxter hymns are dropping rapidly from use.  Now that they are no longer culturally relevant, their true colors have been revealed.  Worship progressives and conservatives alike attack them for being old-timey, hokey, shallow, and not very meaningful.  Indeed, in the comments on my list of good hymns, several brethren took advantage of the opportunity to poke at hymns not on the list that they didn’t like.  Every one of the hymns so marked was a radio hymn.

This should teach us to beware of succumbing to the allure of cultural relevance today.  There are plenty of hymns (though their adherents prefer to call them “praise songs”) written in the style of modern pop music that currently are elbowing their way into the repertoire.  As was true for radio hymns, this transition often is difficult because such songs are written for performers and then adapted rather than having been created for the congregation.  Their kinship to their Stamps-Baxter cousins also often appears in their shallow, repetitive content.

Such songs appeal more to the zeitgeist than to the spirit.  100 years from now, when someone who hasn’t even been born yet compiles a Top 50 Hymns list, not many of them will appear on that list either.  Hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” will continue to be beloved, but today’s hit singles will seem dated, old-fashioned, and irrelevant—just as Southern gospel hymns increasingly do now. 

Some may be fine with the idea of a disposable worship repertoire.  I’m not, especially when so many older hymns are worthy of use today.  It’s like dumping Grandma’s china on the curb and eating Thanksgiving dinner off of paper plates.  There are people who do that too, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing they’ve lost touch with something important.

School, Transgender, and Your Kids

Thursday, May 21, 2020

These days, it seems like many Christians are preoccupied with coronavirus conspiracies of various sorts.  I have little to say about all that, except to observe that the conspiracy theorists must have much more faith in the competence of the human race than I do.  I think, though, that we would be better served to pay less attention to the conspiracies and more attention to the daily efforts of those who are opposed to the cause of Christ.

Take, for instance, this report from the Alliance Defending Freedom.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ADF, it’s a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of conservative legal causes.  It is a serious organization with serious deep pockets and serious lawyers.  When the ADF says something, it’s not on the same level as russiatrollbotnews.com.  This really is happening.

Essentially, a number of conservative parents who live in Madison, WI have filed suit against the Madison public-school district.  They learned that the district has been engaged in a stealthy campaign to promote transgender ideology.  From kindergarten on up, students are being taught that gender is a spectrum, rather than being biological and binary.  Parents have not been notified about this.  If a child decides that they are transgender, school employees are to help them transition without parental notice or consent.  In order to make sure that Mom and Dad remain in the dark in such cases, district policy is to refer to transitioned Janey as un-transitioned Johnny in all communications with the home—to deceive parents.

In short, the Madison school district is attempting to substitute school input for parental input in one of the most consequential moral decisions a child can make.  A month ago, I wrote about Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s desire to outlaw homeschooling.  Among other things, she argued that public schooling was necessary to expose children to “ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”  Thanks to the Madison Metropolitan School District, we’ve got a concrete example of what such exposure looks like in practice.

Now, I don’t think this is likely to be a problem in rural middle Tennessee, where I live.  There are many other places around the country where school districts also haven’t bought into progressive ideology.  However, there are plenty of places where school districts have.  It’s true that, from what I know of Madison, public policy there is likely to be progressive even by progressive standards.  Nonetheless, even if your local progressive district hasn’t gotten there yet, MMSD gives us a pretty good idea of where it’s headed in future.

It used to be that public schools were (at least seen as) relatively neutral, benign educational establishments.  You could send your kids off every day and trust that the school pretty much would stay in its lane and leave the moral instruction to you.  Sadly, that conviction is becoming increasingly naïve.

As always, I leave decisions about how children should be educated to parents.  You decide in good conscience what method is best for your kids, and I’ll respect that, whether you have chosen public school, private school, or homeschool.

However, I will say that parents who have chosen public school in blue districts need to be wary.  Do not assume that worldview indoctrination is going to be preceded by waving banners and brass bands.  Instead, you need to ask probing questions, both of your children and of their teachers, about what kinds of things are being taught.  If you get answers you don’t like, you don’t necessarily have to yank your kids, but you do have to make sure that the predominant moral narrative in their lives is the Biblical one.

We live in a strange time.  On a fundamental level, I can’t get my head around the idea that people believe that gender is a matter of preference rather than biology.  It flat doesn’t compute for me, and I suspect that many other Christian parents are in the same boat.  However, there are millions of folks out there who believe this with the same fervor with which we believe in the resurrection, and they will not hesitate to use any means available to proselytize.  If we are not vigilant in this and related areas, we may end up regretting our failure for the rest of our lives.

Why I Switched to the CSB

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

English-speaking Christians are blessed with a plethora of good translations of the Bible.  Of course, translation is an art, not a science.  There are no perfect translations, nor will there ever be. 

However, practically every translation that we’re likely to encounter is more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek texts we have than the Septuagint is to its Hebrew originals.  If the Holy Spirit thought the Septuagint was good enough to incorporate into the New Testament, whatever we’ve got is good enough to get us to heaven!

Because we are so spoiled for choice, though, those of us who care about the Bible are likely to move from translation to translation, looking for one that is maybe a little bit more perfect than the rest.  In my time as a preacher/Bible reviewer, I’ve preached and taught from at least 10 different translations, and at various times, I’ve used three translations (NASB, NKJV, and ESV) for my primary text.

A couple of months ago, though, I decided to try out a fourth translation for my every-day Bible—the Christian Standard Bible, or CSB.  When I switched from NASB to ESV a few years ago, the CSB was a strong second-place finisher, and my occasional use of it ever since gradually swayed me to adopt it.  Several factors played into this decision:

VOLUME QUALITY.  My copy of the CSB is bound in edge-lined goatskin that Holman sent me as a promo copy in 2017 when they rolled the translation out.  It’s true that I love edge-lined Bibles, and once you’ve gotten used to one, it’s tough to go back to paste-down.

However, it’s really the quality of the setting of the CSB that influenced me here.  My CSB was set by 2K, a Danish shop that is world-famous for its Bible designs, and the quality shows.  It’s better designed than the ESV I was using before. My CSB is prettier, easier to read, and has cross-references that are easier to use.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that makes reading and studying the word more pleasant is well worth adopting!

STYLISTIC QUALITY.  I love the English language and rejoice in good writing.  As a result, I struggle to love translations that prioritize faithfulness to the words of the Greek (and sometimes even to Greek grammar) over making clear sense in English.  Brethren often are fond of these translations (I think because they appear to remove human judgment from translation, though in truth they do not), but they often pose obstacles to our understanding.  These obstacles can be surmounted in verse-by-verse study (as when the preacher reads a verse and then pauses to explain what it means in normal English), but they often make Bible reading difficult, especially for new Christians who don’t speak fluent NASB.

By contrast, the style of the CSB is accessible and lively.  Instead of talking like Bible characters, speakers in the CSB sound like real people.  For instance, in Luke 6:46 in the CSB, Jesus says, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and don’t do the things I say?”

The CSB also is full of aptly phrased renderings.  Consider the difference between Ruth 2:12 in the NASB (“May the LORD reward your work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.”) and the CSB (“May the LORD reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”).  The NASB undeniably sounds more Hebraic, with idioms like “your wages be full”, but it’s the CSB that sounds like good English.  That’s important!

TEXTUAL FAITHFULNESS.  It is, of course, possible for translators to take accessibility too far.  Unlike most brethren, I’ve used the NLT extensively (I read the whole thing cover-to-cover a few years back), and though I like it for reading, I feel like the translators take too many liberties, especially in the New Testament, for the translation to be suitable for close study.  When I’m reading from the NLT, there are a dozen places in the book of Romans alone where I stop and say, “Man; they sure booted that one!”

The translators of the CSB are much more careful.  So far, at least, I feel that the translation sacrifices little in the way of nuance and faithfulness in exchange for great gains in style and clarity.  Of course, there are CSB renderings that I don’t like, but there are renderings in every translation I don’t like.  To this point, they are infelicities I can live with.

I also like the balance that the CSB has struck on gender equality.  The translators generally render the Greek adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” (unless the context makes it clear that only males are under discussion), and they replace “how blessed is the man” in Psalm 1:1 with “how blessed is the one”.  However, the pronoun throughout Psalm 1 is “he”, and the translators preserve the singular “son of man” in Psalm 8:4 (compare “human beings” in the NIV).  It remains to be seen whether the upcoming 2020 revision of the NASB will fare as well.

I certainly don’t insist that every Christian out there needs to switch to the CSB Right This Minute.  It almost certainly is true that the Bible you’re using right now is get-you-to-heaven good (though if you struggle to adhere to a Bible-reading program, consider that your choice of translation and setting may be at fault).  However, for those who are looking for another Bible or simply are curious, the CSB is well worth checking out.

Fearlessness in Christ

Monday, May 18, 2020

Jesus says many things that leave us scratching our heads, but one of the most contextually puzzling appears in Matthew 10:26.  “Therefore, do not be afraid of them,” He tells the twelve, and indirectly us.  “Therefore” usually follows a selection of facts that lead to a particular conclusion, but in the case of Matthew 10, many of the predictions that Jesus makes are not the sort that would lead to fearlessness in most people.

In 10:17, He promises the apostles that they will be haled into court by civil authorities and flogged in synagogues by religious authorities.  10:18 reveals that they will be tried before governors and kings.  According to 10:21, they’ll be betrayed by their families.  10:22 says they’ll be hated by everyone.  In 10:25, He predicts that they will be treated worse than He will, a revelation that would gain a certain grim resonance in a year or two.

And yet, “Do not be afraid.”  Certainly, no one ever could accuse the Lord of hiding the risks of discipleship!  Indeed, everything that He predicted would happen did happen to somebody, usually to lots of somebodies.  However, to Jesus, those facts are not the important facts.  Instead, he bases “Do not be afraid” on three things.

First, they should not fear because God’s Spirit would be with them.  Maybe they were a bunch of Galilean peasants, but they would speak with such wisdom and power that they would leave the best minds of the age dumbfounded. 

Second, if they endured to the end, they would be saved.  This didn’t mean that they would be saved from the physical consequences of persecution.  I’m sure that the apostle Paul’s back was a mass of scar tissue!  Instead, it meant something more important.  Those who were faithful until death would enjoy the salvation of their souls.

Third, to paraphrase an ex-president, they would be on the right side of history.  The gospel would be proclaimed.  The kingdom of God would triumph.  His will would be done on earth as it was in heaven.  Those who were with Him were destined for ultimate victory, those who opposed Him, for ultimate favor.

Today, we usually don’t face lawsuits and floggings when we proclaim the gospel, though hatred and family troubles are, alas, very much still with us.  Our biggest obstacle, though, is the same as it was 2000 years ago—fear.  As the Romans proved, even the mightiest external power can’t stop the good news, but Christians who are mute because of fear can. 

When we are afraid, then, we need to remember the encouragement offered by Jesus.  We don’t have to know what to say because the Holy Spirit does.  It is not our wisdom, but the wisdom of the word, that wins hearts for the Lord.  We still anticipate a salvation that is eternal rather than earthly, and we still know that God’s side is the winning side. 

In short, we need to learn to trust rather than being afraid.  The apostles did, and millennia later, their exploits still shine with deathless glory.  Admittedly, no one is going to write the New Testament about us, but God will remember everything we do for Him.  We have nothing to fear from honoring His will, but we have everything to fear from rejecting it.

Jesus says many things that leave us scratching our heads, but one of the most contextually puzzling appears in Matthew 10:26.  “Therefore, do not be afraid of them,” He tells the twelve, and indirectly us.  “Therefore” usually follows a selection of facts that lead to a particular conclusion, but in the case of Matthew 10, many of the predictions that Jesus makes are not the sort that would lead to fearlessness in most people.

In 10:17, He promises the apostles that they will be haled into court by civil authorities and flogged in synagogues by religious authorities.  10:18 reveals that they will be tried before governors and kings.  According to 10:21, they’ll be betrayed by their families.  10:22 says they’ll be hated by everyone.  In 10:25, He predicts that they will be treated worse than He will, a revelation that would gain a certain grim resonance in a year or two.

And yet, “Do not be afraid.”  Certainly, no one ever could accuse the Lord of hiding the risks of discipleship!  Indeed, everything that He predicted would happen did happen to somebody, usually to lots of somebodies.  However, to Jesus, those facts are not the important facts.  Instead, he bases “Do not be afraid” on three things.

First, they should not fear because God’s Spirit would be with them.  Maybe they were a bunch of Galilean peasants, but they would speak with such wisdom and power that they would leave the best minds of the age dumbfounded. 

Second, if they endured to the end, they would be saved.  This didn’t mean that they would be saved from the physical consequences of persecution.  I’m sure that the apostle Paul’s back was a mass of scar tissue!  Instead, it meant something more important.  Those who were faithful until death would enjoy the salvation of their souls.

Third, to paraphrase an ex-president, they would be on the right side of history.  The gospel would be proclaimed.  The kingdom of God would triumph.  His will would be done on earth as it was in heaven.  Those who were with Him were destined for ultimate victory, those who opposed Him, for ultimate failure.

Today, we usually don’t face lawsuits and floggings when we proclaim the gospel, though hatred and family troubles are, alas, very much still with us.  Our biggest obstacle, though, is the same as it was 2000 years ago—fear.  As the Romans proved, even the mightiest external power can’t stop the good news, but Christians who are mute because of fear can. 

When we are afraid, then, we need to remember the encouragement offered by Jesus.  We don’t have to know what to say because the Holy Spirit does.  It is not our wisdom, but the wisdom of the word, that wins hearts for the Lord.  We still anticipate a salvation that is eternal rather than earthly, and we still know that God’s side is the winning side. 

In short, we need to learn to trust rather than being afraid.  The apostles did, and millennia later, their exploits still shine with deathless glory.  Admittedly, no one is going to write the New Testament about us, but God will remember everything we do for Him.  We have nothing to fear from honoring His will, but we have everything to fear from rejecting it.

Stacking the Deck Against Jesus

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

If there is anything we should take away from reading through the gospels this year, it is a deeper understanding of the skill with which the Evangelists crafted their narratives.  Nothing in any of the gospels is there just because Jesus did it.  As John observes in John 21:25, all four writers had a nearly limitless amount of material to choose from.  From this great mass of teachings and stories, each selected the small portion that best suited their purposes and those of the Holy Spirit.

This recognition should inform our understanding of the story of Jesus casting out the legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20.  This is a story that many of us can remember learning about as children, jokes about pork soup and all.  Even a surface reading leaves us awed by the supernatural power of Jesus.

However, there’s much more going on here than merely that.  This isn’t only a story about Jesus' power.  It’s a story about Jesus’ power in the midst of uncleanness.  Practically everything in the narrative except Jesus and His disciples is unclean.  It takes place in the region of the Gerasenes—an unclean, Gentile people.  The man (presumably a Gentile himself) has an unclean spirit.  He lives in the tombs—in an unclean place (Numbers 19:16).  The legion enters into a herd of swine, unclean animals.  Even the pigs die an unclean death (for a couple of different reasons provided in Leviticus 17:10-16). 

To put things another way, this is a story in which everything has been ritually defiled.  This fact pattern is as hostile to the Son of God on earth as it possibly can be.  However, even with the deck stacked against Jesus, He still triumphs.  The demons are banished, the unclean animals are destroyed, the demon-possessed man is freed, the power of God is demonstrated among the nations, and the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed to the Gentiles.

To the Jews of Jesus’ day, Mark’s account would have read like a horror story, and the victory of God would have been shocking.  As Haggai points out in Haggai 2:10-14, the unclean can defile the clean, but the clean cannot consecrate the unclean.  However, the power of Jesus was so unprecedented, so overwhelming, that it rewrote the old rules.

For us, then, this narrative is extraordinarily hopeful.  We know the defilement of sin all too well.  We understand what it is like to feel unclean to the very core of our being.  Indeed, some feel their sinfulness so strongly that they doubt that even Christ can help.

This is nonsense, and, among other things, Mark 5:1-20 is recorded to prove that it is nonsense.  No matter how dramatically we have stacked the deck against Jesus in our own lives, if we come to Him, He will be able to cleanse and save.  Nothing can stand against the purifying power of His grace.  It will scour away all the uncleanness in our lives.  Then, like the demon-possessed man, clothed in Christ, renewed in our minds, we will be able to proclaim to everyone what the Lord has done for us. 

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