Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Poverty of Hymns and One of My Own

Where are the hymns that tell the teachings of Jesus? I ask this because of a dispute this past month about the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God. The hymnal committee decided not to include a decade old praise song, “In Christ Alone.” This hymn actually does a good job of clearly stating a particular theology of the atonement. That was the problem. Presbyterians recognize that there are a variety of metaphors for how God reconciles the world to Godself (as some of us have said it).  Al Moeller, leading Southern Baptist and neanderthal theologian, is outraged that any Christian would deny the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement: that God sacrificed His Son on the Cross as a payment to satisfy the debt of sin that humanity had built up since we emerged from Africa. All of us collectively owed something to God for all of our wrongdoing, so God decided to pay it Himself. (He is “Father.”)

(I should state here that atonement concerns me not at all any more. Having abandoned belief in the supernatural, I see our problem as needing reconciliation with each other, period. God gets in the way of this, and often becomes the impetus for hating and annihilating each other. Jesus, I think, had other ideas.) Myths and metaphors are helpful, as long as we are clear that they are myths and metaphors, and not literally true.

The hymn controversy reminded me of why I dislike most hymns. They are about the Christ and doctrines, and rarely about the historical Jesus. As I look at the list of hymns in the new Glory to God, I do see a few newer hymns that may be about what Jesus taught. “A Woman Broke a Jar,” and “A Woman and a Coin” are two obvious examples. Different ways of singing about Jesus, other than spiritualizing and glorifying him as divine, are possible. The Disciples of Christ have a wonderful hymn speaking of Jesus as “Holy Wisdom.” That didn’t make the grade for Presbyterians, and I guess Avery and Marsh hymns or songs are verboten now in the PCUSA. (They were Presbyterian ministers in Port Jervis, NJ until not too long ago.)

About 15 years ago, a Jesus Seminar scholar wrote but did not publish a paper analyzing what the Methodist hymnal said about Jesus. I do not remember that the human Jesus did more than “call us” and “die.” Somehow the bit about his death does not connect with his teachings about power, empires, and violence. Of course there is a lot about how Jesus loves us, but that is inference, not directly found in his sayings. OK, maybe I will do an analysis of Jesus in Glory to God.

A friend on line suggested that I write a Jesus hymn, so the file that follows displays it: “What He Said.”

I had recently presented to my local Unitarian-Universalist congregation the teachings of Jesus from the Jesus Seminar. I looked at The Essential Jesus, wherein Dominic Crossan translated some of Jesus’ teachings into free verse of the simplest and direct language.

The tune had to be irregular, a necessity when working from other than metrical poetry. Maybe someone else can suggest better language and a better tune. I tried to produce a simple, singable tune, but may have failed in that. There are a couple of nice “hooks.” I would have liked a blues form, or a pentatonic melody. The chords are simple for guitar players. The chords could be enhanced. Maybe others can write in other ways about what Jesus taught. I think it’s time for another “Not Alone for Mighty Empire,” (not in Glory to God), or another hymn of the Social Gospel, or a revival of some hymns of the ‘60's. But today we are heavily into personal, individual praise and traditional, doctrinal divine man hymns. Even the topical hymns are not very realistic. So it goes.

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