Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"The joy that is fierce and defiant rather than safe and smiley"

In "Songs of Exile" Alexi Sargeant agrees with Leah Libresco that the gospel is about much more than the "happy-clappy" message in a lot of contemporary worship music. He writes "After all, the Bible, though full of Good News, is often notably not perky. The all-joy-all-the-time model is not only insufficiently Biblical, it can leave entire groups of Christians out in the cold...." Sargeant provides a counter-example from an older tradition:
.... A favorite hymn of mine is “O God Our Help In Ages Past” by Isaac Watts and William Croft. This famous tune expresses both an enduring hope in God and an awareness of the terrifying contingency of man in the face of time’s advance.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
The lines above are fairly famous, but other dark stanzas are often cut from the song, perhaps because the compilers of hymnals thought them simply too depressing. Here is one:
Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.
The message, however, is not one of despair, though it paints a shadowy picture of earthly life. It’s an admonishment to remember the transience of all things save God. He and He alone is “our eternal home”—to everything else we say, this too shall pass. For the poor and poor in spirit, it’s actually a comforting message. We feel ill at ease in the world because the world is not where our hearts should rest. Psalm 90, the basis of the song, travels from fearful awe (“We are consumed by your anger/ and terrified by your indignation”) to a hopeful plea (“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,/ for as many years as we have seen trouble./ May your deeds be shown to your servants,/ your splendor to their children”). It’s a psalm for all seasons, following a winter believer towards a dream of spring.

The best Christian songs are songs of this journey, songs that acknowledge the exilic nature of the Church in the world. Here we have no lasting home, so our hymns can have the timbre of exile—the grief, the anger, the wrestling with God, the joy that is fierce and defiant rather than safe and smiley. .... [more]