Christians of an evangelical low-church-variety often discover the joy of liturgy late in their Christian pilgrimage. For such folk, liturgical observances almost invariably begin during the season of Advent. The pageantry of lights and trees and gifts that commonly accompany the secular Christmas season are a kind of natural invitation to it.
Liturgical practices are intended to form the human soul. Technically speaking, when I say, “form the human soul,” I am referring (roughly) to a steady inculcation and trained development of a spiritual habit of holy longing. “[This] is our life,” Augustine says, “to be trained by longing. And our training through the holy longing, advances in the measure that our longings are severed from the love of this world.” In other words, liturgy happifies the soul with an increasing love of divine things, consequently diminishing the soul’s enjoyment of those lesser pleasures by which Lewis says the soul is “far too easily pleased.” To be formed by an Advent liturgy, in this Augustinian sense, is as much about the joyful celebration of “good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10) as it is about cultivating the holy longing for that “consummation devotedly to be wished,” (to quote Hamlet) when Christ will come again, purify his bride, the church, in order that they might be “with him” (John 17:24).
Many liturgical practices mark the Advent season. The collective use of candles to memorialize those “people who walked in darkness [having] seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2) is an obvious one. Another is the church’s historic recitation, “Christ has come, Christ will come again” (Christus venit, Christus veniet iterum). Yet most common of all, especially among low-church-variety evangelicals, is hymn singing.
Few hymns have had such formative impact on the church as Charles Wesley’s, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” I cannot remember a single Advent season without hearing (or singing) it multiple times. By contrast, I can quite easily calculate the number of times I’ve heard (I didn’t sing) Meredith Andrews’ adaptation of Wesley’s hymn. Once. Once, this Advent season. Once, and hopefully never again.
The moment I heard Andrews’ adaptation of Wesley’s hymn I had three realizations. First, I realized that few things are as telling about the direction of the doctrinal winds of evangelicalism than that which makes its people sing. Second, I realized that non-confessional churches who flirt with the idea of spiritual formation by observing liturgical practices of more popular (and select) seasons of the church calendar are, in the end, doing more to mal-form souls than to properly form them, in the Augustinian sense. Third, and most importantly, I realized that adapting ancient hymnody is motivated by a hitherto unnamed and wickedly circular assumption that enjoyment is evidence of truth.
What follows is an evaluation of these realizations, unfolding in two parts to a conclusion.
In the first part, I differentiate between two categories of Christian worship music: lyrical chaff and lyrical wheat. The “lyrical chaff” category is truly munificent in terms of the sheer volume of musical content that it contains. That which falls into the “lyrical wheat” category, by contrast, are only careful selections from the contemporary Christian musical canon. Andrews’ adaptation of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” is a prime example of lyrical wheat. Explaining precisely why Andrews’ adaptation belongs to the lyrical wheat category will bring us to the fore of the second part of this article wherein I evaluate a widely, albeit unconsciously, held evangelical assumption that enjoyment is evidence of truth. With the help of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts about the nature of enjoyment, paired with mechanics of Richard Swinburne’s clever argument regarding “simplicity as the evidence of truth,” I show how evangelicals are imperiling their faith—and their faith in an orthodox Christology, more specifically—by rejoicing in theological errors, having mistaken their own enjoyment as the evidence for them. I conclude with a plea.
I. Separating Lyrical Chaff from Lyrical Wheat
Evangelical worship artists have been adapting or modernizing ancient hymnody for a little over twenty years. Musically speaking, some of these adaptations are quite good. Others are wincingly bad. Lyrically speaking, on the other hand, most of these adaptations are, I’m sad to say, either substance-less to the point of nausea or substantive-ish but largely uninspired, almost cliché compared to the lyrical content of the original. Then there are those adaptations whose lyrics flirt with theological dangers. For reasons that should become clear in a moment, I refer to the former as lyrical chaff and the latter as lyrical wheat.
Normally separating wheat from chaff means separating the good from the bad. For the purposes of this article, separating the wheat from the chaff has to do with the separating degrees of theological impact these adaptations are having on the spiritual formation of contemporary evangelicals. Both lyrical chaff and lyrical wheat are each having some impact on the church, to be sure. But it is the lyrical wheat that poses the greatest threat. Let’s begin by making several disambiguating observations about lyrical chaff.
I.1. Lyrical Chaff
Think of lyrical chaff as a continuum. At one end is the lyrical chaff that is substance-less. Comprised mostly of choruses, what constitutes these songs being labeled lyrical chaff is the sense that they’ve been manufactured on some kind of Looney-Tunes-like-factory production line. Sometimes the recipe calls for words like: ‘Glory’, ‘Worship’, ‘Me’, ‘Love’, ‘Lord’, ‘Praise’, ‘Cross’, ‘Christ’, and ‘Savior’. Other times, the recipe calls for the addition of ‘Greater’, ‘Jesus’, ‘I’, ‘Magnify’, ‘Wild’, ‘Stars’, ‘Forever’, ‘Name’, and ‘Blood’. These parts are mixed up in various patterns and dispatched to order. Of course, none of this is wrong, and one should be careful that their criticisms of contemporary worship songs don’t end up so sweeping that they target things ubiquitous in the Psalms. But the sheer prevalence and similarity of so many songs like this should signal to us the presence of a fairly unconsidered production line mentality among contemporary songwriters.
On the other end of the lyrical chaff continuum are adaptations of ancient hymnody. I’ve already suggested that this kind of lyrical chaff is substantive-ish but largely uninspired, almost cliché compared to the lyrical content of the original hymns. Let’s consider two examples.
Published in 1779, William Cowper’s “There is a Fountain, Filled With Blood” has been sung by generations of Christians. It contains some of the richest, faith-inducing, most poetic accounts of Christ’s person and work that the church has yet enjoyed–richer still, if you know Cowper’s backstory. Alas, Cowper’s hymn fell into the lyrical chaff category the moment that popular artists Shane and Shane added a rather poetically impotent bridge:
Hallelujah, fountain full of love for us, poured out on us,
Hallelujah, fountain full of love for us, poured out on us,
Hallelujah, fountain full of love for us, poured out on us,
Hallelujah, fountain full of love for us, poured out on us.
This chorus does rather seem to have come off of the production line. This is probably a bit harsh, I admit. But don’t mistake me. I like Shane and Shane’s catalog. I will listen to it in the car. But, from a soul-formation perspective, their adaptation is little more than a distraction from the true substance that Cowper’s original provides. The church doesn’t need Shane and Shane’s adaptation and would be better off without it.
A second example: Chris Tomlin’s adaptation of “Amazing Grace.” Among the first to popularize the practice of adaptation, Tomlin took John Newton’s hymn—the most famous in all Christendom—and injected it with a few new musical measures that carry his own somewhat memorable but poetically feeble chorus:
My chains are gone.
I’ve been set free.
My God, my Savior has ransomed me.
And like a flood,
His mercy reigns.
Amazing love, amazing Grace.
This is lyrical chaff, but of a different kind. Shane and Shane borrow the content from Cowper’s original and simply repeat the same line four-times over whereas Tomlin borrows the content of his adaptation from Scripture. There’s no question that the imagery of chains being broken off (Psalm 107.13-16), of being set free (Galatians 5.1), of Christ’s paying a ransom (Mark 10.45), of a savior that is also a merciful King (Hebrews 4.16) are all quite powerful for Christians who (rightly) reckon themselves having been once enslaved to their moral corruption. Tomlin’s choice of words or word pictures are not inherently problematic. But when it comes to forming the soul, Tomlin’s chorus, embedded in Newton’s hymn, interferes with the theological tutorial that Newton’s work was originally intended to provide. The Church would be better off without it.
Aside from the distraction, there are other reasons we should consider winnowing all forms of lyrical chaff.
First, such practices validate—even, embolden—Christians to ignore the integrity of someone else’s work (more on this in a moment). I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that adaptations are basically an acceptable form of plagiarism for profit.
The second reason is because these adaptations will end up eroding, rather than inspiring, greater confidence in the dogmatic inheritance of the Christian tradition. This will become an even more serious concern when it comes to lyrical wheat.
The third reason I think we ought to winnow away these adaptations is because they are not actually preserving the past. They’re re-writing it. And we can rarely help ourselves from allowing the new to replace the old once we grant it admittance.
So much, then, for lyrical chaff. But what of lyrical wheat? Here, we raise the stakes.
I.2. Lyrical Wheat
“Lyrical wheat” (according to my taxonomy!) introduces claims that are theologically questionable, even threatening to orthodoxy. Meredith Andrews’ aforementioned adaptation of Charles Wesley’s advent hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a prime example. Its chorus reads as follows:
You draw the hearts of shepherds,
You draw the hearts of kings
Even as a baby, you were changing everything
You called me to Your Kingdom
Before Your lips could speak
And even as a baby, you were reaching out for me
And now we are awaiting
The day of Your return
When every eye will see You
As heaven comes to earth
Until the sky is opened
Until the trumpet sounds
The bride is getting ready
The church is singing out.
Putting aside the Ricky Bobby-Talladega Nights-praying-to-baby-Jesus-sense that these words immediately call to mind, Andrews successfully leverages all the warmth and innocence contained in the idea of a baby reaching out—wanting both to hold and be held—and weds it to the idea that Christ loves individual people. She also successfully, albeit subtly harmonizes her adaptation with the proclamation Christus venit, Christus veniet iterum.
I wonder whether the Wesleys would think Andrews’ adaptation of their hymn was a success. Surprisingly, we need not wonder entirely. For, in what is a quite clear and quite public rebuke to other “worship artists” of their own day, the John Wesley had this to say about the liberties taken with their works:
I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have my brother and me (though without naming us) the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to amend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to amend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favors: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.
This leaves little to the imagination.
Let’s consider, then, two of Andrews’ amendments:
“Even as a baby, you were changing everything”
“Even as a baby, you were reaching out for me.”
Whether Andrews knows it or not, this otherwise syrupy image has run aground on one of, if not the most, complex problems in Christology, namely, the problem of reduplication or incompatible predicates. Roughly speaking, the reduplication problem has to do with squaring contradictory predicates about who Christ is, and what he knew and did as a divine person (hypostasis) with two natures (physes), one divine and one human, particularly during his earthly ministry. For example, how do we square claims like “Christ is impassible” with “Christ is passible”? The predicates “is impassible” and “is passible” are seemingly a contradiction to the single subject to which they are attributed. But for some logical precision and clear Christological distinctions, Christ cannot be both A and not-A.
The pair of incompatible predicates that I think can be deduced as affirmations from Andrews’ adaptation are these:
“Christ is not omnipotent” and “Christ is omnipotent”
“Christ is not omniscient” and “Christ is omniscient”
Of course, I can’t be certain, but I am given to think that Andrews didn’t know that the claims she was making about Jesus as a baby—what he did and knew—are incompatible predicates. Jesus did not change anything as a baby and the only ones he was reaching out to as a baby were probably his parents. He was born with a baby mind because that’s all that he was as a baby. He did baby things: he nursed, he cried, he spit up, he might have even refused to eat something that wasn’t quite to his baby-liking. As a baby, “[Jesus] was born with the mental equipment of a normal child, experienced the usual stimuli and went through the ordinary process of intellectual development.” He was not simultaneously “changing everything” nor “reaching out to me” as a baby.
As God incarnate, he did not divest himself of his divine power or knowledge. But the human mind of baby Jesus was not replaced by the divine mind of the Son. Neither did the Son divinize his human nature and with it the human agency or mental competence that he assumed as a baby. Remember that God-incarnate is not a human person. He is a divine person (hypostasis) with two natures (physes), one divine and one human. To thus affirm that as a baby he was “changing everything” and “reaching out me” edges perilously close heresies like Apollinarianism, according to which (roughly), the human mind of Jesus of Nazareth was replaced by the divine mind; a kind of two-thirds God-man, if you will. This is among the foremost reasons why I think Andrews’ adaptation falls squarely into the category of lyrical wheat.
Evangelicals should be far more eager to preserve Christological orthodoxy than they are, and this requires that they pay much more attention to precisely what makes them sing. This is particularly true when observing seasonal liturgies, like Advent, that have a penchant on forming souls—or malforming them, as in this case—more than any other. One of simplest ways to induce evangelicals to start asking questions about what they are singing—from the pulpit, platform, and the pew alike—is to get them to ask questions about why they are singing such things.
So, why are evangelicals rejoicing in Christological canards like those contained in Andrews’ adaptation? If your answer is doctrinal ignorance, you’re only partly correct. This is because ignorance doesn’t account for precisely why they rejoice. And this leads us directly into the next section of this article.
II. Naming an Assumption
I have contended that many evangelicals take their own enjoyment as somehow the evidence of the truth about which they delight to sing. Identifying this assumption started out with a series of questions about the specious Christological claims contained in Andrews’ adaptation. However, it matured in the light of two sources.
The first source is C.S. Lewis’, Reflection on the Psalms. The second is Richard Swinburne’s, Simplicity as the Evidence of Truth. Lewis helped me clarify the mechanics of enjoyment. This, in turn, helped me better understand the low barrier to entry these adaptations generally meet with among evangelicals. Swinburne furnished me a novel argumentative formula, which I then re-purposed in order to demonstrate how the evangelical practice of adaptations might be reduced to absurdity. Consider Lewis first.
II.1. Lewis, Enjoyment and Truth
Lewis defines the experience of enjoyment as having, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic… in common with [happiness and pleasure]; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” The straightforwardness of this definition notwithstanding, what Lewis says goes quite a way toward explaining how evangelicals have so easily accepted the practice of adapting ancient hymnody. Regarding the precise mechanics of enjoyment, Lewis goes on to observe that “[a]ll enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…. We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Together, these observations that helped me understand how enjoyment, expressed through praise—including through song—could somehow itself serve as a bizarre form of evidence (and therefore affirmation) of the supposed truth about which evangelicals find themselves regularly singing. Enraptured, as it were, by the enjoyment of singing, they not only appear disposed to take delight in what they are sing about, they take pleasure in singing it repeatedly, even if it’s false. This kind of reasoning is as wickedly circular as it is commonplace among evangelicals who raise their voices (but not their minds), in thoughtless expressions of praise about falsehoods they believe are true simply because they sing about them. And this brings us to Swinburne’ simplicity argument.
II.2. Swinburne, Simplicity, and Truth
According to Swinburne, “other things being equal, the simplest hypothesis is the one most probably true.” That is, simpler arguments are more or less true depending on where they fall along a sliding scale of truth-data. One side of that scale he calls deductive certainty. The opposite side, he calls inductive probability. Obviously then, with more data comes more certainty that something is true and with less data, only the probability of truth. The more data points that lend support to the simplicity of this or that claim, the more certainty one can have that the claim is true. This is, summarily speaking, how Swinburne’s argument “simplicity as evidence of truth” functions.
By adapting Swinburne’s argument and swapping “enjoyment” for “simplicity”–a far less reliable criteria for truthfulness than simplicity–I am trying to show how evangelicals are reducing both their doctrine (of the incarnation) and practice (observances of Advent) to absurdity. Suppose, for instance, an advocate of the libertarian free will theory appeals to the truth of his theory because, as an Open Theist, he takes delight in God’s ignorance of and impotence over future events, and this, because it preserves his particular theory of human freedom. Or suppose a compatibilist free will theory is held up as true because a Determinist enjoys the security found in affirmations of God’s authority over future events. No theologian in their right mind would concede to such an argument. No one can justly establish a truth claim, based upon the enjoyment it produces in them according to the perceived benefits they enjoy because of it. And yet, this is precisely what’s happening as evangelicals adopt adaptations like Andrews’ and rejoice in lines like “even as a baby, you were changing everything” and “even as a baby, you were reaching out for me.”
I began by talking about Advent. Advent itself has not been my focus, but helpfully draws attention to my main concern: how damaging lyrical wheat can get stuck inside evangelical worship, and malform the soul as a result.
In rediscovering historic liturgical ideas (Advent chief among them) evangelicals increasingly talk about things like “soul formation” in worship. As particularly liturgical seasons, Advent and Christmas are especially formative–their lyrics and melodies get inside us more than Lent and Easter. The spiritual risks and rewards are therefore high for those who write and select our hymns and carols–even more so given that these seasons focus on the incarnation, where serious theological error is so easily fallen into. Most Christian heresies arise from well-intentioned attempts to understand this mystery and try to map out territory where angels fear to tread.
During Advent, then, we should be especially on the lookout for errant lyrical wheat. If it gets in, it is hard to dislodge–all the more so if it’s put to a catchy or inspiring melody.
S. Mark Hamilton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is Editor-in-Chief of Davenant Press. He is a contributor to and co-editor of various symposia and has published articles in a variety of learned journals. He recently completed co-editing (with Gregory Trickett, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Weatherford College, TX) Divine Omniscience and the Future: Anselmian Reflections on Open Theism by Benjamin Arbour† (forthcoming, Cascade). At present, he is completing a pair of monographs on the doctrines of Atonement and Justification and a popular monograph on Christ and Culture. He lives in Texas with his wife and four sons.
James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 84. ↑
Augustine, Homilies on 1 John 4.6 in John Burnaby, ed., Augustine: Later Works (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 290 (emphasis added). ↑
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 1-2. ↑
For more on all-things evangelical Christian music, including some additionally helpful commentary on why the medium of song is such an integral part of the Christian life, see: Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and the Church (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2017). ↑
Another example of the sort of substance-less artificial intelligence software is the startling example of the former: https://notthebee.com/article/this-guy-asked-chatgpt-to-write-a-worship-song-and-im-afraid-that-hillsong-bethel-and-chris-tomlin-are-all-about-to-be-out-of-business. ↑
John Wesley, Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (London: Wesley Conference Office, 1876), ii. ↑
I am conscious that this claim might be read otherwise than the way I am reading it. It could be that, in the first claim, Andrews is simply asserting that the presence of God incarnate changed everything; the timeless God stepping into time, as it were. However, the human action of the second claim colors the first and has me thinking that she meant quite the opposite, namely, that even as a powerless newborn, Jesus (in his human nature) was actively “upholding all things by the word of his power,” as the author of Hebrews says (Heb 1.3). ↑
A helpful, albeit quite technical treatment of this problem is found in Tim Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). ↑
Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998), 164. ↑
Richard Swinburne, Simplicity as Evidence of Truth (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1997). ↑
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 17–18. ↑
C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 95. ↑
Swinburne, Simplicity as Evidence of Truth, 19 (emphasis added). Swinburne lays out a number of features that he thinks constitute simplicity. For example, he says that an argument that requires the explanation of a fewer kinds of things is simpler and therefore preferable (other things being equal). Elsewhere, he says that an argument requiring less underlying information about one or more of the essential components to an argument is simpler and therefore preferable (again, other things being equal). In another part, he says that an argument that requires fewer law-like relations between claims is simpler and therefore preferable. You get the picture. ↑
Swinburne, Simplicity as Evidence of Truth, 18. ↑