The Flintstones aired during the first half of the 1960s. It’s last line of lyrics goes like this: “We’ll have a gay old time.” In the 1960s, the primary meaning of the word “gay” was “lighthearted and carefree.” Today that is the secondary meaning, it’s primary meaning is: “(of a person, especially a man) homosexual.”
As I understand it, the order of meanings is defined by it’s most common or most likely usage. Were I to mention that my friend is gay in 1960, another person would have understood that my friend was far more likely to be lighthearted and carefree than a homosexual. If one word can change so drastically in five or six decades – then we have to carefully pay attention to what words we choose here on out.
Looking at a hymnal, we’re interacting with words and concepts that are far older than five or six decades – most songs are around 200 years old, some younger, some older. All of them are equally at risk for loosing it’s original meaning to our modern understanding. Some of the hymns have words with old meanings, some of the hymns have old words like “hither” and “thither”. We have to choose carefully which hymns that are still worthy to be sung.
Modern sensibilities tell us that some words have certain connotations. “Beautiful” is a word we would associate more with a woman than we would our savior. So any hymns that refer to Jesus being beautiful are inappropriate because guys are handsome and women are beautiful. Since it’s romantic to sing ballads to women about our love for them, we can’t really sing that we love Jesus because romantic words and phrases are inappropriate for God. Really – this is a majestic, awesome, mighty could-smite-you-at-the-drop-of-a-hat Holy being – so we have to treat Him as such. So we should cross out any song in the hymnal that just doesn’t measure up to our mighty warrior king God.
But he’s also the great doctor that tends wounds with an unbeatable bedside manor. He’s a shepherd that looks out for his flock, lives among them, and keeps them safe from harm. He’s an innocent man tried and sent to die on a cross in the place of the guilty, and He’s so much more. Christianity has been in a terrible tension – over emphasizing the two traits of awesomeness and love but with no balance to their approach. This is true even of contemporary songs. We have a multi-faceted God, but a single-minded approach to music.
Some are upset that songs just don’t have any theological depth to them. Others are upset that they lyrics sound romantic. That the words are associated with a human level of love. So here’s a solution: instrumentals. Since we can’t please everybody all of the time, then we’ll just do away with words that make people uncomfortable, imagery that feels awkward, and then there’ll be no cause to argue. Choirs will fill up with people humming the tunes. We can just stand there or sit there in silence and imagine whatever our hearts need us to in order to connect us with God.
We need all sorts of songs though. Songs to honor our awesome warrior God, to celebrate our good shepherd, to call out to Him for help, to thank Him for help, to remember his sacrifice, and for so much more. To do that, we have to relate to Him in real, human ways. Did King David once write: “Praise God for the propitiation of our sins! Honor him for our sanctification by faith!”? No. He wrote things like: “How long will you forget me?” “How long will my enemies triumph over me?” “My heart leaps for joy and with my song I praise him.”
We need the words and the music of all different kinds of songs to praise him. This is the same God that inspired ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Revelation Song’, ‘It is Well’ and ‘God of the City’, ‘In the Garden’ and ‘What Can I Do’ … we need all of these songs, and all the songs that have yet to be written. Not all of them will theologically rich and that’s okay. We need all levels of that too because believers are approaching God from different levels of maturity and they might very well relate to theologically ‘shallow’ songs easier to help them grow enough to want the ‘deeper’ songs. Likewise, we need all different sorts of imagery in those songs.
Jesus used fishing parables in fishing villages, farming parables in farming villages, servant parables to servants, and so much more. He knew that having a personal relationship with God means that having a personal approach to the music that we use to connect with him. Not all of us can sing ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ indefinitely. We don’t always live in the shadow of a fortress, we don’t always have the ability to look up and see a soldier on guard, we don’t always get to watch it under attack (from a safe distance!) we can only rely on our imagination for that. Which is why need all the other songs that we can relate to – and new ones that speak to our experiences.