Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Sinless Christianity

The hymnody of the Lutheran tradition serves a role of teaching or catechesis. For me, this was a very unfamiliar idea until a number of years ago when I listened to a lecture given by my now, very good friend, Leonard Payton. The idea was clear in his presentation, namely, that the Word of Christ dwelling in us richly is obtained through the appropriate teaching and admonishing of ourselves with Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3: 16). He used the Levitical practice of the Old Testament to illustrate this and pointed to a memorized tradition as being the norm for ancient Israel. When we realize that the Psalms and many portions of the prophets were sung for memory and internalized by the people, we can begin to get a glimpse of what it means for the Word of Christ to dwell richly in us.

Our hymnody teaches on every imaginable doctrinal subject. It is vast and didactic – just like the Psalms. How anyone can use the Psalms to justify simplicity in our worship music remains for me, puzzling.

I was struck by a little tidbit of information regarding a hymn in our Lutheran tradition, All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall. A line from this hymn by Lazaraus Spengler is actually quoted in the first article of the Formula of Concord (Epitome), which states:

We believe teach and confess that original sin is not a slight corruption of human nature, but that it is so deep a corruption that nothing sound or uncorrupted has survived in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers. It is as the church sings, “Through Adam’s fall man’s nature and essence are all corrupt.”

It is telling, by the way, that in the Formula of Concord, one of the most important confessional writings of the Lutheran Church, the first article is entitled “Original Sin.” Without sin as the preexisting condition, proper contemplation of the Gospel will be impossible. It is upon this dark canvas of original sin that the Gospel may be painted in all its gloriousness.

I like to listen to a contemporary Christian radio station in my area. I do not listen for the reasons that most people do. I listen to remain aware of the latest in that genre. I like to keep up with the new songs, new artists and what is contained therein so that I am knowledgeable when I speak with friends and colleagues in other denominations. Well, I have been made painfully aware that the music of this genre does not discuss sin. It does not show the depth of the fall. It does not illustrate that “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin…”

No, the concept that this musical genre communicates is that I am troubled and need assistance. Maybe I am depressed. Maybe I am hurting. Maybe I have a bad habit, or see a therapist, or have baggage from my dysfunctional upbringing. Maybe I have a low self-image. At any rate, the purpose for following Christ is that he then gives me the pathway to live victoriously over all these things. Eventually, if I do everything right and follow the “principles” Christ has given me in his Word, I may even be able to stop seeing that therapist, stop smoking, drinking, chewing, or whatever my problem may be.

If this is the essence of sin, we do not need a Savior. There is no original sin in this picture, and, therefore, nothing from which we need forgiveness. The contemporary Christian music genre speaks very little about confession and forgiveness. Christ is not a Savior in these songs as much as a helper and a buddy who’s always there for me in the hard times. Jesus helps me get over my problems, he encourages me, tells me everything is going to be OK and even “holds me in his arms” as some songs say, –– but he does not forgive me! So I can quit smoking, say bye-bye to the therapist, become a better, more positive person, and help lots of other people do the same, yet still die in my sins. Our sinless Christianity cultivates Christians who trust Christ for for comfort, help, and encouragement, but not for forgiveness. Is this the Christ of Scripture, who dies on the cross? For what? To be our life coach or buddy?

The contemporary radio station reflects the thinking of a great many mainstream Christians. Theirs’ is a Christianity without original sin. It is a faith that thinks our problem is far less serious than it is. And hymns like “All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall” are not sung in most Christian churches and has even fallen out of use, regrettably, in the Lutheran tradition, from whence it came. When hymns like this are jettisoned, we fallen men and women have very little to remind us of our biggest problem. This leads to our justifying ourselves, rationalizing and thinking that we are not so bad. There really is no true Christianity without the doctrine of original sin. We, as people of the Reformation, need to be aware of this flawed view, so prevalent in our day. To embrace a sinless Christianity is to embrace an impotent cross and an ineffective Christ. Bypassing original sin in our doctrine bypasses the work of Jesus to forgive that sin and leads to a tepid faith that seeks personal achievement and success, dare I say works righteousness, rather than the peace and comfort of sins forgiven.

I am grateful that God, in his grace, uses hymns like All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall, to remind me of the depth of my sin, and of God's lavish forgiveness of that sin in Christ.

All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall
One common sin infects us all
From sire to son the bane descends
And overall the curse impends.

From hearts depraved and evil prone
Flow thoughts and deeds of sin alone
God’s image lost, the darkened soul
Seeks not nor finds it heavenly goal.

As by one man all mankind fell
And, born in sin, was doomed to hell
So by one man who took our place
We all received the gift of grace.


Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

This is a good post, and true of the sermons we see on TV as well as the hymns on CCM radio.

IggyAntiochus said...

Once a song is a "hit" in this genre, many others cover it. I have seen "I Have a Father" get changed to "I Have a Maker." Ugh.

Still, Cantor Magness makes a good point. As church musicians, we need to be aware of this genre, know what it is about, and discern its strengths and weaknesses.

I have out-of-town friends who know many pastors and musicians. They went to a concert for the group Selah. I was the only one in their circle who knew of this group.

I stated, "A person doesn't have to like CCM, but that doesn't make it go away. We need to be aware of what's out there and what our parishioners are listening to and absorbing."

Phillip said...

Thanks, Iggy. Actually, that was Stephen's point (he wrote the article), but I largely agree with it.

I do think Stephen keeps his ear closer to the ground than I do these days. I used to be much more aware of "Christian" radio music in my younger years. Now I'm just old and woppy and so don't pay as much attention to frivolity anymore. So one of those songs has to become a real "hit" for me to take notice. :)

IggyAntiochus said...

Oh, my! I was looking at the authorship of a different article. Either way, thank you for your feedback.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Rich Mullin's song "Awesome God has been eviscerated by Kirk Franklin, who removed all the sin and grace language from the song. The original song actually addressed the garden of Eden, the shedding of the blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and other good points of doctrine but the Franklin version just makes it a theology of glory song flat, with no substance. His is a pep rally.

Now, I am not a fan of "Awesome God" but I'll take the original Rich Mullins version any day over Franklin's. I would never even consider either one as even a remote possibility for divine worship, but Mullin's version, with its appeal to young people at least has some concepts embedded in it that a responsible catechist can use to drive home points in the Lutheran Confessions -- say in a Bible class or youth gathering.

IN CCM today, we do well to pay attention to those songs that kids like that make some good points and turn them into catechetical moments, where we can point out how the writer is correct or not, showing that from our Confessions. That is healthy but does not in any way suggest that this music is appropriate for worship in the Mass.

IggyAntiochus said...

When he rolls up his sleeves
He ain't just puttin' on the ritz
There's thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fists

Seems to work well for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels ;) jk

The imagery is vivid here, but Jesus' work is downplayed when the refrain is simply "Our God is an Awesome God."

Rich Mullins does a decent job with the Apostles Creed as well, but it still isn't appropriate for the Divine Service.

Kirk Franklin, on the other hand, doesn't even come close! He sampled the refrain and left everything else by the wayside!

There aint no stoppin us (naw)
Devil there aint no blockin us (naw)
Come on and clap your hands with us
Like this like that

It's more like a mix tape than a cover of a song. There is NO JESUS AT ALL in this song.

His songs tend to feature the "name and claim" theology of glory.

For more Jesus - less glory, Franklin's "Now Behold the Lamb" goes in a different direction. It can be found in Augsburg's This Far By Faith, and perhaps even in ELW.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

It is great that you knew exactly what I was talking about. I certainly echo everything you said. Could be a tinge of "liberation" theology there?? Kyrie Eleison!