Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, September 27, 2010

Problems with a favorite hymn

Here are two excerpts from my forthcoming book about the meaning of the Crucifixion:

One way to avoid the shamefulness of the Cross is to interpret it exclusively in terms of victory. When the Episcopal Church produced a new hymnal in 1982, it included a new hymn, “Lift High the Cross.” It promptly rocketed to the top of the charts and has remained there ever since. Its catchy, spirited tune is fun to sing and is probably the most important single factor in its having caught on so quickly. It is also likely that its title featuring the Cross has made it a favorite in evangelical circles. The words, however, are problematic. It is perhaps significant that they were written in a period of optimism about human potential, prior to World War I. Here are two sample verses:

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The host of God in conquering ranks combine.

So shall our song of triumph ever be,
Praise to the Crucified for victory.

We are supposed to be in a post-Constantinian era, but Constantine himself, with his motto in hoc signo vinces—conquer in this sign —could hardly have thought up a more triumphalist fight song. Note how the Cross is associated exclusively with victory, with glory. It makes it sound as though the victory of Christ did not cost anything. There is not a hint of shamefulness or suffering in the entire hymn. One line refers to “him who died,” but even that glancing reference to death is quickly cancelled out by a reference to “the glorious tree.” There is no suggestion of tension or struggle. It makes one rather wish for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered...”

The words of familiar hymns enter deeply into people’s consciousness whether they are aware of them or not. Many people who cannot remember the words of a hymn will nevertheless absorb some of its general meaning, especially if it is associated with a memorable tune. Now, to be sure, there are times and places in human history when the theology of glory has a central, energizing role to play. Oppressed peoples undergoing persecution, imprisonment, “disappearance,” torture and murder need to know and to celebrate Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities. People undergoing great hardship will be strengthened for the struggle by worship emphasizing the Lord’s conquest over all forms of human suffering. For them the Cross as “triumphant sign” might very well be the right hymn at the right time.

However, when the Cross is repeatedly praised in the hymnody of relatively comfortable white American churches as a “triumphant sign” of victory, one must seriously question what sort of victory is being envisioned. Neither death, nor sin, nor Satan, nor evil, nor any form of human oppression are mentioned in the text of the hymn. The hymn-singers are free to interpret “victory” any way they like, from victory on the football field to victory in the world economy. This is literally, not merely figuratively true; it is well known that American Christians quite typically learn to associate their faith with various forms of success, and pray far more for personal good fortune than for the sufferings of the poor and disenfranchised of the earth. “Corinthian” hymns that identify the Cross exclusively with triumph and conquest, with no corresponding mention of suffering and shame, subtly undermine the Biblical picture of the meaning of the Crucifixion…

And, in a later section about the theme of redemption:

The word redemption in secular English usage used to be familiar because of pawnshops. If you pawned an object, you hoped to go back later and redeem it—buy it back. Pawnshops are not as commonplace as they once were, so the idea of redemption as “buying back” is no longer an everyday image. These days we are more likely to hear the word in quite another context, as one disgraced politician or television evangelist after another finds “redemption” on the prayer-breakfast circuit. The basic idea underlying redemption in both cases is that something that was forfeit has been reclaimed, either literally or figuratively; something once lost has been regained, a disrupted relationship has been repaired, a grievous error has been redressed. In the pawnshop example, the payment of a price is to be understood in the most literal sense. In the rehabilitation of a public figure, the price is a ritual of public self-abnegation followed by absolution from the community. In each case, a price of some sort is paid. When the idea is transferred to Jesus, it immediately becomes apparent that the price is not being paid by the person in financial or personal difficulty, but by someone else. Thus an element of vicariousness or substitution is introduced.

Continuing with the subject of hymns, we might note that none of these implications are taken into account in the widely popular hymn that we mentioned earlier, “Lift High the Cross.” In chapter 2, “The Godlessness of the Cross,” we noted the lack of any sense of tension or struggle in the words. In the context of the present chapter there is another problem to be noted. The cross is extolled as a sign of victory. This is not wrong; we have already seen in the Passover chapter and will see again in the Christus Victor chapter that triumph is a major aspect of Christ’s work. In the hymn, however, there is no corresponding hint of price or cost, nor is there any suggestion of what it would mean to “lift high the cross” except to carry it in a procession, which is usually what is happening when the hymn is being sung. I don’t mean to suggest that it is possible to say everything in one hymn; Isaac Watt’s 17th century favorite, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” emphasizes the extremity of the price paid by Jesus but does not contain any explicit mention of sin. Still, it is a cause for concern that there is so little in the liturgy or hymnal of today to remind us of the cost to God in the cross, and the relevance of that cost to the gravity of sin.

Flannery O’Connor, in her stories, deals insistently with these unpopular topics. In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she writes that the “reader of today” is indeed looking for redemption, “and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” She has identified the heart of the argument. The human predicament is so dire that it cannot be remedied in any ordinary way; if we fail to see this, then we “have not yet considered the great weight of sin.” Redemption (buying back), therefore, is not cheap. In the death of Jesus we see God himself suffering the consequences of sin. That is the “price.” When Christian teaching falls short of this proclamation, the work of Christ on the Cross is diminished to the vanishing point, becoming nothing more than an exemplary death to admire, to venerate, perhaps even to emulate, but certainly not an event to shake the foundations of this world order. We see today in so many of our mainline churches and seminaries the results of this diminished view of the Cross—impoverishment in the preaching of the Atonement, if not abandonment of it altogether. Flannery O’Connor would be the first to agree that we are the ones who are now “paying the price” for the thin gruel being served.

The question arises, Is this our same bugaboo as before, namely, literal-mindedness? Are those who have such an antipathy toward some of these themes unwilling to see that they are figures of speech? Perhaps I am being unfair. God knows, there has been enough egregious literal-mindedness over the years in evangelical circles to keep interpreters of every persuasion busy undoing it for many years more. The tendentiousness has been especially pronounced in the evangelical battle against regarding redemption as deliverance in a general sense. This in turn has fueled the fires of those in the opposing camp who don’t want to any idea of a price paid at all.

The Anglican theologian Austin Farrer has a particularly good way of describing the way that the Biblical imagery functions. Bear in mind that his term for the metaphors and motifs, such as those of “ransom” and “price,” is “parable.” We return yet again to hymns; Farrer cites two of them, both of which play a role in this book. First, from the hymn “There is a green hill far away,” he cites the line, “There is no other good enough to pay the price of sin”; and second, the verse,

Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone...?

Then he asks if the imagery in these lines is literally true, and answers, “If you...require a Yes or No answer, you force me to vote for the negative; they are not true. But I shall vote with reluctance, because the parable of the hopeless debtor redeemed by Christ’s infinite generosity is an excellent parable.” He then continues to explain that “parables” have “gleams of truth” nevertheless, and that the truths expressed by the images should be encompassed in the literal, or systematic, presentation. “The great merit of parable is to convey passion or lay on moral colour; when we break it down to literal statement the colour fades, the passion evaporates.” Yet we must do this breaking down, he says, if we are to do the work of systematic theology. The question then becomes whether the truth of the parable is accurately conveyed in the theological propositions being put forward. He shrewdly takes the reader through various steps, trying out first this objection to the imagery and then that, firmly concluding that, although God’s action in Christ “is nothing so formal or so ineffective as the deletion of a ledger entry on account of payment received from a third party,” nevertheless “God’s act of universal forgiveness is the whole train of action he sets working through Christ....And of this great process Christ’s blood was, once more, the cost.”

Farrer thus shows how we may reflect systematically and theologically upon “parables” (metaphors) without foregoing the “passion” and “moral colour” that they convey. In what follows, I will try to build a case for understanding redemption both in a general way as deliverance, and in a specific way as deliverance at cost, or, in a phrase used by Vincent Taylor and taken up by many other scholars, deliverance by purchase....

Footnote: (One of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns is not sung in the American Episcopal Church at all, perhaps because English evangelicals sing it to a poor tune. It would be a great gift to the Church if “How can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s love?...Amazing love, how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me...” could be given a tune as good as that of “Lift High the Cross.” )
Also: The author of "Lift High the Cross" was George W. Kitchen (d. 1912). He is buried in the churchyard at my beloved Durham Cathedral so he must have been a good man :-)