It is arguably the most famous hymn in the Christian tradition and more non-Christians know it than any other: Amazing Grace. The author of this august hymn is John Newton (1725-1807), an 18th century English Puritan. The hymn has been used, however, in various songs throughout history since its publications, for example: The American rock band The Eagles used it as the chorus to “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. The most recent use of the song is in a particular track from a Christian alternative band: The Almost.
In their song “Amazing, Because it is” lead singer Aaron Gillespie sings those famous words:
Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, That Saved a Wretch Like Me.
I Once Was Lost But Now I am Found.
Was Blind, But Now I See.
One can’t help but wonder what Newton would think of his words being used in rock music. The period in which the whole collection of The Olney Hymns was written was one of both sobriety and exuberance. Between the Old Dissenting Anglicanism, and the revivalist Wesleyan Methodism there was a mixed bag of spirituality. Newton fit somewhere between the two, and neither he or his hymns were stringent or “charismatic,” so to speak. So what does all of that mean for the use of Newton’s classic hymn in modern rock?
Well of course I can only speculate what John Newton would think, and most likely he would say something more profound and impressive than I will, but I am inclined to think he would have some mixed feelings. On the one hand he would be pleased to see solid theology being disseminated to the masses, and yet he would probably find it inappropriate to put that theology in music that had roots in entertainment. I would like to think, however, that as culture has evolved and music along with that, that Newton could see that rock n’roll has since become a viable expression of worship. Perhaps, not the best, but nonetheless a viable option, and while neither he nor I would condone it for the corporate worship setting of the local church it can be a great expression of the souls longings, cries, and even direct us godward.
So perhaps Newton wouldn’t rock out in the mosh pit, but he might, in his closet, say to this generation of Christian rock, “Rock on brothers, rock on!”