Should we ban bad theology carols?

From CT:

“Only with great care. For thousands, carols will be their only link with a church. At the same time, sentimentality is perhaps the single most dangerous feature of our Church and culture—and the sentimental air is never thicker than at Christmas. The Incarnation is messy, dirty, and resonates with the crucifixion. We need a new wave of carol writing that can gradually swill out the nonsense and catch the piercing, joy-through-pain refrains of the New Testament.”

Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology, Duke Divinity School

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  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about the poor Christology that must have been at work in the 2nd verse of “Away in a Manger”

    “But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

    That’s no human baby!

  • Alan K

    There seems to be something quite escapist about the Christmas season for the culture that the Church seems to be quite happy to go along with. Would not a healthy theology and observance of Advent go a long way in correcting this problem? My denomination unfortunately has twice as many Christmas Carols as it does Advent Carols in our hymnal. Jeremy, my friend, taken your considerable talents and write us some songs of Advent.

  • Luke B

    Then there’s “lovely boy with golden hair” in a version of “Silent Night.” Aryan Jesus..

  • Rick in TX

    Someone should do what Jim Russell did when he noted the absence of a biblical message in the op-ed pages of America’s newspaper: Jim established the AMY Writing Awards and gave cash prizes to writers who presented biblical perspectives on current events in the secular media. 25 years later, thousands of pieces have been published in media large and small. So I invite someone with the financial resources to create a writing award for new hymnody texts with good theology, written by heretofore unpublished lyricists. I’d certainly enter several of mine.

  • Phillip

    If only bad theology were limited to Christmas carols. To judge by some of our songs, it seems that the little Lord Jesus who no crying makes came to let me now be satisfied with a little silver and gold but later to give me a gold mansion that’s silver lined.

  • “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…”

    Its funny, in part, because its so close to the truth.

  • Jeremy

    I’d be more than happy to ban them all! (too many years in retail will do that to you…)

    On topic, “banning” anything is just silly. The people getting their theology from Christmas carols aren’t exactly going to care what we think of their favorite holiday songs.

  • Richard

    Nonsense. I’m sorry. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the theology in Christmas cards except theologians who have nothing else to do but complain about theology. Bunch of Scrooges.

  • Mike M

    Luke@3: :Jesus IS Aryan!
    — Houston Stewart Chamberlain

  • How about simply rewording some of them? …like I did with this well known one (you’ll recognise it from the pattern — though it’s not a Christmas Carol):

    We’ve got a kingdom in our midst
    that outshines the sun (3x)
    Here this side of the blue …

  • Sufjan’s fresh spins on carols with subtle melodic changes address some of the sentimentality while keeping their christocentric celebration.

    And it was Andrew Peterson’s deliberate intention to come up with some new Christmas songs in “Behold the Lamb of God.”

  • scotmcknight

    Richard, au contraire. Perhaps the only ones who complain about theologians complaining about the theology of the carols are those who don’t want theologians complaining about their theology! Ha.

  • Kristen

    I don’t remember much from my year of studying Greek. But I do remember this. We had famous sayings to memorize each week, from all sorts of different sources, occasionally including the New Testament. In December I was trying to translate the saying of the week … something about angels … oh I know how this goes (shaped by a lifetime of Christmas carols) “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

    No, the professor said. Stop thinking you know it and read what’s in front of you.

    “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”

    Oh. Geez.

  • In a culture that makes Noah’s Ark (God wiping out the planet) a nursery decorating theme, is it any surprise we “cutesify” Christmas?

  • Before writing any new carols I think the sentimentality thing needs to be confrinted directly.

  • Rick in TX

    I’ve got to add that there’s one lyric that I love in “Away in a Manger”, although it is often sung alternatively. In the last verse which begins “Be near me Lord Jesus…” you often hear the alternate final line “and take us to heaven to live with thee there”. But the line originally read “and fit us for Heaven, to live with thee there”. THAT is great theology, ladies and gentlemen: we are unfit to live in heaven as we are, apart from the work that Christ does in us daily as we walk through this life under His Lordship.

  • Rick #16,

    Nice counter-point!

  • Linda

    The church should try to select good biblical carols, they are out there, Charles Wesley wrote good ones and Isaac Watts too.

    Maybe the church should listen to a song from the perspective coming from Lord Jesus Christ Himself, here is one such song…

  • Leo

    what’s really ironic is theologians who complain about theology in christmas carols complaining about those people who complain about theologians complaining about christmas carols by complaining about how they’re complaining about the theologians complaining about their theology. QED

  • smcknight

    Now Leo, had you used the upper case to open that sentence I might have been able to follow it. Good one.

  • Luke B

    Good one!

    On theology in hymns/songs/carols more generally, and #18, I’m always a little nervous about songs, plays, or books that purport to be from the perspective of God, or take on the ‘voice’ of God, or use God as a character in a story. It seems a bit presumptuous, even with good theology. And with bad theology, does this intensify the damage? Does anyone share this concern?

  • Mich

    First we ban ALL contemporary Praise Music……….

  • Marc

    Sometimes we, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, strain at gnats and swallow camels, like Jesus once said.

    Don’t we have anything better to do than worry about Christmas carols, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” at the store, (holiday is just shorthand for holy day) or going ballistic when somebody says “Xmas”? (If we check the etymology of THAT word, it is just shorthand for Christmas, and that shorthand has been used from the very beginning. Look at the earliest manuscripts of the NT, and they use the abbreviation IC XC for Jesus Christ. It’s not an attempt by atheists to “X” out the name of Jesus, as if they could. People have been trying to do THAT for over 2000 years and haven’t succeeded yet!)

    Folks, people are in despair at this time, and this is the highest season for depression and suicide. Aren’t we really in the business of spreading the hope that is within us, rather than worring about these nits and gnats?

    And if we want to be picky and legalistic about all of this, the only thing about the Christmas holiday that isn’t pagan in origin is Santa Claus, which comes by derivation from St. Nicholas, a real live bishop of Myra.

    Let’s use this season for something really important.

  • “Away in a Manger” drives my mom crazy, too!

    I’m with Marc, though: Getting bogged down on details can make you miss the whole point. Any Christmas purist will talk until your ears fall off about how the magi weren’t kings and there weren’t three of them, but neither of those facts is at all relevant to the overall narrative. The theology, however, is:

    Glorious now, behold him arise
    King and God and sacrifice

  • American Christians’ focus on the details surrounding Jesus’ birth is wildly out of proportion to their importance in the New Testament. An outsider could easily conclude that Christianity is centered around the birth of this special baby surrounded by stars, angels, shepherds, and perhaps talking animals and snow men.

    I think the cleanest solution is to cede “Christmas” to secular society (or civil religion) as a legitimate, fun holiday. We should just enjoy it for what it is, while avoid or distancing ourselves from the bits that trivialize real Christianity. Trying to “keep Christ in Christmas” is as much a losing and counterproductive battle as trying to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan.

  • nathan

    a robust re-appropriation of the Church calendar would be the place to start first. that way we could start sorting out silliness like Magi and shepherds in the same place, etc. and ground people’s worship life in a narrative flow of the life of Jesus without sounding like nit-picky detail hounds.

    After that, don’t “ban” songs, just quietly stop using some of them.