Recently I was in a worship service where we were asked to sing the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” Here are the troubling lyrics:
“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.”
I don’t know the theology of the author (Katherine von Schlegel, mid-1700s), but to me the message of the song is very Calvinistic. It at least implies that every evil and instance of innocent suffering is from God. (Start from the last line above–“all He takes away” and go up, interpreting the previous lyrics from that line.)
I couldn’t sing it. I’ve come to believe it is wrong to sing lyrics that express theology with which you strongly disagree. It seems dishonest–IF you think that singing a hymn or song is something serious and not frivolous.
Another one I cannot sing is “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations.” The underlying theology (not even hidden) is postmillennialism; it more than implies that WE, humans, Christians, will bring the kingdom of God in its fullness to earth by our own efforts.
Some years ago I attended a Sunday morning service where the guest preacher spoke passionately about the imminent return of Jesus Christ. He said that all prophecies of the second coming of Christ had been fulfilled and Christ could return “tomorrow.” Immediately after the sermon the minister of music had us stand and sing this hymn–“We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” After the service I went to the minister of worship and mentioned the cognitive dissonance between the sermon and the hymn. His response? “Only you would notice that.” He might be right, but that’s an indictment of the sorry lack of theological knowledge and awareness in our churches–even among many church staffs.
I too often ministers of music and others who are involved in planning worship do not consider the theologies of hymns and songs they choose for congregations to sing. And too often congregants do not even think about the words as they sing them.
When my father was alive and pastoring (these are some of my earliest memories) he would frequently stop in the middle of a hymn or gospel song and explain the message to the congregation. He was determined to make sure that the people knew what they were singing and he wouldn’t allow hymns to be sung that contradicted his or his congregation’s theology (e.g., “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”).
Occasionally I will ask people around me (after the service is over) about a hymn we sang during the worship service to find out if they have any idea what the theological or spiritual message of a particular hymn might be. Almost always I get blank looks and quizzical smiles that convey the thought “Who cares?” I think they are thinking “So long as the hymn made me feel good, what else matters?”
Don’t get me wrong; I try not to be too picky about this. If it is possible to interpret a hymn or song in a way that does not contradict my beliefs, I will sing it and with gusto. (I’m a Baptist; we sing loudly, you know.)
But I think congregants and worshipers should object when they are asked to sing hymns or songs that clearly, unequivocally contradict the predominant theology to which the church or the majority of the church are committed. And ministers or music and worship should avoid choosing such hymns. When they do choose them, I wonder how much thought they’ve given to their messages or if they are simply choosing them because they make people feel good. That, of course, feeds folk religion.