‘It’s a hard world for little things’

‘It’s a hard world for little things’ July 28, 2014

“One Million Moms” — the media watchdog arm of the right-wing Christianist American Family Association, whose name is inaccurate by several orders of magnitude — is upset with the latest ad from Guinness because it features the great old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”:

Guinness & Co. is currently airing a commercial for its beer with a popular gospel hymn as background music. The song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is played during the entire ad and even though there are no lyrics it is unmistakably the beloved hymn Christians know and love. The cherished “Everlasting Arms” hymn has no place in a beer commercial. Christian music should not be associated with an advertisement promoting drinking. The choice of including this hymn in the ad disrespects the Christian faith. Take Action: Please send an email letter strongly encouraging Guinness & Co. to change the background music in their “Empty Chair” commercial. Ask that they no longer use a hymn out of respect for Christians.

Makes me wish Martin Luther were still around to offer his customary vigorous defense of the relationship between Christian hymns and beer drinking. (And I wonder what One Million Moms would make of the customary singing of “Abide With Me” at the FA Cup Final — an event at which one guesses a bit of Guinness is likely consumed.)

I don’t wholly disagree with OMM about this Guinness ad, but the problem isn’t that it associates a Christian hymn with (good) beer. The problem is that the use of this particular hymn turns an otherwise lovely little story into a form of idolatry. Here’s the ad:


Watch that with the sound off and it’s quite touching. But the use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” invokes a troubling bit of wordplay. If you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are Elisha Hoffman’s lyrics:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
MitchumLeaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

This is a song about relying on the faithfulness of God as our source of safety and security. The Guinness ad plays on the word “arms” there, re-enlisting the hymn as a reference to the faithful service of the military as that which keeps us safe and secure from all alarms. This is militarism as civil religion, a form of blasphemy.

This reminds me of the language from the old Iconoclastic Controversy in the church, which distinguished between “veneration” and “worship.” Religious symbols and icons, the church eventually concluded, might be due veneration — that is to say, appropriate respect and honor — but such veneration must never be worship, that which is due only to God.

The faithful soldier in the Guinness ad — representative of all soldiers and the entire military — is due the honor and gratitude shown him by the members of the community. By all means, let’s lift a pint to him and preserve a seat of honor for him in our midst. But if we exaggerate such veneration into worship, we undermine that honor by overstating it. Undue honor undoes the honor.

(And here I’m making only the theological objection to this idolatrous praise. One could also point out the simple inaccuracy of it, objectively. The military is not the primary or the exclusive thing keeping free people safe. Nor is keeping people safe the only function of the military. So buy the soldier a beer and thank him for his service, but don’t give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt.)

In any case, this wordplay on the double-meaning of “arms” was done first, and done better, by Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish in the delightfully creepy rendition of this hymn in The Night of the Hunter:



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