February 25, 2016

Are Christian hymns too warlike? (COMMENTARY)

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Brian McLaren is the author of "A New Kind of Christianity." RNS file photo

Brian McLaren is the author of “A New Kind of Christianity.” RNS file photo

Brian McLaren, the liberal “emergent” evangelical activist, re-emerged last week to announce that he is rewriting the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The hymn is too warlike, he writes, as is much of evangelical hymnody, in his view. Our hymnody should be, he writes, “refocusing on the teaching of Jesus about peacemaking,” steering clear of warlike imagery. He’s wrong.

McLaren believes that hymns with war imagery can lead to hatred and violence. In “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” for instance, McLaren finds “ambiguous” language about the “foe” against we should fight, “which could (in the minds of some) refer to our neighbors outside the church.”

Well, I suppose, “in the minds of some” there might be confusion that “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” refers to Spanish soccer star Jesus Navas, but such a reading would be ignorant of both the context of the song and the context of the Scriptures. The same is true of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and other Christian hymns.

To see these hymns as encouraging violence requires a crude literalism rendered incoherent by the lyrics themselves. Christians are, the hymn reads, “marching as to war,” clearly a simile. When we sing “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” we don’t then discipline those who eat lamb chops for cannibalism.

More importantly, though, the warfare imagery is derived not from our hymnbooks but from our Bibles.


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I realize that some from McLaren’s theological tribe cast doubt on the authority of the Old Testament narrative, but if one starts cutting away the warfare imagery from the Bible one will end up with a tiny set of scraps. The Apostle Paul writes to the churches that the Christian life is one of spiritual warfare, requiring spiritual armor (the clear inspiration for “Onward, Christian Soldiers”).

Jesus himself speaks in war language, telling us that he is binding the strong man in order to plunder his house. When Jesus reveals to John the whole sweep of cosmic history, he does so with the imagery of a dragon at war with a woman and her child (Revelation 12). To do away with spiritual warfare imagery is to do away with the Bible, with Jesus, with the gospel.

Moreover, an emphasis on spiritual warfare — whether in our preaching or in our singing or in our praying — does not make us more violent but rather makes us less violent. When we know that we are wrestling against “principalities and powers in the heavenly places,” we are able to understand that we are not therefore wrestling “against flesh and blood” (Ephesians. 6:12). When we know that those who oppose us are, as we were, “captive to the devil,” we are able to treat them with kindness and gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25-26).


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When we know, as Jesus did, that he is captain of fearsome angel armies, we are able to bear persecution, without striking back. And when we know that King Jesus will ultimately win the war against the devil, we are able to forgive those who persecute us, to turn our cheek when people strike us.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” is crystal clear who the foe is to be opposed. “At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee; On then Christian soldiers, on to victory! Hell’s foundations quiver, at the shout of praise; brothers, life your voices, loud your anthems raise!” The hymn defines not only the enemy but also the means of opposing him — through praise and unity. Anyone who finds this too “warlike” will find the Bible much more so.

A perfect example of this biblical emphasis is found in one of my favorite contemporary hymns, the very “warlike” song “O Church Arise” by Keith and Kristyn Getty. “Our call to war, to love the captive soul, but to rage against the captor,” the hymn goes. “And with the sword that makes the wounded whole, we will fight with faith and valor.”

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, right, leads a June 9, 2014, panel discussion as David Platt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, listens. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, right, leads a June 9, 2014, panel discussion as David Platt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, listens. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

That’s exactly right. We don’t follow Christ by stopping our fighting, but by fighting the right foe, the right way. We put away the sword of steel, not because we are unarmed, but because we take up the sword of the Spirit.

We become peacemakers not by avoiding warfare language but learning what kind of war God’s people fight, and that’s not with carnal weapons. If we don’t recognize the spiritual nature of the warfare around us, we will scrap and fight with those around us, just like the pagans who have no hope.

We are able to be a joyful happy throng precisely because we know that we are an army — a victorious one with a triumphant King already in the heavenly places. That’s why we can love and forgive and bear persecution. That’s why we can move onward, into the future. We should sing that, and sing it loudly, like an army marching as to war.

(This column originally appeared at the website for Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention)

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  • Rick

    “When we sing “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” we don’t then discipline those who eat lamb chops for cannibalism.”

    That doesn’t make any sense. Lamb chops are meat from a lamb, not the shepherd. Cannibalism has nothing to do with it. Quite frankly, I think McLaren and Moore are both a little off.

  • I have more agreement with McLaren on this one than Moore noting that neither is totally correct on this issue. What Moore should note is that much of the violence Conservative Christians practice and promote is done through the proxy of our gov’t as it pursues certain foreign policies. The recent problem we have with ISIS is the result of using a ‘sledgehammer’ on Middle Eastern countries, according to Noam Chomsky. And when reads works like The New Threat by investigative journalist Jason Burke, it is difficult to find fault with Chomsky’s analysis.

    We religiuosly conservative Christians of allow the establishment to use the valor of our troops as a moral shield to protect our foreiign policies from criticism. And for as long as we allow the exploitation of our troops, we will literally be a warlike people.

  • Jon

    It sounds like the problem is that the scripture itself is warlike. Having read it, both Old and New testaments, I agree – it is warlike. The God described in both testaments is a heinous monster, killing innocent people right and left, torturing people for eternity, slaughtering children, and more – a “god” dripping with blood that no moral person could worship with integrity.

    Russel Moore is right that the hymns simply reflect the scripture – and therein lies the problem.

  • Garson Abuita

    “It’s just a metaphor!” Fine, but the metaphor you choose matters. God compares the Israelites to a prostitute — I guess we could use that in a hymn as well because “It’s in the Bible!”

  • ben in oakland

    If I want incoherence and a very blinkered view of reality, I know I can always count on Moore to provide it.

    “To see these hymns as encouraging violence requires a crude literalism rendered incoherent by the lyrics themselves.”

    Or a crude metaphoricalism rendered incoherent. It doesn’t really matter. As a gay man, I have been listening to Moore and his ilk for my entire 65 years declare me aqnd mine the enemy of all that is good and holy and pure, and enemy that wants to destroy family faith, freedom, children, and western civilization.

    Did I mention that we want to destroy dominionism? That’s the one thing moore left out of his screed, and the only thing that’s true. That’s the only real war evangelicals are waging: against freedom, against American secular values, against our families, freedom faith and children.

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  • Virginia Bemis

    If Christ is the Shepherd, we are the sheep. Humans=sheep, therefore eating lamb chops is eating humans, thus eating lamb chops is cannibalism. It’s a figure of speech.

  • Elledra

    There are plenty of people who are more than willing to apply “crude literalism” to scripture (including some Southern Baptists). Why would Mr. Moore think people aren’t doing it with hymns too? The impression some conservative evangelicals give is that practices like “metaphorical reading” are liberal plots to dilute the meaning and power of scripture. So why is it now ok to apply metaphorical reading to hymn lyrics?
    In spite of this, I myself do not advocate rewriting the words for Onward Christian Soldiers–the tune is simply too well known, and people will still know what the original words were anyway. Better to avoid using the hymn all together if the words are a problem for a congregation.

  • opheliart

    get rid of metaphor …

    because you are ignorant on its purpose?

    hmm … would this be a silencing of those lambs? would this be a killing of the poet … the painter and …

    the prophet?

    are you upset about the metaphor of other written works?

  • james reed

    The hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” has been removed from the hymnbooks of some mainline Christian Churches because it might “offend” someone. I object, it never had a negative affect on me, hearing it from childhood (I did join the USMC later, but that was more due to the threat of the Draft, rather than an entrenched militarism from this hymn). Seriously, anyone that thinks trying to live the Christian Life in this secular world is not a continual “warlike” struggle must be in a protective shell somewhere. Anyone not astute enough to see the metaphorical base of Sabine-Baring Gould’s verses is surely going to miss the objective of the hymn. The main point that I see is that. Christians must work together to resist the world, and spread the Gospel.

  • Scott Shaver

    Agreed Rick…….way off.

    Question number 1: How many Christians (outside McLaren and Moore) care whether or not some hymns are too “warlike”?

    Bible is replete with the language and analogies of warfare. Are they ashamed of it as well?

  • Jack

    Oh please. Why even pay attention to such silliness? Most enemies of the Gospel, no matter what they say publicly, clearly think most Christians today are a bunch of wimps who can be easily bullied and cowed. And to some extent, they’re correct, unfortunately.

    McLaren is a self-caricature.

  • ben in oakland

    “There are plenty of people who are more than willing to apply “crude literalism” to scripture (including some Southern Baptists). ”

    Bingo! bingo! Bingo!

    The only quibble I have is with the word SOME.

  • Jack

    That’s just laughable. I read the Bible as a child and never had the sort of nightmares one would expect if one were reading about a “heinous monster.”

    The real heinous monsters are the human fiends who try to be gods themselves. In the last century alone, they turned our world into a giant slaughterhouse, killing more in that one century alone in the name of anything but God than all the religious wars in prior centuries combined.

  • Tom Downs

    As I understand the history of the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers was originally written for a children’s procession. Picture grade school kids lined up and marching/parading behind the cross and the parish banner or church flag. It dates from an era when children thought it was neat to march in neat rows with a rhythm beat out on a drum. Moore may well have been one of those children; I know I was As a child all I heard was the heroic language; as an adult I find the militaristic language disturbing. Perhaps Moore is stuck in the childhood memory, but now he has the knowledge to rationalize it as somehow fit praise for God. But then many of the folks in the pews grew up with that same childhood memory and so we still sing it. However, there are a whole lot of unchurched young people out there who don’t have the associations with the hymn that we do. For them it is just disturbing. McLaren knows that those words won’t help us introduce Jesus to them. So why not change?

  • Garson Abuita

    No, Opheliart, I never suggested getting rid of metaphor. Far from being ignorant, I am well aware of its purpose. My only point is that people should be aware of the ramifications of the metaphors they use, especially when it comes to religion. Moore is writing from the Christian perspective and calling the “enemies” in this “war” to be servants of Satan. How do you think the “enemies” see it?

  • Thomas Ryscavage

    I agree with Mr. Moore, especially songs like ‘Silent Night’.

  • yoh

    Funny, around here the Christians are usually the bullies, expecting others to be wimps or cowed.

    Especially when they hijack public power and resources in service of their faith. There are the constant attacks at public displays by atheists and death threats to atheist public figures.

    There is a constant call to overlook instances of sectarian discrimination by Christian government officials. There are constant attacks on the foundations of religious freedom by Christians. Most notably Christians in many places are seeking ways to legalize discriminatory conduct.

    I don’t know where you live Jack, but here you in the US, we see plenty of Christians taking the initiative to antagonize and attack others.

  • Jack

    I tried to answer your post, yoh, but then this web site went down in the middle of it. Too many glitches here.

    It’s wearying.

  • yoh

    Researcher Finds That the Old and New Testament Are Both More Violent Than the Qur’an
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/02/20/researcher-finds-
    that-the-old-and-new-testament-are-both-more-violence-than-the-quran/

  • yoh

    Don’t worry. Given your post upthread, I am sure it was condescending, apologetic towards Christians and loaded with attacks on atheists through guilt by association nonsense. I feel like I probably wouldn’t miss it.

  • Gregory Peterson

    “To see these hymns as encouraging violence requires a crude literalism rendered incoherent by the lyrics themselves….”

    Says a leader of a denomination which has always used crude literalism to justify a sense of a divine entitlement to unearned “conservative” Christian male privilege at the expense of others, including its own female members.

    “Moreover, an emphasis on spiritual warfare — whether in our preaching or in our singing or in our praying — does not make us more violent but rather makes us less violent.”

    This is not reflected in the history of Russell Moore’s Southern Baptist Convention Bible Belt, an area infamous for it’s grotesque violence.

  • Re: “‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ is crystal clear who the foe is to be opposed.”

    Actually it’s as “clear” as mud. Sure, the hymn mentions “Satan’s host” … but who and/or what, exactly, constitutes “Satan’s host”? Many Christians would define virtually anyone they dislike as being part of “Satan’s host.”

  • G Key

    These are only a few examples of Bible verses that I believe a very small minority of self-righteous “Christian soldiers” immorally claim to “justify” their unjustifiable mistreatment of — and sometimes unconscionable violence toward — other people, especially other-believers:

    (NIV) Joshua 6:19″All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron [from the city to be sacked] are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”… 21They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys… 24Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house… 27So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land….

  • G Key

    …Joshua 7:1But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the [Lord’s well-gotten wealth]; Achan son of Carmi… took some of [God’s take]… 4So about three thousand men went up [to sack a second city]; but they were routed by the men of Ai… 10The Lord said to Joshua, “…11Israel has sinned… They have taken some of the [last city’s holy gold]… 12That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies… I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

    Joshua 7:24Then Joshua, [finding the looter who sinfully stole the fool’s God’s gold that the non-fool’s God then humanly blamed his whole human flock for sinfully pilfering while sinlessly pillaging from the dead of the last conquered city,] together with all Israel, took Achan [and kin]… to the valley of Achor. 25…Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26…Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger….

  • G Key

    …Joshua 8:1Then the Lord said to Joshua, “…Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai… 2You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.”

    Joshua 8:24When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25Twelve thousand men and women fell that day — all the people of Ai.

    Joshua 8:27But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua. 28So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. 29He hung the king of Ai on a tree… At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate….

  • G Key

    …Matthew 7:6″Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

    Matthew 10:16″I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

    Matthew 10:34″Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — 36a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ ”

    Luke 10:10″But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11’Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’ 12I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”…

  • G Key

    …Revelation 20:15If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
    ————
    I wish all the truly righteous Christians would stand up in overwhelming numbers and collectively condemn the very few believers who go out of their way to insult and attack their other-believing equals and their beliefs.

    AND I wish the great majority of respectful other-believers would likewise stand up en masse and soundly condemn the very few other-believers who actively and wrongfully abuse their Christian equals and their beliefs.

  • Excelsior

    How exactly are Christians “hijacking” public power? Are you implying that Christians should not vote? Should Christians be denied the right to participate in politics?

  • Neon Genesis

    It seems hypocritical to me that on the one hand, Russell Moore insists that the war imagery in the bible is only symbolic and not literal yet turns around and insists that the war imagery is somehow essential to Christianity. I must have missed that verse in the bible where it says “thou shalt write hymns with lots of blood & death imagery.” How can something be both only symbolic but also required at the same time? I also find it telling Moore insists his enemy isn’t his neighbor yet he refers to Mclaren and his readers as a “tribe” and refers to non-Christians as hopeless pagans. Methinks Moore protests too loudly.

  • G Key

    Neon, when I read Russell Moore’s blatantly hostile and hubris-filled insults, “McLaren’s theological tribe” and “pagans who have no hope”, I reflexively expelled those unexpected and shocking slurs from my mind and forgot about them until I read your comment — although I now remember feeling my jaw drop as I read them.

    Mr. Moore’s easy disparagement of people whose spiritual/existential beliefs and values differ from his own is appalling — and attests to how he exalts himself over others, and blithely demeans them (while profaning their beliefs) as if his peers were subordinate to himself.

  • G Key

    “How exactly are Christians ‘hijacking” public power’?”

    Consider the patently discriminatory official words and actions of Kim Davis, Antonin Scalia, & Ted Cruz — along with the officially stated platform and objectives of the Republican Party and their so-called “Religious Right”. Consider their choice to focus on the sex lives of others, and how these public officials and their political party proclaim and enforce their strictly personal religious belief that U.S. citizens’ legal rights should be officially determined by their sex lives.

    Of course, my reply illustrates only certain anti-gay-themed instances of ” ‘hijacking’ public power” by certain (emphasis) Christian public servants. But that ought to do for starters.

  • Mickey

    You misunderstand. If Christ is our shepherd, then we are sheep. Taken literally, for His sheep to eat lamb chops could be counted as cannibalism.

  • Ben in oakland

    As I said above….

    Or a crude metaphoricalism rendered incoherent. It doesn’t really matter. As a gay man, I have been listening to Moore and his ilk for my entire 65 years declare me aqnd mine the enemy of all that is good and holy and pure, and enemy that wants to destroy family faith, freedom, children, and western civilization.

    Did I mention that we want to destroy dominionism? That’s the one thing moore left out of his screed, and the only thing that’s true. That’s the only real war evangelicals are waging: against freedom, against American secular values, against our families, freedom faith and children.

  • G Key

    I hadn’t heard of Mr. Moore before, Ben.

    I’m dumbfounded that some people — let alone this “president of ethics and religious freedom” — can antagonize and demonize total strangers about utterly private matters, and yet consider themselves righteous.

    What a “soldier” against Equality, Respect, and Compassion.

  • Scott Shaver

    Maybe Russell Moore and Mclaren still sleep with the light on and the closet door padlocked. Gotta meet them where they are, Jack.

  • Scott Shaver

    Don’t worry G. Key.

    Moore is learning some hard lessons about his “exaltation” ….even as we pen these words.

  • Scott Shaver

    James:

    Perhaps bottom line is your just not as soft as Moore and his target audience. After all, those of us a little older never heard of “safe zones” growing up and going to school.

  • G Key

    Re Moore’s “…if one starts cutting away the warfare imagery from the Bible one will end up with a tiny set of scraps.”

    …leaving the faithful with only tiny scraps such as the Golden Rule, “God is Love”, “Love thy neighbor”, admonitions to take care of the poor, to ease the burdens of others (even “enemies”), to welcome immigrants (remembering that the faithful were once immigrants, too), to say prayers in private rather than boast of piety in public, to be merciful as well as humble,…

    Yes, Mr. Moore, these scraps are the ones that should be removed. They lure the righteous away from blessed “warlike imagery” toward sinful temptations of “merciful imagery”. They lead the flock astray from learning the wondrous virtues of invading others’ cities, pillaging wealth, and viciously slaughtering entire populations. Heaven forbid that God’s children might forget to aspire to their ancestors’ heroics as persecutors of strangers with differing beliefs!

  • If one does not realize that there is a war going on around them, then they are deceiving themselves. We are in a constant state of war, that is “spiritual warfare” which is all around us. “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places…” Ephesians 6:11-17 The unbeliever is blind to the spiritual world. For the Christian, we should know better, and put on the full armor of God. For those who have not received Jesus Christ as Savior. You need to receive Him as your personal Savior and Lord. He who died to pay the penalty for your sins. You need to turn away from sin, and abide in Him. Then you will know God’s peace and forgiveness, and be able to withstand the spiritual attacks that come against you. God Bless

  • G Key

    Re “We are in a constant state of war”, all anyone — on any side — needs to do is simply respect other people and what is rightly theirs. As I’ve stated elsewhere:

    Peace comes through respecting other people’s personal boundaries, including their equally rightful bodies, beliefs, bedrooms, and business.

    
Peace comes through holding only ourselves to our own beliefs, and subjecting only ourselves to our own faiths’ demands.

    
Peace comes through choosing humility over hubris, invitation over intrusion, and coexistence over conquest.

    Peace comes through realizing that we don’t deserve more say-so over their fully equal lives than they do over our merely equal ones.

    
Peace comes through unconditional application of the Golden Rule.

  • Tim

    “Shame on this man who offends me as a hateful gay atheist!”
    ~RNS Comments Section

  • Erik S.

    Dr. Moore: In your post, I hear the same tone I hear when I read the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens: the righteous anger that arises from a sense of certainty. This should give you pause. Your condescension to those open to the sojourning influence of McLaren is unbecoming. I fear that your precious outrage accelerates the declining credibility of Christianity in our world. Articles like this have a habit of finding their way into the news cycle, along with the likes of Joshua Feuerstein. Why would any non-Christian want to embrace Christ if this is the sort of thing we spend our time arguing about? What is more important, the maintenance of traditions only meant to fortify the faithful, or the manner in which we conduct ourselves as ambassadors of Jesus?

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Good-bye to Church militant . We are privileged to be living in a Church that preaches and practices Mercy.

  • Dennis Sparks

    I’m thankful for Brian McClaren’s effort to re write the hymn that assumes Christianity to be like marching as to war. The cross is about sacrifice and love.

  • Nelson H Keener

    You protesteth way too much! Is there nothing McLaren posed that is worthy of at least tepid affirmation?