Contend Earnestly: O Holy Night vs Above All: Which is Worse?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

O Holy Night vs Above All: Which is Worse?

First, let me let everyone know that I really do like both of these songs. Actually, O Holy Night is my favorite for Christmas time. The problem is that they both have lyrics in them that are totally contrary to Scripture. I know that this, for our exclusive Psalmody, or strict RPW types, is like me throwing meat to a pack of wolves (not that these guys are into that one) but I wanted to see what everyone else thought.

One song was written in 1847 from a poem and the other came from Michael W. Smith who used to really like the pastel colors from the 80's. Now, I am actually a big fan of Michael W. Smith, or used to be, but I haven't listened to him for a while. I didn't stop listening to him for any reason besides the fact that I just don't anymore. No real reason behind it. Maybe it's because to hear Linkin Park and then have "Friends are friends forever" come on afterwards on my iPod, seemed a little weird.

So here are the lyrics that are up for grabs. What I want to know is which one do you feel are more sucky. How you like that for theological? State your reasons, give your opinions, or just laugh and say I am being too sensitive. Either way...let's hear it.

O Holy Night (I hate doing this to one of my favorites)
Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.


Above All

Laid behind a stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone
Like a rose
Trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all

So, here are my thoughts. When O Holy Night states that Christ came and the soul felt its worth, I really am not sure what that means or if it is even closely tied to Scripture. The only time I can see that we could make an assertion of the soul feeling it's worth would be found at the time of creation when God said "it was good." But even then, the worth, the value, wouldn't be placed on us but would be Godward. If anything, when Christ came, we felt even more sinful because of the perfection in Christ laid bare in front of our eyes.

As far as Above All, I really don't know what to say here. This might be as bad as it gets. This one would definitely get my vote between the two, but that is probably because I like to sing O Holy Night at Christmas and don't want to take it off my iPod. But, to say that Christ thought of me above all, when he died on the cross? Not even close. Jesus thought of God and His glory above all. Notice that when Christ was in the garden he prays that he glorified God while on this earth and that he was going to go to the cross to fulfill God's glory, not man's. This statement might be the most egocentric lyric we could sing. To say that while Christ was dying on the cross that his thoughts were on us above everything? Hmmmm...not quite.

I think that John 17 sums it up quite nicely:

Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.
John 17:1-5

So, what are your thoughts? Which one sucks more? Am I still allowed to sing O Holy Night if I just stop singing at this point? Was it rude that on Good Friday as we were singing Above All that I was singing,

Like a rose
Trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of God
Above all

I didn't sing this part loud, but I really couldn't sing the other part. I mean we are talking about Good Friday and Easter. Do we really need to sing about ourselves? I don't know...maybe I am being too picky. But, God is pretty picky too. In the Old Testament he kills people for not worshiping correctly. Sooooooo....


Amanda said...

A church I used to attend changed the lyrics to "You took the fall for God's glory above all." To this day, I can't sing the song any other way. Your theology should inform everything you do, including the lyrics you sing. So basically, I don't think you're being too picky.

Seth McBee said...


That is great...I love it when churches do those sorts of things to make sure that God is central not us.

And..I strongly agree with your statement:

Your theology should inform everything you do, including the lyrics you sing

thanks for stopping by

Anonymous said...

Hi Seth,

Ok, so you convinced me. Here I am.

The one that now "Above All" gags me the most is definitely "Above All" I think it is another example y of man-centered theology. I don't know if you have ever read or heard anything from or about Brennan Manning. He wrote a book that was eaten up by evangelicals and some popular musicians including Smith and Rich Mullins several years ago. The book is called The Ragamuffin Gospel. MWS wrote the forward for the book. It contained some very controversial teachings about contemplative prayer and such. This same guy wrote a book called "Above All" Which again had a forward by MWS. I've done some research about this author. You should check him out too. There is more than just a song with bad theology in my humble opinion.

Seth McBee said...

That is quite interesting...I have heard of Brennan Manning and some of his theology does have me hovering over a toilet.

I have always wondered about MWS and now that you have brought this to my attention it makes a lot more sense on why he says some of the weird things he does in his songs.

Thanks for the heads up.

Jake said...

Well, I think the first big thing here is to acknowledge that both songs are pieces of music that have been helpful to Christian communities in their musical worship to God, which means before we criticize we ought to thank God for the ways he's used these two songs. (Sorry, but I just finished listening to C.J. Mahaney's talk at the Resurgence conference...)

Second thing, I struggle with the whole re-writing song lyrics to conform to our theology thing. Obviously, there's a lot to be said for having theologically robust, solid lyrics that we sing as a community. But at the same time, as someone who has written poetry, I would be more than a little offended if someone picked up my piece of writing and felt the need to rewrite it to make it useful. If you can't think the song with a clean conscience, I think it's better to not sing it at all. Rewriting lyrics seems to really dishonor the songwriter, if that makes sense.

As far as which song has worse theology - I'd say Above All, no contest. I completely agree with your argument on this one Seth and personally that's why I wouldn't be comfortable even using this song in a Christian gathering. The image of Christ being like a rose trampled on the ground is interesting, but we can find other songs with beautiful imagery that have more God-centered theology.

As far as O Holy Night is concerned... perhaps the lyric is simply referring to the fact that once we are in Christ, something within us begins to make more sense, like we now understand that we actually have significance within the world? I don't know though, to be honest. But I would say that poetry, for me at least, flows more from my heart than from my theology and so I might write something that flows from a heart transformed by the gospel, even if the exact words I'm using don't have overt or explicit biblical support.

Interesting thoughts all around though, keep them coming :).

Seth McBee said...


Although I understand your overall point, I would disagree with you when you say,

But I would say that poetry, for me at least, flows more from my heart than from my theology and so I might write something that flows from a heart transformed by the gospel, even if the exact words I'm using don't have overt or explicit biblical support.

And I know that you will agree with me on this too...but if you are writing poetry that says God has three legs and hates Jesus, we have an issue. I think that people let artists get away with too much freedom in song writing and poetry. If anything is contradictory to Scripture it must be thrown out or redone, period. I don't care how nice it sounds or sweet the melody is.

We have a woman in our church who is an amazing song writer and composer. She wrote about six songs last year, put them to music, and then came to me and asked me to look over them theologically. She knows that I have no musical abilities at all, but she wanted her songs to not contradict what Scripture speaks. To be honest, I was very uncomfortable, but very challenged. The reason is because this is something she has put together, worked hard on, the lyrics flow like a sweet melody when she reads them. But, for me, they are just words on a page.

We went through this together, she changed some stuff and she presented one of those songs at church about three weeks ago and it was beautiful.

I think more artists need to do these sorts of things. I really think that pride steps in the way and they think that no one can tell them how they should communicate thoughts.

By the way...we wouldn't let anyone else do this...why the artist?

anyway...just some thoughts...what do you think Jake? Am I nuts? Also, I wasn't trying to "call you out" or anything, because I think you would agree with me on mostly of what I have written if something sounds argumentative...let me know.


Puritan Lad said...

I don't have a huge problem with the lyrics of O Holy Night, if it refers to the act of regeneration through Christ. Hard to tell.

As for modern Christian songs like the second, pretty awful. There are worse one however, like...

Heaven is counting on you by Ray Boltz

Ain't nobody do me like Jesus (don't know the singer).

I'm sure I can come up with some other zingers of "Christian" Music.

Jake said...

Oh no, I think you're quite right about most of this. I don't feel "called out" at all, just challenged to think critically and seek for new ways to express what I'm trying to get at, which is enormously helpful actually.

I think the issue is we're thinking of two slightly different issues. I'm not suggesting that we write statements which contradict scripture on the grounds of "it's art." What I am suggesting is that we can apply what the Scriptures teach to our art so that we might say something grounded in biblical principles but that isn't an explicit biblical reference or theological statement. It's one thing to say that "As a result of Christ's appearance, I now understand who I am as a person." (This is my understanding of the verse in question from Oh Holy Night.) There might not be one bible verse that explicitly says "Christ helps us make sense of who we are as individuals," however that is most certainly a biblical principle. In fact, I'd content it's simply restating Augustine's great prayer, "You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you." I'm not equating Augustine to scripture, however I am saying that if you wish to take issue with that idea, you're actually taking issue with something much bigger than one Christmas hymn.

Likewise, there might be any number of things the poet decides to write about which are informed by his beliefs about scripture and even if he doesn't have a verse for every line he's written, that doesn't mean what he's writing doesn't flow from biblical teachings.

I think what you're describing in your first paragraph is something else entirely - The attempted use of art to justify bad theology. That's not what I'm arguing for at all, although I'd certainly grant the point that the distinction I'm making is quite subtle.

As far as the situation with the woman at your church, that sounds to me like a beautiful picture of the body of Christ coming together in community to help serve each other using their individually-given and diverse gifts. It sounds awesome. All I'm saying is that the lack of explicit biblical support for a song lyric (or anything else that we write, for that matter) does not make the song lyric unbiblical. We need to think about it on a slightly more critical level than that because it's entirely possible that the given lyric is consistent with biblical teaching even though it lacks that one verse that says the very thing the song lyric is discussing.

Does that clarify what I'm saying? I think you're absolutely right that the music we use in church ought to be both aesthetically and theologically beautiful and it sounds like you're taking awesome steps to make that happen at Taylor Creek. All I'm saying is that when determining whether or not something is biblical the best question we can ask is not, "Do you have a verse for that?" but rather, "Is this consistent with the teachings of the scriptures as a whole?" And in order to answer that question we'll then look at several individual verses.

Seth McBee said...

Puritan Lad: So..can I assume that the picture that I placed in the post is of you? :)

Jake: I completely understand and that is a better way of putting it for my pea brain. It is like what the Westminster Confession did when saying that the chief end of man is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." Hard to find an explicit verse for that second part but it is definitely biblically based.

Thanks for your explanation...and I hope that all is well.

Terry said...

I have a friend who has an issue with the words of "Angels we have heard on high" where it says,

See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
*Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.*

She was surprised to be singing this heavily Catholic influenced verse in a Calvinist Baptist church:)

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