Hymns and Knitting and Fanny Crosby

Here’s a simile that has almost nothing to do with the actual content of this post: I think like I knit. Very Slowly. I connect things that maybe shouldn’t be connected yet, and sometimes skip a couple of steps out of carelessness, until my mind is just a little bit gnarled up in knots. At that point, just like in knitting, I slowly unravel what’s been accomplished, to see where I went wrong. And boy, is it painful to take out all that work I did. It’s worth it, though, because, often, going back is the only way I can move forward.

So this is me, unraveling the knots my brain is currently in, all because I read some article by a guy named Russell Moore about social media and hymns and envy. If you have the time, please read it—it’s good, and it probably won’t do bad things to your mind:

Why Social Media (and the Church) is Making You Sad

It references things that’ve been on my mind anyway, and those things made me think of other things, which made me think of other things, and, well, this is shaping up to be quite rambly. Sorry about that.

For those of you who didn’t read the article, it’s about social media envy; how, with everyone posting the cleverest, beautifullest, loveliest bits of their lives on Facebook and such things, all of the normal people (which turns out to be all of us) are feeling kinda blue. Even if we recognize that Instagram isn’t the whole story, people are still prone to envy. Lots of people have studied this, and lots of people see it without having to study it scientifically. Why is this worth getting your proverbial knickers in a twist, Jo?

The author claims that we in the church are guilty of the same, white-washing tactics within our worship services:

“Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!” This isn’t just a Greatest Generation revivalist problem either. Even those ubiquitous contemporary worship songs that come straight out of the Psalms tend to focus on psalms of ascent or psalms of joyful exuberance, not psalms of lament (and certainly not imprecatory psalms!).”

[I looked up “imprecatory,” to see if it means what I thought it might mean. It’s an adjective derived from the verb ‘imprecate,’ which means “to invoke or call down (evil or curses,) as upon a person.” Ohhhhhh.]

That makes sense. This seems true. I’ve wondered myself what to do with those psalms asking God to curse the speaker’s enemies through those colorful and vengeful means. I mean, do I pray this? Or is it in here in case I ever become king and have enemies plotting to kill me all the time? Generally, I go Frank Perretti and classify my enemies as the sins I struggle with; as the aspects of my human nature that truly are wretched. I don’t want those parts of the old Jo anymore.

I don’t know what else to do with those psalms, except to appreciate that, if I were in that extreme situation, there would be plenty in the Bible that would apply and be able to comfort me. It’s that idea that there’s something in God’s Word to speak to anyone; it’s relevant in all situations.

So why, the author asks, why do we ignore all that range of emotions and hard situations the Psalmists, and Job, and other writers decidedly confront head-on? Everything has to be happy, and the author isn’t a fan of what he calls “this sense of forced cheeriness…seen in the ad hoc “liturgy” of most evangelical churches in the greeting and the dismissal. As the service begins a grinning pastor or worship leader chirps, “It’s great to see you today!” or “We’re glad you’re here!” As the service closes the same toothy visage says, “See you next Sunday! Have a great week!”

Well, ouch. What do you want us to do, mister? Frown at each other and say “have a wretched week”—the author does consider it—? [Honestly, you should just go back up and read the article—it’s worth your time.] No, but rather than try to rephrase what he says, I’m just going to quote the article for you.

 I suspect many people in our pews look around them and think the others have the kind of happiness we keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by.

By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion—including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation—we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be “Christian” enough to smile through it all.

The gospel speaks a different word though. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In the kingdom, we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not by, on the one hand, whining in our sense of entitlement or, on the other hand, pretending as though we’re happy. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve, we weep, we cry out for deliverance.

Yes.

The knitting was going along splendidly, and I was nodding along and slowly but surely making good connections with my thoughts, when suddenly something I had read jerked me forward, and then I was skipping steps all over the place and getting really, really confused.

The Gospel is glad, Good news, isn’t it? So why shouldn’t we rejoice when we gather? I thought of the biography of Fanny Crosby I’d started reading, in which her differing experiences with worship services are contrasted:

In the first, “there were no organ and no hymns, as such, in the ‘Southeast Church.’ Like the early Puritans, the theologians of the era did not believe in hymns of human composition; they would use only the Psalms, which were “dictated” to David directly from God. Most of the music consisted of Psalms chanted in plainsong with, now and then, their metrical paraphrase by Isaac Watts, who lived and wrote a century earlier.”

In the second, “North Salem, as in Southeast, a great emphasis was placed on an emotional conversion experience, without which one should dread to die. There was a great emphasis on mortality and the certainty of hell for the unrepentant. Numerous hymns told of careless sinners, who were overtaken by sudden death and were lost.”

I’m somehow doubtful that this is what the article is advocating. At any rate, Fanny Crosby wasn’t impressed, preferring “the Methodists’ warm and lively services and their fervent and comparatively cheerful hymn singing.” She was shaped by her later experiences within charismatic revivals, which the biographer describes as being full of “frenzied worshipers” and “frenzied elders…laying hands upon her hand and roaring prayers for her conversion…”

Now, if Fanny Crosby and I were having tea, I don’t know how much we would have agreed on, in discussions about Christian denominations—I imagine we’d probably avoid the subject. But I love her hymns, and I love hymns written by Isaac Watts. But both extremes—the purely somber, sober services and the “frenzied” services centered around the experience of “getting happy,” both of those sound remarkably unattractive to me. They sound, well, like extremes.

Ok, so maybe there’s a balance. Maybe the confessional times of repentance are more for private devotion, while the joyful encouragement is for times of fellowship.

Maybe not. Maybe I just said that without believing it. I need confession, and I think maybe there’s not enough of it in the church. Like the author of the initial article says,

“Maybe what we need in our churches is more tears, more failure, more confession of sin, more prayers of desperation that are too deep for words.Maybe then the lonely and the guilty and the desperate among us will see that the gospel has come not for the happy, but for the brokenhearted; not for the well, but for the sick; not for the found, but for the lost.”

I’m rapidly getting to the point where I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, and I’m only talking until I can remember it. Maybe I better close it out for now. I’m thinking of my tendency to separate things out into extremes and go to one or the other. I’m thinking that a certain kind of sorrow doesn’t really conflict with a certain kind of joy; that maybe sobriety is inextricably bound to the deep gladness that comes with remembering who we are and who God is. If you made it through this headache of a post, I’d love to hear your thoughts—they may be as rambly as you like. I won’t mind:)

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3 thoughts on “Hymns and Knitting and Fanny Crosby

  1. Love it Jo! I’ve had similar thoughts often. I think another problem with the ‘toothy visage’ churches is that unbelievers and believers alike see them behaving differently during the week and perceive that as hypocrisy, whether it is intended that way or not (probably not). I think the problem is people not being real at church and either putting on a fake smile or bemoaning their lives constantly. Sorry for the long comment.

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    • Thank you for the long comment! It’s so hard to be real, like you say–no one wants to be vulnerable without feeling that people really care. At the same time, I don’t know how valuable it is to only share burdens without reminding each other of the hope that we have. 😀

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