Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Worship Theology - "Absent from Flesh" (and a rant about christian music)

If you are around River City it might seem that we have some sort of fascination with Sojourn music. In fact... we do. Sojourn (Louisville, KY) has done a great job reviving some great hymn texts with really excellent music!

Tangent/Soap box: If you've spent any time with me you know that sometimes I can be a bit critical... and you may have heard that criticism leveled at the current crop of Christian music and worship songs out there. I think that we too often promote some (most) of the music on Christian radio as the next best song because the lyrics say something inspirational or mildly relating to Jesus or God or something close... when in reality it is not that great (either lyrically or musically) and comes across as a bad knock-off of the Top 40 Pop music we have to endure on the radio... My hope would be that we would, out of devotion to Christ because of His accomplished work on our behalf, strive to do everything (sing, write songs, mop floors, fulfill our callings) to God's glory and not because autotune on 20-something female singers with quasi-dance beats is IN now so we should sing about Jesus to those same dance beats and call it "good" music, art, whatever. It smacks of a worldly perspective on our lives as followers of Jesus instead of an eternal perspective (Col 3:1-4) ... and reminds me of a line from Norm MacDonald when he was once hosting SNL's Weekend Update,

"Kenny G announced today that he'll be releasing a new Christmas CD. Happy Birthday, Jesus. Hope you like crap!"
**(my appolgies to Kenny G... and my mom... because I think she owns that Kenny G. Christmas CD)

So... where was I? Oh yes... that is why I so MUCH enjoy what I'm hearing out of Sojourn, and a number of other folks who are incorporating rich Biblical theology with very compelling music (folks like Bifrost Arts, Indelible Grace, as well as a number of churches who are writing and arranging their own music... some of which can be found on NoiseTrade for download)!

Ok... on with the Song - Absent from Flesh
Written by Isaac Watts and revised/arranged By Jamie Barnes

Absent from flesh, O blissful thought

What joy this moment brings

Freed from the blame my sin has brought,

From pain and death and its sting.

Absent from flesh, O Glorious day!

In one triumphant stroke

My reckoning paid, my charges dropped

and the bonds 'round my hands are broke.


I go where God and glory shine,

To one eternal day

This failing body I now resign,

For the angels point my way.

For the angels point my way.

Absent from flesh! then rise, my soul,

Where feet nor wings could climb,

Beyond the sky, where planets roll,

And beyond all keep of time.

CCLI Song #5918890 CCLI License #1888971 © Sojourn Community Church

I think this is a great song of celebration for what Christ has done in making us new creations IN Him! Now... Watts, as a hymn writer is poetic in his word choice and, in a few places, isn't the most clearly understood theologically. There are two areas where people have asked questions about this song and I'd like to address them.

1 - in all the language about being absent from flesh are we saying that the mortal/created world is bad and only the spirit/immaterial is good? Isn't that gnosticism?
2 - what the HECK does it mean that the angels are "pointing my way" to glory? Where does it say THAT in the Bible?

Good questions...

1 - Revised gnosticism?
One of gnosticism's main ideas is that the material world is bad and the way of salvation from the material is some from of esoteric or intuitive knowledge or understanding of self, god, or the universe. That is FALSE teaching... AND that is NOT what Paul is saying when he talks about denying the flesh (or, what Watts is referring to here in this hymn text). Romans 7 is a great reminder that our flesh, even as Christians, is at war with sin even while we are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit in Christ. Not only that Paul realizes that although God created everything (1 John 1:1-3) and that it was created good (Gen. 1), it is marred by sin (Romans 8:20-22) and that while God's creation is glorious and bears his marks it is only temporal now... and thus the present sufferings are not worth comparing to the Glory that will appear at the consummation of all things (Romans 8:18)! So we are then able to resign our mortal bodies and all their failings in hope of life NOW in Christ and the life to come in Glory! It is, I think, a very hopeful part of the song and encouraged me when I feel tired, broken, and weak.

2 - What about all this angel talk?
The Bible tells us some things about angels (they are God's servants - Luke 4:10, they are God's messengers - Luke 1:11-13; 26-33 & Luke 2:9-12, and they are worshippers and heralds - Rev. 5:11-14, Revelation 21 & 22). Now, we need to be carful to not attribute things to angels or our experience that aren't in the Scriptures as Truth without discernment... so, we are not building a theology that Angels literally stand and point to heaven in front of us. BUT, as we read in Revelation 21 & 22, John is being directed, by an angel to behold the glory that is the New Heavens and the New Earth and God unveiling His glory and making all things fully new! So, the use of poetic license to paint a picture of that final and glorious day is, I think, allowable and, in fact, aligns well with the picture of John's Revelation inspired by the Holy Spirit to be written into the Scriptures!

What this DOES mean is that perhaps it would helpful (and I should do this more often anyway) if I took a little more time to explain some of the songs we sing when we gather for corporate worship. If I take my responsibilities seriously... which I do... as a teacher of God's Word (even in song) then it is incumbent upon me to make sure I am truly helping those whom God has placed in my care hear and understand, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who it is that we are worshipping and, in this case, truly understand the glorious picture of the already/not yet... that as we wrestle against our flesh (and we should) we can also rest in God's finished work in Christ... already accomplished... not yet fully revealed... but it will be one day when Jesus returns in all His glory to claim those who belong to the Father! Good stuff.



Anonymous said...

Great comments, Jake! I think the necessity of your comments reveals, in part, the fact that some music of every genre and era can be confusing theologically. Also, it is important to remember that song lyrics, like theology books only approximate biblical truth. The Bible is the Bible and everything else, created by people, fades in the presence of the inspired Word.

I also want to affirm your inclination to "set up" the songs of worship. Whether old-style arm-waving hymn leading or contemporary worship team leadership, song upon song can sometimes become too much about the music. Silence, quiet verbal segways and short, applicable Scripture passages can be helpful in directing our thoughts in worship and resting our ears and minds so we can also listen to Him.

Keep it up, brother! You're doing great!

Pastor Cory said...

Thanks Jake for pointing us to great resources for theologically rich worship music. I just discovered Indelible Grace recently and have been impressed. I share your love of Norm MacDonald's quote as well as a dissatisfaction with most contemporary "Christian" music.
Personally, I gave up on it so long ago that I can't even really provide many contemporary examples of how and why it falls so short of both Biblical standards of depth and artistic merit. Which is why I don't really stand on this soap box much. Maybe next time you could give us some examples of how and why contemporary Christian radio just isn't "cutting it" these days.

Stephen Phillip Porter said...

Along with Pastor Cory's comment, you could start with Mandisa's song: Stronger. Talk about bad theology mixed with pop-psychology. Blech! And it's on the top ten contemporary Christian list week after week.

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