Fleming Rutledge has an interesting article on hymnody here. She has this to say about the old favorite, ‘Lift High the Cross’:

‘When the Cross is repeatedly praised in the hymnody of relatively comfortable white American churches as a “triumphant sign” of victory, one must seriously question what sort of victory is being envisioned. Neither death, nor sin, nor Satan, nor evil, nor any form of human oppression are mentioned in the text of the hymn. The hymn-singers are free to interpret “victory” any way they like, from victory on the football field to victory in the world economy. This is literally, not merely figuratively true; it is well known that American Christians quite typically learn to associate their faith with various forms of success, and pray far more for personal good fortune than for the sufferings of the poor and disenfranchised of the earth. “Corinthian” hymns that identify the Cross exclusively with triumph and conquest, with no corresponding mention of suffering and shame, subtly undermine the Biblical picture of the meaning of the Crucifixion’.

It’s encouraging to see hymn texts taken this seriously—she is quite right to point out that ‘the words of familiar hymns enter deeply into people’s consciousness whether they are aware of them or not’. I remember Mark Ashton telling an EFAC-USA conference some years ago about his own church’s policy of not singing any text that wasn’t faithful to scripture, and that from time to time when this meant that there was a really popular contemporary hymn that they couldn’t use, they would work out an alternative line and write to the publisher and ask for permission to use it.

One of the joys of having a full-text service leaflet is that minor amendments can easily be made to hymns that can mislead, and I have frequently taken advantage of that over the years. Although I never quite had the nerve to delete the blatant Apollinarianism of ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ in the Christmas carol…

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