Scarred for Life – bad Christian songs from my childhood

I grew up in a liturgical church that sang songs out of a hymnal. A hymnal, kids, is a book containing songs written before you were born. A book is something people read before the internet. I digress.

One Sunday morning the choir director – that’s someone who led music before we had worship leaders – one Sunday morning the choir director said we were going to sing a song that wasn’t in the hymnal. A Christian song. I didn’t know there were any Christian songs that weren’t in hymnals.

It sounded different. It sounded like it wasn’t written a hundred years before I was born. It sounded almost – not quite but almost – like a song you’d hear outside of church.

The song? We Are One In The Spirit. Its chorus is all about how much love Christians have for each other and how this shows the world we are, you know, Christians. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about the sentiment behind the song. It’s awesome, because it’s based on something Jesus told his friends in their last night together:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)

You can’t go wrong with the words of our Lord, right? Right. But why did the song writer have to take such a hopeful and joyful message and write the music in a minor key? It ends up coming across as a dirge, for crying out loud.

Bad Doctrine – bad, bad doctrine!

You know what’s worse than singing a dirge with joy-filled lyrics? Singing a happy little tune with doctrinally abysmal lyrics, yet that’s what we got when the choir director introduced a second song not found in the hymnal. Back then I didn’t know enough to question the Scriptural basis for church songs, but when – after all these years – I heard Lord of the Dance on the radio yesterday my doctrinal spidey-sense started tingling*.

v. 4 – I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

v. 5 – They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back

Even allowing for poetic license it’s hard to see anywhere in the four gospels where Jesus can be said to have the devil on his back, let alone that this impeded his ministry in any way. In fact, just the opposite is shown.

Matthew 4:1-11 – When Satan tried to take on Jesus directly, Jesus spoke and Satan left.

Matthew 8:16 – Again, all it took was a word from Jesus and demon after demon fled. Not much of a struggle there.

John 19:10-11 – Even at his crucifixion, Jesus was the one in control.

I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me

There is nothing in the Bible to support the proposition that Christ’s living in us is predicated on our first living in him. Quite the opposite is true.

John 15:1-4 – Jesus is not the True Vine because we are attached to him. Rather, we are fruitful branches because we are first attached to the True Vine.

Galatians 2:20 – His ability to give himself for us is not somehow made possible because we first live in him. Rather, our life in Christ is possible because he gave himself for us.

Romans 5:6-8 – We did not do something worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice. Rather, we were actually powerless to do anything for ourselves when Christ died for us to bring us to himself.

“Dubiously Christian”

Some may say I’m making too much out of this, that I’m misconstruing the song writer’s words and taking them out of context. I beg to differ. So does the song writer himself, Sydney Carter, who said that while Jesus was part of the inspiration for the song so was Shiva (a Hindu god):

I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.

I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance.

“Dubiously Christian” – finally, something I can agree with.

***

Do you scrutinize the lyrics of songs presented to you as being appropriate for worship?

What do you do when you hear unsound doctrine in a song at church?

***

*Copyright 1963 Stainer & Bell Ltd. London, England. The questionable lines show up in verses 4 and 5.

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56 Responses to Scarred for Life – bad Christian songs from my childhood

  1. In some Reformed churches now they opt for only singing from the Psalms. They are almost legalistic about it.

    My favorite horrible Christian song from my youth is “Christian Cowboy”:

    “I want to do some roping of the souls that are bound for hell
    And keep them all for Jesus in a Holy Ghost corral. . . .
    I haven’t got much talent and I ain’t too smart you see
    But I can love my Jesus and He can still love me
    And partner all I want to do is satisfy my boss
    And be the bestest Christian boy that ever rode a hoss.”

    I actually sang it with other young women in a Youth for Christ event, only we changed the lyrics to “Christian cowgirl”.

  2. Jeannie says:

    I just want to say first that the song Carol quoted above may just be the worst I’ve ever heard!!!

    When I was young I very much liked the song “In the Garden”: “And He walks with me and He talks with me/And He tells me I am His own/And the joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known.” That was probably an early version of the “romantic” Christian songs we hear nowadays. Putting aside the question “Who IS this Andy, anyway?” it is kind of weird to imply that my relationship with Jesus is unique and no one else has one like it.

    I’m a worship team member/leader and I truly do love most hymns and worship songs but I get a bit squeamish about the “I will love you/I will always be true” type songs. Just reminds me too much of the Apostle Peter, bragging about his unshakeable loyalty — we all know where that led! I love songs that remind me that Jesus is the one who’s faithful to me first; it’s because of His love for me that I can love Him at all.

    I could go on all day about this subject but I’d better stop here — thanks for raising it, and for the analysis of “LOTD” — it is pretty odd when you think about it.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve wondered about that chorus from In The Garden too, Jeannie, but I’d never thought of it alongside the current romantic Christian singing; nice connection you made there. Yes, love for Jesus can be rapturous, but like you said, our relationship with him is based on what he’s done, not what we’ve done.

    • My dear Elinor (a.k.a Jeannie),
      Your comment puzzles me exceedingly. Walking “In the Garden” with our Lord? What could be more glorious?
      Yours affectionately,
      Marianne (a.k.a Adriana)

      [Tim, Jeannie and I each took the “What Jane Austen Character are You?” quiz at strangegirl.com.]

      • Tim says:

        I’ve seen links to those posted occasionally at the Republic of Pemberley too. For Austen male characters, I don’t need a quiz. John Knightley (Emma’s brother in law) could have been modeled on me!

        • I haven’t read Emma! Though I’m sure I will eventually. I have always thought of myself of more of an Elinor, but when I took the quiz I came out Marianne.

          I confess I do have a weakness for sappy, sentimental, romantical things like “In the Garden”. I’m always in need of an Elinor to remind me to be sensible and circumspect!

          The line ” …and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” is not one I agree with either, but I don’t really take it literally. People who are head-over-heals tend to think and talk like that.

      • Jeannie says:

        I will not deny that I greatly esteem time spent alone with my Saviour. But to suggest that my relationship with Him is more special and exclusive than anyone else can understand, or that at the end of the evening He will (“with a voice of woe”) bid me to leave Him — heaven forbid! 🙂

        Your point makes me think, though: like so many other things in faith & life, there’s a time for everything, isn’t there? There is a time to sing meaty doctrinal songs. There is a time to sing glorious praise — “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” — like the angels do. There is a time to sit in a Taize service and meditate over communion as nine words (“Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom”) are sung over and over again. I really think God cares more about our heart’s posture than about what we sing or whether it covers the plan of salvation or whether it’s long or short. On that day when my time comes (as the song says): “Still my soul will sing His praise unending — ten thousand years and then forever more!”

        • This is an absolutely exquisite response. Thank you, friend. You are so gracious. 😀

          P.S. We are going to have BALL reading P&P together! I can’t wait! I’m going to be talking like Jane Austen for WEEKS!

  3. Aimee Byrd says:

    Thank you for this article, Tim. And yes I do! We belonged to a church once that sang a horrible song called, “Sweep Me Away.” It reeked of escapism, downgrading Jesus to some romance novel character. Couldn’t sing it. I met with both the pastor and worship leader who stood by the song. This one song was just a side effect of the many problems in that “seeker sensitive” church.

    • Tim says:

      I just looked up those lyrics Aimee. Wowza that’s bad poetry, on top of being questionable doctrine.

      We sang a song once that said of Jesus “In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.” As soon as the service was over I went to the senior pastor and said that I knew what charms were and that I was sure Jesus did not have magic-laden tokens in his embrace. He agreed. Like I said, we sang the song once.

      The interesting thing about that hymn, though, is (according to this blogger) that the original version written in 1759 did not have those lines. An editor added them a century later. Changed the whole meaning of the hymn.

  4. Laura says:

    Yeah, I’m one of those “song analyzers” in church too! Drives my hubby nuts. haha! (Hubby is a great Christian guy but just not the thinker/analyzer type like me.) Lyrics are important…we tend to remember song lyrics. They stay with us. And more believers (esp worship leaders!) should more carefully consider the words to the songs we sing. Not every song must have deep theological meaning, but should at the very least not contradict theological truth!

    Like Aimee, I am also disturbed by songs that make Jesus sound like our lover in a romance novel. “Hold me never let me go…” Etc. Ugh!

    • Tim says:

      “Hold me never let me go…” Etc. Ugh! Ha, ugh is right!

      Some Sundays my wife and I will be driving home from church and hashing out the theology in songs or the sermon, or even in the announcements. Yep, even the announcements!

  5. michellevl says:

    Sing it with me, everyone: It only takes a sparrrrk…to get a fire go-ho-ing…

    (If I never hear that one again, it’ll be OK with me.)

    I prefer thoughtful contemporary music to many hymns. (Some of those good ol’ hymns have some pretty wacky doctrine or oddly arcane language.) However, I am not a fan of the machine-produced music that many churches sing as if they’re pulling Top 40 songs from a Christian jukebox. I do value the songs that have arisen out of times of renewal in a congregation, or were written to reflect congregational lament or celebration. I appreciate your point in the post: THINK (love God with your mind) ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE SINGING. 🙂 Amen.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for that earworm, Michelle! Then again, you gave me a chuckle with “Top 40 songs from a Christian jukebox” too, so I consider this a net gain!

  6. Auntie Em says:

    Oh my goodness you have stirred me up… “7-11 choruses” (Take 7 words and repeat them 11 times.) and “Jesus is my boyfriend” type songs drive me nuts. Please! Give me some meaty, sound doctrine! And thanks for a wonderful post Tim!

    • Tim says:

      re meaty doctrine – how come we don’t sing A Mighty fortress is Our God much any longer? Hymns like that taught theology front to back.

      And Em, I’ve never heard the phrase 7-11 choruses before, but I’m hoping to drop that into conversation in the very near future!

  7. sarahtun says:

    The trouble I have, which includes lyrics sung in church but is not exclusively that, is that there is a lot of teaching going on in and around churches, that is purported to be – but is not – Biblical. It seems to me that many followers of Jesus who, with the most sincere will and best intentions, are not really aware of what is in the Book. That’s scary. And sad. I’m not an expert but I have read the Bible through 3 – 5 times. I’m married to a lawyer (sounds a lot like you from time to time Tim). He’s a stickler for facts. And, well, there is just a lot of stuff we Christians assume is in the Bible that isn’t. Ouch! God is so much greater than our minds can comprehend and yet we strive – with the best will in the world- to comprehend and sometimes forget that we can’t and act like we do. I don’t mean to offend, nor to sound pompous, and I won’t site examples ’cause that’s not what this post is about. But discussing lyrics got me to thinking in the bigger picture and, really, it is a profound issue and one I’m concerned about.
    Thanks for letting me air.

    • Tim says:

      I’m right there with you, Sarah. The ironic thing is, too, that when people add something in thinking that it’s biblical they are limiting who God really is. Ineffably sublime about captures our ability to describe our Savior.

  8. Tuija says:

    Thanks for your interesting blog, Tim!
    Yes, I do like to think about what I sing and whether I really mean it. If it’s unsound, I don’t sing it. But when that happens, it’s probably somewhere where I’m just a visitor so I don’t know if I would take it up with anyone. You see, at our home church, the usual practice is that when our worship leaders come up with new songs, they ask a couple of reviewers for their opinions about the song lyrics from the doctrinal/biblical point of view before the new songs are sung at church events. (Except, obviously, when lyrics come straight from the Bible.) My DH is one of the reviewers – and as I know how much he has studied the Bible and how he approaches this task, I trust his judgement. It’s not like all songs we sing are full of ‘meaty doctrine’, but at least we don’t need to sing the really abysmal stuff.

    • Tim says:

      Tuija, I’m so glad you hopped over from RoP! And that reviewer system sound brilliant. That would have been really helpful when I was a worship leader, but I confess I never even thought of the possibility.

  9. cathyallen says:

    I’ve read your post, TIm, thank you, and all of the comments up to now, and have enjoyed them. I have a different point-of-view.

    First, not all denominations used the term “Worship Leader” to refer to their songleader/choir director. I’m Catholic, and we do not. In fact, I did not even HEAR that term until about a year ago, and I have some trouble understanding it. When we gather to pray and celebrate the liturgy, what we do the WHOLE time, whether singing, listening to the scriptures, speaking the prayers, or in quiet, contemplative prayer, is WORHIP. Please forgive me if I have offended anyone, but I simply do not understand the change in terms, nor do I have any need to. I’m happy with ours.

    Second, in my faith tradition, there are differences between traditional hymns, liturgical music, psalms, songs, sacred music, spiritual music, and inspired secular music. It sounds, to my mind, as if many of you are referring to inspired secular/sacred music. “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water…” comes to my mind, when I think of the late 1960’s, and the 70’s, and yes, I DID sing that at liturgy! Wouldn’t do it now; I’ve grown up, and studied, and learned, and grown in my faith and music ministry!

    It was in the late 60’s, as a result of the Church’s Vatican Council II, that we changed from the Latin language to the vernacular, and we threw out a lot of our traditional hymns, especially the Latin ones. By the end of the 70’s we’d wised up, and since then, have gathered a lot of it back into the liturgy. So, some of the songs (for convenience, I simply refer to what we sing in church as “songs”) we sing, and there are several that are Christmas songs, are over 1,000 years old!

    So, to answer your questions: It used to be that I did not pay much attention to the theology of a song’s lyrics; if I liked it, and it was vaguely spiritual, we sang it. Through the decades, I have grown in my ministry, and now I DO pay attention. I’m particularly irked when the young songleader chooses an off-the-wall song to sing, which has nothing to do with the day’s scriptures (We have a regular, 3-year cycle of scriptures in our Church). C’est la vie! He does his best, and I think God is pleased when we do our best, as I always have tried to do. I always told people that we were not the best choir in San Diego, musically, but we were prayerful.

    As far as songs with unsound doctrine, we don’t use them any more, they are not in our songbooks, or our hymnals. Most songs written and published for Catholic liturgy nowadays are based on scripture, so we no longer have the problem. I only wish this young songleader would learn to match the song with the liturgical moment in the liturgy, and with the scriptures for the day. He’s not good at it yet, but it will come, or he’ll drop out of the music ministry. It worked for me! Thank you for this interesting topic, and for the happy memories it evoked!

    • Tim says:

      Cathy, I use the phrase “Worship Leader” reluctantly as a term that denotes the song-leader in many churches. The words actually grate on me, though, and that’s why I say I use it reluctantly. Every moment in a church service should be an act of worship, just as every moment outside the church service should be an act of worship as well. I remember talking to a young pastor last year who also happened to be a song leader, and we agreed that if we could ban the words “worship leader’ and “worship music” from vocabulary of faith it would not be much of a loss to the discussion.

      • cathyallen says:

        Oh good; I didn’t offend you; we actually see eye-to-eye on it! That pleases me. I only hope no one was offended, as it seems to be the commonly used term at this point, in most denominations. I would never want to offend anyone about such a blessing! And, thank you for mentioning that all of life should be worship of God. I completely agree, and remembered I should have included it some time AFTER I posted my comment, and my comment was already too long! God bless you, Tim, and thank you, again.

    • sarahtun says:

      I so agree with you Cathyallen, about having songs that complement what the text for the service is or what the sermon is about. To me, the whole service is an act of worship and when the ‘bits fit together’ I feel I can worship with better focus or flow.

  10. Is Lord of the Dance in the hymnal somewhere? Not our Presbyterian one!

    We sing from the hymnal every night after dinner with Gwendolyn. It’s actually difficult for me to worship without hymns or hymn-type songs (In Christ Alone, for example, is a current one that I can worship without distraction). A lot of the newer songs tend to lack depth of lyrics and it’s just very difficult for me to not yawn my way through them. I’m not saying that as a judgement towards anyone who can encounter God through them — I understand that everyone is different and worships through music differently.

    We tend to stick with the traditional ones here though — All Creatures of Our God and King, Holy Holy Holy, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Come Thou Fount are all favorites of the little one, plus all the Christmas ones. 🙂

    Actually, as I write this, Gwen is reaching for the hymnal…and now she’s going through her dad’s work binder which is my cue to stop…

  11. theoldadam says:

    There’s so much bad theology floating around, and in our hymns.

    My pastor almost always changes the words in the hymns that we sing to center around the finished work of Christ for sinners.

    __

    How about that Jacobs Ladder song? You can’t get much worse theology than that.

  12. this is a great post! And I agree 100%. I just wrote a post about it a few days ago – let me know what you think: http://mspomegranate.wordpress.com/

  13. There have been many songs that I have not enjoyed lyrics to that are played in church because they don’t seem to really glorify God, but instead one’s self. That bothers me so much. I guess now that I am on the worship team and I am used to listening to underground Christian music of lesser to unknown bands, I grow weary of singing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Paul Baloche, & Hillsong every single week when I adore the old hymns and the structure of them as well as songs by amazing artists like Keith Green. . .songs with MEAT to them. Not songs that are watered down or have the same three chords throughout each of them. BORING. Anyway, yeah….

  14. Tina Seward says:

    I can throw in a kids’ song I’ve heard:

    I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time,
    I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time.
    Since Jesus Christ came in and took away my sin,
    I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time.

    Complete with hand motions!

    Why does this bother me? Because Jesus Christ did take away my sin . . . and I’m definitely not inright, outright, upright, downright happy ALL the time!

    • Tim says:

      It’s like telling kids that if they don’t have the right feelings (happy all the time, in this case) then perhaps Jesus didn’t take away their sin? I know that “happy” in the religious sense means something different than a lack of sadness but kids won’t get that. I barely understand it.

  15. Erica says:

    I have been paying a lot more attention to the words in the songs and hymns we sing at church. I think our worship leader does a pretty good job at selecting doctrinally-sound songs most of the time, though I’m not a big fan of a lot of praise and worship songs, regardless. I hate any attempts to manufacture emotion and make me state things that don’t feel true in the moment. I would prefer a more spontaneous kind of worship than something planned by a few leaders in advance for a large group of diverse people. Singing, for example, “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it” just makes me feel worse on a day I am deep in depression.

  16. Debbie Ennis says:

    Yes I do! It really bugs me when a worship song hardly mentions God apart from what he can do for me. I thought the point was to worship him. One case in point: Above All is dung every Easter – basically it says that while Jesus was giving his life on the cross, he thought of me above all. 🤢

  17. dawn says:

    Hymn singing has been a wonderful blessing to me. I feel sad that my children have not known that priviledge. Either we were stuck singing intellectually vapid songs with repeated stupid refrains…we’re on our knees, we’re on our knees again (repeat 10 times until you reach your namaste trance) or, in the new calvinist camp (where they prefer to puree everthing into nutritional pablum) we would have to painfully ‘sing’ theologically perfectly worded ‘hymns’ to the most difficult newly composed music. Every sunday morning, i just felt like throwing up. Why does tge new calvinist crowd insist on re-inventing the wheel. Granted, not ALL of the old hymns are worth singing but a great many of them are and by hearing/singing them everyweek, biblical truth is infused into our hearts.
    Whenever i have mentioned any of this to the church powers that be, they say its all just a matter of personal preference.

    • Tim says:

      It’s not mere personal preference when it comes to choosing music. It is based on a philosophy of ministry. If their ministry philosophy is that they go with whatever most people prefer then I’d like to ask if they’d adopt the same criteria for how sermons are handled.

  18. Kristy Pattimore says:

    “And in your presence, our problems disappear!”….erm, no!

  19. joepote01 says:

    So…this month our church is having “Camp Meeting Month” which means we put away the new hymnals, bring out the old hymnals, and sing the old southern gospel hymns. As a general rule, I like this…a lot. I like the old familiar hymns and the memories evoked of worshipping in a little country church, as a child.

    However, last Sunday we started singing, “Give Me that Old Time Religion.” I jumped right in singing away…but by the second verse I sort of paused…and by the third verse I stopped singing altogether. I just stood there thinking, “This is horrible! Why are we singing these lyrics?”

    “Give me that old time religion…it’s good enough for me!”

    What a horrible approach to the Christian life! I don’t want some old time religion. I want life and liberty in Jesus Christ empowered by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit! And I sure don’t want to ever get to the point of saying…”that’s good enough” in relation to Christ. No, I want to always pursue learning more and knowing Christ better.

  20. I quit singing when there’s bad theology!

  21. Lisa says:

    So Tim….what denomination are you? See I grew up singing that song “Christian Cowgirl” since I was about 5 years old…going to different church’s on Friday nights with my aunt and uncle who would minister to kids and Friday nights just happened to be a themed night. They also of course changed several of the words….I’m sorry but I’m actually offended reading a lot of this as I grew up with a lot of these songs in an Open Bible church my entire life but strayed as I got older, however what is instilled in you never leaves…. my aunt had served the lord her entire life and not one person will convenience me that these songs are bad….People need to relax and quit analyzing so much! I just lost her yesterday to Alzheimer’s and I know she’s sitting up in Heaven right now looking down at me so proud that I’m the one typing this defending this…..I’d like to know how many lives any of you have touched because I can tell you how many my aunt has….If I can only be 1/2 of who she was I’d be content! I’m sorry but that hit a very sensitive nerve because if you only knew half of what she could teach ALL of you who question these songs…really??….She grew up singing those and she could have taught you what TRUE love is, how to REALLY forgive someone who has done you wrong and how you NEVER give up on anyone regardless of what they have done….she cared for everyone….so if your worried about song lyrics…I feel sorry for you because I know she’s sitting up in heaven with all her crowns and jewels today looking down at me crying with joy because she knows yesterday she got thru to me and I’ll be there with her…and by the way…at 48 I’m singing that song at her funeral as one of my favorite memories I had with her as a child….so I’ll be thinking of all of you when I do it….so thank you for posting this..and now I’ll apologize for my rant because as a Christian we all know the stages of grief and today I’m hurting!

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