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Sunday, May 22, 2016

WHEN BAD THEOLOGY IS GOOD THEOLOGY

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter…

Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, told a Tex Sample story in his sermon last Sunday. I heard Tex tell it a number of years ago, but it’s the sort of story, like most Tex Sample stories, that hits you with a new force every time.

Tex is a Mississippi boy who became a seminary professor. But he never forgot his simple roots. Most of his academic work was studying the religion of what he called “hard living” folks, the ones whose dogs have died and their women have left and their pickup won’t run, so there’s nothing left but to write a song about it.

Their songs, like their living, are simple. They tend to favor church music like “In the Garden.”

Theologians and professors and seminarians tend to look down on songs like “In the Garden,” though, not just because they are simple, but because their theology is often downright misleading. We get more of our theology from the church songs that we sing than we get from the Bible or sermons, so it’s important that they have good theology.

Personally, though, I don’t worry much about the theology of hymns. If you trust and never doubt, he will surely bring you out. That’s not good theology. Nobody is going to get brought out if it depends on never doubting. But Charles A. Tindley’s “Take Your Burden to the Lord” is great fun to sing, and its main point, in the title, is good theology.

Hymn writers are willing to do some really bad theology if they can get a rhyme out of it.

Yes, most of us get most of our beliefs from hymns and Christian songs, singing them in church and camp, and it’s better to sing a Jim Manley song or a Charles Wesley hymn, because their theology, as well as their sound, is sound, but let’s trust the Spirit a little. I think there’s something right about a song that leads us to an experience of joy, even if there is something wrong here and there with what the words say.

But “In the Garden” is just so bad in its isolationist and self-centered theology…the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known… Come on; you’re not the only one Christ ever talked to or walked with.

So one day in class, Tex was making fun of that song, saying how bad it is. I’m no stranger to that. A whole generation of seminarians learned to do that. Tex taught at St. Paul seminary in Kansas City, and I started at Perkins School of Theology, at SMU, in Dallas, but we had similar experiences about the song my favorite prof, H. Grady Hardin, called “Andy.”

He said that it had originally been intended as a popular love song, a tryst song: “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…” But the composer hadn’t been able to make a go of that, so he turned it into a religious song.

So Grady sang it to us as Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own…

That turned out to be one of the most fun classes I ever had, because we got to talking, doing improv, really, about all sorts of hymns.

Somehow we got onto “adjusting” Christian hymns for other religions, such as “He’s the Lotus of the Valley” for Buddhism rather than the Christian hymn, “He’s the Lily of the Valley.” And “Buddha loves me, this I know, for the Sutras tell me so.”

I was never too hard on “Andy.” It was my mother’s favorite hymn, and the only one she could almost play on the piano. But I went along with the idea that a song that selfish, that narcissistic, that terrible in its theology, has no place in Christian faith.

That’s what Tex Sample said in his class, too. Afterward, a woman student came up to him.

“My father sexually abused me until I was fourteen,” she said. “And after each time he did it to me, I would go out into the back yard, my garden, and I would sing that song, and remember that regardless of how bad it was, God loves me.”

I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the son of God discloses. 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.

There are times when that is not bad theology. Sometimes it’s darned good theology.

JRMcF

I tweet as yooper1721.

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