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More on truth in hymnody

I mentioned yesterday a response I gave to a post about “And Can It Be” as the Detroit Seminary blog, and the conversation over there continues.

Here is Tim’s reply to my comment:

Scott,
Thanks for the substantive feedback. I know you have thought about this topic extensively, so I would like to make sure I understand your thought.

Let’s consider the song, “Mansion over the hilltop.” The first line with chorus is below:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city, where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one, that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

The author is clearly using poetry to express his point. The overall point of the gold mansion that is silver lined is that God’s provision for us in eternity is grand, and that we should not consider the things of this earth to be comparable to it. Of course, the author has misunderstood the biblical passage (it speaks of rooms, not mansions). Would you say that since the imagery of a gold/silver mansion evokes the imagination and potentially affections, it is acceptable? I would say that since it communicates a false idea, it should be avoided. True, poetry should not be held to the same standard of clarity as other writing, but it still needs to be accurate. Indeed, since poetry is designed to lead to meditation, shouldn’t one take extensive care that such language does not mislead the worshiper?

On the whole, I do understand the distinction between poetry and prose, and the effect each is designed to have. But when is the line crossed from poetic license to false statement?

Perhaps I have misunderstood you, but if so, perhaps others have as well, so I look forward to your response.

Before I had a chance to respond, Michael Riley chimed in with a very helpful reply with which I completely agree:

Tim,

I’m not Scott nor am I presuming to speak for him, but I’ll take a crack at answering your question.

The biggest issue with “Mansion Over the Hilltop” is not its imprecision on the nature of heavenly architecture. The bigger problem is that essentially every image in the song expresses (and thereby cultivates) a love for what is least important in the believer’s aspirations for heaven. The song is (at least close to being) worthless as an expression of Christian devotion; because it has a skewed presentation of Christian affections, the better it is at portraying its object, the worse a song it becomes.

To put it another way, the song is an expression of this Piper quotation: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”

Our hymnody is designed to teach; that is indisputable. But the teaching of hymnody is a different kind of thing than the teaching of the pulpit or the Sunday school lesson. The teaching of hymnody is not merely the inculcation of accurate propositions. It is not an attempt to set systematic theology is rhyme and meter.

Indeed, poetry is, most often, an expression of what is true by saying what is false: our God, after all, is not a rock, else we are idolaters.

Poetry teaches us not just what is true (and so it must be true), but how to feel about those truths. “Mansion Over the Hilltop” fails as a song not because of inaugurate propositions (though it has those), but because of a warped expression of what we should love.

By contrast, “And Can It Be” not only expresses truth, but a proper kind of astonishment at the truths that it is expressing. This is why it is fitting for us to marvel that God died for us and that Christ emptied himself for us.

Tim’s reply to Michael revealed a clear misunderstanding of our position about the nature of truth in poetry:

Mike,
Great to hear from you! Thanks also for the clarifications.

I probably should not have muddied the water by using such a poor hymn in comparison. Nevertheless, I chose that one purposefully because I think it shares the same error as “And Can It Be.” That is, I think both explicitly state something that is not true. This is different from God is a rock, for that is clearly an analogy. But that we will have a mansion is not understood as an analogy , and I would suggest that “Jesus emptied Himself” is not understood as an analogy either.

On my reading of Scott’s initial post, he appeared to argue that while “Jesus emptied Himself” is not technically true, since it evokes appropriate awe and affections, it is acceptable.* I suppose it is here that I just can’t fully agree. I know that poetry is not designed to be precise, and I know part of its power rests in that ambiguity. Nevertheless, isn’t it possible to evoke awe and proper affections without using language that can mislead? If so, wouldn’t that be a better direction?

*I know that some translations still use “emptied Himself.” I am assuming here that this is a bad translation (see original post).

My response enabled me to more completely explain the core of what I believe on this matter:

Hi, Tim. Thanks for the question and the chance to clarify.

I absolutely do not mean what you took me to mean, that if a particular statement is “not technically true,” but “it evokes appropriate awe and affections, it is acceptable.” That is is not at all what I’m saying, and it’s my fault for not being more clear.

So let me be clear: Truth is absolutely what is at stake in what we sing. We should not sing anything unless it is true.

However, we need to be careful in how we determine truth. I’m afraid that many of us have adopted a Modernistic conception of the nature of truth as merely factual correspondence. Truth is correspondence to reality, and in this case, correspondence to God’s inspired revelation of reality in his Word.

But reality is more than mere propositional, factual accuracy. Reality (truth) involves the affections, the imagination, and the aesthetic. In fact, imaginative language is actually the only way we can come anywhere close to a knowledge of God and his truth since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man and much of reality is metaphysical.

This is where I agree wholeheartedly with everything Michael said above. If the measure of truth is merely propositional, factual accuracy, then the statement, “God is a fortress” is a lie. It is not factually correct.

Calling God a fortress is poetic; it is aesthetic. And it is necessary. The use of poetic, analogical language is the only way God can communicate himself to us. This is why very little of the Bible is strict, prosaic propositions.

So in this way, as Michael correctly states, art is a “lie that tells the truth” (I think Picasso is credited with that particular statement, ironically). Art draws comparisons that are not factually accurate (God is not really a shepherd, fortress, rock, or tower) in order to communicate TRUTH that would not otherwise be known.

Therefore, if we evaluate the truthfulness of a poetic statement (like in hymnody) in the same way we evaluate a strictly prosaic theological proposition, then we are actually missing the real truth

So, like Michael, I do not object to “I’ve got a mansion” because it’s somehow factually inaccurate. I object to that song and would never sing it because it is not true in the sense that I have described above and as Michael has so helpfully expressed.

For this same reason, a song that is a word for word quotation of Scripture set to a tune and performed in a way that actually contradicts the Scripture is also not true.

If you haven’t yet, go read the whole post and comment section. Several of the other comments are helpful as well.

Incidentally, I have a whole series of essays on this very matter here: Biblical Authority and the Aesthetics of Scripture

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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