Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An evening with five old hymns

The movie "Amazing Grace" arrived from Netflix today and because I didn't want to watch the primary hysteria, I sat down and watched it. I was a bit surprised to find that it was a depiction of the stories of five old hymns in addition to the title song: What a Friend We Have in Jesus, How Great Thou Art, Silent Night, and It is Well With My Soul.

These are all hymns I grew up with and, as I sang along with a variety of soloists and choirs, I couldn't help but think about how wide has become the gap between where I was then and where I am now. Singing those old hymns brings me a very deep pleasure but there's also a disconnect because I interpret the words so differently now from the ways I interpreted them as a child and teenager.

Recently a commenter challenged the brainstormed list I made of my speculations about why people choose conservative faiths, the faiths exemplified by these old hymns. The commenter would like, I think, to label me as someone who believes that conservative people of faith are stupid, ignorant, fearful. I don't hold this opinion; I know too many conservative people of faith who explode those stereotypes. People choose their faith for a myriad of reasons and I am not skilled to understand (another old hymn line).

But as I listened to the hymns and sang along and reminisced about hearing George Beverly Shea sing "How Great Thou Art" at a Billy Graham revival meeting in the 50's, all I could identify as my reason for choosing Unitarian Universalism was that I had grown beyond those ways of looking at God, at Jesus, at prayer, at blood sacrifice.

Those old ways just didn't make sense to me any more. I wanted a religious faith that stood up to rational thought, one whose miracles and doctrine did not depend on supernatural events, no matter how beautiful. It was becoming clear to me that the miracle of Jesus' ministry was in his teachings, not in his turning water into wine or in his coming back to life after being murdered. The miracles everybody seemed to think gave Jesus credibility were pale in comparison to his radical teachings.

Those teachings were real, indisputable, challenging, exciting, transformative. They stood up to critical inquiry, didn't require me to suspend my disbelief. The miracles seemed like red herrings, to distract me from the teachings which were scary as all get-out.

Nowadays, when I see so much of Christianity subverted by the gospel of prosperity or discrimination against the Other or turned by charismatic leaders into something I'm sure Jesus never envisioned, I feel great sorrow that so many people cannot see beyond the so-called miracles to the real heart of the message of Jesus, the message of "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself". For, as the rabbis say, "all the rest is commentary."


h sofia said...

Did you like the movie? I've seen it twice. Was very impressed by the writing, especially.

LinguistFriend said...

When you state that as the essence of Christianity, it is equated to the positive side of the ethics of Hellenistic Judaism, I think.
Much of the rest that is troublesome seems to come from the strange way in which Christianity was created. Whereas Judaistic Christianity differed to a limited extent(say 5%) from Judaism, if one takes Christianity out of a Jewish context, to the Gentile world, and loses the 95% of commonality and then focusses on that 5% difference, some of the result is puzzling, and it takes digging to find out what is basic and still valuable. I have spent time recently looking at Mark 7:24-30 (the Syro-Phoenician woman) and related material, which is provocative in suggesting that Jesus never intended to extend his reformation to non-Jews, or at least hinting at the issue of whether that extension should happen.
That said, it did happen, and I gradually come to grow to find meaning and value in a number of Christian sources that were unintelligible to me earlier, although Christian ritual is foreign to me.

ms. kitty said...

Yes, Hafidha, I did like it. I've seen two or three other movies entitled "Amazing Grace" and the others were just the story of John Newton. This was about five different hymns and their composers.

LF, that certainly adds to my store of understanding about early Xianity. Thanks.

Joel said...

The commenter would like, I think, to label me as someone who believes that conservative people of faith are stupid, ignorant, fearful.

I really wouldn't like to see you that way, and I don't think you really do think that. You did say that your list was off the top of your head. Thank you for clarifying.

I've come a distance the opposite direction since I cut my teeth on those same hymns. Although my shift wasn't as drastic as yours, I find myself having to remember sometimes that although I don't agree with some of the doctrines I could glean from the hymns, the writers and I certainly agree on a lot of basics that aren't explicitly stated.

The mercy of God, the desire to know Him, and our own need for humility are all themes that I think most anybody who believes in Him at all can affirm.

ms. kitty said...

Amen, Joel, and thanks for your kind words. I know you are true to your faith and I know you to be a man of integrity, even if you like to needle the opposition pretty hard!