Everyone is Mad About the Lyrics of “In Christ Alone”

The always-excellent Religion News Service brought to my attention the intense controversy surrounding the popular Contemporary Christian Worship Song, “In Christ Alone”. Being a general gossip and a sucker for church drama, and seeing an opportunity to make use of the knowledge I gained writing my thesis (on Christian Worship Music), I decided to bring you a grand tale, entitled:

IN CHRIST ALONE DRAMA 2013: CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS VS CONSERVATIVE PRESBYTERIANS VS IMAGINARY WIMPY LIBERAL CHRISTIANS

As of right now, “In Christ Alone” is the eleventh most popular song for worship amongst American Christian churches. So it’s only natural that the Presbyterian Church, being one of them open-minded denominations, decided to include it in their new hymnal.

However, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (or PCCS) decided that they took issue with one specific line in the song,

“On that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

So they changed it to,

“On that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.”

The PCCS didn’t think this was all that big of a deal. After all, they found a Baptist Hymnal that made the same change. But they were ever-so-wrong. The song’s authors not only refused to grant the change, but their record label forced the Baptist Hymnal that had published the “updated” lyric to include the original lyrics in future versions. In response, the PCCS pulled the song from the hymnal altogether rather than include it with the original lyrics.

The removal of “In Christ Alone” from the Presbyterian hymnal quickly became a flash point for Christian Conservatives, who took the lyric change as indicative of how Imaginary Wimpy Liberal Christians are making culture wishy-washy and destroying traditional values. These conservatives thought that the line got pulled because of the “wrath of God”. And they were just outraged that somebody might what to emphasize the love of God instead of his wrath. For example, David French, winner of CPAC’s Reagan Award for conservative activism, alleged that the hymn was “too mean” for Presbyterians, criticizing the the PCCS as too liberal and writing that “no amount of ‘social justice’ will save your soul.”

Which led to the chair of the PCCS saying that there was “plenty of wrath” in the hymnal.

Yes, as it turns out, the Presbyterians didn’t even have an issue with the wrath. They had an issue with the word, “satisfied.” And not because the word was potentially sexual, or anything like that. No, the Presbyterians were upset because they though the line about God being “satisfied” essentially said that God stopped being mad about sin. The Presbyterians do not like this idea. They think God is still very, very mad about sin. And thus, the PCCS asserted that they are the real ones who stand against the Imaginary Wimpy Liberal Christians.

So the whole thing has just become a pissing contest over who thinks God is more wrathful. It just goes to show how much the conservative elements of American Christianity rely on a narrative of their fight against a liberal, effeminate, wishy-washy Christianity. They were glad to take any opportunity, no matter how made up, to demonize it.

This incident also goes to show that the words of Christian songs matter, at least in the minds of those who perform them. That’s why the words are supposed to be so simple – so nobody sings the wrong word by accident. Even though the words are simple, Christians ensure that they are not forgotten by projecting them on giant screens. And particularly because the words of worship music tend towards the generic, even the slightest deviation from theological norms can be scandalous. It’s hard to denounce a song that is a mix of statements of love for Jesus and shout-outs to obscure bible passages, so worship pastors pick over every word of every song for signs of potential heresy.

In my thesis, I put forth the idea that while words are perceived to be the most important element of Christian worship, the music and how it is performed has at least as big of an impact. Singing “the wrath of God was satisfied” isn’t necessarily going to have a huge impact on one’s faith, but singing a religious song with all of your fellow parishioners and feeling united with them will. But since Christians focus so intensely on the words, they get upset over words. They choose division over one line of a silly song over unification by the practice of ritual music. They argue semantics instead of uniting.

How very Protestant of them.

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