The absurd in worship

August 13, 2012
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The publishing house of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), will soon issue a promising new hymnal. Naturally the hymns had to pass theological muster, but the range of styles and themes in this collection is wide—newer hymns, global music, praise songs, spirituals, Taizé melodies and rousing old favorites. And once again, for the third hymnal in a row, Presbyterians will not find “Onward Christian Soldiers” in the mix.

Good riddance. This hymn, with its “hut-two-three-four” tune and its warring call for Christians to raise the battle flag, has long outlived its usefulness. Recently, one of my friends threatened to resign her role as church school assistant because the lead teacher insisted on having the children sing, “Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe. Forward into battle, see his banners go!” I stand with my friend.

Years ago, when the hymn was first excised from our repertoire, there was controversy over it, but that has mostly disappeared. In a world grown weary of religious strife, a world where the word crusade arouses more anger and embarrassment than resolve, few are nostalgic for a hymn that celebrates Christian soldiers marching to war.

Which is why I was surprised recently to find myself suddenly weepy as we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in worship. It was in the little Methodist church just down the lane from our summer home in rural Maryland. The nearest Presbyterian church is miles away, so my wife and I have become seasonal Methodists. Our parish is the smallest congregation in a tiny three-point charge, and there are about two dozen of us there on a good Sunday. This church was once a gathering place for a vibrant farming and fishing community, a place of summer revivals and ice cream socials, a place to chat under the live oak trees and maybe find a spouse. Now the congregation is aging, and each funeral brings yet another aching emptiness to once-filled pews.

But the congregation makes up in love and hospitality for what it lacks in membership and resources. When it comes to worship, the congregation—like a good country cook—pulls together what is in the cupboard. An elderly saint plays the piano if her glaucoma isn’t too bad. On one Sunday someone squeezed out “Blessed Assurance” on an accordion; on another Sunday, a woman braced a harmonica against the handlebar of her motorized wheelchair and lovingly played “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Evensong at St. Thomas Church in New York couldn’t have been more reverent.

When I realized that “Onward Christian Soldiers” was our opening hymn a few weeks ago, I groaned. But then we sang it, all 20 of us. The irony of the moment caught me off guard. There we were, most of us graying, some infirm, a hearing aid or two whistling in the background, singing, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” If it hadn’t been worship, I might have laughed out loud. Instead I teared up. There we were, a gaggle of Methodists and their two Presbyterian interlopers singing, “We are not divided, all one body we,” just after both of our communions had held rancorous, divisive denominational meetings.

There was a gospel truth here. Only in a place like this—a place where “Onward Christian Soldiers” was not a display of militarism but just patently ridiculous—could that hymn speak truth. Faithful worship is deeply ironic. Instead of the words “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve,” perhaps our bulletins should say, “Warning: Every word of the service to follow is absurd, to be uttered only in faith.” “I believe in the holy catholic church”? Absurd. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? Absurd. “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God”? You must be kidding.    

If the church loses this sense of absurdity and starts believing it really is some kind of army with sufficient strength to swat down our enemies and exert our will, then our worship becomes idolatry and our life demonic. But when we realize that what we say in worship can be true only in the improbable reign of God, we regain our souls and sound the trumpet, this time for an army that marshals no troops but the frail saints, bears no arms but the sword of the Spirit, makes no advance except that of love and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.

Buried in the graveyard of that little Maryland church are Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate. Next summer marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I hope we’ll celebrate by remembering Ken Burns’s retelling of the 50th reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. There aged Confederates reenacted Pickett’s charge, limping across the field toward their old foe. The Union veterans scrambled over the battlements to meet the coming charge, but this time they embraced them with words of tenderness, reconciliation and love. When we hear that story, we glimpse something of what it means for soldiers of the cross to go on the march.


The way I heard the story...

The way I heard the story from the late Rev. Dr. Herrill Beck of Boston Univ. School of Theology, (clearly apocryphalm but I like it anyway!), Onward Christian Soldiers was written for the first graduating class of Yale divinity School by the resident organist/choir director.  When he took it to the dean a week prior to graduation, the dean said, "Don't you think 'with the cross of Jesus going on before...' sounds a bit "Catholic?"  Dutifully, the director came back a couple of days later with the alternative, "with the cross of Jesus left behind the door...," and said to the dean, "Which version do you want?"  We all know which he chose!

Personally, there are lots of hymns that I love because I grew up singing them, but I will no longer use in worship because they are too militaristic, or too exclusively male, or just plain theologically questionable.  This is one of them.  I do seem to recall a re-write; "Onward Christian People, marching into life, with the cross of Jesus leading through the strife..."  I like that.

Onward Christian Soldiers

I've never understood the "problem" with this hymn.  The imagery is Biblical--some of it even the sort of thing Jesus said.  Yes, it has to be understood in context, but what hymn doesn't.  The Presbyterians are so much the poorer for omitting it.

Onward Christian Soldiers sigh

In the twilight of my career I serve a small Presbyterian church in one of the most beautiful towns in America. Mr. Long's beautiful description of the place where he worships reminds me of the church I serve. 65 members who love and minister in such faithful ways makes every service of worship glow in the power of the Spirit! In fact we had a dinner last week and a "Southern" Gospel group (their description along with "Old Fashion") came from a Baptist church to raise our spirits (which delightfully) they did! And I witnessed a miracle - Presbyterians clapping and keeping time slapping the tables! The absurdity of it all! And it was beautiful! May we never lose the joy of being absurd - nor the power of that witness!

Thank you, Mr. Long for reminding us of the wonderful ways in which the Spirit comes to us. Such a beautiful article.

The power of music and gospel

Thanks so much to Thomas Long for making the connection between the absurd and the gospel. My online dictionary tells me that 'absurd' comes from mid-16th century Latin, "absurdus," meaning 'out of tune.' Sometimes the music by which we sing our faith, and the absurdity of the context, i.e. contemporary graying churched Americans worried about their pensions singing on a Sunday morning of a peasant wandering the hills of Galilee with an itinerant band of women and men some 2000 year ago, does make one weep. We recall the longing for faith and know the distance we have traveled from faith and yet the closeness of faith to our very breath. I wonder if on those occasions, singing 'out of tune' in the absurdity of the moment, allows us to hear and believe in a different kind of harmony to life and faith, such as in the rather mysterious, even 'absurd' hymn, "They Cast Their Nets [in Galilee]" from a poem by William A. Percy. "Contented peaceful fishermen, Before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts Brimful and broke them too, Brimful, and broke them too." (Lutheran Book of Worship, #449, 1978) There is a wonderful play between 'absurdus' and the harmonics of the gospel. I think Thomas Long painted an extraordinary picture of that play on a summer Sunday in a small Methodist church in Maryland. Sometimes music [and poetry] is the better medium to hear, bear and even celebrate the absurdity of faith.

Christian Soldiers Really Exist

For the hundreds of thousands of Christians in the US armed forces, "Onward Christian Soldiers" sounds like a pretty good hymn.  It reminds them that they have a responsibility to act morally and with mercy even in the midst of armed conflict. 

And as for civilians, look, it uses martial imagery, but does not preach violence against people.  There is no encouragement to attack Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or atheists.  It is a metaphor of struggle against the minions of Satan.  If churches can sing modern rock and roll, why not traditional marching music? 

Is it really more offensive than, say, the song from Les Miserable about the "Song of Angry Men"?

What about the meataphor that Paul uses in Ephesians, about putting on the whole armor of God?  Isn't that a martial metaphor?  Or have Presbyterians edited that out of the Bible these days?

Onward Christian Soldiers

Dear Thomas Long, This comes under the rubric of you are right, but you are wrong.  Read through stanza 3 and see how anti-militaristic that verse is.  Sabine Baring-Gould is correct when he refers to earthly crowns and thrones, backed up by their militaries may perish, and earthly kingdoms will wane.  The Church of Jesus will remain!  Thanks be to God! 

One Never Knows, Do One?

When I was in seminary training, nearly forty years ago, I was taught that each hymn had to have theological meat to the lyrics along with an appropriate melody. One of the songs disdained by our professor in liturgy was "Let us break bread together on our knees". That was a communion hymn that meant a lot to me, partially due to the context wherein I learned it. Later, as a young pastor in a rural community, I participated in a community Easter service where the hymn "Low in the Grave He Lay" was being sung. To my pompously theological, liturgical and musical ears, it seemed the worst kind of hymnic schmaltz. I couldn't wait for it to end. As it ended, an old farmer standing next to me, turned to me, his face wet with tears, and said, "Pastor, isn't that the most beautiful hymn you ever heard?" My shame knew no bounds, and I learned that meaning, like beauty, like most things, .lies in the ears, eyes and heart of the beholder, or the singer.


Modern "hymns" - praise "hymns" - lack any theology at all.  "My God is an Awesome God"  Really? My phone is an awesome phone!  The imagery in "Onward Christian Soldiers" is anathema to the far left politics of  the hymnal committes of many denominations, mine - Disciples of Christ - included.  Me, I'm left politically, but not far out enough to mistake metaphor for reality.  And Yes, the third verse clinches the true theology of the song.  My question to the untheological modernists and misguided hymn scrubbers is this - Like a ...what?...moves the church of God? Unfortunately the pious will not deign reply.

Onward Christian Soldiers

My question to Thomas Long would be, will you joyfully bid good riddance if the Presbyterian church publishes its own bible omitting such references as 2 Timothy 2:3-4:  “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier?”  And what about doing away with Paul’s references to Epaphroditus and Archippus as fellow soldiers? (Php 2:25; Phm 1:2)  For the sake of any more of your  threatened friends and little children, Mr. Long, would you plead a case for removing the antiquated and violent story of David and Goliath . . . along with the many other stories that might “arouse [even] more anger and embarrassment.”    Instead of standing with your friend it might be more reasonable (and edifying) for you to sit with your friend and lovingly tell her to grow up.    Full response found at

What battle, what war?

I guess I can see where the auther is coming from when he doesn't want to associate this hymn with battle and war.  From the crusades to 9/11, I think we are tired of war, terrorism, and suffering.   

However, I think in this day and age especially, being a soldier of God is less about guns, swords and battlefields, than it is about having faith enough to keep the commandments, helping others as the Savior would help them, and keeping our freedom to worship as we please.  In this we may definitely say we are at war, involved in the work of salvation for ourselves and others, and in keeping our religious freedoms available for our children to enjoy.  Fight on!!!