Perhaps this week that heading brings to mind Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and David Cameron. The UK vote to leave the EU was a momentous, history-changing, event – at least as important as anything that has happened anywhere in the world in the last decade or so. For the UK itself, I’ve seen people argue it was the most important event since the end of World War Two, but somehow the end of empire, and perhaps even accession to the EEC in 1973, seem right up there.
But the historymakers I had mind was a particularly awful (as distinct from “awe-full”) song, now sung in our local congregation two weeks in succession. It is by a group named Delirious, which has me thinking all sorts of uncharitable thoughts, and the words are here.
Peter Carrell’s blog had a link the other day to a nice US column on what has gone wrong with church music. I’d recommend “Why WOULD anyone sing in church these days”, and much of his argument rings true, but my point today is a slightly different one.
All too often the words we are asked to sing bear little or no relationship to Scripture, or to a faithful retelling of the character and great acts of God. The ideas behind the old phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” can be loosely translated as “as we worship, so we believe”. Our words, and actions, in worship – our liturgy, whether formalized or otherwise – shape what it is that we truly believe. The responsibility of the Church – and of individual congregational leaders/”worship leaders” – is then to ensure that the words we use form us rightly. “Historymakers” not only doesn’t, but it is so detached from reality, and from the experience of the church and Christians in it, as to leave anyone who stops to think about what they are being asked to sing wondering about just how grounded the faith they choose to adhere to really is. We are often accused of believing delusional fairy tales, with faith as some sort of crutch for the inadequate. Sadly, Historymakers helps legitimate that sort of criticism. I’m not ashamed of the gospel, but I’d be deeply embarrassed to expose a thoughtful seeker to this sort of song.
But before taking the song verse by verse, I want to be clear. I strongly and confidently affirm a belief in a powerful and active God, at work in our world. I’ve never had reason to seriously doubt the broad historicity of the New Testament miracle accounts. God still works.
But to the song:
Is it true today
That when people pray
Cloudless skies will break
Kings and queens will shake?
Can or could it happen? Well, yes it could. But mostly it doesn’t. Droughts happen, tyrants rule. Sometimes good and dramatic change happens, but then again we’ve just come out of a century with some of the most murderous regimes in history – a century in which the good news of the gospel, while receding in the West, has drawn more men and women to God, and to prayer, than ever. And yet singers are asked to mindlessly repeat
Yes, it’s true
And I believe it
To the next verse
Is it true today
That when people pray
We’ll see dead men rise
And the blind set free?
Can it happen? Yes, it can. I’ve even seen a person paralysed for years walk after an evening of prayer – one of the most stunning memories of my childhood. But…..there is a great deal of prayer in the world, over many centuries, and miracles of the sort in this verse don’t happen every day (“is it true today”), and perhaps most Christians will never experience or observe such an event. So what am I affirming if I sing these words? What sense of the faith we profess am I imparting to my kids if I ask them to stand and sing these words? It seems a lot like “just make it up as you go along, and it really doesn’t matter if the words bear no relationship to the reality most Christians anywhere have experienced”. Even in post-Ascension apostolic church, dead men didn’t rise every day.
And then it gets even worse
I’m gonna be
A history maker in this land
I’m gonna be
A speaker of truth to all mankind
Really? I guess one could, at a considerable stretch, reinterpret it as “every life matters” and every interaction ever person has is part of “history”. But that clearly isn’t what these authors had in mind. History here is capital-H history – the accounts of great and famous people and their deeds and words, be it Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Mary Slessor, or Boris Johnson.
And for most people it simply isn’t true, whether in their day-to-day lives (work, family, community and political involvements, church). I worked for 30 years in fairly senior positions in central banks in three countries. As I look back I can see a few areas where a handful of things I did or said might have made a small difference to the course of what might be recorded as “history” in sufficiently detailed future economic history books. My wife is a senior government official shaping papers for ministers to take to Cabinet – she too will make very small marks on history. I put public commentaries on economic policy matters out each day, partly in the hope that perhaps they might change New Zealand’s economic direction a little. But this is all pretty small-beer stuff. And most people in our churches don’t even have those opportunities: they work as nurses, or teachers, or fulltime parents, or shop assistants, or accountants or baristas or whatever. Many are retired. Each role shapes the person doing it, and allows them to influence other people to some extent. But no one seriously thinks of this as “historymaking”.
And as for speaking truth to all mankind? Few even have the opportunity – whether in the cause of the gospel or whatever. Donald Trump to Barack Obama might speak to all mankind – although not probably gospel truth. Mother Teresa is her own way may well have. But it just is not the experience of most Christians – whether in the early church, in the days of great evangelical strength or now. Eugene Peterson’s book, titled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” seems to better capture the realistic call to faithful, sometimes costly, discipleship.
The alternative – encapsulated in the “Historymakers” song – seems frankly delusional. I guess I understand the point the writers are trying to make: calling us to prayer, and to faith, and expecting that to spill into what happens in our lives and the world. God is living and active. But it is still delusional. For anyone who stops to think about it even briefly, it should evoke a “why would anyone take very seriously what else is going on here?” And for those who don’t stop to think – perhaps especially young people with a real, but youthful, passion for the gospel – it encourages a degree of hubris and unrealism that sets most of them up for a nasty fall later, or just the slow disillusionment when they finally allow reality to stand alongside the words the church taught them to sing. Yes, there will be a handful of people in our congregations who may make history, and some too who may have the opportunity to speak truth powerfully to many. And God will, on occasion, work powerful and visible miracles – in addition to turning lives around and sustaining people in the long obedience, the walk of lifelong discipleship. But for most of us, the idea of being historymakers is just far detached from reality.
So why do our church leaders still encourage us to sing this stuff? Why don’t more people do as I finally did this morning – as someone who loves to sing – and simply sit down quietly.
Growing up Christian in our country isn’t easy these days – perhaps in truth it never was, but I’m sure it is harder now than 40 years when I was the age my kids are now. I want them to grow up following Christ – who walked the path of brokenness and death and, in many ways, earthly failure – with a hardheaded realism, about sin, grace, discipleship and a Kingdom which is now, but which is not yet fully come. I don’t want them deluding themselves about what it means, and has always meant, to be a disciple. One day they – smart young people and willing to ask lots of questions already – will react against all this pap. My prayer is that it will be a reaction that takes them deeper into the God who revealed himself in Christ – moving on from the thin unhealthy fare to rich good food – but I fear, and pray against, a reaction that says instead “why take seriously a church, and faith, that propogates such nonsense”.