Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Top ten songs of Heaven


            I can think of exactly two popular songs about Heaven that were written in my lifetime, and neither of them feature on this list! That is sad, Christians believe we will spend eternity in Heaven, but modern Christians don’t seem to have any songs about it. We are supposed to be looking forward to it, but we don’t sing much about it. Something doesn’t add up here: which is sad.

            However, what really makes me sad is that songs of Heaven are great helps to us on Earth. They are good when we are dying, and the truth is we are dying a little every day. They are also when we despair of life, when things down here are hard it is good to look up and now we won’t be here much longer. Songs help us in all of this, and we have a plethora of excellent songs available.

            I was surprised to learn how many songs had been written about Heaven, and perhaps you will be as well. This list is far from exhaustive. This list is based on the lyrics of the songs with preference given to those with rich contents. That said there is no particular order.

1.      On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

This song has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, and was one of the few hymns of Heaven that never fell too far out of favor. The lyrics are simple, but profound in painting a picture of place beyond all of our troubles. It speaks of place we can see, where our possessions are waiting; a real place just over Jordan.

2.      The Sands of Time are Sinking

It is good the sands of time are sinking, and we will know why if we listen to the verses which follow that opening line. This song focuses much on the sights of the wedding supper of the Lamb, and in so doing gives us the gospel in full

3.      This is not My Place of Resting

The real merit of this song is that continually reminds us we are not to look for rest in this world. It there when we are weary to keep us fixed on our true relief. The words are few, but well chosen for their task.

4.      Jerusalem Heavenly Home

Perhaps the most robust song on this list, we find everything here from God immediate presence, to our resurrection bodies. The focus here goes beyond our relief from the burden of living in a fallen world to pure wonders of Heaven, it is song of celebration for our true Home; and for that reason, it ought to be included in our hymnody.

5.      Marching to Zion

The great strength of this song is its sense of motion and unity. I think this simple composition is especially powerful for congregational singing. It also keeps the object of our march clearly in view.

6.      Shall we Gather at the River

Perhaps the most widely known song on this list, and the most often misunderstood. The river in question is that glorious stream which flows from Throne of God. The sense of certain in the chorus is very uplifting.

7.      Goodnight

Written from the perspective of a passing saint, this song brings the hope of Heaven to bear beautifully on grief and bereavement.

8.      Wayfaring Stranger

A song that really puts us in our place, while contrasting this life with the life to come.

9.      Beams of Heaven

A pilgrim’s prayers, looking forward to his goal.

10.  In the Sweet by and by

Another song with a corporate appeal, its simple chorus is easy to learn and remember.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

A nightmare on Thursday


G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday has baffled readers since its publishing. Even such great literary minds as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien could not deciphers its intentions. It is the sort of book which leads one to believe there are intentions behind the story, a message that motivates the story. I must urge the one who has not read the book for themselves to leave this blog, and go and read the book, and then return. I further urge the reader of this volume to leave any introduction alone till he/she has finished the story itself. The reasons for these requests will become clear in a moment. Seriously, though go and read it for yourself.

            There is something intriguing about a mystery, and here is a mystery wrapped in a mystery. Chesterton’s masterful writing, and engaging style serve to draw a reader further in, and aid him in continuing on despite possible confusion. The confusion, especially about the ending, would ordinarily be off-putting, at least to me, but here it seems utterly appropriate for this is a book all about anarchists.

            Our introduction is fairly brief and to the point, we have man who has apparently stumbled into an anarchist conspiracy as double agent. He is trying to figure out the plot, and if possible, stop it. The plot continues straight-ahead as the main cast is transported across international borders, and begin encountering stiff resistance. Then comes a series of twists and turns that one simply must read for themselves.

            I will note that one of the great moments of the book comes when Thursday encounters an ally, and muses on significance of having just a single compatriot. This moment alone is worth the read, especially for those who have grappled with loneliness.

            The work’s full title is, “The Man Who Was Thursday; a Nightmare.” And that last word is particularly descriptive. This is not story one would want to live out. It is best viewed, and not participated in: much like anarchy itself. Thursday as a character does a good job of standing in for us, as he rather average. Too often a story like this has a hero, someone extra-ordinary in some way that allows them to cope and overcome the situations they encounter. Thursday barely manages to hang on. There is never a moment where this man has a firm grip on events.

            The events are held in another hand, and the man that hand is attached to is the main source of mystery in the whole work. Who is he, and what is he meant to represent? We know he must represent something for he tells us so at the end, but his words are cryptic enough to keep us guessing.

            In his autobiography Chesterton reports that the books were apparently helpful in restoring the mentally ill. Elsewhere the authors give us a clue as to how such a book could be helpful, by drawing attention 9as we have done) to the subtitle. It is a nightmare, a very specific nightmare of a very particular sort of mind. An unsettled mind, a doubtful mind, a mind which sees the dark forces of chaus advancing everywhere and feels itself very much alone in a desperate stand for order.

            It is not real; it is in both cases a nightmare from which we can wake-up. I can say this now with some confidence; but I cannot say the book in question gave me any help. I was led astray by a straying introduction to look for something like a commentary on reality, rather than a commentary on a distorted commentary on reality. Introductions can be helpful, or hurtful, and it is hard to say which they will be till we have left them well behind.

            Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker in 2008, places this work of Chesterton at a pivotal moment in English literature between the happier fantasies that came before, and the darker works that followed, seeming to imply that Chesterton drove the change. I do not think so, rather I think he anticipated the change and tried to head it off.

            In some the man at the center of the whole tale is Chesterton himself. Only the real man could never exercise the level of control his fictional mastermind could. The story seemed to evoke some unexpectedly positive effects, but also many negative effects. It is as if the story became too big, and had a life of its own away from its authors designs. A nightmare indeed; and one which any writer, even the humble writer of this blog, might face.

            Well, I have hazarded my guess as to what the mystery is really all about. I don’t expect the nightmare will end anytime soon. If it does it will only be that we have entered into a fresh nightmare…  



Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Chronic-What-Cals of Narnia


Like a lot of young boys growing-up in Christian homes I was introduced to the Chronicles of Narnia early on. The whimsical setting caught my imagination as it had so many others, though perhaps to a lesser extent than others. They were enjoyable, and I read them through several times. And that would have been it for me…

Then in high-school I began to encounter those who had read the Chronicles of Narnia, and seemed to believe that in doing so they had reached the pinnacle of theological literature. Given my context it wasn’t all that disappointing, but still disappointing enough. Why were children’s stories expected to hold vast wealth of doctrinal riches? Expecting such in Lewis’ nonfiction, or even his adult fiction is understandable as he was by all accounts a staggeringly intelligent man; but couldn’t children’s stories simply be children’s stories?

Years later as I awaited the beginning of a seminary lecture, I overheard a conversation between two peers regarding the implications of the climactic scene of the Last Battle to Lewis’ overall theology. I will not attempt to reproduce the argument here, but the general notion appeared to be that the Narnia stories should be discarded as they presented a distorted picture of God through a very distorted eschatology: among other distortions. What are these Chronicles of Narnia?

The discussions about the books caught my interest more than the books ever did. Every book, and series has its devotees who discuss, and debate, and philosophize about the stories and their meanings; but this was something else. The Chronicles of Narnia seemed to be under interrogation by people who were looking for something beyond the stories. It seemed as if these children’s books had something to hide.

I never felt this suspicion. To me the books never suggested there was something behind the narrative. I never felt there was a covert agenda. Lewis’ intent appeared to be telling the stories of this make-believe world from his own childhood. The influence of his faith is present to be sure, as is his mastery of literature particularly the tropes of fairy-tales, folklore, and mythology. Indeed, Lewis’ appears most to be working within the realm of fairytales.

I would not call these Christian fairytales any more than I would label the Brother’s Grimm, or Hans Christian Anderson’s work as such.  I think the label gets the words out of order, these are fairytales (or if prefer fantasies) first, and Christian second. The story is being told for its own sake, not for the sake of Christianity per se. Lewis did write other fictional works that are truly Christian fiction; The Screwtape letters, The Great divorce (though it is hotly debated), and to a lesser extent That Hideous Strength. These are more worthy of interrogation. Most worthy of interrogation are Lewis’ non-fiction works in which his theology is clearly in view.

With all these other more explicitly theological works available for questioning, why did Narnia keep coming up? I think one answer is that it was made for children, and is often encountered in the formative stages of childhood, when stories can make deep and lasting impressions upon us. The Chronicles of Narnia stand out in the field of children’s literature, and especially the field of Christian children’s literature because, it is intelligent, well crafted, and just big enough to capture and hold the imagination without overwhelming it. Narnia is a gateway to the wider worlds of fantasy. So, it easy to see how these particular books might come to occupy a special place for their readers. Especially when we consider that parents, and grandparents might pass them down to the latest generation.

Then there is that Christian label which leads us to expect certain things from the books, which perhaps the books were never meant to contain or convey. We want a message behind the story, a doctrinal lesson in every installment; and we don’t really get that in Narnia. There are some clear analogies particularly in The Magician’s Nephew; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, they are not precise analogies. Aslan’s relationship with the various personifications of evil is not quite in-line with orthodoxy. The moral lessons of Edmund, and Eustice Scrubb do fit the Judeo-Christian ethic, but such lessons are not always so easy to pick out of the works: at least not that I remember. So, if we came here looking for instruction, it appears we must either go away disappointed, or else read into the text.

Lewis has written about the Narnia books, just enough to guide readers expectation; but I wonder if Lewis’ own expectation of readers failed to account for modern developments? There have always been stories told to instruct. There have also been stories meant to persuade, and I wonder if this sort of story-telling is on the rise. It surely feels as if 7 out of 10 stories these days are trying to convince us of something. The story is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. As if we start with an agenda and craft a story. From what I understand C. S. Lewis started with a story, and whatever agenda there was it was made to fit the sorry. This is speculation, but perhaps we have become so accustomed to agenda stories that we do not trust stories anymore? We expect every story is here to sell us something, trying to get a foot in the door of our thinking. Have we got to a place where one does not simply tell a story?

What if we set aside expectations of doctrinal substance and examined the Chronicles of Narnia simply as children’s fantasy novels? This is the question I have wanted to ask since that day in seminary. The assertion I have wanted to make since high-school is simply this, these books are not theological treatises. I do not even believe they are pure illustrations of the faith like Bunyan’s allegories. They have a Christian overtone, and really that is all I would expect from them.

As Children’s fantasies from a Christian writer there are some questions, we might rightly ask of he Chronicles of Narnia. What are the responsibilities of Christian children’s literature? How should Christian’s work within the genre of fantasy fiction, or should we be in the genre at all? Is it acceptable for a Christian writer to employ magic in his narrative? These are questions I have not yet heard, but I hope someday I will.

These stories need to be approached with some discernment to be appreciated. That same discernment should protect against distorted theology. The main reason I might encourage someone to read these volumes is because they are well crafted and historically significant. I could not recommend them for any other reason.

I really don’t have anything more to say, and so shall leave the Land of Narnia behind. Onward!

Top ten songs of Heaven

              I can think of exactly two popular songs about Heaven that were written in my lifetime, and neither of them feature on this ...