Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Morning Thanks--"The Old Rugged Cross"


There is, in a church we've been attending, a fairly significant chunk of history in the pew, two versions of the denomination's Psalter Hymnal.  I don't know why exactly.  One could speculate a sweet answer, that the old one, the blue one, contains some favorites no one wanted to lose when the new one passed them by.  But the truth, at least in the history of the denomination I'm a part of, is probably less generous and more plain stubborn--some people, doggone it, wanted no part of change. 

Still, yesterday, when we sang "The Old Rugged Cross," a hymn that must rank among the most popular of the 20th century, the pastor had to import it into the bulletin because neither Psalter had it.  Weird, I thought.  I wonder why not?

To that question, there is an answer, I'm sure, and there may be a good one, even if it's not sweet. The denomination of which I'm a part has a powerful history of musical censorship. In fact, the Christian Reformed Church cut its teeth on policing church music, that penchant running all the way back, at least, to 1619 in the Netherlands at the Synod of Dort.

Now there are two views of history, of course.  One belongs to Henry Ford ("history is more or less bunk") and the other to William Faulkner ("history is not was, it is").  Choose your weapon.  But when the lyrics of "The Old Rugged Cross" got itself printed in the order of worship because that immensely beloved old favorite wasn't in a half century of CRC hymnody, I couldn't help wonder why.

Hang on. Pure speculation follows.

Theory One (theological):  The hymn essentially worships the cross, worships the suffering of Jesus, worships the horror, not the ecstacy of the resurrection.  That, some would say, is misplaced worship.

Theory Two (also theological):  The hymn promises a species of work righteousness.  Someday, we'll exchange this fetish-istic "old rugged cross" for a heavenly crown, which is to say, we'll cash in our chips for piece of our own salvation. Redemption seems somehow related to our treasuring a cross dearly enough to merit eventually exchanging our holy piety for salvation. 

Theory Three (theological and historical):  This old favorite offers a view of heaven and earth that is thoroughly "American evangelical," but not particularly Reformed (for better or for worse), a view encapsulated in the phrase "to a home far away," which is perfectly normal to some Christians but unsatisfactorily "other worldly" to others, Platonic in origins.  You know--what goes on in this life is horror so let's all wish for heaven.  That sort of thing.  Unreformed.

Theory Four (historical):  Something in the hymn's character feels, well, vaguely Roman Catholic, in that among the Roman Catholics, historically at least, there existed what some Protestants undoubtedly felt was a unnecessary and even somewhat masochistic desire to emulate Christ's suffering to, once again, earn salvation (think Luther down on his scraped and bloody knees).  Somewhere along the line, early 20th century, among thorough-going Protestants such as those who created the earliest Psalter Hymnal, there existed an richly furnished anti-Papist vein. Clinging to the old rugged cross felt, well, unhealthily cultic , sort of, you know, Central American.

Theory Five (geographical):  The man who composed the hymn did so just down the road from Holland and Grand Rapids, MI.  In fact, the church where it was first performed in 1913 (you read that right--it's exactly a century old this June) stands there yet today, a west Michigan landmark, complete with museum.  George Bennard was a Methodist preacher with a Salvation Army background, preaching the Word at miniscule revival in tiny frame church in a little town named Pokagon.  I'm speculating here too, of course, but what I'm blindly asserting is that we may well save our deepest animosities for those with whom we live. Maybe if Bennard was from, say, southern Ohio, "The Old Rugged Cross" would be in the hymnals.  

I don't know, but that's all I can come up with. If I was a real historian, I'd do the research and find out, but I'm retired and neither am I a theologian.

Anyway, the bottom line is, even though it wasn't in either Psalter, yesterday in morning worship that old classic hymn got sung and it got sung heartily.  Somewhere, I'm sure, some highbrow theologian was wincing in his grave.  

I can't speak for everyone who was there, but I honestly think I'm no worse for the wear.  

Look, for that old hymn I can log some reservations myself, but this morning I'll offer morning thanks for a hymn that may well be more than a little sentimental but that has for exactly 100 years been a treasure for millions and millions of believers.  

4 comments:

Clint W said...

Another theory: It's just too darn sentimental--borderline sappy, even.

Anonymous said...

OK,we all know that those Methodists don't believe that they are the only ones who were predesined to be the "chosen "few. Why should the "chosen" sing about what Christ submitted to on the cross?

Anonymous said...

Thats "predestined' can't you get it right?

Jonathan Pierce said...

Saintjon,
Sounds like all the theories have to do with getting it "right." But then only the one on the Cross got it all "right."
Oh, and there is a place for some sentiment.