Friday, May 14, 2010

Songs of Human Sacrifice: An Exploration of the Theme of Redemption in Christian Hymns

Many people for whom the experience of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian atmosphere is completely foreign are liable to be quite surprised, even shocked, at some of the songs that are taught to children in fundamentalist Christian churches. Within the context of speaking to and comparing the experiences of other atheists who were raised religiously fundamentalist versus atheists who had a completely secular and non-religious upbringing, several interesting observations arise. On a very general and superficial level, one finds that there tends to be a wide understanding regarding the religious doctrine that inspires Christian hymns among those who were raised in that environment. On the other hand, those who are unfamiliar with religious culture sometimes lack a grasp of the total experience of the fundamentalist upbringing, including what it means to be entrenched in a church from an early age and to be surrounded by that distinctive kind of community. People who have deconverted from Christianity will often express that they completely understand the psychology of religious belief, and why it is that people can commit to and believe in a delusion.

Then there are other nonbelievers who have never had religious belief who are incredulous as to how anybody can believe in the basic tenets of Christianity and who do not understand how a reasonable person can possibly affirm it. These lifelong nonbelievers will often speak of friends they have whom they describe as very intelligent and who even understand particular aspects of the sciences, but whose usually-apparent reasoning skills seem to fly out the window the moment they begin speaking about their religion. And they do not understand how and why this occurs.

But for those of us nonbelievers who were raised fundamentalist, the answer to this phenomenon of human nature is not difficult to come by; we understand how and why this cognitive dissonance occurs, because we used to think the same way. Having made my company with several ex-Christians as well as current Christians of late, I do not think one has to be in any way unintelligent in order to believe in religion. Some atheists assert that there must be some kind of chemical imbalance at work on intelligent people who believe in religion. But this is not necessarily true, either. A chemical imbalance is not needed to explain the phenomenon of religious belief among the well-educated; all that is needed for fundamentalist religion to take hold is successful indoctrination.

But let us return to the subject of the shock lifelong nonbelievers are prone to express when learning of some of the lyrics contained in the songs taught to children in churches. I personally remember these songs, and my memory clearly recalls singing them when I was as young as four years old. I do not remember much else from the time I was four years old, but I remember these songs to this day. This serves to demonstrate that persistent dogmatic instruction works very well. Even more interesting, though, is another experience that nonbelievers who were raised fundamentalist have often expressed between themselves: when one progresses beyond and disposes of a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, he or she will sometimes go back to read a passage from the Bible and be surprised to find what they read is dramatically different from what they remember reading in their religious past. What they read will often not be the story they recall. At this point, one begins to realize just how much of what she read was impacted by what she was told she was reading in lieu of what she was actually reading. Organized religion has mastered the art of suppressing freedom of thought among its flock. The same experience holds true of traditional Christian hymns. For instance, songs such as "Are You Washed in the Blood?" seem normal to a great many people. Yet when I hear and consider that hymn today, I have a mental image of people bathing themselves in human blood, and the whole imagery strikes me as very off-putting.

Speaking as one who had attended Sunday School regularly as a child, from the time I was a toddler to the time I was in high school, I can make the observation that children raised in church environments for the most part get little more than the nice stories of the Bible, or Bible stories revised such that they are made more palatable for modern-day values. For example, I have seen children's books about Noah's Ark that depict fluffy little animals walking up into the ark, complete with a rainbow at the end of the tale. What is effectively glossed over is the part of the story that involves billions of people being drowned in a global genocide. It is not that this aspect of the story is completely glossed over; I can personally attest to the fact that children in fundamentalist churches are indeed taught that the world was destroyed, that people were wicked and killed as a result. Still, the overriding focus of the Sunday-School version of the story is that God loved Noah and his family and preserved them from the horrible flood. The nasty parts are slipped in and included, but they are minimized. The global genocide of billions via drowning is somewhat out-of-focus in the background of the proverbial camera, and it is presented as normalized. The rendition is essentially structured as "God needed to destroy the world because everyone was wicked. But Noah was good, and so God saved Noah and a selection of animals from the impending destruction." When a fundamentalist Christian defends the story of Genesis chapters 6-8, he is defending it as a righteous story. By defending this story, he is asserting that everybody, including children and animals, deserved to die, except Noah and his family. Such a defense is morally backward.

Another example of a Biblical story whose immoral elements very often become the subject of much minimization and normalization is seen in the story of Abraham's God-given orders to sacrifice his son, as related in Genesis 22. The message conveyed by this story is that if God tells a follower to kill his child, it is morally good and upstanding to intend to carry that command out, regardless of whether or not God stops the act from being completed. The story relates that Abraham was virtuous for being willing to fulfill God's murderous bidding, and for not questioning the command. This is why Abraham is later listed in the New Testament (Hebrews 11) as a man of great faith, for he was willing to do whatever he was asked by the deity without question, including killing his own child. The fact that the murderous act was halted by God is extremely significant to the Christian mindset, and this divine halting is consequently the most dwelled-upon aspect of the story. Yet in defending this story, many Christians do not seem to understand just what they are advocating. The part of the story in which the child sacrifice is stopped at the last minute is very minor in comparison to the core message that is advocated, namely that unquestioning faith is a good thing, including when it involves an intention to murder one's child as a sacrifice to God.

The Value of Love and the Christian Doctrine of Human Worthlessness in Context

In his 2008 album What If We, Brandon Heath beautifully delivers a modern hymn called "Love Never Fails" [1]. This song is a simple ode to the value of love, and it is the simplicity of the message that confers aesthetic quality to the song. If one was not aware that this particular song is actually rooted in Scripture, he or she might hear the song and not even realize that Brandon Heath is in fact singing a hymn. There is very little in the song to hint at any explicitly supernatural element beyond the message that love is valuable. One line in the song's lyrics reads, "Love will not cease / At the end of time." It is at this juncture that we perhaps find a hint that Heath is referring to a concept akin to God's love continuing for eternity after the world has ended. Even so, the listener would not likely read that much into the song if he or she was unfamiliar with the Biblical passage upon which it is based. When heard independently of a knowledge of its source material, "Love Never Fails" can be understood as simply a poetic statement about the endurance of love, and a person unfamiliar with the Bible is justified in understanding the song in that very general way.

The Biblical passage upon which Brandon Heath's song is based is found in the New Testament book of I Corinthians, a very eloquent passage commonly attributed to the Apostle Paul. This is a passage that is frequently and quite appropriately cited at weddings. The following is an abridged portion of this passage:
And now I will show you the most excellent way.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

(I Corinthians 12:31b, 13:2-8, 13, New International Version).

This is a beautiful passage; certainly it is one that I, even as an atheist, personally consider to be one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. Most people recognize instinctively the beauty of these verses, and most people greatly value the kind of love expressed in them, regardless of personal belief concerning the Bible as a whole. As mentioned above, the fact that this passage is quoted frequently at weddings is quite apropos, being as it is a beautiful statement about the enduring nature of love, the forgiving nature of love, and what it means to look at a person in love that is unconditional. This passage conveys a sense that a life lived without love is less than it can be and should be. The Christian will also consider this to be a beautiful passage, but will unnecessarily qualify this with a belief that it is rendered beautiful by virtue of being inspired by God [2]. This Christian will assert that the passage in question was actually written by God, using Paul as merely a vessel. In other words, God used Paul as something of a scribe who was merely transcribing God's words, and what we have preserved is God's statement on love. This view has many problems attached to it. Perhaps most importantly, such a view is highly demeaning. I do not believe that God wrote this through Paul. I believe that Paul wrote this, and that he was expressing his own view on love. Furthermore, I contend that a human being is fully capable of expressing this view, that a human being is fully capable of appreciating love, and that a human being is fully capable of writing a beautiful passage regarding love. The valuable aspects of love can be understood and expressed by human beings in such a way that other human beings are touched so deeply that the writing endures for two thousand years. This is a testament to the insight of humanity; we do not need a God to give us this kind of enduring literature. In those who claim that we need God in order to gain any worthwhile insight, we see an example of the way in which religionists portray God as always receiving credit for what we call goodness, while people always receive the blame for the bad side of life.

A Hymn to Humanism

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman produced what is to this day his best-known poem, "Song of Myself." This very lengthy poem is a humanistic hymn of sorts which carries overtones of Transcendentalist thought, a thematic current which Whitman (the subject and center of the poem) makes use of to develop an expansive persona for himself that shatters the conventional limits socially and traditionally imposed on the self. In one portion of the poem, Whitman writes,
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other [3].

The "Song of Myself," in its entirety (which I strongly encourage all to read), is an ode to the human self and a celebration of the human self (something most Christians would presumably consider "evil," as the poet is worshiping himself instead of their God; this observation is peripheral to the point at hand, but will become important later). For the sake of the present argument, let us assume that when Whitman writes "I believe in you my soul," he is referring to a spiritual belief in a supernatural soul, and that such is what he is describing. Even while making a reference to such a belief, at least on the surface, Whitman nevertheless makes it unambiguously clear that even given his affirmation of whatever it is he is calling his "soul," he presents this affirmation in egalitarian proportion to his physical aspects. That is, he portrays his physical self as no less acceptable, no less celebratory, and no less a part of him than whatever else he is or may be. He is declaring that whatever aspects of him exist are all aspects that are worthy of celebration, not condemnation. In Whitman's mind, even if the soul exists, it is neither better nor worse than his physical existence, a sentiment expressed in the line "the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other."

This is the philosophical area in which redemptive religion utterly fails in terms of fulfilling human lives. Redemptive religion does insist on an abasement of the human condition, and even an abasement of mere human existence. Redemptive religion teaches that we as human beings cannot achieve, cannot be good, and cannot be worthwhile without first valuing the immaterial aspect of oneself that is alleged to be superior than the physical aspect. According to the doctrines of redemptive religion, the immaterial aspect of the person is so superior to the physical person that it is the only aspect worthy of enduring forever. And according to the religionists, it is in fact the physical nature of humans that condemns them on whatever level and to whatever degree is required for a redemptive religion to make sense.

The writings of William Shakespeare are, of course, not to be overlooked by those engaged in purveying themes of beauty in literature that have transcended the ages. There is such a large number of beautiful texts by Shakespeare that it is difficult to make a selection from them to share as examples in a single essay. However, the following quotation, which comes from an individual writing about Shakespeare, is a sufficient capsule summary of the power of Shakespeare. The article in which it appears is relevant to our discussion, for the author in the end appears to fall for the kind of dualistic dichotomy of human nature that Walt Whitman, for example, sought successfully to avoid:
In the class of literature we have here described, Shakespeare's dramas stand supreme. They are not religious works. They are not Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu Scriptures. They are what we call secular dramas, worldly plays if you like. But so transcendent is their beauty and so luminous is their internal content, that they have held countless millions enthralled during their uninterrupted performance on the world's stages ever since their first appearance over three hundred and fifty years ago [4].

Thus far, the author gives inspiring testament to the talent of an excellent human writer. Note, however, what this writer goes on to say:
People see and read the plays for pleasure and pastime. In doing so they expose themselves to a magic that, by its very nature, works upon their inner being, imparting to it basic patterns of the good and the true and the beautiful, charging it with impulses that propel it upward on its godward way. The magical influence which they so exercise derives from that element which flowed into them from super-human levels. These elements are purely spiritual. It is their presence in the dramas that truly makes of Shakespeare's plays humanity's Lay Bible.

This conclusion strikes me as a slap in the face to what the writer just credited Shakespeare with in the selfsame paragraph. To suggest that Shakespeare was only capable of writing what he did because of his spiritual aspect, or that we are only capable of appreciating his works because of his spiritual aspect, is utterly wrong and constitutes an affront to humanity's artistic achievements. Yet this is a common tactic; when all else fails in the attempt to demonstrate that something good has a religious origin, those who argue along these lines can always fall back on the notion that when something is ubiquitously recognized as good, whether it be the St. Paul's view on love, Walt Whitman or Shakespeare, it is proved that it is religious in nature. A similar tendency to axiomatically equate what is good with what is religious is seen in the religionists' common response to secularists who point out the exceedingly large number of atheists who have done good things for society that make lasting differences and impact peoples' lives for the better. Their response is almost always that this only shows that these atheists "have morality written on their hearts by God."

The Christian message of redemptive religion, in essence, is that as a human being, there is something so wrong with you that you require redemption. While the details differ across denominations, this redemption is generally redemption from a state of being that is in some way separated from God, whether that be eternal hellfire or total annihilation. According to orthodox Christianity, the way to be reconciled to God is through being redeemed, which is achieved by the death of Jesus Christ. This doctrine has its roots in rituals described in the Old Testament which involved sacrificing a spotless lamb to the deity Yahweh. In the Christian New Testament, the spotless lamb is represented by the character of Jesus Christ, who was literally executed as a human sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. These sins apparently were - and continue to be - so heinous that they required execution as the price to be paid for their absolvement.

One of the most vivid descriptions of just how despicable humanity is in the eyes of the Christian God is seen in Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards, an eighteenth-century American theologian, writes at considerable length in this sermon about how vile and contemptible all humans are in their sins, likening humanity to loathsome insects being held over a fire:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell [5].

For Christians who are orthodox in their theology, there is no way to argue that a death was required as the price of redemption for your failings, and then proceed to claim that your failings are minor. If one accepts the idea that Jesus died for our sins, and that the death represented perfect justice, one is compelled to also accept that the penalty prescribed for whatever is flawed and wrong with people is a murderous human sacrifice. Christianity demands an acceptance that human sacrifice is the just price to compensate for the worthlessness of humanity. The upshot of the whole grisly theological scenario is said to be that Jesus Christ came back from the dead after his execution, and that this was a demonstration that believers in Christ will also resurrect from their death and live again just as Christ did at his resurrection. But this has nothing to do with the fact that, according to Christianity, the payment price for the sins of humanity is a human sacrifice. Within Christianity, the idea that we can do anything to redeem ourselves is absolutely eviscerated. There is nothing we are capable of that can possibly redeem us. For if there was a way to redeem ourselves through our own efforts, Jesus would not have been demanded as sacrifice. The price of redemption is negated if it is possible for a person to ever be worthy of not being separated from God eternally. Whether the specific denominational doctrine dictates total annihilation or eternal life in torment, you are said to deserve whatever constitutes the bad side of entering the afterlife. Furthermore, you are powerless to effect anything that will change that undeserving condition. Only the execution that Jesus suffered satisfies the arbitrary price that Yahweh concocted to pay himself off. In essence, Yahweh is represented in Christianity as insisting that he will accept us with him in the heavenly abode for eternity only if somebody will kill somebody, a sacrifice that must be a perfect, sinless person.

Now, Beloved, Let Us Turn to Our Hymnals . . .

The foregoing discussion was pursuant to explaining the Christian doctrine of redemption, such that the hymns to be considered in the rest of this essay make sense. These hymns are in some ways symbolic, yet it should be understood that even in their symbolism, they are referring to an actual execution. The blood that is referenced in these hymns is literal blood according to the mindset of the Christian. What the faithful sing about every Sunday morning is not symbolic blood; it is the blood of an executed man killed as a human sacrifice to atone for how worthless and despicable people are.

1) "Are You Washed in the Blood?" ~ written and composed by Elisha A. Hoffman in 1878:

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow'r?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

This invitational song is one that is often sung at the end of the church service as a way of encouraging emotionally-charged conversion and baptism. The "Lamb" is a reference to the altar sacrifices described in the Old Testament. The song uses the imagery of a lamb sacrifice as a metaphor, but it is referring to a human sacrifice that they do believe literally occurred and was justified.

2) "There is Power in the Blood" ~ written and composed by Lewis E. Jones in 1899:

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood.
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb.
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood.
Sin stains are lost in its life giving flow.
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

The first line asks the listener/reader if he or she wants to get rid of sin. The second line is a reflection of the Christian belief that Jesus' death redeems one from that sin. The third and fourth lines tell us that if you want to win over the evil forces plaguing your life, appealing to this human sacrifice is a good course to venture into. The "good" is the redemptive human sacrifice. And when the hymn states that "Sin stains are lost in its life giving flow," a flow of literal blood is being referred to. Coming just short of raising images of gushes of blood, the hymn is speaking of blood that was shed on a crucifix from a human sacrifice. I humbly suggest that this is insanity! I can even conceive of a comedy bit crassly satirizing the ideas presented in this and similar hymns, perhaps in the vein of Mitchell and Webb, in which a Christian arrives in heaven only to find himself being welcomed with huge buckets of blood and approached with invitations to dive in and bathe.

3) "Not All the Blood of Beasts" ~ written by Isaac Watts in 1709:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.

But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing His bleeding love.

If you are a Christian, you will immediately understand the meaning of this hymn's title, which makes reference to the belief that all the sacrifices of animals in the Old Testament system were not sufficient for absolvement of sins, which is why Jesus was required to be killed as a sacrifice instead. Notice that this hymn throws words and phrases such as "love" and "bless with cheerful voice" into the mix. This is to suggest that the human sacrifice that is required to make redemption possible is supposedly a gesture of love and a cause of rejoicing. This is what even young children are taught.

4) "Nothing But the Blood" ~ written and composed by Robert Lowry in 1876:

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Nothing can for sin atone,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that I have done,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

This is all my hope and peace,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all my righteousness,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

This hymn heavily alludes to the theological issues raised earlier in this essay concerning the doctrine that there is nothing any person can do on their own to effect salvation. As irredeemable creatures, there is nothing we can do to redeem ourself. As discussed above, this doctrine is one that strikes me as a singularly degrading vision of humanity and displays a contempt of human goodness. The last four lines in the hymn as quoted conveys the idea that all human righteousness, including anything good that you or I possibly can be, is relegated to the blood of a brutally-executed human sacrifice. One can hardly conceive of a more morally-bankrupt way of thinking.

5) "Just As I Am, Without One Plea" ~ written by Charlotte Elliott in 1834:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

It is interesting to note that the last quoted verse of this hymn acknowledges doubt, only to say that experiencing trouble in believing or being conflicted is a trivial matter. The doubter is encouraged to simply push the doubt aside, to disregard it and continue pushing toward simple acceptance. It seems there is no scarcity of Christian literature devoted to addressing doubts, and this is quite telling. The reason there is so much doubt among thinking Christians that occasions such literature is simple: Christianity is actually fairly hard to seriously believe.

6) "Whiter Than Snow" ~ written by James L. Nicholson in 1872:

Lord Jesus, let nothing unholy remain,
Apply Thine own blood and extract every stain;
To get this blest cleansing, I all things forego—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, look down from Thy throne in the skies,
And help me to make a complete sacrifice;
I give up myself, and whatever I know—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, for this I most humbly entreat,
I wait, blessed Lord, at Thy crucified feet,
By faith for my cleansing, I see thy blood flow—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

The middle verse of this hymn is included here as a fitting and direct response to people who invoke any form of Pascal's Wager as an argument for Christianity (a wager, by the way, that works for literally any religion or belief system that involves a threat of horrible proportions for unbelief). According to one facet of this wager, if you believe and you come to the end of life being wrong about that belief, you will not have given up or lost anything. Nicholson's hymn gives the lie to this notion, for as the hymn puts it, Christianity is "a complete sacrifice; I give up myself, and whatever I know—." According to this message, giving up one's entire life is integral and indispensable to believing in Christianity. One does not give up nothing if he or she ends up being wrong; everything is given up in the process of belief.

7) "Saved by the Blood" ~ written by Fanny Crosby in 1875 (not to be confused with S.J. Henderson's 1902 hymn of the same title):

We’re saved by the blood
That was drawn from the side
Of Jesus our Lord,
When He languished and died.

Hallelujah to God,
For redemption so free;
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Dear Savior, to Thee.

That blood is a fount
Where the vilest may go
And wash till their souls
Shall be whiter than snow.

In this hymn, Crosby speaks of redemption as being "so free." The glaring problem with this is that someone died a brutal death, through blood "drawn from the side" like a "fount." That is anything but free.

8) "Amazing Grace" ~ written by John Newton in 1779:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

"Amazing Grace" is a hymn that is of particular interest in our overview. Many people familiar with the cultural atmosphere a religious community tend not to recall any elements that are particularly degrading in the hymn. This is likely because "Amazing Grace" is perhaps the most famous Christian hymn of all time. Being performed tens of millions of times annually as it is, the philosophy embedded in the song can easily become obscured by its traditional familiarity. Another reason this hymn is important to consider is because many people are often under the impression that hymns replete with barbarism, blood and contempt for humanity are not popular or representatively selected among many religious communities. "Amazing Grace" is the counter-argument to this perception, for it is an extremely popular tune. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone, religiously or secularly persuaded, who is not familiar with the song.

The history of modern interpretation surrounding this hymn is of particular interest, in that many modern groups who perform this song have struck out the word "wretch" and replaced it with a variety of other words that come off as less harsh in their estimation of humanity. Such replacement is completely contrary to the intention of the song, for the "wretch" is practically its entire focus. I have encountered several such versions of "Amazing Grace" that strike out the word "wretch," and can testify that while the striking out of the word diminishes its demeaning message, both the power and logic of the song as a whole is diminished as well. Catholic poet and essayist Kathleen Norris criticizes such revisions well by pointing out that "the bowdlerization of the text that results is thoroughly wretched English, and also laughably bland, which, taken together, is not an inconsiderable accomplishment" [6]. The bowdlerization of hymns turns up elsewhere as well. For instance, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, contains a verse that reads "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." Some modern versions have modified that particular verse to read "As he died to make all holy, let us live to make all free." This modification effectively whitewashes the fact that "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a war song whose contextual inspiration was the American Civil War.

These are good examples of people trying valiantly to pretend that these songs really do not say that which they really do say. More significantly, we also see in these modifications a pretense concerning doctrinal undertones. It is not as if using the word "wretch" distorts the doctrine that the hymn purports to represent and convey. On the contrary, the word "wretch" reflects the doctrine quite robustly. If an execution is required to compensate for what you committed and for your shortcomings, you must have extremely bad character traits. In this doctrinal scenario, you did not carry out something slightly wayward. You are manifestly evil to the core of your being. If one accepts the redemptive doctrine ascribed to the death and resurrection of Jesus, then a rejection of the word "wretch" is conspicuously inconsistent. The author of the hymn "Amazing Grace" is literally its defining context. John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave trader who experienced a violent, life-threatening storm aboard one of his slave ships in 1748 at the age of twenty-two. This storm resulted in the ship filling with water and beginning to sink, and also resulted in Newton's conversion to Christianity. He then wrote "Amazing Grace" with this experience in mind, as a reflection on what a terrible person he was and his amazement at being spared death. The hymn emphasizes the wickedness of the poet in dramatic contrast to the undeserved grace he received, and it is this contrast that gives the hymn its powerful meaning. The reality is that in order to believe that a bloody human sacrifice is a justifiable divine response to your life, you must necessarily believe that you are a wretched being, a "loathsome insect" as Edwards would have it.

9) "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?" ~ written by Isaac Watts in 1707:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?
[originally, For such a worm as I?]

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

In the history of modern interpretations and version of this hymn, we find instances of lyrical bowdlerization similar to those seen in hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Many people apparently do not appreciate the negative implications inherent in how the singer is asked to self-reference. This offending line originally came at the end of the first verse: "For such a worm as I." This phrase has been changed to "For sinners such as I," amd this revision now appears in most in-print hymnals and on most websites on which the lyrics are posted. On his website, Christian educator and columnist Keith Drury wrote an article not only seeking to explain and defend this revision, but also to condemn those few people in his congregation who prefer to keep the "worm" line as people with negative attitudes and poor self-esteem. He writes:
The rest of us just sing louder and drown out these sour notes. There are far more choir members singing songs of self-esteem than Reformers singing songs of total depravity. Since we’ve already rejected their “worm theology” we just ignore their warnings. We continue to preach a happy face doctrine of self esteem. People to like it. Which is why so many last Sunday changed the lyrics of Amazing Grace." We might think John Newton was a wretches [sic] and worm, but not us, thank you very much. We’re far better than that [7].

There is even a point early in his short article where Drury remarks "To be quite honest we don’t believe we were ever wretches—even before getting saved. Basically we think of ourselves as fairly nice people who became Christians and added meaning to our lives." But if Christian ministers such as Drury understand and accept what they are teaching as far as the Christian doctrine of redemption, they are in no position to deny that they and everyone else are worthy of execution. It is of course very amusing that some will sing about worms and some will sing about sinners (even in the same congregation), while both sides believe themselves to be better than the other. But what is truly amusing is that a congregation can reject a self-reference to "worm" or "wretch" and change it accordingly, but then continue to consider the redemptive meaning of the song to be intact.

"Was it for crimes that I had done / He groaned upon the tree?" This line is asking a powerful rhetorical question: Was it for me that he died, because of the crimes I committed? The answer to this is a resounding yes. According to Christian doctrine, an execution is required to pay for the acts of each and every person. The Christian cannot turn around and offer "But I was a good person." Good people do not need to be executed! Drury commits this error when he and his congregation sing of the blood of redemption and of Jesus' death freeing them from their sins, but then proceeds to state that "We might think John Newton was a [wretch] and worm, but not us, thank you very much. We’re far better than that." How can they claim that it would be justice for somebody to be brutally executed on their behalf, for their wrongdoings, and then turn around and state that they are primarily concerned with self-esteem above all? They are not crusaders of self-esteem, they are crusaders of total confusion. They do not make any sense.

The Sunday worshiper who self-references as a wretch and as a worm makes much more sense than people like Drury, for one who self-references as a wretch and a worm understands the doctrine. How much clearer do matters have to be laid out doctrinally than "When Christ, the might Maker died / For man the creature's sin"? Encapsulated in this hymn and the other hymns we have considered in this treatise is a twisted and demeaning philosophy that advocates scapegoating in lieu of personal responsibility for one's own actions. These hymns and the thousands of others that Christianity has inspired present us with a view of humanity that is utterly demeaning and degrading, a view designed to instill guilt and fear in people. And where guilt and fear are the tactics used to keep any system afloat, there is a sure indication that such a system should be discarded, and that a brighter vision of humanity's potential should be pursued.


1. Brandon Heath, "Love Never Fails," from What If We (Reunion, 2008). This song can be heard online at: (accessed 14 May 2010).

2. Not everything I say throughout this treatise will be qualified fully. But here I should take the time to say at the outset the obvious fact that not all Christians believe the same way. I understand Christians hold different views concerning the inspiration of Scripture, and I am not describing all Christians when I speak of this belief or the others I discuss.

3. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Inclusive Edition, ed. Emory Holloway (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1926).

4. Rosicrucian Fellowship International Headquarters, "Shakespeare -- The Lay Bible," (accessed 14 May 2010).

5. Jonathan Edwards (1741), "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes Revised Edition, ed. Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), pp. 164-165.

6. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 166.

7. Keith Drury, "Saving Wretches Like You: Of Wretches and Worms," 30 Jan. 2007, (accessed 14 May 2010).

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