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Contemporary Worship and Militaristic Imagery

January 6, 2008

I’ve posted many times on this blog on contemporary Christian worship (if you’re interested you’ll find some stuff here, here, here and here) and if you’ve read these pieces you’ll know I have ‘issues’. This morning at worship we sang a new hymn to us, a 2005 effort from the Keith Getty/Stuart Townend stable. As writers they’re reasonable, better than most out there, but they’re not poets and I think their melodies are pretty nondescript.

The new song we learned is called ‘O Church Arise and Put Your Armour On‘ and is published by Kingsway. The imagery used is derivative, relying on surprising counterpoints for impact, like ‘the sword that makes the wounded whole’. The final verse has a nice allusion to the Hebrews 11 chapter featuring the great congregation of the faithful who have gone before, and redeems the song somewhat:

So Spirit come put strength in every stride

Give grace for every hurdle
That we may run with faith to win the prize
Of a servant good and faithful
As saints of old still line the way
Retelling triumphs of His grace
We hear their calls and hunger for the day
When with Christ we stand in glory

But before I got there my mind had been distracted by some of the disturbing imagery in earlier verses, notably an image in the third verse:

Come see the cross where love and mercy meet
As the Son of God is stricken.
Then see His foes crushed beneath his feet
For the Conqueror has risen

This came after earlier imagery of ‘An army bold’, who answer ‘our call to war’ ‘to rage against the captor’.

I couldn’t help but think of how this imagery would sound in an Iraqi Christian church? Or even in Kenya at the moment. Would such a song stir them to worship? I don’t know. What if an Iraqi from a Baghdad church came to worship with us this morning, would they experience any dissonance? Or is it just me?

Or about the appropriateness of such imagery used in worship in Churches in the West in a time of overwhelming military might. Which we’re not afraid to use.

I know the bible has this imagery. I know that the song itself is probably a meditation on Ephesians 6 and the Armour of Faith. But is Ephesians as offensive (as opposed to defensive) as this song patently is? And if the song is also an invitation to evangelistic endeavour, as it appears to be, is such militaristic imagery appropriate or sensitive?

I’m afraid the song disturbed me quite a bit. But maybe I’m just odd.

Am I right to be concerned about militaristic and violent imagery in our hymns and songs?

From → Worship

  1. Absolutely, you’re right. There is a big difference between an oppressed people singing about the defeat of injustice, and an oppressive people singing about the slaughter of their enemies. While the former needs to be qualified heavily by the nonviolent victory depicted in Revelation and throughout the NT, there is absolutely no place for the latter in any church claiming to be called Christian. Even if the songwriters or the worship leaders understand how to take the imagery correctly (which is doubtful: they probably “spiritualize” it which is at best naive), the vast majority of Western, wealthy Christians “worshipping” to the song are simply going to have their Western, affluent lifestyles reinforced by it. Even if the song is well intended by those who choose to use it, it is incredibly unwise to perform it in worship or anywhere without serious teaching to precede it and follow it. But then again, that’s true of most the songs we sing in church in the U.S.

  2. I’m with you, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this:

  3. Perhaps we are all oppressed and this, culturally, is language that metaphorically and biblically points people to the fact that Christ indeed is a warrior, as well as a King. Death, hades and the devil himself are indeed foes and Christ has indeed crushed them.

    Another thought is that worship music is indeed cultural, and I loathe the idea of being overly apologetic in how we express our liturgy, since we should never impose our culture anyway on other cultures. So, I would assume Iraqi Christians need to be encouraged to be indigenous in their worship expression and we should not apologize for being such, too.

    The irony here to me is that these modern writers are attempting to recapture traditional congregational singing and bring that into modern day yet won’t be able to quite meet the standards set here. No one will be completely happy in our day in age with worship music, regardless. In history, Isaac Watts was criticized for similar things I think the real problem is in setting a legalism beyond our Christian liberty in how we express our liturgy.

  4. Hey, Rich. Above when I said that it was “at best naive” to spiritualize the violent imagery in Revelation and the broader NT, that was a clue, or should have been, that spiritualizing the imagery won’t solve the problem.

    Moreover, I’d like for you, if you could, to describe how your oppression is comparable to that of contemporary Iraqi Christians, or of ancient Palestinian Jews.

    Finally, please explain to me how your position as a paid Sunday-morning musician did not contribute to your knee-jerk response here. I read and re-read your comments, and when I finally figured out what it was you were saying, I realized you still hadn’t figured out what it is Glenn is saying.

    If militaristic worship music is “indigenous” to the U.S., perhaps that is precisely the problem Glenn was calling our attention to in the first place.

    As far as the charge of legalism goes, I think you need some new categories to work with.


  5. Pistol Pete permalink

    I can’t speak for persecuted Christians of today, but Biblically it is often those most persecuted who most identify and use militaristic imagery. The prime example of this is Revelation.

    I think the people most uncomfortable with militaristic language are folks like us who are relatively comfortable and don’t need “the sword of the Spirit” to protect our earthly lives. Those who are truly under attack find great solace to know they worship a God who “crushes foes beneath His feet.”

    Your question about Christians in the West today singing songs like this is very germane. Personally, I don’t even like it when my choir director has a bunch of lily-whie folks sing a “Negro Spiritual”. But, I had an African-American choir director and he insisted that the song itself had value and was worth singing.

    Maybe this is true for songs based on militaristic Biblical passages. Maybe not. I think it depends on the spirit and understanding of the singers, maybe also in how you frame it.

  6. Thanks all for the comments and helping me understand a little better the issue itself and my reactions to this song.

    A few things to add, which will not include a comment on that youtube video Jim, which is too scary for words.

    Firstly, my wife and I try to be responsible parents. We don’t allow our two kids (12 and 10) to have TVs or web access in their bedrooms for instance. (That’s our choice). And my son, who is 10 and loves his x-box 360, we won’t allow any shoot-em-up games. Again we have decided they’re not a healthy engagement for him and his mind and spirit which are still forming.

    Taking a very high view of the formative power of worship and singing then, both for the individual and for the congregation, is it acceptable to have violent imagery in songs of praise and worship? It strikes me as odd to protect him from being influenced by violent imagery at home, only for the influence to come in church!!

    Secondly, I agree with you Rich that worship should be culturally sensitive, and I’m not suggesting it should be bland and colourless. We need more spice. But Thom’s comment on militaristic imagery being indigenous is worth pondering. Which comes first? A violent culture which infiltrates worship? Or worship which ultimately comes to shape a nation and its views?

    I repeat, I’m not denying the presence of this imagery in the scriptures, I’m only asking whether this imagery is appropriate for worship in the West at this particular time in our history.

    As for oppression, well, I find this hard. Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn ‘Lord for the years’ challenges me deeply:

    “Lord, for our land in this our generation, spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care:”

    I fear this kind of oppression is not as susceptible to direct confrontation, in large part because their effects are numbing, and we don’t know it.

    Thanks again, and would love to hear more.

  7. Right. Liberation theologians have always insisted that the oppressors need liberation too, from the very oppressive systems of their devising. But that kind of “oppression of the oppressors” is certainly not the kind that requires militant metaphorical imagery to establish patterns of resistance–to themselves. That would be suicidal worship!

  8. That’s it Thom…and much more concise than I could say it.

    I think we need new reflective tools to help us examine the forms and content of our worship. Maybe the application of the insights of liberation theology to the canon of our songs would be an interesting exercise.

  9. Oh, absolutely. That’s would be a tremendous investment of our time. I’m just beginning to work on a catechism with some friends, and we’re going to be trying to do it up against lib. theology as well.

  10. sounds great Thom…please keep me in the loop and if there is anything I could contribute let me know.

  11. Email me your email address and I’ll invite you. We’re only JUST getting started.

  12. asharedadventure permalink

    I totally agree Glenn. Yes I can understand that the writers and those making the selection were obviously well intentioned and as a secondary source it’s difficult to connect with the heart of someones personal understanding and interpretation of scripture. I also appreciate that in our society where the fear of offending gives various religious groups complete freedom, Christians perhaps need less passivity and need to make a stand to protect what we believe. However, such severe images of destruction and crushing foes (not to mention the youtube video!)does not reflect the character of Jesus or his teachings. First of all we are told that no-one is righteous, not even one. Secondly, we ‘struggle not against flesh and blood but…spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms’, and thirdly it is not up to us to crush anyone, it is God who is in charge. The purpose of the full armour of God is not to proactively attack, but to enable, protect and strengthen us to STAND against the devil’s schemes. Yes military imagery of strength and victory is used, we are ‘more than conquerors’ but this is achieved THROUGH HIM who LOVED us. Jesus is our example and he overcame evil not through vicious attack and violence but as a humble lamb to the slaughter. In a society where violence is increasing, crimes are becoming more sinister in nature and wars are everyday news, perhaps Christians need to be offering an alternative, not more of the same.

  13. spot on joanne, especially your point about the Jesus way of overcoming. We need constant reminding of the non-violent nature of his resistance.


  14. virtualmethodist permalink

    I am reliably informed that Stewart Townend is quite keen on computer gaming, so perhaps his lyrics may be as influenced by gaming as by scripture… There are worse however…
    Personally I am hesitant in using songs with militaristic overtones, not because of a global perspective, but a historic one, given how militaristic hymns of a previous age pump-primed people to sign up to imperialist military ventures… If they had that effect then, what are they doing to our mindset now. If I do use any with even a whiff of it I tend to encourage people to think about what it means… An spiritualising it is not always sufficient…
    Our contemporary sacred texts (worship and liturgy) must grow out of our context and the Biblical text, but must be critical and countercultural, transforming rather than conforming.
    Interesting discussion… terrifying video…

  15. thanks david, the connection of music with recruitment/motivation to war is not one I had thought of, but important. Thanks.

    We live in faith for countercultural and transformational songs.

  16. virtualmethodist permalink

    John Bell’s stuff is hard to beat, and I find it hard to understand why they haven’t been more widely adopted in the current celtic craze… But perhaps it is because they are too challenging…

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