Oh, come on, all ye faithful

My article on the appalling theology of many Christmas carols appeared in the December issue of Reform, a Christian magazine published by the United Reformed Church. I’ve copied the article below. Please click here for more details of Reform magazine.

December is the only month of the year in which you can hear the same songs in supermarkets that you’re singing in church. It’s an odd feeling, as if God and Mammon have reached a temporary truce for the duration of the season.

There are plenty of secular songs playing in shops too. You’ve almost certainly heard the one about an omniscient tyrant who punishes people for crying (Santa Claus is Coming to Town). When I was very young, Santa Claus and God became slightly confused in my mind. Both seemed to be powerful beings handing out rewards and punishments.

Sadly, many people think that Christians really believe in this simplistic, abusive idea of God. Christmas, when people who rarely enter a church often pay their annual visit, could be a time to challenge this perception. Unfortunately, we seem to respond to their arrival by singing some of the most badly written, incomprehensible and theological dubious songs ever produced.

I am not saying all Christmas carols are bad. There are some good ones, but I would be happy to see most of them never sung in church again.

Some are so badly written that I’m amazed anyone wants to sing them. Presumably We Three Kings of Orient Are is supposed to mean “We are three kings of Orient”. I realise that grammatical flexibility is needed to make words rhyme, but this doesn’t justify moving the verb to the end of the sentence in a way that never happens in English unless you’re Yoda (I annoyed by this syntax am).

In the Bleak Midwinter imposes a north European landscape on Palestine, before saying a shepherd would respond to the nativity by choosing to “bring a lamb”. What would a newborn baby do with a lamb?. Even this isn’t as baffling as The Holly and the Ivy, which draws extremely tenuous connections between plants and the birth of Jesus.

I’m not condemning writers for their imperfections. I have at least as many as they do. But why are Christians so keen to sing such songs so often? What message are we giving out? Take the old favourite Once in Royal David’s City:

“And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms he lay..”

Would he? Mary may not have thought him very obedient after he hung around in the Temple debating theology while his parents frantically searched for him. But it gets worse:

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he”.

It seems the claims about Jesus’ childhood are only a prelude to telling children to conform.

There are much better carols that can be brought down by the context in which they’re sung. How can we sing enthusiastically about Bethlehem without recognising the oppression taking place there today? I’m happy to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, but let’s acknowledge that we’re singing about a real place. Ironically, the lyrics say little about Bethlehem and it has much deeper theology than most carols, asking Christ to “be born in us today” and “cast out our sin”.

That leaves Away In A Manger, a song so full of bad theology that it’s difficult to know where to start. Christian theology proclaims a fully human, as well as fully divine, messiah. Yet this human baby apparently doesn’t cry. Even that isn’t as bad as “I love thee, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky”.

Jesus is not in the sky! Jesus is here, in our midst, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. He is calling us to him today, not waiting for us on a cloud. Yet, with more people in church than we’re likely to see for another year, we decide to reinforce the misconception that Christians worship a God “up there” and are unconcerned with people’s lives down here.

We have something exciting to proclaim at Christmas. Let’s sing of a baby born amidst scandal to an unknown girl in an obscure corner of a brutal empire. Let’s tell of how that baby frightened rulers, challenged the powerful and set out to change the world with a gang of confused fishermen and prostitutes. How he lived so freely and faithfully that he was killed by a vicious government with the collusion of religious leaders. And how he has risen from the dead to meet us, heal us, free us and save us.

A song by John Bell and Graham Maule reminds us that “A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools, has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools”.

Happy Christmas.

9 responses to “Oh, come on, all ye faithful

  1. Merry Christmas, Symon.
    That was one weird essay!
    The battle with secularism and modernity is a good topic. Song and the banality of Santa certainly a good wedge for opening a deep discussion, but then you go off the deep end, you do. Discussing grammar, you are. Politics modern, no consequence. Lyrics analyzed, not quite. Literalist, much protest, much too.

    Sometimes I wonder if Santa is so jolly because God must have a good laugh at how we put things together. We are children focused on a bouncing ball, while an entire universe passes by unawares. While I am no fan of the teaching of Santa, the birth is good news. And love and sharing and celebration all good, too.

    I did like the end of the essay.

    Perhaps you should try to stop being so negative about the Spirit clumsily forcing its way through? There are many seeds for many different crops. Some will take root, and some will not, but that is just the nature of things. Just because you (or I) get nothing out of it, that does not mean nothing positive is happening.

    Matthew 13:30
    Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

    From water to wine, from weed to wheat. The transformation takes many shapes. Draw out the good in all things.

    wishing you the best,

  2. Love it. I’ve always had trouble with that verse of Once in Royal David’s city (and the last verse isn’t much better: ‘Where like stars his children crowned All in white shall wait around’ – doesn’t sound like much fun to me…). ‘Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’ – surely a baby who never cried would not actually survive? Crying is a baby’s way of expressing a need. I also hate ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ – what’s to abhor about a womb? We all started in one! I am leading our service this Sunday, using the Bethlehem Carol Sheet, and have had to weed out several carols for bad theology (some can survive if we just miss a verse). Not to mention the non-inclusive language, which I shall be altering.

    • Oh, I really hate the alteration to Hark! The herald angels sing:, where the lovely line ‘Born to raise the sons of Earth’ becomes ‘Born to raise us from the Earth’, making it sound like Jesus came to teach us David Blaine’s levitation trick.

    • (And I think the ‘womb’ in that line is a metonymy for ‘physical form’: the point is that Jesus doesn’t abhor taking on physical form. It’s a response to the heresy that ‘spirit’ is good and ‘body’ is evil: Jesus does not abhor His physical form.)

  3. Symon, in We Three Kings of Orient Are there is a continuation across the lines. I’m sure its actually intended as “We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts”. So perhaps push it back up the list of carols!

    For your next post look at the class reinforcement of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, much more subversive, and perhaps efficient in its purpose 😉

    • No, it’s clearly poetic inversion, which is a not ‘bad writing’ but a great technique if used sparingly: ‘With this ring I thee wed’, obviously, or Shakespeare used it all the time: ‘For Banquo’s issue have I fil’d my mind/For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d’, as did other poets: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree’.

      And of course John Newton used it on one of the most glorious lines of any hymn ever (and what great theology too!):

      Saviour, if of Zion’s city
      I though grace a member am,
      let the world deride or pity,
      I will glory in thy Name.
      Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
      all his boasted pomp and show;
      solid joys and lasting treasure
      none but Zion’s children know.

    • Or from Newton with even better theology and two examples of poetic inversion:

      ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
      And grave my fears relieved…

      The Lord has promised good to me.
      His word my hope secures…

  4. I’m definitely with you on the “Christian children all must be / mild obedient, good as he” line – always hated that – the Victorians just slipped that in to make their lives easier, didn’t they? But I always read that “We Three Kings” exerpt as fitting across two lines, ie. “We three Kings of Orient are bearing gifts. We traverse afar”. My particular favourite is “I Saw Three Ships” though, which throws accuracy entirely to the wind given that said ships are supposed to have “sailed into Bethlehem” (note the location: https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=bethlehem+google+maps&ll=31.704803,35.205688&spn=2.789781,3.532104&client=ubuntu-browser&hnear=Bethlehem&t=m&z=8)

  5. Hi Symon,

    Can you give us a theologically sound playlist of Christmas Carols? In other words, if you were putting together a carol concert – what would you sing?



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