In the spring of 2004 my wife and eldest daughter had the chance to travel to England so that I could attend a conference. Since this was our first visit we planned to pack in as much as we could during the trip and in addition to a quick tour of London that included the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, we headed up to the Yorkshire Dales where the real James Herriott (Alf Wright) practiced. Before making our way to the conference south of London we swung over to Oxford in order to get a look at where C.S. Lewis lived and worked. On a rainy Saturday, with the help of a local man who knows the pastor, we were able to visit the Anglican church near Lewis' home where he worshipped for all of his adult life and where he was buried in the small church cemetery. Inside the church there are several remembrances of Lewis including a very nice window depicting a scene from Narnia and a marker on the pew where Lewis and his brother Warnie regularly sat. That's my daughter sitting in the seat that Lewis typically occupied.
All of this came to mind as I was reading Lewis' essay "On Church Music" published in Christian Reflections the other night. The essay attempts to navigate the controversy of "high" versus "low" church music with high meaning more serious music sung by a trained choir and low meaning hymns sung by the congregation. As Lewis often does he sees in both the opportunity for Christians to "humbly and charitably" sacrifice by either indulging the "lusty roar of the congregation" or remaining silent and respectful of that which one doesn't understand. In that way "Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked but the music they have disliked." For his part Lewis was more skeptical that any music is very religiously relevant and even in this essay we find one of his famous quotes that "What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better and shorter hymns; especially fewer."
Given the admonition that at the very least music is a chance at sacrifice and a means of giving grace, I'm somewhat hesitant to proceed. And yet I'll share what I found to be my own interesting reaction to one of the praise songs we sometimes sing in our church. The song is called "Indescribable" by Chris Tomlin, the first two verses and the chorus of which go like so;
From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation's revealing Your majesty
From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untamable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God
Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go
Or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow
Who imagined the sun and gives source to its light
Yet conceals it to bring us the coolness of night
None can fathom
Now, this song is clearly extolling the power and majesty of God and has a melody and cadence that heightens the emotions and from what I observe is clearly one of the favorites of the congregation. That said, each time the second verse beginning with "Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go..." begins I cringe just a little.
To me, these lyrics that God has an interest in directing individual lightening bolts harkens back to the early 18th century when lightning was viewed as a means of God's displeasure and/or the work of demons which, along with good spirits, were thought to have filled the air. In those days as a storm approached church bells would be rung in order to ward off the bolts as in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas "The tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning". As you can imagine this wasn't an effective strategy and as Walter Isaacson related in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, "during one thirty-five year period in Germany alone during the mid-1700s alone, 386 churches were struck and over a hundred bell ringers killed." Of course Franklin's invention of the lightning rod in 1752 began to change this way of thinking although some theologians resisted its use fearing that it would be impious to resist the hand and judgment of God. In one particularly tragic event over 3,000 people were killed in 1767, some fifteen years after Franklin's invention when the church of San Nazaro in Venice was struck igniting gunpowder being stored in the church.
What I find interesting in all of this is that in the praise song lightning is viewed as just another display of God's creativity and power along with the flowers and stars. And yet this is a power that has been tamed by the intervention of man and so in the song we can stand back and admire it without fear of consequences or judgement. While congregations 300 years ago may indeed have also looked at lightning as a display of God's power, they would additionally have looked at it as an instrument of God's judgement. The mention of lightning in a hymn would have conjured up far different notions to them than it does to us. One wonders whether including the other sentiments expressed in Tomlin's song would even have seemed appropriate. Beyond that it seems just silly to praise God in worship songs for directing lightning bolts when we do our darnedest to intercept and redirect them whenever possible. What if the word lightning in the song were replaced with "tornado"? Would we really sing "Who has told every tornado where it should go..."? I just don't think most modern Christians think God uses natural events to punish people and so I find it somewhat surprising that the concept is so blatant in a song that I've heard sung in more than one evangelical church in the last decade. Unless I'm wrong one would hope church leaders would do a better job of ensuring that what is sung and said in the service lines up with current Christian belief. To that end, I wonder what seekers attending services think when they see lyrics like this?
The point was also hit home a few weeks ago when we also had a guest worship leader who sang a song he had written that included the line "to the God of lightning." Before the song he relayed the context of its writing which included sitting with his eight-year old daughter on the back porch watching the thunderstorms roll over the eastern Colorado plains. His daughter was awed by the display and before heading to bed asked to linger and then prayed that God would send another blast of lightning and thunder. Again, 300 years ago that would have been unfathomable.
To me, remembering the terror and destruction that lightning has caused along with how the church viewed it historically, I find it anachronistic and intellectually vacuous to sing praise songs in which we in effect blame God for a natural phenomenon.