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Saturday, May 05, 2007


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
All exclaiming

Indescribable, uncontainable,
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.


WILL VAUS said...

Just so you know, C. S. Lewis actually sat in the seat behind the pillar, as I was told by his step-son, Douglas Gresham. Apparently he sat there so that the vicar would not see his expression during the sermon.

Dan Agonistes said...

I remember joking with my wife that he might have sat beside the pillar there so that others couldn't see his expression but that sounds about right as well.

Lester said...

Two basic thoughts strike me (ha).

1. As we look at many hymns and praise songs we see that most song writers are not theologians in any stretch of the imagination. As one studies God and his message to us, that becomes very clear. It becomes to me an effort of singing in the spirit of what the song was written for, not necessarily the lyrcs themselves at times.

2. While the concept of God using lightning to harken to the old view of diety displeasure I agree with your statement that that does not belong in the view of God.

However I do see that all things work under the direction of God and therefore he directs lightning, now whether he directs by simply stating the natural physics about how the lightning would travel or by intentionally knowning that it will strike point a or point b - how do I know? I certainly being a finite man cannot understand a infinite God and how he wants to interact with my environment. Job 36:32 becomes an interesting discussion in this.

bryan torre said...

The different ways to look at the level of God's involvement in everyday things makes for interesting thought/conversation.

I often think about a conversation between a dear aunt and her son (my cousin) that went something like this:

Aunt: Praise the Lord! Jesus has provided us a parking space.

Cousin: No mom, somebody backed out...

Dan Agonistes said...


On point 1 I agree that we can (and perhaps should) look past these kinds of things in the spririt that Lewis encouraged. But that doesn't, in my view, mean that church leaders (those who are closer to being theologians) shouldn't be responsible for doing their due dilligence.

On point 2 I also agree that "to direct" could be looked at in that larger context. Once again though I'm very reticent to seem to ascribe to God the characteristic of actively directing each and every lightning bolt and tornado. I prefer to think of "directing" as setting up the physics as you mention. But still, the lyrics of this song when taken in their natural meaning would convey intentionality to most folks. And as long as we're writing a bunch of new praise songs why not remove phrases that will cause confusion at best and alienation at worst?

unca said...

Here's somebody's solution:

Sometimes a subtle reworking of a word or phrase allows us to sing a new song with full conviction. One example is the song “Indescribable” by singer/ songwriter Chris Tomlin, in which the line, “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go?” suggests possibly a Calvinistic assumption that God controls every single event in the universe.

Making a simple change to read, “Who has seen every lightning bolt, where it will go?”, while not grammatically perfect, allows for God’s omniscience and makes this a song that our congregation loves to sing, with the lyric exclaiming, “You are amazing, God!” (We also find a way to tell the congregation about the change and explain why it is being made.)

Anonymous said...

Your post has been linked / recommended from here:

C.S. Lewis, Chris Tomlin, James Herriott and Lightning

Just thought you'd like to know.


unca said...

Lots of controversy about hymns way before the era of praise songs. I've always wondered about the beloved lines from, "In the Garden" : And He walks with me and He talks with me/And He tells me I am His own/And the joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known." What does that last line mean? That the singer's relationship with God surpasses that of others?
And there are plenty of stanzas from the pen of the great Isaac Watts which may deserve renewed scruity these days, including:

Thy hand shall on rebellious kings
A fiery tempest pour,
While we beneath Thy sheltering wings
Thy just revenge adore.

Dan Agonistes said...

Great points Unca. Using alternate words seems to me to be entirely proper and a responsbility of church leaders. I wonder if C.S. Lewis' distaste for most hymns stemmed from this as well.

But as Lewis also notes our job is laymen is to do the best with what we've been given but it would be nice if what we are given was a little better.

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vanbayards said...

Great discussion! I'm definitely not a revered theologian but I am a worship leader who takes seriously the charge of bringing scripturally sound, God-glorifying songs to our congregation. Just like we are supposed to use scripture to interpret scripture (see what else God has to say on a topic based on what he says in another area of scripture) I think you can use the same principle on music. What does the rest of this song say? God's majesty is undeniably awesome!... That God could create lightning and control it... as well as the entire universe as He does is "indescribable"!

I think that it is the intent of the song... to point out God's AWSOME nature and praise Him for that. But... since you decided to focus on the "lightning" then I will throw in my two cents on that also.

You mentioned that you "cringe" when you hear that line in the verse, "Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go." Could it be that we should "cringe" at the thought that God might send lightning our way? In today's music (and even in the sermons of today) there is a tendency to mainly focus on the warm, fuzzy, love and grace of Jesus Christ and forget that "righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne." (Psalm 97:2) Continuing in Psalm 97... verse 3-6 say, "Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory."

It is in contrast to this great, powerful, awesome, and even "frightening" God that his mercy, grace and love for us (even while we were still sinners) stands in stark contrast to anything else you'll ever see or experience. When I understand His righteousness and justice, then His grace and mercy overwhelms me even more.

Just something to think about... if we take phrases out of our songs that highlight the righteous, holy and just side of God then we are left with only a partial picture of who He really is.

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