Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Music, Theology, and The Saving Grace of Jesus

Not too long ago I was speaking to Mark Baker on the issue of communicating the atonement. Baker is a former professor of mine in seminary, and the author of several books, including Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and the editor of its sequel, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross. Because of our relationship over the last 7 years, I was able to submit a chapter for Proclaiming, which, I'm always pleased to tell people, made it through the final cut and into the book.

At heart is the issue of atonement: what exactly did the cross accomplish? Baker's premise is that today we live too strongly with one story/metaphor: Penal Substitutionary Atonement. You've heard the story: We sinned, God became really angry, we deserved God's wrath, Jesus took God's wrath into himself on the cross, God was appeased and we received salvation through Jesus.

Historically, there have been other ways of looking at the cross. Biblically, there are certainly other ways of describing the work of Christ to bring salvation to his people. Some would argue that PSA should be only one of many metaphors (a la Scot McKnight), others would argue it's an unhealthy metaphor at best, so perhaps should be set aside for awhile.

In Recovering the Scandal, Baker and Joel Green make the case that even the biblical models of atonement are metaphors at best: none fully describe the intricate inner mechanics of salvation. They argue that the NT writers were doing their best to contextualize the message of the cross, bringing home the eternal message in contemporary words to impact local listeners. They thus encourage today's pastors, teachers, sunday school leaders, thinkers and theologians to come up with metaphors for atonement that speak to today's listeners: to tell "the old, old story" in such a way that it is faithful to the biblical texts but expands the models so that they impact today's listeners. They also, certainly, encourage us all to open up the biblical models and embrace the fuller range of atonement language, rather than focusing in on the "appeasement of wrath" message inherent in PSA.

So back to our conversation. Mark's question to me was "how do we get this message out? How do we reach people? How do we get their attention? How can we begin to impact the larger church culture with this message?" The PSA model is so central to so many presentations and understandings of the gospel that almost nobody is hearing that they have a choice to look at it differently. From the days we're in sunday school, up through "decision night" at camp, into the sermons we listen to and the songs we sing. . .they are all dripping with PSA language. So Mark's written these books, Scot McKnight recently added to the conversation with his A Community Called Atonement, but on the ground, word just doesn't seem to be getting out very quickly. So how do we change an entire culture?

About that same time, I was finishing up Her Heart Can See, the recent biography of Fanny J. Crosby, and it struck me how much our music influences our theology. The songs we sing as children, the songs we love in worship - whether or not we realize it, they teach us the things we come to believe are Truth. In Crosby's day, she was often criticized by theologians and composers as being "trite" and "given to emotionalism." Her hymns were simple and spoke simple truths of hope and faith and God's love. In many ways, the Evangelical Church owes its passion for evangelism to Crosby and other songwriters, who wrote songs like "Rescue the Perishing." Much of our sentimentalism is owed to her and others who wrote songs about Jesus as friend, as companion, as dear father waiting to welcome us home. And so it struck me: as long as we're singing songs that say "And on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied," people will continue to hold strongly to a PSA model. A changing of hymn lyrics could be one of the primary methods of getting people to think about this all differently. The truth is, theologians can argue about this until the cows come home, but one or two good songs could bring about quick change across the board.

And so it was that I was excited to hear the new song "Jesus Saves," by Travis Cottrell and David Moffit. (You can listen to it on Travis' MySpace Page). They paint one of the fullest, most robust pictures of atonement that I have heard in song. What I especially appreciate is that they reflect one of Scot McKnight's central tenets, and one that I have long felt was important: that the whole life of Jesus Christ, from birth to death to resurrection, is part of the atonement story. You cannot boil the whole thing down to one transaction that took place on the cross. Instead, from the incarnation, through the life and ministry of Jesus, on the cross and in the empty tomb, all are working together to bring about salvation for us and this world. And Cottrell and Moffit get it. Look closely at these lyrics, and note how they bring the whole story into The Story:

Hear the heart of heaven beating, "Jesus saves, Jesus saves."
And the hush of mercy breathing, "Jesus saves, Jesus saves."
Hear the host of heaven sing, "Glory to the newborn King."
And the sounding joy repeating, "Jesus saves."

And this is the part where they really nail it:
He will live, our sorrows sharing, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.
He will die, our burden bearing, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.
"It is done!" will shout the cross, "Christ has paid redemption's cost!"
And the empty tomb's declaring, "Jesus saves!"

Do you see it? The whole life of Christ is there - birth, life (identification), death and resurrection, all in one full picture of redemption. And the cross is there, the idea of paying the cost of redemption, but without bringing in an angry God in need of appeasement. You have substitutionary atonement there, without bringing in the Penal part of it. You have the necessity of the cross, but also the importance of Christ sharing in our sorrows throughout life. And you have it all brought to completion, not at the cross, but in the empty tomb.

It also helps that it's a great song, with a very catchy, singable melody, so it sticks in your head once you've heard it once or twice.

And this is exactly what is needed in the conversation. I encourage you to take a listen, and see if you can't get it into the rotation at your church, wherever that may be. And take time to consider: what other songs could contribute to this conversation?

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