This holiday season has been a large illustration to me of the huge divides that split the nation. Whether it be the silly attempt to paint the newly passed into law tax package as somehow evil or the numerous articles, TV shows and other media I have seen attempting to paint Christmas as about something other than the birth of Jesus Christ, people have been working to divide the nation.
My Christmas dinner table included a long time friend who is on sabbatical from his position as a teaching physician and he is using the time, just 2-3 years ahead of his retirement, to obtain his Masters degree in Medical Ethics. Our discussion, conducted mostly when the wives were cleaning up and therefore out of the room, centered on two amazing facts. One, that most proponents of whacked out stuff lead very conventional lives. Secondly, and this is likely to be the topic of his dissertation, that it is impossible to establish medical ethics absent an objective right and wrong. As he is also Christian, we discussed that religion seems to be the only source of such objectivity, but of course, that observation may not be acceptable in his dissertation.
As I have pondered these facts in the days since, and contemplated a few Christmas hymns, the deep divisions in our nation seem a bit more explainable.
There has been a concerted effort in our nation to blow up any concept of objective right and wrong, the question is why? Is it really anti-religious in nature? When you consider that most people that propose really strange stuff live quite conventional lives, one has to wonder why the concerted effort.
The answer, I think, lies in the concept of “self” and “self-expression.” I think most of us of a certain age can recall expressing an idea that was completely loony only to have it completely dismissed as simply unthinkable. I think we also recall the sting of such rebuke. Today such ideas are bandied around the public square as if they were worth their weight in gold. Why? Because we do not want to make anyone feel the sting of rebuke that we felt – we do not want to “crush” them. Not to mention the fact that freedom includes the freedom to be stupid. But in the end we also understand that the conventional works best and so we lead conventional lives while upholding the enormously whacky.
The case that I am trying to make here is that the great shift in our society has not been away from objective right and wrong, but has been instead towards the supremacy of the self. But if our highest value is not to rebuke those that are simply wrong, then their wrong headed ideas will take hold to some level. Maintaining an objective standard of any sort means that there are going to be people that are wrong and require correction. This is, of course, illustrated by the enormous public rebuke aimed at those of us that actually insist there is an objective right and wrong. Because of course there can be no actual absence of right and wrong, its is just that we have shifted values towards the self; therefore the only person worthy of rebuke is someone that assails my sense of self. Subjectivity is now “the right” (defending the self) and objectivity now “the wrong.”
We are divided by our devotion to self. The value that most universally describes the nation, that is to say is shared most broadly, also divides the nation. There is a big “Whoops!”
So where do the Christmas hymns fit in? Most churches today pride themselves on their current and even forward looking approach to church music. But at Christmas time we break out the classics. So, early in Advent we were busy signing “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and I was struck by how different the lyrics were than what I was used to signing. Consider a single verse of that song:
Hail the Flesh, the God Head see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
That verse is a deep theological statement – an objective statement of Christian belief. And it is in stark contrast to the usual board of musical fare that we sing the rest of the year. Songs like “How Majestic is Your Name,” “Cornerstone,” or “10,000 Reasons” are beautiful and meaningful – they even quote scripture – but they are not statements of objective truth, they are expressions of personal feeling.
There is certainly a place for expressing ourselves to God, the Psalms are full of such expressions, but the musical shift in churches of the last decades has been to move away from affirming truths about God, to telling God stuff and in that move the focus has moved from God to us. We have effectively moved the focus of our worship services away from God to how we feel and think about God – we have moved from the objective to the subjective.
Christianity has participated, even aided, the movement in our society towards the subjective and thus served to deepen the divides. It is not that the church has failed to stand against this tide, it is that we have participated actively in it.
It is no surprise then that we see so many churches experiencing the same shifts in values that we are witnessing in the nation at large. It is also the reason we see much of Protestantism defined by schism.
It is time to work on New Years resolutions. I think I have a good idea for the church’s.