Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Be Careful What You Sing, or A Discourse on "Nearer My God to Thee"

Someone may be listening to the words.

This might be a little something to get under the skin of Wallace Hartley and draw him out from his self imposed isolation:

From Chapter 6 of Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen originally published in 1923 (Macmillan, NY)

"The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether rooted in the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ. The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or a higher view of Jesus' Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word 'cross' is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross;..."

(I wonder if he would have ranked the hymn higher if it was worded "Thy cross?")

"...the verse simply means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives.

But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the Cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the center of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood.

It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling—'the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.' When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.

Thus the objection to the vicarious sacrifice of Christ disappears altogether before the tremendous Christian sense of the majesty of Jesus' Person. It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory. And if the notion of vicarious atonement be so absurd as modern opposition would lead us to believe, what shall be said of the Christian experience that has been based upon it? The modern liberal Church is fond of appealing to experience. But where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary?"

I had to find the lyrics to "Nearer My God to Thee" at Cyber Hymnal, and review them to see how I would rank them. Here they are:
"Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.


Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone.
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God to Thee.


There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.


Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.


Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.


There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee.


How about that "So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee?" Maybe we could re-write it to say, "So by thy blood to be nearer, my God to Thee?"

Maybe the "upward I'll fly" would be objectionable to Machen as well. Would a better alternative be, "Or if carried on your loving arms...upward I'll fly?"

Come to think about it, Machen might be right. After all, it is God who came to us to deliver us. I cannot, by my efforts, climb the stairway to heaven alluded to in verse three. So maybe the hymn needs a new title to go with the re-write. How about, "My God, You came down to be nearer to me."

As our hymns are an offering of thanks and praise to God, the onus is upon us to get the words right.


  1. It seems to me that the objection to the idea of Christ's atonement is predicated upon what amounts to an Arian misunderstanding of the Gospel. That is, viewing Christ and God as separate beings with God requiring the sacrifice of another to assuage his anger. Of course, that's incorrect as Christ and God are one. God didn't require the sacrifice of another. He was/is that sacrifice. It makes the cross truly wondrous indeed.


  2. Anglikittty9:36 AM

    "Take up YOUR cross and follow me." Mark 8:34.

    With all due respect for Christ's atonement (and I do mean MAJOR respect) the concern over this hymn is misplaced.

    Folks who must endure intense physical pain have been helped enormously to cope with that pain through a sense of emulating Christ in his suffering. Let's not take that away from them through a prissy theological tweaking of a fine hymn. If I were a Titanic passenger facing a watery grave as in the video clip, I think I would find "Nearer My God to Thee" very helpful.

  3. Prissy theological tweaking! Great one!

    Rumor has it that the Titanic band played "Songe d'Automne" (Dream Of Autumn) as the great ship went down, and not the hymn that caused Machen and the Undergroundpewster such angst.

  4. Found this here:

    Did the band really play "Nearer My God To Thee" as the ship sank?

    This one is very hard to answer. The major problem is that the only ones that know the answer for sure (that is, the band) unfortunately went down with the ship.

    However, the vast majority of the eyewitness testimonies assert that "Nearer My God To Thee" was indeed the last song that the band played as the Titanic sank. The other people either claim they played nothing, or that they played "Autumn" (claim by Second wireless operator Harold Bride) - this one still not sure (and will most probably never be), if it was referring to the Episcopal hymn "Autumn", or to the popular waltz "Songe D'Automne" by Archibald Joyce.

    Even with "Nearer My God To Thee", there's a problem. This song comes in three main versions (and five other alternate versions) - the American version ("Bethany"; played in this very movie), the British version ("Horbury"; played in "A Night To Remember" (1958)), and the British Methodist version ("Propior Deo"; currently not yet played in any Titanic movie to this date). All the members of the Titanic's band, save for one French member, were British, thus the American version is out of question (so we can say that this movie took a bit of artistic liberty with this one, so to make that scene understandable to a wider audience). The leader of the band, Wallace Hartley, was a Methodist, and so was yet another member of the band, so the possible versions of "Nearer My God To Thee" that could have been played that night are the British and the British Methodist versions. The British Methodist version resembles the American version a bit, so it's possible that this one was indeed the one played that night, since we have American passengers claiming to have heard the band playing "Nearer My God To Thee", and considering the above statement about the American version, it's possible that they could have misheard the British Methodist version, mistaking it for the American version. As for the British passengers who also claimed to have heard the band playing "Nearer My God To Thee" - some of them were probably Methodists, and the other ones could even not have recognized the tune, only to learn later on from other passengers that it was a version of "Nearer My God To Thee". Wallace Hartley, the band's violinist and bandleader had written letters to his sister a year before the disaster, claiming if he ever were on a sinking ship, he would play Nearer My God To Thee.

    It is also claimed that "Nearer My God To Thee" was not on the White Star Line hymn sheets; however, it's not impossible that the band knew the tune anyway.

  5. Anonymous9:37 AM

    Everything about the Pewster is Prissy!

    Thanks for the music history lesson - I really enjoyed it. :-)

  6. Anonymous10:11 PM

    grow up

  7. "Grow up": Contrast with "grow into."

    Usage: As a pejorative directed at someone who has not reached the commentator's level of sophistication, tact, and learning. Often used as a means to terminate a discussion.

    Example: Creaky conservative curmudgeons who cannot grow into the tension of biblical reappraisal because of their cramped, compartmentalized, craniums, are told to "grow up."