In his efforts to reshape faith in America, controversial evangelical Pastor Brian McLaren is rewriting traditional Christian hymns, such as "Onward Christian Soldiers," which he finds outdated theologically due to the nature of their metaphors.
"So much about the original hymn is disturbing to me," the "emergent" church leader tells Baptist News Global, citing the example of the 19th century English hymn. "For example, it speaks ambiguously of 'the foe' — which could (in the minds of some) refer to our neighbors outside the Church. It would be very different if it identified "the foe" as, for example, corporate greed, racism, domestic violence, apathy or pride. But the ambiguity leaves room for trouble, I think. The hymn models Christian mission on warfare 'against flesh and blood' — the very opposite of what Jesus and Paul taught …."
McLaren, who is part of a group of songwriters, "Convergence Music Project," has rewritten "Onward, Christian Soldiers," as it reflects a pro-war theology, according to him.
"I had started a rewrite of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' lyrics awhile back," he says. "But after watching one of the Republican presidential … debates and hearing several candidates in one breath speak of Christian faith and Jesus and in the next breath speak of carpet bombing and the like, I felt it was time to finish some alternative lyrics."
McLaren argues that the liturgy and hymnody embed exactly the values that Christians need to leave behind. "The problem is that many of the tunes are fun and enjoyable to sing. So a few years ago I started taking some of the worst offenders lyrically and writing new lyrics for them. I think the first one was, I'll Fly Away."
He adds that "America's heavily churched culture" continues to have Islamophobia, xenophobia and "overt and covert racism," which "tells us that our churches are either a) avoiding these topics, b) trying to address them but failing, or c) often working on the wrong side of these issues." And most often it's "a" or "c," he claims.
He says he doesn't feel he shouldn't revise something that is sacred, as "refocusing on the teaching of Jesus about peacemaking seems good and right."
Referring to "I'll Fly Away," he continues, "I love the traditional tune, and of course there's nothing wrong with singing about looking forward to going to be with Jesus beyond this life." However, he adds, many songs say this world is not my home "right when this world, our home, is in great peril from human abuse." This, he says, led him to write a song called "I'll Get Involved" to the old tune, which urges people "not to evacuate but to engage and transform."
"I've got bits and pieces of rewrites from many other songs too," he says.
McLaren is the author of A New Kind of Christianity and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Decades ago, he and a number of pastors had started what was called the emerging church movement to reach young people.