March 29th, 2013

mene mene tekel upharsin, religion

Crosses, not trees

I've been singing in church choirs for a long time, and while I certainly don't remember every anthem, there are more than a few that have lodged themselves in my brain for one reason or another. One of those is John Rutter's God Be In My Head:

I remember it in part because I've sung it a lot — it was a particular favorite of the choir director at my old church in Wheaton — but also because the text has always bugged me:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at my end, and at my departing.

Specifically, it's the fourth line I don't like. You don't think with your heart! Even as a metaphor it doesn't work; when people tell you to "follow your heart," they're telling you to stop thinking.

The reason I bring this up today is that it's Good Friday, which is an annual source of mild frustration for me, irritating lyrics to sacred music-wise. Here's the second verse to the spiritual "Were You There," a setting of which I'll be singing in worship later today:

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?

Well, no, I wasn't. And neither was anyone else, because he wasn't nailed to a tree. And yet every year I sing one or more songs about Jesus having been so nailed.

Yes, yes, I'm aware that there's a debate over the exact nature of the instrument used to execute Jesus and that it may or may not have been a Latin cross of the sort that's been adopted as a symbol by nearly every Christian denomination and the Greek words can be interpreted in a number of ways. Don't care. I'm not singing an article from the Journal for the Study of the New Testament; I'm singing a choral anthem written to be sung in a Christian church, where the idea that Jesus died on a cross is, as they say, Gospel.

However, I am aware that I am very likely the only person to care about this, so I have no expectation that I won't be singing such things for many years to come. But I don't have to like it.