Stupid Hymn Tricks


Always on the lookout for God-centric music that is intelligent and beautiful, I encountered a song a few weeks back that reminded me of hymns gone by. The melody was easily sung and the lyrics that I caught on first hearing were great.

Or so I thought.

The song in question is Fernando Ortega's "Our Great God" as performed with Mac Powell off the City on a Hill—Alleluia CD. Beautiful song and very hymn-like. HymnalThe chord transitions from major to minor keys are lovely and the production on the CD is exquisite. Best of all, because the phrasing is simple and the meter consistent, it is easy to sing, unlike many of today's recent worship music offerings. And the tune is so adaptable that you could sing a thousand other old hymns to it, including "Amazing Grace."

Here's the first line:

Eternal God unchanging, mysterious and unknown

  • God is eternal—check
  • God is unchanging—check
  • God is mysterious— (to the extent that His thoughts are higher than ours and His ways are sometimes hard to understand) check
  • God is unknown—Uh oh

I guess no one checked with the Bible on that last one:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, "'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
—Acts 17:22-31 ESV

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'") And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
—John 1:9-18 ESV

But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him"— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
—1 Corinthians 2:9-10 ESV

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
—John 14:5-10 ESV

God is NOT unknown. He has been revealed. This is one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian faith: God is knowable through the Person of Jesus Christ. What we have in this song is rank postmodernism raising its ugly head. It's that attempt to sound religious by saying God is lurking on the outskirts of the universe, inscrutably doing whatever it is an inscrutable god does.

Jesus said that God is knowable because He (Jesus) is knowable, having revealed God in His very Person. Paul clearly addresses the "unknown god" fallacy, though, saying that while some may worship unknown gods, Christians do not. John writes that Jesus Christ made God known.

Now I'm not so charged by this song. The "unknown" lyric also reveals that the intention of the "mysterious" is not so much to say that God is higher than us, but to shroud Him in fog. It sounds like a vain attempt to restore the veil in the temple.

I don't want anyone in my church singing that God is unknown, so I guess "Our Great God" is out. Too bad.

How's about it folks; what songs or hymns out there strike you as being doctrinally suspect? Your comments are most welcome!

10 thoughts on “Stupid Hymn Tricks

  1. Mark

    I guess my question would be, in what sense did the author mean that God is unknown ? Certainly all men know God as creator, but only a portion of humanity knows Him as redeemer and Lord. Someone can also be well known, (by reputation) and yet at the same time unknown. It is a poetic hymn, not a systematic theology. Do we not gain a deeper knowledge of God daily ? A knowledge that reveals what was “unknown” to us concerning Him yesterday ? Not trying to be abrasive, just questioning the right to throw out an entire hymn over an ambiguous word.

  2. brian

    “Rank postmodernism”? Restoring the “veil in the temple”? You got all of that out of one word which can have several different meanings?

    The thing is, the rest of the first verse goes on to praise things that we know about God.

    Ortega is no postmodernist. There is a sense in which God is mysterious and unknown. There is a grandeur to God and a “bigness” which we sometimes need to be reminded of. Certainly we know God, but not completely. In this era of comfy-cozy, home-boy, “personal” relationships with God, we need to keep that in mind.

    God is known – but not completely. God is unknown – but not completely. You should be able to say one or the other without people taking it to an extreme.

  3. Mark,

    The question’s a valid one, but I have to question why the author would reference God as unknown to the unsaved in a modern praise song.

    The problem here is that I recognize the postmodern buzzwords from within postmodern and Emerging Church theology. This is right up that alley. Postmodern Christianity is adept at obscuring the reality of God’s absoluteness by claiming that He is unknowable by virtue of the fact that a finite being cannot know an infinite one.

    But the Scriptures I quoted clearly point to the error in this. Postmoderns want to throw up their hands and claim that no one can make absolute statements about God, yet the Bible itself does! I spent two and a half years talking with young postmodern Christians to know this is where they are coming from. The “mysterious and unknown” line in “Our Great God” could have been lifted from any of those conversations about God.

    The reason to throw out a hymn over a word is because words matter, except to postmoderns who live in a Derrida-esque world where words have no meaning. The postmodern assault on Christianity lives and dies by its ability to obfuscate words. In my opinion, it goes back to the Garden when Satan asked, “Did God really say…?” Because God expresses himself through words (as powerfully noted in John 1), to deconstruct words is to foul their meaning. When meaning is lost, we get the kind of nonsense that leads to a president saying, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

    Read any book by John Spong and you’ll see that deconstruction in action. In the truly postmodern vein, note some of the critical reviews of Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis. Bell plays around with meaning a lot, but it’s subtle. We can’t afford to start debating what words mean or else the whole Christian message becomes muddied. That’s why a word matters.

    Vigilance is never easy.

  4. brian,

    The problem is that the NT never claims that God is unknown, even in part. It consistently says that God is fully revealed in Christ.

    When Ortega pairs “unknown” with “mysterious,” he’s taking a page right out of Emerging Church theology. You could argue that perhaps neither word by itself is completely damning, but paired they speak to the current theology that tears at absolute truth statements. And though I didn’t finish Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, I’ve got to believe that this line from “Our Great God” could have been lifted right from that book.

  5. Mark


    I agree with your charge against postmodernism, (a word itself with more ambiguity than any other), but the author does outline several “knowable” attributes of this God that exists both within us, and yet outside the margins of our finite epistemology.

    Rom 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

    Immanence and transcendance are two branches of the same tree.

    Have you read “Symphonic Theology” by Vern Poythress ?

  6. Danielle

    If you use such absolutes on hymns, which are an artist’s attempts at sharing what they believe of God (and not equal to Scripture) then Away in a Manger has got to go. While I don’t know a specific passage that says Jesus cried as an infant (no crying he makes), if he was fully human as we all believe and profess he would have screamed his head off while he was being born, when he was hungry. I understand the difficulties of finding theologically sound music for our church, If it is such a problem have you considered replacing it with a more sound word and singing it anyway, in a way “redeeming” he song?

  7. Talk about touching the church’s third rail! You are not really going to check the lyrics on your songs. Here are a few of my least favorites.
    “I’m coming back to the heart of worship And it’s all about You,
    It’s all about You, Jesus
    I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it When it’s all about You”

    It’s alwaus been about worshiping Jesus for me. Do I have to take part in this mass confessional? And am I supposed to sing every wacky lyric because it has a catchy chord progression?

    How about,
    “Create in me a clean heart oh God,
    And renew a right spirit within me.
    And cast me not away from Thy presence oh Lord,
    And take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.”

    I didn’t sleep with Bathsheeba last night. And even if I did I will cling to “never leave you nor forsake you.” Are the angels in heaven joining in this “worship?”

    And can I touch the sacred?
    “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
    All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

    Who are we singing this to? Certainly not to God so I guess it is not actually a worship song. But I sure hear it in church. I don’t actually sing it. I am not going to sing about forfeiting peace and bearing pain. I will have to pass.
    Normally when these types of songs come up I just hum in the Holy Ghost and hope for something else.


  8. Bonnie

    I’m really sorry if this posts twice. This is the first time I’ve posted, Dan.

    I must comment back to Danielle. Babies don’t have to scream their “head off while they are being born.” Two out of my three didn’t (without bright lights and cold hospital rooms, why would they?). But to your main point, to take the phrase from Away in a Manger, “no crying he makes,” and assume the author meant *ever in Jesus’ life* is ridiculous. Most people would understand that the author is writing about that specific moment in the stable.

    Dan, I am glad to read that you take your worship songs biblically. I think it is wise check what comes out of your mouth with what the Bible has to say about it.


  9. Pig wot flies

    Carl, I agree that What a friend we have in Jesus isn’t a song to God, but what about Colossians 3v16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Isn’t there a place for singing songs to encourage each other and remind each other how good God is?

  10. robin

    right with you Dan!

    words mean alot to me. whenever a new song is introduced into worship i do not sing it, i listen to it and read it through before i enter in. this is supponsed to be -worship- praise and adoration, thanksgiving and honor to the Most High God who is our Father and Savior inviting us into His presence to receive glory and honor and praise from us. WOW!! That means alot to me to make sure i’m not giving Him casual song. We can do that all day anyday by turning on auto-pilot . . . and pleasing the ‘flesh’. I find that occasionally i will be changing a word or two in the worship song as i sing it, according to Truth.
    Keep up the good work Dan.

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