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Controversial Hymns Challenge US Methodists' View of God - 2002-07-02

Methodists like to sing. The Protestant denomination was founded two centuries ago by men who specialized in hymn-writing, and to this day, singing is still an important part of Methodist worship.

There are more than 700 songs in the official hymnal of the United Methodist Church, the group that all practicing Methodists in the United States belong to. And now, thanks to a new supplement entitled The Faith We Sing, American Methodists have nearly 300 more songs to choose from.

But some Methodists are upset about the new choices. They say some of the new hymns are un-Christian, because they use female imagery when talking about God.

Methodism was founded in the late eighteenth century by two English brothers who felt the Anglican church wasn't doing enough to celebrate the message of Christianity. John and Charles Wesley wanted a more emotional approach to their faith, and they wrote hundreds of hymns to express that emotion. Many of those songs are still sung by Methodists today, but other, more modern hymns have also been written. Some of these modern songs are in the new supplement, The Faith We Sing.

In one of the new hymns, called "Bring Many Names," Methodists sing about "Strong Mother God, working night and day." It's phrases such as this that have conservative Methodists upset with the new supplement to their church's official hymnal. "Bring Many Names" is dangerous, according to Mark Tooley, a Methodist who works for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a watchdog group that monitors Protestant church leaders, to make sure they're properly representing the beliefs of their denominations. He says the hymn is dangerous, because when it refers to God as "Mother," it denies the authority of the Bible, which uses the word "Father" when speaking of God.

"If you're a Christian, and even if you're Jewish, you believe that people don't sit down and make up their own concepts of who God is," said Mr. Tooley. "In fact, Christians and Jews would call that idolatry. Christians and Jews believe that God bends down and speaks to fallen humanity by revealing himself, primarily through the scriptures. And for reasons known entirely only to him, he does reveal himself exclusively in masculine terminology."

The United Methodist Publishing House, which put the hymnal supplement together, disputes that claim. The organization was unable to provide VOA with a spokesperson who could explain why the group felt it was important to include "Bring Many Names" in The Faith We Sing, along with five other songs that use female imagery. But the publishing house's web site does point to several passages in the Bible in which God promises to comfort people as a mother does a child, and Jesus is said to gather people to him, as a hen gathers her brood. But the fact remains that when speaking of God directly, the Bible does use the word "Father."

The man who wrote the lyrics to "Bring Many Names," Brian Wren, a Professor of Worship at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, says the Bible uses the word "Father" because it was written in a place and time when only men were in positions of authority. And because this isn't the case anymore in many Christian nations, Dr. Wren says there's no need to cling so literally to the "father" image.

"Even those who claim that every word of the Bible is literally true do not work on that assumption when it comes to particular passages," said Prof. Wren. "You can't, because the Bible is not a consistent document. It is a series of writings over many hundreds of years from different cultures. And one of the glories of it is, is that it gives us different traditions, different insights into who God is."

But Mark Tooley says when the Bible is viewed as a product of human society, rather than as the revealed word of God, Christianity ceases to be a source of absolute truth. "Once you start to redefine God, or use dramatically different terms to describe who or what God is, you are completely redefining what the Christian faith is, and redefining what the Bible is," said Mr. Tooley. "And we feel that's the complete undoing of Christianity's understanding of who God is, in that we believe God is a constant, he's eternal, and he reveals himself. Poor humans don't have their own wisdom or ability to completely figure out who God is without his help."

Mr. Tooley insists that Christianity doesn't change. But Brian Wren says it does. Indeed, Prof. Wren says one of the things that sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam is that the Bible has been translated, or changed to fit the needs of many different languages and cultures. "It had to change initially when it went from a Jewish context to a Greco-Roman context," he noted. "It had to adapt. It had to speak in different cultures. And that's part of its genius, it's part of its risk that it doesn't demand that we have a single, holy text that we all learn in Hebrew. The fact that Christianity translates scripture into different languages also goes with translating into the culture that the language goes with."

And in modern American culture, Brian Wren says, women embody the strong and loving qualities of God no less and no more than men do.

At this point, the debate over The Faith We Sing and the songs within it may be basically an academic one. A survey of 20 Methodist churches in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Washington, D.C., revealed that just two of those churches are actually using the hymnal supplement, and neither has had it long enough to explore the six hymns that use female imagery. The other 18 churches all reported that the controversy over that imagery had nothing to do with their decision not to buy the supplement. At $16 a copy, church leaders say, The Faith We Sing is simply an expense many churches can't afford.

But Mark Tooley points out that the supplement is still fairly new, and when the hymnals most churches are currently using eventually wear out, The Faith We Sing may be made available to a greater, Methodist audience. And when that happens, individual Methodist congregations will have to decide if the female imagery is dangerous, or liberating.