Heretical Hymns – The Wonder of it all

My last blog post may be partly responsible for getting me fired from some Evangelical conferences so I’m embarking on a blog series, hopefully accompanied with demos & versions of my own take on some classics, called “Heretical Hymns”.  Today I’m going to start with George Beverly Shea’s gospel song “The Wonder of it all”.

Did you know that many celebrated & renowned hymn writers were considered heretics in their day?

The church has always had an interesting, and often uneasy, relationship with the arts and with artists.  There’s the classic story of Michelangelo painting in the face of the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, who was one of his critics, into his classic “The Last Judgment” as one of the judges of the underworld sporting a snazzy set of donkey ears.

I’ve long been fascinated by hymns and love to research the stories and characters behind them.  I often discover that these artists were prone to drinking, cursing, theological heresy, a propensity to despise censorship, and many other things that are stereotypically associated with the artist temperament.

If you’re still having trouble believing that many popular hymn writers were heretics you’re just gonna have to tune in to the series as I go but I will offer you up one name as we begin: Isaac Watts.  He was recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody”, credited with some 750 hymns including such classics as “Joy to the World” & “When I survey the wondrous cross”.  He had a ton of opinions which fascinate me & I’ll explore in a later blog post but was famously a Unitarian towards the end of his life having rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.

So onto the first of our heretical hymns “The Wonder of it all”.

What I think is curious about this hymn is the author’s link between a creating God whose power brings into existence stars, seasons, and sunsets with an individualistic God who loves “me”.

People a lot smarter than me have pointed out for a while that there is some troubling ideology behind this theology.  Preston Sprinkle, commenting on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”, asks us the question about whether a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a biblical concept and Frank Viola points out that the sinner’s prayer replaced water baptism as the primary tool of the Billy Graham crusades.  So it’s no accident that George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham’s gospel singer, would be writing a song that emphasizes Jesus as my “personal Savior”.

Frank Viola goes on to point out:

The phrase personal Savior is yet another recent innovation that … grew to popular parlance by Charles Fuller (1887–1968). Fuller literally used the phrase thousands of times in his incredibly popular Old Fashioned Revival Hour radio program that aired from 1937 to 1968. His program reached from North America to every spot on the globe. At the time of his death, it was heard on more than 650 radio stations around the world.

So here we have a hymn writer from the 20th century building off an idea that is still relatively new and pretty unique to the North American revival movement.  And much of the CCM and worship music that followed kept building this idea of an individualistic personal relationship to Jesus sometimes to spectacular effect like the ever charming “Jesus You are my Best Friend” (Hillsong).  SIDE NOTE: It is particularly convincing that God loves me when women in pink are doing aerobics onstage.

But did the church lose something by promoting this personal Jesus idea?  Frank continues:

This relationship is corporate just as much as it is individual. All Christians share that relationship together. In this regard, the phrase personal Savior reinforces a highly individualistic Christianity. But the New Testament knows nothing of a “Just-me-and-Jesus” Christian faith. Instead, Christianity is intensely corporate. Christianity is a life lived out among a body of believers who know Christ together as Lord and Savior.

I wonder if the end result of this theology in the Christian church, particularly in American Evangelical circles, has eroded a sense of community.  Have we lost the spirit of the early church – a diverse body of believers with a vast array of theological positions following different apostles (1 Cor 1:12) who were united around the story of a risen Lord who loved us & died to change our minds about God?  Has this sense of “my Jesus” deafened us to hear the stories of sexual minorities, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, who encounter Jesus radically?  Has our “personal God” complex meant that we’ve devolved to before the Jerusalem conference where we remain distanced from those we can’t associate with?  Has this “Just-me-and-Jesus” faith got us saying no to sheets of unclean animals instead of understanding a God who calls all things clean?

Has the God who loves “me” become more important than the God who loves “we”?

Brandon Robertson, a thought-leader, author & activist who speaks primarily about LGBTQ inclusivity in the church, put up a quote which got my mind spinning.


I felt compelled to expand on this simple song text, or perhaps reform it, to point to a creating God that loves not just the “me” but the “we”, a loving God who is impartial to all of creation, a curious God that longs to be in deeper communion with us.  That is the wonder of it all.

So here’s my version of “The Wonder of it all” live at Forefront Brooklyn with an additional original verse and the chorus of “How He Loves” to emphasize the communal nature of God’s love.  Lyrics below:

The Wonder of it all

Music and lyrics by George Beverly Shea.  Additional verse lyrics by Ben Grace.

Verse 1
There’s the wonder of sunset at evening,
The wonder as sunrise I see;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul
Is the wonder that God loves me.

Refrain
O, the wonder of it all! The wonder of it all!
Just to think that God loves me.
O, the wonder of it all! The wonder of it all!
Just to think that God loves me.

Verse 2
There’s the wonder of springtime and harvest,
The sky, the stars, the sun;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul
Is a wonder that’s only begun.

Verse 3 – Ben Grace addition
There’s the wonder of science and progress,
The atom and the human brain;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul
Is the wonder we’re all not the same.

 

My hope and prayer is that we’ll all rediscover the wonder of a God who loves all created things including, but not limited to, me.

If you’re curious how the original goes here it is:

Stay tuned for more “Heretical Hymns” and please subscribe to my mailing list for updates, new music and tour dates.

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3 Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    This blog series might be my new favorite thing. I’m new to your music and writing, but I will definitely be sticking around. Thanks for making my think this early in the morning.

    • bengracemusic

      Thanks for commenting Elizabeth. Totally curious how you found my blog post. Ben

  2. Put me on the list please Ben.

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