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Mary Vanden Berg, a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is filling in while Theresa Latini is away on maternity leave. Thank you, Mary!
Theologians are sometimes known for our nit-picking about issues nobody else cares about. Sometimes we are absolutely insistent that if this or that word is not correct, all of Christendom will be misled and the church will go down the tubes. Lately, life after death is one such issue.
Granted, there are a lot of misunderstandings around about what happens when we die. The Bible is actually not all that clear on the topic and any number of ideas have floated around in the history of Christianity with appropriate minority and majority positions identified. For the past several years or so, theologians have been annoyed by the fairly common phrasing among lay persons that when we die, we go to heaven.
As often happens, one casualty of this annoyance has been our hymnody. The song I have frequently seen targeted for critique is the little hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” According to that always ready source of information, the internet, this song was composed around 1918 by a woman named Helen Lemmel. Helen did not have an easy life. Although it started out quite well it seems, at some point she became blind after which her husband left her.
The common critique of this song is that it is ‘other-worldly,’ to heavenly. You see, the chorus with which you may be familiar goes, “Turn you eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” The part that bugs people is “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” According to some, this line diminishes our responsibilities here on earth making us so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.
Two things should cause the critics to pause. First, they should read or sing the whole song. Here it is:
O soul are you weary and troubled
No light in the darkness you see,
There’s light for a look at the Savior
And life more abundant and free. Refrain (written above)
Through death into life everlasting
He passed, and we followed him there.
O’re sin us no more hath dominion
For more than conqu’rors we are. Refrain
His word shall not fail you – he promised,
Believe him and all shall be well.
Then go to a world that is dying
His perfect salvation to tell. Refrain
This is a song born out of trial. Where do I turn when I am worn out with the battles of this world, maybe my blindness, or my sin, or my cancer, or a host of other issues? I turn to Jesus not to escape, but for the assurance of his presence with me, a presence that brings life. Once refreshed, I am energized for mission.
Second, critics should look to the book of Hebrews (and 2 Corinthians isn’t bad either). Here the author writes to a group who seems to feel much like the author of this song. With the cloud of witnesses in view, witnesses who suffered “jeers and flogging…were chained and put in prison…were stoned and cut in two…were put to death by the sword,” the author reminds readers to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” In other words, in the midst of persecution and the hardships of this life, we should turn to Jesus.
Philip Yancey writes that when the church is doing well, we tend to sing “This is My Father’s World.” When the church is suffering we tend to sing “This World is not My Home.” The key to good theology is balance.
Are you weary and troubled? Turn you eyes upon Jesus, and go ahead and sing it with gusto reminding yourself that abundant life is found with him.
Thanks Mary! I have to admit that I cringed when our congregation sang this song but knowing more will help me appreciate it in the future.
Thanks for your post, Mary. I've grown to appreciate this hymn as a corrective to the sort of over-realized eschatology middle-class Kuyperians are uniquely susceptible to. They hymn is also a fine echo of Colossians 3:1-4: "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory."
Mary, I liked your comments about songs that may distort theology–and worship leaders today often choose songs that contain theological errors without an awareness that songs teach systematic theology more effectively, affectively, or defectively than do seminary professors, or preachers from the pulpit.—i..e the Arian controversy of the early church was spread through a song. We used to control songs by limiting ourselves to the hymnal–but gave up wonderful contemporary songs in the process. Now the pendulum has swing to far in the other direction. (Seminary professors should be keen on correcting and speaking/teaching to this issue).
I love the song "Turn your Eyes on Jesus", which I don't see as a future, after life reality–but one of imagination–an intentional, mystical, spiritual opening of the heart. But I also falter on the line you mention–"Making the things of earth grow strangely dim" not because it is other-worldly–but because looking to Jesus should help us see life's issues, problems, and opportunities better.