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I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined.

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder we’ll never more wander
But walk the streets that are purest gold
.

This was an atypical song in the hymnody of my childhood. I was surprised when it recently resurfaced in my memory. Increasingly I find myself sifting through memories and sorting odd experiences as I wonder why I am who I am.

The Reformed congregation of my childhood in suburban Seattle was a “church extension project” — church planting before it became cool and compulsive. My father was the pastor. Memories of our worship, especially originally, was that it was “standard” Reformed — solid, sober, stout. Like a bran muffin — healthy, dense — not exciting or delicious, but good for you.

You didn’t need to be a sociologist to realize that there was no future for a congregation in the Seattle area that was a Dutch enclave. A sprinkling of evangelical and “charismatic” gyrovagues* drifted in, attracted I think by our stability and substance, while trying to inject their jovial accessibility.

A family with four young boys, roughly my age, appeared. Their father was a successful businessman and some sort of “lay preacher” with an evangelical group. He was eager to help my father. Looking back I wonder if I was defensive of my dad. I developed a quiet distrust, maybe dislike, of this man. He was many things my father wasn’t — garrulous, corny, moneyed. He even wore an open collar shirt to worship, no tie!

One of his ideas was to widen our congregation’s musical palette. He purchased, out of his own pocket, a “song book” to augment our hymnal. Our hymnals were staid maroon with a hard cover. The new song books were electric blue, spiral bound paperbacks. One looked like it should last generations, the other disposable.

And that’s where I came upon A Mansion Over the Hilltop, sung with the lay pastor upfront acting as “song leader.” Somehow we’d always been able to sing our hymns without one.

But I liked it. The song was zippy and energetic. And for whatever weird reasons, the lyrics too found a home in my ten year-old heart. It was like skittles instead of a bran muffin.

Doing a little background googling, I discovered some fun tidbits about Mansion Over the Hilltop. Who knew that Elvis recorded it? And the story behind the song is so scripted and sugary, I doubt its veracity — a poor girl, her family’s shanty. But it’s definitely a case of “if it’s not true, it should be.” It is a perfect example of American evangelicalism’s knack — wisdom really — for a story to tug on the heart strings. Yes, that often becomes sentimental and manipulative, but the instinct is a good one.

Now looking back many years, I wonder if my strained and convoluted relationship with American evangelicals might be rooted here. Admiring, even jealous of their charisma and sunniness, but also distrustful, never quite able to get onboard.

Can we extrapolate from Mansion Over the Hilltop to American evangelicalism in general? I have no difficulty in critiquing evangelicalism. However, I am going to work in the other direction. Is there more than sugar and sentimentality here? What might be good and true in the song? And maybe even, how does any of this help me understand myself?

Wanting a mansion would have never occurred to me before crooning this song. That could be simply because we were squarely 1970s middle-class Americans who didn’t live in a shanty. But it feels like there was more to it. A mansion — wanting one, expecting one from God — would be vulgar and flashy and base. God wanted us to be higher-minded. Maybe God was so wrapped up in being the Universal Sovereign you really didn’t want to bother him with tangible — and thereby trivial — things. Such things weren’t “spiritual.”

But what if it’s actually good to let people know that God cares about human desires, about their ordinary, daily life? Maybe Mansion Over the Hilltop lets people know that their human needs aren’t all vulgar and that tangible things aren’t all base. Sure, there are the “Lord, please find me a parking place” prayers, and the excess of the prosperity gospel. But in the intervening years, I think of how this more tangible gospel has come to be seen in everything from a new appreciation for the sacraments, to a concern for social justice, to a God who is more among — in the trenches, alongside the suffering — rather than above and beyond.

But it wasn’t the promise of a mansion that drew me to this song. It was hope, a strong and urgent hope of a better day, a voice of a world we wish would be. Perhaps I was too young, too unaware to sense it, but eschatological hope didn’t seem to be part of my childhood religion. Christianity was a somber holding pattern, not a wild hope. Of course again there are the excesses, the apocalyptic fanatics, the end-of-the-world-predictors. And there’s the danger of deluding the destitute with promises of “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.” These critiques are more than valid, but they still cannot derail the eschatological energy that fuels Christianity.

Do I want to sing Mansion Over the Hilltop — again? Not really. Once in a great while might be alright. I’ve been going out of my way to be gentle and generous in trying to decipher why I once liked it so. We could more easily flip the lens to find its flaws and omissions. But I now see how it nudged me toward aspects of faith that over time would become essential to me. It filled gaps in my faith. Although I feel like I have been harsher, more critical, toward my religious upbringing than I intended or expected to be.

Does this exploration help me make peace with American evangelicalism? I see afresh some of the gifts and genius of American evangelicalism; why it burgeoned. I do wonder if my lifelong misgivings can really be traced back to these decades-ago events. But me making peace with American evangelicalism is probably a project more for eschatological hope. It will wait until “that city where the ransomed will shine.”

*gyrovague: a wandering monk without leadership or loyalty

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

11 Comments

  • Sheldon Starkenburg says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your gentle perspective in dealing with “I’ve Got a Mansion.” I’m trying to gain that same perspective toward “I Come to the Garden Alone.” As much as I dislike the song, it obviously gives a lot of comfort to others, based upon the number of times it is requested at nursing home services.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Hi Sheldon! Don’t forget about “What a Friend…” FWIW, no less than Marilynne Robinson says she loves “I Come to the Garden” and she’s no slouch with words or theology!

  • mstair says:

    Grateful for good thoughts (and tunes reminders) today…

    Biblically evoked passages : Galatians 3; Ephesians 1; Matthew 16
    Christ chose His church long before all of us physically existed. Certainly the other members of His Assembly have tastes dissimilar to ours. Yet, here we are – all one – in Christ, not surprised that we find other expressions of that state-of-being attractive.
    Of late, from some reason, I’m enjoying tunes like these … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPFBxgd4TSI

    make a joyful noise …

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks, Steve!
    Appreciated your reflecting on songs of your past, picking one that I’ve also struggled to assess, especially when in our family the word “want” is not appreciated as a word expressing what we’d like or prefer.
    Aside from that observation, I enjoyed your writing style too….makes for ready reading.

  • Tom says:

    This is good. I remember that song well – never made it into the “real service”, but popular in hymn sings that we big when I was a kid.

    Even as a kid I thought it was odd to pave the streets with gold – seems like the wrong material for road building. But, maybe the real message is that our needs will be so fully met that gold and asphalt are of equal value.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks. Solid, sober, stout. A very smart and talented guy like that came to my dad’s church in Long Island, a gyrovague, tongues-speaker, to help out, my dad first welcomed him, he ended up being very divisive. Do you know the Ralph Stanley song, “I’ll not be a stranger when I get to that city”? I think your openness to what evangelicalism might have offered to some folks is the right call.

  • Hoffman Jan says:

    Expanding my vocabulary! Is it pronounced GI-ro vague or Hero vague? Also don’t know that song! Had the hard covered maroon hymnbook though. I also grew up w a father starting a new church, 10 years before your dad, on the opposite coast. Interesting to remember as I, too, put pieces together. Thank you always for challenging us.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Hi Jan, I say “Gi-ro” vag, like a gyroscope. I learned it — via Sophie — from St. Benedict’s Rule, where he critiques gyrovagues and instead counsels the vow of stability. Having been here 21+ years, I think I’ve taken it too seriously! Actually, when I look back on many of the experiences and memories of my childhood church, they were the beginning of many commonplace events now, including church shopping and hopping.

  • David Hoekema says:

    “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through:
    My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
    The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
    and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”

    Not very sound theology but one of my favorite folk hymns. Not one I ever heard in church, and definitely not one that would have been endorsed by my Reformed theologian father. But it’s a rollicking tune, and as Luther said we should’t let the Devil get all the good tunes. (Note: for authenticity “door” should have two syllables, “doh – er.” Here’s a culinary but not theological principle: “grits” and “ham” are better in regions where they have two syllables each.)

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for the interesting article. You’ve been in ministry long enough and have met enough Christians to know that the Bible can be made to support just about any theology you want. Hence the hundreds, if not thousands, of Christian denominations. The health and prosperity gospel is just one of the more popular theologies. Why wait for heaven when you can have a fancy jet now. And, of course, whatever position you take at the time (like right now) is the only right one. I’m so glad that I got it right. Winners and losers. Hmm…

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    “Reformed — solid, sober, stout. Like a bran muffin — healthy, dense — not exciting or delicious, but good for you.” The fact that my heart sings when I read that line probably suggests something about my stout and sober Reformed sensibilities. “Somber holding pattern,” too. Even so, I sang that song, too, and still kinda like it. “In that bright land where we will never grow old” has its appeal as we get older.

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