Brian McLaren, a leader in the emergent church and postmodern Christian movements, has rewritten Onward, Christian Soldiers, which he said reflects a disturbing pro-war theology.
For decades, activist, author and pastor Brian McLaren has helped redefine American Christianity in his role both as a leader in the emerging church and the postmodern Christian movements.
To continue reshaping faith in America, McLaren is also rewriting traditional Christian hymns, especially those he and others consider dangerously outdated theologically.
One of the chief offenders, McLaren told Baptist News Global, is Onward, Christian Soldiers, the 19th-century English hymn that connects Christian beliefs with militaristic images and metaphors.
His version of the historic favorite is posted on his website at brianmclaren.net.
Rewriting hymns is nothing new for McLaren. But he felt compelled to rewrite this iconic song because of the ways it blends faith, patriotism and war. It’s similar to how Christ and conflict are coming together in the current cultural and political climate, he said.
“I had started a rewrite of Onward, Christian Soldiers lyrics awhile back,” McLaren said in an email to BNG. “But after watching one of the Republican presidential … debates and hearing several candidates in one breath speak of Christian faith and Jesus and in the next breath speak of carpet bombing and the like, I felt it was time to finish some alternative lyrics.”
McLaren answered questions about this rewriting of the song, the theology of the two versions and more. Here is some of what he had to say.
What inspired you to rewrite hymns?
I’ve been a songwriter since I was a teenager. During my years as a pastor, I wrote worship music constantly. In recent years as I’ve been writing about theological, ecclesial and missional shifts that face the church in all its forms, I’ve come to realize how often our liturgy and hymnody embed exactly the values we need to leave behind. The problem is that many of the tunes are fun and enjoyable to sing. So a few years ago I started taking some of the worst offenders lyrically and writing new lyrics for them. I think the first one was, I’ll Fly Away.
Do you feel it was important — theologically, culturally, politically — that Onward Christian Soldiers be rewritten and at this particular time?
The fact that Islamophobia, xenophobia, overt and covert racism, and other ugly social realities are still so strong in our heavily churched culture tells us that our churches are either a) avoiding these topics, b) trying to address them but failing, or c) often working on the wrong side of these issues. I wish “b” were the case, but I think it’s more often “a” and “c.” The book I’ve just finished, The Great Spiritual Migration … challenges church leaders to take these issues on — not as political issues, but as essential aspects of Christian discipleship.
Are you hoping for any particular impact?
The most important impact happens over decades. In this case, if we get more and more worship teams making policy decisions to stop using dangerous warfare language and to stop avoiding the essential Christian discipleship theme of peacemaking … and then if we help congregations sing powerful songs that celebrate this and other important themes, then five, 10 and 50 years from now, a cumulative impact will build.
What do you find disturbing about the hymn?
So much about the original hymn is disturbing to me. For example, it speaks ambiguously of “the foe” — which could (in the minds of some) refer to our neighbors outside the church. It would be very different if it identified “the foe” as, for example, corporate greed, racism, domestic violence, apathy or pride. But the ambiguity leaves room for trouble, I think. The hymn models Christian mission on warfare “against flesh and blood” — the very opposite of what Jesus and Paul taught ….
What theological expression does your version offer instead?
It shocks me, really, when I think about the prominence of peacemaking in the teachings of Jesus, to see how little attention we pay to the subject in Christian devotion and discipleship. So I would hope that singers of this hymn would begin to internalize the identity of being peacemakers, and I would hope they would see this as a more beautiful and transcendent calling than the original lyrics suggest.
Did you ever feel in the process that you were tinkering with something sacred — like you might if you were rewriting Amazing Grace, for example?
Very much the reverse. When I am in a congregation that sings songs like these — songs that consciously or subconsciously play into hostility and fear and imperial or warlike sentiments — I feel that we are flirting with dark and dangerous currents that are very unsacred. So refocusing on the teaching of Jesus about peacemaking seems good and right. I think of Paul’s words in Colossians about letting the word or teaching of Christ “dwell in us richly” as we teach, admonish and sing.
Have you had much, or any, feedback?
Just a bit on my Facebook page. One person said that the hymn is obviously speaking about “spiritual warfare,” so it’s fine as is. Others said they also feel the song has a dangerous subtext and were grateful for [the new lyrics].
Are there other famous hymns that you feel need rewriting?
I mentioned I’ll Fly Away. I love the traditional tune, and of course there’s nothing wrong with singing about looking forward to going to be with Jesus beyond this life. But sadly, we have so many songs that say “this world is not my home” right when this world, our home, is in great peril from human abuse. So I wrote a song called I’ll Get Involved to the old tune — urging people not to evacuate but to engage and transform. I’ve got bits and pieces of rewrites from many other songs too.
Are you working on any other songs?
I’m actually part of a group of songwriters who are collaborating on both updating and adding to our worship music for the church. It’s called “Convergence Music Project,” and I know some beautiful things are on the horizon from this group.