Sing A New Song for Cultural Renewal: Hymns that Mention the Economy, Media, and Justice

COVID, George Floyd, pipelines, upcoming elections, the climate crisis–there are layers of social issues that all cry for attention, both political and prophetic attention. While there are endless blogs and editorials on these subjects, there are very few songs addressing them. There are some songs about justice-making, but there are in fact very few hymns that directly address culture-making at all. This is important for any community, because our songs often sink deeper into our hearts than lectures or sermons.

Why are there so few spiritual songs about life on our planet–about the things that most Christians do with most of their time–tend gardens, buy groceries, engage in business, build homes, create artworks, do scientific experiments? There is an inherent dualism in much of our singing that confines it to “spiritual” matters of prayer, praise, church, and loving and serving our neighbours in generic ways. Hillsong, for example, writes songs that are mostly personal and spiritual. But Christians are called to be culture makers first--this is the blessing that God gives right off in Genesis 1:28: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!” (MSG)

Note that this text is less a command and more a blessing on humankind! The cultural blessing, a blessing of fruitfulness and fecundity, to unfold the created diversity just expressed earlier in the chapter. This entrusts Christians with an attitude of affirmation towards the unfolding of creation: God rested on the seventh day, as if to say, “Now its yours to develop!”—art, sports, pharmacology, environmental studies, poetry, farming, accounting, and even theology. This worldview is what under-girds the work of Global Scholars Canada and the Society of Christian Scholars–all university disciplines, all creation’s diversity, finding purpose and unity in their one Creator and Blesser. Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling is a super introduction to this vital and foundational biblical blessing.

God calls humans to unfold the potential latent in his creation, to harness its energies, to develop cultures, technology and the arts. This CC photo is Robson Square, Vancouver, one of the world’s greenest cities.

The opposite is equally true, as we learn in Genesis 3: if we decide to do things our own way, dismissing God-given norms, our child-bearing and garden-tending will be cursed–there will be a fruitlessness to our labours, and discord, ugliness and devastation will follow. Our psychotherapy will be soulless, our home-building will be cheap, and our cities will end up dirty and divided.

This blessing is not just self-interested: Genesis 12, 18, and 22 make clear that God’s promise is to bless in order that all nations can be blessed. Abraham is our spiritual father, and in his spiritual descendent, Jesus Christ, we see the blessing offers to all nations. This new covenant blessing, or beatitude, comes especially to the meek, the bereaved, and the poor–those who especially depend on institutions to shelter them and empower them. This is why we must sing about cultural endeavours and institutions–they are the blessing of God for the nations. This is what we call “kingdom theology.”

Now I know a few songs that address culture-making, among my favourite for the university campus being “Earth and All Stars” (Herbert Frederick Brokering) with its rousing verse “Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes!” When it comes to stewardship of the earth, “Forest, Trees, What are These?” is wonderful creation hymn for children, and “God in His Great Love for Us Lent us This Planet” (Fred Green) takes on the same perspective of debt to the Creator. “I Sing a Song About the Saints of God” (Lesbia Scott) tells of saints who are doctors, soldiers, martyrs, or people out for tea. “God, Whose Stretched the Spangled Heavens” (Catherine Cameron) speaks of modern cities and the secrets of the atom (and its threat to the planet). “Worship the Lord” (Fred Kaan) declares that “worship and work must be one” and “Father, Help Your People” (Fred Kaan) calls holy our “lecture hall and kitchen, office, shop, and ward.”

Most congregations do not sing these kinds of songs. They are not as popular as those with comforting spiritual assurances. But I recently stumbled on a song from the UK by Noel Robinson, Andy Flannagan, and Rev. Graham Hunter that may be both comforting and challenging at the same time. Here a young Brazilian composes a song that celebrates that (translated to English) “science is for your glory, knowledge and research, because in nature we see your face.”

This gem is called “We Seek Your Kingdom,” and the video below is sung in English from Holland. Can you imagine a hymn with lyrics addressing justice, media, trade, and economics–and in a way that demonstrates they are part of the Christian’s life and calling? I’ve included the lyrics below my blog.

Its unfortunate that the tune they’ve chosen is so slow and almost wistful. “Abide With Me” would be the most well-known lyrics in English that follow this tune, which is basically a song to comfort the dying, rife with images of light in the midst of “darkness” “decay” and “gloom.” Perhaps the comforting connotations of the tune will help congregants embrace the song, but I’m sure other tunes can easily be found that might offer something more energetic, arresting, or even stately.

If its true that your heart turns toward what you sing about, then songs like this will help us turn in love, concern, and joy towards our society and culture.

We seek your kingdom throughout every sphere
We long for heaven’s demonstration here
Jesus, your light shine bright for all to see
Transform, revive and heal society.

Before all things, in him all things were made
Inspiring culture, media and trade
May all our work serve your economy
Transform, revive and heal society.

Peace, truth and justice reigning everywhere
With us be present in our public square
Fill all who lead with your integrity
Transform, revive and heal society.

Forgive us Lord, when we have not engaged
Failing to scribe your heart on history’s page
Make us again what we were made to be
Transform, revive and heal society.

Faithful to govern ever may we be
Selfless in service, loving constantly
In everything may your authority
Transform, revive and heal society.

Music: Tune -Abide with me (Public Domain) –Henry Francis Lyte
Lyrics: Noel Robinson, Andy Flannagan, Rev Graham Hunter

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