Happenings

Give me Ebenezer, anytime!

Sep 2006    

MANY Christians are familiar with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace”. The second stanza begins:

Here I raise my Ebenezer Hither by thy help I’m come.

There is a revised version found in Anglican Church of Canada’s hymnal Common Praise. It goes like this:

Here I make faith’s affirmation

Thus far by thy help I’ve come.

It is said that poetry draws its power from a vast store of background knowledge shared by the poet and his or her audience. Ebenezer (meaning “stone of help”) draws us back to the rich imagery of the biblical world. It was a commemorative stone erected by the prophet Samuel to celebrate Israel’s victory over the Philistines. It was to remind the people of Israel that their victory was owed entirely to the Lord, not to their military prowess. Read 1 Sam 7: 10-13.

When Robert Robinson wrote this hymn in the 18th Century, Ebenezer would have been readily understood and appreciated by his biblically literate audience because they shared the same background knowledge of the Bible. That one word conjures up images of blood and burning flesh, thunder and slaughter. But our revisionists have wiped out all these powerful images and replaced them with a bland, matter-of-fact, contextless phrase: “faith’s affirmation”.

I can imagine the questions going through the revisionists’ minds: Does Ebenezer mean anything to the average church-goer? Getting people to come to church is quite a task already; why make it more difficult by cluttering our songs with obscure biblical images?

These questions boil down to one concern: How to make Christianity meaningful to church-goers who do not read their Bibles anymore, for whom Ebenezer makes no sense except, perhaps, as a nice name for a household pet.

This kind of revisionism is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our church which anyone involved in Christian education would do well to take special note of. The experts – theologians, translators, revisers, linguists – are all trying to make things easy to understand for the modern church-goer, yet, ironically, biblical knowledge has not improved among the pew-sitters or hand-raisers, or church-goers-of-whatever-preferred-postures.

In fact, everywhere, especially in so-called advanced, progressive societies, biblical knowledge has been deteriorating at an alarming rate. Yet, we have more versions of the Bible in the English language than ever before. I am not suggesting that we should sanctify archaism, but it is quite clear that making things easier for people to understand is not helping them to understand.

The problem of understanding is not primarily an issue of ancient versus modern, or difference in social contexts. In other words, there may be historical and social barriers to learning, but the more basic problem may be theological.

Perhaps, we need to go back to our doctrine of Original Sin, manifesting itself as moral and intellectual sloth. Our spiritual forebears were much closer to the truth when they named sloth as one of the seven deadly sins. But sloth in our modern world has been cleverly hidden behind a welter of legitimate activities.

As Eugene Peterson once observed, we make ourselves busy because we are too lazy to handle the really important issues. Modern living is not very helpful either because we are accustomed to having everything done for us or doing everything in a user-friendly way. For every challenge there is a “service industry”!

There is no easy way to biblical literacy or any other serious pursuits for that matter. In the final analysis it requires self-discipline and dogged determination. Revisionists who are always looking for an easy way to connect with an increasingly disinterested audience are only helping to perpetuate a deadly sin, and thereby guilty of complicity.

PROBLEM OF UNDERSTANDING

‘The experts – theologians, translators, revisers, linguists – are all trying to make things easy to understand for the modern church-goer … The problem of understanding is not primarily an issue of ancient versus modern, or difference in social contexts. In other words, there may be historical and social barriers to learning, but the more basic problem may be theological.’

REACH OUT

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