The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
All Nature Sings
My seemingly abstract theories of social change often are grounded in and validated by my personal experience. One of those experiences goes back to when I was in 4th grade.
It was 1961 in Omaha, Nebraska. My parents were "pillars of the church" and made sure that my brother and I were in Sunday School every week. In those days when "children should be seen and not heard" pretty well summed up ecclesiastical attitudes, there were no children's sermons during the worship service. Instead, all of us rambunctious urchins were herded downstairs for "children's church" before our classes.
It was in that 10 minute worship service that a life-shaping experience happened. My recollection is that every Sunday morning we sang the same hymn: This Is My Father's World. Now it may be that it was only one of several "children's" hymns that were rotated through the services that year. In any case, that particular song is firmly implanted in my memory of that worship time.
At the impressionable age of 9, the frequently-repeated words of the hymn shaped my faith and my worldview in powerful ways. Week after week, we gave voice to theological affirmations.
In later years, as "the environment" became a new idea for our society, my sensitivity to ecological relationships and my concern for the preservation of nature was given a boost by the message that I had internalized in Sunday School. All of those new scientific concepts fit very easily into what I knew as a traditional Christian worldview.
So when I spew social theory about the importance of often-repeated messages in shaping our worldview, and about the power of music to implant messages in a more-than-rational way, that's not just theory for me. A goodly part of the passion that I bring to my work in Eco-Justice Ministries can be traced back to the song that I sang in 4th grade.
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We learned another hymn during those years of children's church, another song that also speaks truth and that has shaped my theology. I would have become a very different person, though, if "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so" had not been sung in the larger context and a more cosmic perspective of This Is My Father's World.
In recent years, political commentary has given a lot of play to the concept of "framing." Long-standing research in cognitive theory and communication helps to explain the political success of conservative movements in the US. Experts like George Lakoff have shown how conservative think tanks have worked for decades to frame issues in such a way that their agenda makes sense. Liberal and progressive movements have struggled to claim and apply these insights about framing and communication.
Too often, Christian churches have "framed" their faith proclamations in the terms of "Jesus loves me." When that emphasis on individual salvation is the starting point, then caring for creation, or addressing matters of social justice and peace, can look like a distraction. But if our message of faith is framed in terms of God the Creator, and the active praise that flows from all of the creation, then environmental and justice concerns are close to the core of our message.
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John Buchanan, the editor of Christian Century magazine, once wrote his column about how the repeated childhood singing of This Is My Father's World impressed a theological worldview into his life-long faith. It was good to hear that I'm not the only one who was so profoundly shaped by that song.
Buchanan also parallels my experience when he said that he has not used the hymn in worship settings for many years. The pervasive masculine language used to describe God -- father and he -- is problematic for many of us. Language about God that was familiar and reassuring in 1961 has become a fatal flaw in 2010.
The hymnal of the United Church of Canada has a variation on the hymn that says "This is God's wondrous world." A copy of that variation, and another inclusive language approach with both male and female imagery for God, are posted on our website.
The inclusive language adaptations of this hymn make it possible for new generations to be shaped by this essential theological message, and for us folk steeped in church traditions to reclaim a wonderful part of our heritage. Singing this hymn over and over will help create a creation-affirming "frame" for our faith that will enrich the faith of our church members, and will motivate the church for environmental action.
Social change does not happen only at protest marches or the ballot box. The seeds of social change can be found in simple songs used often in "children's church." May we remember the transformational power of hymns, even as we engage in more direct strategies to achieve social justice and ecological sustainability.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org