A dozen years ago, historian Mark Noll and I published a volume of essays—papers that had been given at a Wheaton College conference—on evangelical hymns. Noll is the real expert on the subject. I know a lot about evangelical hymns primarily because I sang so many of them in my early years, and many of the lines have stuck with me. My immediate predecessor in the Fuller presidency, David Allan Hubbard, once said that hymns function as “the compacted theological memories of the church in poetic form.” They certainly function that way for me, and I often reflect theologically upon specific lines. Here’s one I have been thinking about recently in relationship to a theology of disabilities, from “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” in a reference to the eschatological visio Christi: “Behold His hands and side— / Those wounds, yet visible above, / In beauty glorified.”
Of course, not everything that evangelicals often refer to as the “great hymns of the faith” actually deserves that status. Indeed, many of the church songs I was raised on were not even “hymns,” technically. We sang a lot of first-person “testimonies,” as in “O That Will Be, Glory for Me,” and “I’m Only a Sinner, Saved By Grace.” Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that kind of poetic-theological expression. Psalm 23, with its wonderful God-as-shepherd imagery, falls into that category.
The problem with many of the evangelical testimony songs, however, is that they often are highly sentimentalized, with a lot of “me and Jesus” expressions. Mark Noll and I have talked about many examples, and we typically agree in our assessments.
Except for one instance, about which we engaged in friendly banter for several years. “I Come to the Garden Alone,” highly popular with previous generations of evangelicals, uses much popular “love song” imagery: “He speaks, and the sound of His voice / Is so sweet that the birds hush their singing,” and “He walks with me and He talks with me, / And He tells me I am His own.” And then the line that Mark Noll and other hymnody buffs have found especially offensive: “And the joy we share as we tarry there, / None other has ever known.”
The objection is a compelling one. Can I really sing about a relationship with the Lord that is so joyous that no other person has ever experienced it? Doesn’t this go beyond the bounds of hyperbolic spiritual enthusiasm?
I concede the problems, but I have still defended the song. Some of my reluctance to condemn it is based on family bonds. The song was a favorite of my parents, and each of them requested that it be sung at their funerals. On those two occasions I sang it with much feeling.
Family sentiments do not guarantee theological quality, though, so I have had to offer some sort of reasoned case, even if only half-seriously. My project was to ask about the conditions under which someone could legitimately sing the “None other has ever known” line. I came up with two possibilities. One is to think of it as a song of Eve in the Garden, about walking with her God in the cool of the evening. Her expression of the “none other” character of her joy, then, would be chronologically accurate (assuming that Adam had not beat her to it!). Or—the second reading— it can be thought of as a song of Mary Magdelene, about encountering the Risen Christ near the empty tomb. “None other” in this case would be about the joy of being the first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus.
Thinking of those options was for me a playful imaginative theological exercise. Under what conditions would the seemingly bizarre “none other” claim be seen as plausible? But I never pushed it much farther than my two scenarios. It is clear that when that song was sung by the folks with whom I worshiped as a child, they were not thinking of themselves as giving voice to the testimonies of an Eve or a Mary.
Having come up with possible—although, admittedly, rather outlandish—readings, I stopped thinking about the topic. Then, however, Mark Noll reopened the discussion in a way that we both considered a fitting conclusion to our debate. He showed me a published testimony of a mainland Chinese pastor who had been placed in a detention camp during the Cultural Revolution. Each day he was lowered into a pit filled with human feces and ordered to start shoveling. He was able to endure this horrific indignity, he reported, by singing over and over again the words to “I Come to the Garden Alone.” He was refusing, he said, to allow his captors to define his reality for him. He chose to see himself as enjoying the presence of his Savior.
Mark found that testimony quite moving. “I can see now that a lot depends on the context,” he said to me. I agreed. And while that one line, in this context, is still at best hyperbolic, in this case a little hyperbole serves a cause that goes well beyond spiritual sentimentalism.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.