Why Are Our Camp Songs Older Than the Campers?

by Matt Bassford — Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, the Joliet church held our annual youth day. We invited young people from across Chicagoland to come to Joliet for a Saturday to participate in Bible classes intended for their age group, sing, and hang out at the homes of various members. As we typically do, Josh Collier and I divided up the songleading between us, and we solicited hymn requests from those in attendance. Here are some of the requests I remember:

· We Bow Down

· Here I Am to Worship

· As the Deer

· We Will Glorify

· You Are My All in All

· How Deep the Father’s Love

· Glorify Your Name

On a surface level, these hymn requests appear to justify a point that is often made during discussions of contemporary hymns. Even in cases where the content of a contemporary hymn is lacking, brethren often defend its use in worship because “It’s what Our Young People like to sing.” Clearly, that’s the case. All of the hymns on the list above (some good, some not-so-good) come from a contemporary/camp strain of hymnody.

However, that answer merely invites another question. If Our Young People like to sing those hymns, why do they like to sing them? It could be that this is an example of popular, contemporary Christian music forcing its way into the kingdom. You have Christian teenagers who encounter these songs online or at a friend’s house and demand that they be introduced into a camp setting.

I think there’s some value in that, provided that it isn’t carried too far (I don’t think you want the least spiritually mature members of the congregation setting the worship agenda), but it doesn’t appear to be what’s actually happening. The praise songs in question are too old.

“We Bow Down” was written in 1984. “Here I Am to Worship”, in 2000. “As the Deer”, in 1984. “We Will Glorify” has a copyright date of 1982. “You Are My All in All” was copyrighted in 1991. “How Deep the Father’s Love”, in 1995. “Glorify Your Name”, written in 1976, is older than I am.

The most recent song on that list, “Here I Am to Worship”, is 15 years old. I remember when I first started getting interested in pop music, back in 1989. A lot of the music I started exploring came from my brother, who is 13 years older than I am. Even with his help, though, the very oldest bands and albums I started listening to came from no further back than 1980, about 10 years in the past. Anything older than that, I would have identified as “oldies”, coming from a musical era different than my own.

This suggests to me that whoever is pushing the body of contemporary hymns and praise songs (and I think somebody is), it isn’t Our Young People. I think it’s their parents. A few months ago, when various Joliet kids returned from summer camp, “Sanctuary” (copyright 1982) made a couple of Sunday-morning appearances, which thankfully have not been repeated. Afterward, I overheard one of the brethren in my age cohort talking about how “Sanctuary” was to him one of those core Bible-camp experiences.

Here’s how this works. 40-year-old camp counselor is preparing an evening devotional. He thinks back to the time when he was a teenager at camp, and he remembers the praise songs he loved to sing then. He introduces them into a spiritually and emotionally charged setting. Forever after, the campers associate those praise songs with the spiritual high they felt that evening, so they ask for them to be led (or lead them) whenever the opportunity arises. Other Christians observe this pattern, conclude that Our Young People really like contemporary hymns, and push for their inclusion everywhere.

In reality, the driving force here is not progress, but nostalgia. Contemporary praise songs are benefiting not from their innate appeal to Our Young People, but from the camp devotional experience. I suspect that any hymn introduced into such a setting will quickly become a camper favorite, even if it’s 300 years old.

Counselors, then, have a golden opportunity to spiritually shape their young charges. There are good, emotionally powerful hymns from every era of English hymnody. Introduce those. Don’t lean on the mixed body of contemporary hymns, just because they’re contemporary. Singing a spiritually pointless praise song from the early ‘80s is a waste. Admittedly, it does reflect a certain set of preferences, but those preferences don’t belong to the campers. They belong to those who are supposed to be instructing them.


Pharaoh’s chariot wheels and other things that won’t float — Examining the claims of the late Ron Wyatt


No Allusions in the Classroom

I used this essay for years on the first day of class. It is unfortunately as relevant today (if not more so) than it was three decades ago. “We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.”


In light of the recent episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show in which he turned up evidence of complete ignorance of the fact that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing, I thought of this old essay I wrote almost three decades ago. We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.

No Allusions in the Classroom
by Jaime M. O’Neill
Appeared in Newsweek, September 23, 1985

Josh Billings, a 19th-century humorist, wrote that it is better “not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.” Recently, after 15 years of teaching in community colleges, I decided to take a sampling to find out what my students know that ain’t so. I did this out of a growing awareness that they don’t always understand what I say. I suspected that part of their failure to understand derived from the fact that they did not catch my allusions. An allusion to a writer, a geographical locality or a historical episode inevitably produced telltale expressions of bewilderment.

There is a game played by students and teachers everywhere. The game goes like this: the teacher tries to find out what students don’t know so that he can correct these deficiencies; the students, concerned with grades and slippery self-images, try to hide their ignorance in every way they can. So it is that students seldom ask pertinent questions. So it is that teachers assume that students possess basic knowledge which, in fact, they don’t possess.

Last semester I broke the rules of this time-honored game when I presented my English-composition students with an 86-question “general knowledge” test on the first day of class. There were 26 people in the class; they ranged in age from 18 to 54. They had all completed at least one quarter of college-level work.

Here is a sampling of what they knew that just ain’t so:

Creative: Ralph Nader is a baseball player. Charles Darwin invented gravity. Christ was born in the 16th century. J. Edgar Hoover was a 19th-century president. Neil Simon wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; “The Great Gatsby” was a magician in the 1930s. Franz Joseph Haydn was a songwriter during the same decade. Sid Caesar was an early roman emperor. Mark Twain invented the cotton gin. Heinrich Himmler invented the Heimlich maneuver. Jefferson Davis was a guitar player for The Jefferson Airplane. Benito Mussolini was a Russian leader of the 18th century; Dwight D. Eisenhower came earlier, serving as a president during the 17th century. William Faulkner made his name as a 17th-century scientist. All of these people must have appreciated the work of Pablo Picasso, who painted masterpieces in the 12th century.

My students were equally creative in their understanding of geography. They knew, for instance, that Managua is the capital of Vietnam, that Cape Town is in the United States and that Beirut is in Germany. Bogota, of course, is in Borneo (unless it is in China). Camp David is in Israel, and Stratford-on-Avon is in Grenada (or Gernada). Gdansk is in Ireland. Cologne is in the Virgin Islands. Mazatlan is in Switzerland. Belfast was variously located in Egypt, Germany, Belgium and Italy. Leningrad was transported to Jamaica; Montreal to Spain.

And on it went. Most students answered incorrectly far more than they answered correctly. Several of them meticulously wrote “I don’t know” 86 times, or 80 times, or 62 times.

They did not like the test. Although I made it clear that the test would not be graded, they did not like having their ignorance exposed. One of them dismissed the test by saying, “Oh, I get it; it’s like Trivial Pursuit.” Imagining a game of Trivial Pursuit among some of today’s college students is a frightening thought; such a game could last for years.

But the comment bothered me. What, in this time in our global history, is trivial? And what is essential? Perhaps it no longer matters very much if large numbers of people in the world’s oldest democratic republic know little of their own history and even less about the planet they inhabit.

But I expect that it does matter. I also suspect that my students provide a fairly good cross section of the general population. There are 1,274 two-year colleges in the United States that collectively enroll nearly 5 million students. I have taught at four of those colleges in two states, and I doubt that my questionnaire would have produced different results at any of them. My colleagues at universities tell me that they would not be surprised at similar undergraduate answers.

My small sampling is further corroborated by recent polls which disclosed that a significant number of American adults have no idea which side the United States supported in Vietnam and that a majority of the general populace have no idead which side the United States is currently supporting in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

Less importantly, a local marketing survey asked a sampling of your computer whizzes to identify the character in IBM’s advertising campaign that is based on an allusion to Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” Few of them had heard of Charlie Chaplin; fewer heard or knew about the movie classic.

Common Heritage: As I write this, the radio is broadcasting the news about the Walker family. Accused of spying for the Soviets, the Walkers, according to a U.S. attorney, will be the Rosenbergs of the ‘80s. One of my students thought Ethel Rosenberg was a singer from the 1930s. The rest of them didn’t know. Communication depends, to some extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage. Even preliterate societies can claim the shared assessment of their world. As we enter the postindustrial “information processing” age, what sort of information will be processed? And, as the educational establishment is driven “back to the basics,” isn’t it time we decided that a common understanding of our history and our planet is most basic of all?

As a teacher, I find myself in the ignorance-and-hope business. Each year hopeful faces confront me, trying to conceal their ignorance. Their hopes ride on the dispelling of that ignorance.

All our hopes do.

We should begin servicing that hope more responsibly and dispelling that ignorance with a more systematic approach to imparting essential knowledge.
Socrates, the American Indian chieftain, would have wanted it that way.

Forgiven Sinners

Despite the Reformation/Lutheran bent, I found this blog post, via my friend and high school classmate Dan Moriarity, thought-provoking and, well … provocative generally. While it caricatures the Pharisees (as “grace preaching” too often does) as the worst of the worst (so that we feel better about not being “them”?) much of it has the ring of truth. It seems to give short shrift to the simple, sobering fact that what got us in trouble in the first place, the root of our “rejecting forgiveness,” is our refusal to listen to what Jesus says and accept the “light burden and the easy yoke” while we continue to scoff at whatever of his words we don’t like and often just ignore the rest, persisting in our own self-destructive stubborn stupidity. Wherever one comes down in the great “New Perspectives on Paul” debates, and even if one reads the NT through Reformation-colored goggles, the central issue isn’t really what 2nd-Temple/1st-century Judaism generally (or sectarian Pharisaism specifically) thought about the renegade rabbi’s theology. It’s about how I/you read what the Spirit says about grace, forgiveness, God’s steadfast love, and related concepts. As this blog clearly demonstrates, mis-perceptions about such concepts are by no means limited to one particular religious communion — as some high-minded folk who don’t seem to have had much exposure to the wider religious world seem to think. A dead give-away to such thinking is often when someone begins a blog with (or includes the line) about “what I heard growing up” and then generalizes from their anecdotal experiences and memories (accurate or not) to universalized conclusions about everyone else, as if others were made in their image. One wonders if such folk begin their prayers, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like others, especially those Pharisees…”


For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. (Matthew 9:13)

In the Name + of Jesus. AMEN. Matthew is thrilled, of course, but the Pharisees are horrified. Jesus calls this tax farmer to be his disciple; this crook, this mafia style enforcer for the Roman government. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to spin up the local gossip mill, other tax collectors and sinners who’ve heard the astonishing news that Matthew went and got religion – they crash the dinner party Jesus is at! … How could the religious leaders not be appalled at Jesus’ behavior?

You see, what the Pharisees are blind to is that the only way you can get yourself in permanent trouble with God is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. What Jesus reveals to us in the calling of Matthew is that the old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral supermen. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners too. The only difference is that those in heaven accept God’s grace of forgiveness in Christ Jesus and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a wedding party – the endless reception of the Lamb and his bride – and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.

Jesus shows us that grace is wildly irreligious stuff, vulgar even. It’s more than enough to get God kicked out of the God union that the Pharisees have formed to keep him on his divine toes so he won’t let the riffraff off scot-free… But if all we can think of is God as the Eternal Bookkeeper, the Almighty Tax Collector in the Sky, putting down black marks against sinners, keeping exact amounts and accounts of who owes what to him – or God as the Celestial Mother-in-Law giving a crystal vase as a present and then inspecting it for chips every time she comes for a visit… well then, any serious teaching about grace is going to scare the rockers right off our little religious hobbyhorses.

Jesus did not come to teach the teachable, reform the reformable, perfect the perfectible, or improve the improvable. He came to save tax collectors and sinners. He came to save the least, the last, the little and the lost. He came to raise the dead. But it hurts our pride to admit our helplessness. It pains us to agree that our own death is the one thing needed for salvation. Surely, we think, there must be something we can do to earn God’s approval.

Even if we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by way of our pious show of religious devotion, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth kindhearted, softheaded, or both.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, proclaims that the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. Christ’s Church is not in the religion business. She never has been and she never will be, in spite of all the pew-perching turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religious devotion was their stock in trade… Christianity is not a religion. It is the announcement of the end of all our spiritual bookkeeping.

This bothers us of course, because we are positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores… [but] if God has announced anything in Jesus, it is that He, for one, has pensioned off the bookkeeping department permanently… as he shows us by calling Matthew away from his bookkeeping.

Jesus comes to the world’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He wipes away the handwriting that is against us and nails it to his cross (Colossians 2:14). He saves, not some miniscule group of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom he sets free in the liberation of his death…

At the end of the sermon, I sometimes see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to our church’s teaching about grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of your worst shipwrecks you are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls you. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden recognition that he really means it when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the sermon, after the service in the time it takes some of you to get to the coffee, the smiles have been replaced by frowns, mumbles, and gossip. Your fear that there must be some kind of catch has caught up with you again, and you surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for your religious devotions and morality… “Be careful how you preach grace,” you complain, “some people might think you’re saying that the more we sin the more God loves us.”

Martin Luther once said a preacher is not truly proclaiming grace until he is suspected of promoting sin. A preacher of Christ crucified FOR YOU relishes this risk for the opportunity to shake you out of self-justifying scorekeeping. To show you that no matter how well you think you’re doing as a Christian, you resent salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Take for example, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector returns to the temple the next week. Don’t we all expect a little reform to show he’d deserved God’s mercy last week. No whoring this week maybe, or drinking cheaper whiskey and giving the difference to the American Cancer Society? We are hellbent on destroying Jesus’ parable by sending the tax collector back for his second visit to the temple with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket.

This is why you listen politely to the pastor go on about grace in his sermon then pray on your way out of the service, or in your car during the drive home, “Lord, please restore to me the comfort of merit and demerit. Show me that there is at least something I can do. Tell me that at the end of the day there will at least be one redeeming card of my very own. Lord, if it is not too much to ask, send me to bed with a few shreds of self-respect upon which I can congratulate myself. But whatever you do, do not preach grace. Give me something to do, anything; but spare me the indignity of this indiscriminate grace and acceptance.”

But, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is a witness to God’s wildly irreligious, vulgar grace. A grace that amazes us even as it offends us. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till eleven on Sunday morning. A grace that hikes up his robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal son who reeks of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party… no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request –”Please, remember me”– and promises him, “You bet I will!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the Carpenter-Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but FOR YOUR SAKE.

God’s wildly irreligious, vulgar grace is indiscriminate kindness. It works without asking anything of you. This grace is not cheap though. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the Pharisaical foot and a fairy tale for our grown-up sensibility that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The grace of Jesus Christ is enough even though we huff and puff with all our strength to try to find something or someone grace cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough. AMEN.