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Away in a manger – Christmas carol

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A few years ago, for an Open Theological College module on environmental issues, I set an essay question about eco-friendly language in songs and hymns. The students chose a variety of lyrics, and I cannot remember which, but I want to consider a few songs that annoy me. Lets begin with “Away in a manger” which, despite spurious claims of a link to Martin Luther, was written anonymously, in English, around 1880.

I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

In the second stanza the phrase “down from the sky” is problematic because its spatial down/up language suggests the writer has not integrated the Copernican Revolution into his or her cosmology. This kind of poetry invites Kruschev’s mischievous observation that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew out into orbit but did not see God there. The lyric also fails to recognise that there is no place beyond Earth’s atmosphere that is closer to God than the Earth’s surface. However, the third stanza, added sometime before 1892, is much worse because it ends as follows: 

And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

Much has been written on the biblical vision of a renewal of “the heavens and the earth” see for example my briefing Creation’s Destiny in Jesus Christ which draws upon earlier work by NT Wright, FF Bruce, John Stott, CH Spurgeon, and many others. One problem in the lyrics is the parallel between “sky” and “heaven”. Yes often in the Bible “the heavens” often refers to the sky, but the word “heaven” is also used by Christians to refer to the renewed creation, which is future in time but is not distant in space. The human is created to live on earth (Hebrew adam/adamah) not in the sky, and the resurrection is bodily. despite popular images of souls floating among clouds.

An alternative version of the lyric has “And fit us for heaven to live with thee there” which is much better, apart from its use of the spatial word “there”. The need to rhyme with “care” is awkward.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee fair.

My suggested version is weak and I would be glad to hear any other suggestions for a rewrite of the third stanza this carol?

Photo by Walter Chávez on UnsplashPhoto by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

Written by John McKeown

16 December 2019 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Personal

Pre-publication praise for God’s Babies

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David Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Trinity College Dublin. Formerly the Principal of Belfast Bible College.

“In this fascinating study, McKeown offers the reader a lucid exploration of the ways in which ‘biblical’ notions of fruitfulness and procreative fecundity have been used and misused within the Christian theological tradition down through the ages. In doing so, McKeown makes a significant contribution to the field of theological ethics, but also adds a stimulating chapter to the ever expanding story of the Bible’s reception from antiquity down to the present day.”

Rachel Muers, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies, University of Leeds.

“This is an important book on an under-researched topic about which scholars and the general public urgently need to be better informed. McKeown offers a lucid, thorough and persuasive critique of Christian pronatalist theologies and ideologies, exploring their historical roots and showing why they exert such influence today. His work supplies a missing piece of the jigsaw of Christian environmental ethics, and deserves to be widely read.”

Celia Deane-Drummond is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. 

“In this original, scholarly book the author carefully analyses the theological foundations for natality and finds them wanting. He skillfully exposes not just faulty biblical exegesis supporting such a view, but also the way in which the Christian tradition has been misaligned to such a position. He argues convincingly that such issues are not of mere theoretical importance, but have significant ramifications for environmental ethics. There is much to commend this thought provoking book, not just for Protestant readers, but especially Roman Catholic readers who, though rarely supporting natality as such, habitually remain confused by the demand to both have children and promote celibacy.”

Written by John McKeown

25 August 2014 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Church of England should not make reproductive potential essential to marriage

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Having researched Christian attitudes to human fertility, when I saw the recent Church of England statement (7 December 2012) on marriage my attention immediately focused on a phrase that looks dangerously close to procreationism, the Stoic belief that marriage must be potentially reproductive. My reaction appears below:

The C of E statement includes in their “definition of marriage” as an essential feature:

“the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation”

The (anonymous) authors may think the word “potentially” sufficient to avoid slipping into procreationism, but there are many people whose infertility is discernibly permanent i.e. they completely lack potential fertility. This raises some disturbing questions:

  • Is a permanently infertile person eligible to marry? For example a woman who has had a hysterectomy.
  • If a man and woman intend to remain childless (for whatever reason), is their marriage permissible?
  • If a man who is elderly or a woman past the menopause wishes to marry, should the church allow it?
  • If a childless husband and wife fail to seek medical fertility treatment, does the marriage become invalid?

Procreationism has these and other grotesque implications.

The church should steer well away from it. I wonder why the authors chose to dredge up this line of argument. I realise their primary concern is about a different issue and I imagine they do not intend to apply their logical implication by adding fertility-related criteria for men and women seeking marriage. Even so, in a context of defining marriage their mention of a potential for biological reproduction as an essential feature is unhelpful. They are lending credibility to procreationism (and natalism). A marriage which husband and wife know in advance will be childless is just as valid as any other marriage.

I urge the Church of England to amend their statement.

Written by John McKeown

8 December 2012 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Reproduction