Theology in Song: The Rapture

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When I was growing up, no one said a thing to me about the Rapture.  I remember hearing it mentioned, occasionally, by my Pentecostal or other Charismatically-minded friends, but I didn’t really know what it was.  I think I first started to get an idea of what it is from the Left Behind series (which I neither read nor watched).  I never asked my parents, or anyone, about it. The Rapture had this vaguely heretical aura about it, an unseemly vibe that told me it’s completely made up and only fanatics and born-again movie stars from the 80’s believe in it.  So I just never really looked into it.

Now that I’m older, I still don’t know all the subtleties of every view concerning eschatology.  But I do know that the concept of being taken up to meet Jesus in Heaven is actually in the real Bible, and the true disagreement lies in the order of things, more than the nature of them.  The CRC doesn’t have a strict position on the Rapture, except that it absolutely rejects dispensationalism (sorry, you’ll have to look it up; it’s way outside the scope of this blog).  So the Rapture, as a general term, is not really as dissentient as it might have seemed.  Still, the word stirs up some pretty strong feelings, most of them negative, amongst the Reformed.

So the question I’m posing is this: should we use songs or lines of songs that refer to the Rapture? Does it matter how it’s mentioned, or what the author might have intended?  Some of our best-loved, most oft-sung hymns make reference to it; let’s look at a couple examples.

One hymn that I have always loved is “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” The original refrain, written by Fanny Crosby in 1869, is this:

“In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever,
‘Till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.”

I’ve sung those lines countless times, and honestly, I never really associated them with the Rapture, as portrayed in modern culture. I just thought of it as Jesus taking us to be with him, however that ends up happening. Evidently, though, not everyone found it innocuous.  In the newer editions of the Psalter, the word raptured has been changed to ransomed.  Do you think there’s anything wrong with the original version? One could argue our souls have already been ransomed by Christ’s death, and in that sense raptured would be more apt.

Another Rapture-related song, also by Fanny Crosby (her lyrics have had a few run-ins with the editors of the Psalter over the years), that most of us have heard and sung is “Blessed Assurance.”  This hymn was not even included in the Psalter until a new second verse had been written for it.  Crosby’s second verse:

“Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight:
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.”

I find some poignancy in her choice of words here.  Crosby was blind, and spent a great deal of her time and money on missions work for the poor and disabled.  In this song, I wonder if she is speaking of the overwhelming joy she took in caring for others and the promise that all the misery and pain in this world will be finally undone through Jesus.  But do context or author’s intent have significant bearing on our decision of whether to use words like these in worship?

In those two instances, I don’t think there’s any harm in singing the original lyrics. Of course, there might be other songs that make more concrete references to the Rapture, and clearly advocate a dispensationalist view, which we would certainly reject. That would make the decision easy. Nonetheless, we can’t deny that Christ will return and restore us to him, and if the widely accepted, generic term for that event is rapture, I don’t think we should avoid using it, at least not in all cases.

Are there other examples of songs that mention the Rapture? Have any of you debated this topic with members of your worship team or council?  What did you decide?  Is this simply a matter of preference in most cases, or does it rise to a doctrinal level? Let’s hear what you have to say

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From etymon.com:
rapture (n.) 
c.1600, "act of carrying off," from Middle French rapture, from Medieval
Latin raptura "seizure, rape, kidnapping," from Latin raptus "a carrying off, abduction, snatching away; rape" (see rapt). Earliest attested use in English is of women and in 17c. it sometimes meant rape (v.), which word is a cognate of this. Sense of "spiritual ecstasy, state of mental transport" first recorded c.1600 (raptures).
The word is about 350 years older than John nelson Darby's invention of dispensational eschatology. 

I've always interpreted the use of the word in hymns in the sense that Bill lays out, the idea of "rapturous delight" and not speaking about an end times event.  But it dovetails with the whole question of theology in song.  I for one cringe a little when I sing at Christmas "the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes."  Why shouldn't he cry?

Participant

I agree, Jesus was a fully-human baby and crying is not a sin.  We know he cried later in life, so why not as a baby?

Larry Norman's 1972 album "Only Visiting this Planet" was an album that was highly rated by secular and Christian music stations & magazines. He was eventually inducted to Gospel Music Hall of Fame and honoured posthumously at the Grammy Awards in 2009. As a young teenager, I listened to the album frequently (still have a copy somewhere) and the lyrics of the one track definitely provoked thought... at that time. Now, I just think it's a great song.

Excerpts from Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready":
A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head he's gone
I wish we'd all been ready
Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready

There's no time to change your mind, how could you have been so blind
the father spoke, the demons dined, the Son has come and you've been left behind

Participant

Oh, memories! When I was a teen, Larry Norman was the only thing resembling rock and roll that was permitted in the house. But beforehand I got an explanation from my Dad and an Elder about how the Rapture was wrong. Sort of like a Theological antidote pre potential poisoning.
Since then, I've come to subscribe to the possibility presented I think by Walsh and Middleton in "The Transforming Vision" that maybe, if there is to be disappearing going on, the ones left on earth will be there to build the Kingdom. But then, I like turning existing assumptions on their heads.
So, when Larry Norman came to Ontario Canada in the early 2000s (I think) I took one of my teen sons (who was too much into rap for my liking - a lingering Grand Rapids influence) to see his concert. I got to talk with him (he was like 63 years old), and asked him specifically about the song Ron mentions. Larry said that if you read the words carefully he wrote it with no clear indication of who was going where, only that a 'leaving' had occurred.

Participant

The "Lift Up Your Hearts" hymnal has gone back to the original text and has included "rapture" in the second verse of "Blessed Assurance". It is also has an * with an explanation at the bottom as a "sense of glory, ecstatic joy. So the CRCNA has re-introduced the word "rapture" in its lyrical repertoire, we just need to realize that. They have also have included "ebenezer" in the "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" with another explanation at the bottom as well. Many of the songs have gone back to the "original text" that we know from the evangelical community.

Participant

Kevin, welcome back!  I did not know any details of the new Psalter, but that sounds like great news.  I hope "Jesus, With Thy Church Abide" has been restored to its original state.

Participant

Kevein, do you know whether "Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit" has had its original refrain restored in the new hymnal?

Participant

The new hymnal kept the refrain that was in the 1987 Psalter Hymnal.  "Dwell in me, O blessed Spirit, gracious Teacher, Friend divine!  For the kingdom work that calls me, O prepare this heart of mine."

Are you refering to this refrain: "Dwell in me, oh, dwell in me; Hear and grant my prayer to Thee; Spirit, now from Heav'n descending, Come, oh, come and dwell in me."

The "problem" or "licence" that is with this particular song is that it is Public Domain, so any church/organization, can rephrase, etc. any part of the song as they see theologicaly fit.  So, I'm sure there is a theological reason as to choosing/keeping the lyrics.

Any Public Domain (P.D.) song is under liberty to be altered or changed as one sees fit.  So the idea that the lyrics have changed is that there was a theological issue vs. an artistic liberty.  That's my educated guess from being on the advisory committee.

Participant

Thanks for looking that up, Kevin.

I was referring to this refrain:

"Dwell in me, O blessed Spirit, gracious Teacher, Friend divine!  For the home of bliss that waits me, O prepare this heart of mine."

It also had three verses, the original second verse being thus:

"Round the cross where Thou has led me, let my purest feelings twine. With the blood from sin that cleansed me, seal anew this heart of mine."

I never saw anything wrong wih those lyrics, and never thought the altered version quite measured up.

I may be wrong but I believe in a rapture and that it will be public and final as opposed to one that is secret, which we hear taught more often.

I always change the lyrics when I come across bad theology in praise music (constantly) and hymns (occasionally). The rapture is bad theology and the act of a band leader letting it be articulated misses the chance to educate the congregation.