“That Old Time Religion”
A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
24 January 2016 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
This gospel lesson is set as the Jesus’ public entrance into ministry. It is in this story that Jesus declares his mission and vision for ministry. It is a ministry that is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophet Isaiah, but it is also a ministry that says from the start that God is going to do new things, startling things, things that will be disruptive. We are challenged to think about our own expectations of ministry: when we do God’s work, do we expect things to become more stable or more turbulent? Who will benefit from our ministries – the ministries we take on as individual people of faith and the ministries we take on as a congregation? Listen now to these words of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the power of the Spirit. Through all the surrounding country a report about him spread. Jesus began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where Jesus had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (translation by thom bower)
My wife is a Christian educator who works a lot with children and families. She has noted a significant decline in the familiarity with Christian songs – not contemporary Christian music, but the old standards that children used to learn at church camps and vacation bible school. There’s a lot of reasons why that is so: as a culture we do not sing as much as we used to; now we rely on recorded music or bands to sing for us; we don’t gather at the kind of church gatherings where these songs were taught – and when we do the music used are the popular tunes of Christian radio; and we have bought into a cultural assumption that what is appropriate for today’s children is the new and novel, not what we knew when we were children. As she has been trying to reintroduce some of these standard Christian songs, she has been meeting with resistance. “Give me that old time religion” is perceived as nostalgic, backward looking, anti-progressive.
“Gimme that old time religion …”
In 1965, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote an essay titled “Religion as a Cultural System.” It was a ground-breaking essay for a number of reasons (which I won’t go into here).One of the ideas that has stood out for me as a local church pastor is that all religions function in their culture as a way of making sense out of chaos. In doing this work, religions preserve claims of how the universe is structured and thus how society should be structured. Thus, Geertz claimed, all religions are conservative in nature.
I have struggled against this notion since first reading this essay. What of the transformative role of religion? I was taught since Sunday School that there is something intrinsic to Christianity calling us to renewal, conversion, change?
In Luke, Jesus appears as John preachers a message of repentance. “Turn Around!” shouts John. An aspect of the miracles of Jesus are about changing someone’s situation. So this is a crucial question: is the fundamental social function of religion about preserving our traditions or transforming our culture?
The story we heard from Luke places Jesus in that very tension. The very act of reading from Isaiah, the poetic prophet from the time of the exile, is preserving an existing religious understanding. And yet, reading from Isaiah, presents a problem. This particular portion of Isiah is speaking of a time that is yet to come when God will transform human living through God’s chosen messiah. Now, Jesus does not say all these things have already been completed, but rather “I have been sent to do all these things.” In other words, Jesus is setting up his ministry agenda based on Isaiah’s description of how God will fulfill God’s plan of care.
So while Jesus is using what were for him and his community very old words, the meaning is forward looking. He’s conserving an old tradition to transform his culture.
In the past decade, our United States culture has celebrated visions of going back to some idealized time in our history. United States Christianity has become more focused on conservation than it has on transformation. We have developed this assumption that the “Old Time Religion” was somehow more potent, more meaningful than today’s religion, that the “Old Time Religion” was less fraught with confusion and uncertainty than today’s religion. So when do you think that “Old Time Religion” was so secure?
A few weeks ago I heard the song Ole Time Religion come through my Pandora jazz station, and I got to wondering “When was that song written? What would have been the “Old Time Religion” for the writer of that song?”
Before I googled the song, I made myself take a guess. So I’m going to ask you to take a guess also. In what decade of US history do you think the song “Old Time Religion” was written? Just keep your answer in your head. I’ll lead you through the mental exercise I took myself
I associate the song with my grandparents – so for me 1950’s, maybe 1940’s. And I have to say: that is a really good guess on my part, because that’s when it the first really popular recordings were made. According to Wikipedia, there were several popular recordings made in the 1950’s, but the song gained significant popularity as part of the soundtrack for the movie Sergeant York in 1941.
Our present culture holds a certain nostalgia for post-war America: Andy Griffith and Leave it to Beaver portray neighborhood kids coming and going through homes with trustworthy adult mentors who guide them through life lessons by dispensing with practical wisdom. We have accepted the image of America from Norman Rockwell paintings, even if those images were skewed at the time they were made.
But one of the ways Americans made sense of the confusion that lingered after World War 2 was the security of the family. Perhaps if we looked to an earlier religion, we could have prevented the horrors of that war. So while the song was popular in the 1950’s, that’s not when the song was written.
My next guess is that this song was written in the next most previous time of social upheaval – the roaring 20’s: the gilded age, the strange cultural mix of flappers dancing to jazz in speakeasies because of the prohibition against alcohol. They too were trying to make sense of a horrific war.
That’s the decade when we observed the Scopes “monkey trial” – which seems like the very cauldron for a song like Ole Time Religion. After all, the Scopes trial placed faith and science as incompatible neighbors, as though we must choose one or the other because we cannot understand both. But this was not the social cauldron in which Old Time Religion was written.
So perhaps a decade or so earlier. The industrial revolution of the 1900’s disrupted life as we knew it. Just consider this brief list of inventions from the first part of the 20th Century:
the Dirigible, the assembly line and the Model T, and then the airplane;
the wireless radio, the flashlight, and coat hangers;
air conditioning, the escalator, and the vacuum cleaner;
the Hershey bar, ice cream cone, popsicle, and I think no coincidentally paper towels;
and also paper shopping bags, Zipper, and band-aids.
This is also the period which birthed fundamentalism – the Christian claim that certain ideals have been abandoned and only by returning to them can we reclaim doctrinal purity. The fundamentals at stake were:
• the inerrancy of the Bible
• the literal nature of the biblical accounts
• the virgin birth of Christ
• the bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
• the need for Christ to die on the cross as a substitution for each individual’s sinfulness
Now, this modern Christian fundamentalist movement was pushing against another popular Christian orientation called Social Gospel Movement. The Social Gospel Movement aligned itself politically with progressivism, a trust in applying science to better our lives to overcome poverty, disease, and social unrest. The Social Gospel Movement also used forms of literary criticism to understand the bible, and was applying the latest understandings in education to better develop Christian teaching. The Social Gospel movement invested in ecumenical relationships (that is, relationships between Christian denominations) and interreligious relationships (that is, relationships between Christians and Jews and Muslims). This is theology which moved the predecessors of the UCC to unite and which has set the social vision of our denomination for the past century.
It was those commitments which Fundamentalism pushed against and gave us the vocabulary for a cultural debate between “liberal” and “conservative.”
Intuitively it seems correct that these would be the very people writing a song like Ole Time Religion. Singing it, yes; writing it, no. The song is even older.
Ole Time Religion was first published in 1875, meaning it was the grandparents of both the Social Gospel Movement and the Fundamentalist Movement. (And let me admit, there is good reason to suspect this was a popular song even before then. But let’s take 1875 as our date in history.) That places this song ten years after the American Civil War. At that time we had Reconstruction in the southern states, a controversial policy of rebuilding ruined southern towns and establishing a new industrialized economy without slave labor. We were experiencing the Western Expansion – pushing European settlers west past the Mississippi River. Think of Laura Ingils Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. Concurrent with that Native Americans were pushed onto reservations.
Among European Americans, Christianity at that time was dominated by what is now known as the Third Great Awakening, typified by emotionally-charged camp meetings: think of every stereotype you have of a revival, and put it into a week-long event. It is within this cultural setting that people were longing for an Ole Time Religion – meaning they were nostalgic for a religion that seems to have already disappeared in their day.
Think of that for a moment: people publishing this song Ole Time Religion in 1875 were looking backward to something they felt they had lost.
So let’s guess they were longing for something 25 or 30 years in their past. That would make them longing for a kind of religion from the 1850’s or maybe even 1840’s, a time before the American Civil War, a time right around when this congregation was founded. At that time Congregations gathered mostly around shared language – German or Swiss or English – rather than agreement about belief or missionary activity.
German settlers had established seminaries from which to draw their pastors, but the Congregationalists in this region would not establish Chicago Theological Seminary until 1855. Can you imagine an “old time religion” that predates CTS?
Among English speakers, Methodism and Puritanism (what we might recognize as congregationalism) battled for religious superiority, and their main fight centered on promoting faith focused on individual salvation or social responsibility? Both sides were suspicious of Catholics. That led to the “Frontier Missions” to establish new Protestant congregations along the major rivers before the Catholics settled there. The Foreign Missionary movement doesn’t really take hold until the 1850’s – so “that old time religion” was not concerned with people in other countries.
As we hummed along and tapped our foot to the tune Ole Time Religion, were we longing for the same thing as the first publishers? Do you really want to return to life like it was before the Civil War? I lived in Richmond VA for 5 years, and I know some people there who would wholeheartedly without hesitation say “yes.’ With all sincerity and absolutely no irony I knew people who still refer to the civil war as “the recent unpleasantries associated with the northern aggression.” Yes, 150 years later, and to them the Civil War is still the recent unpleasantries. Yes they would like to return to the “old time religion”
Maybe I have over-exaggerated a desire for an earlier time of faith. Maybe when you hum that tune you are not expressing interest in a pre-Civil War era religion. But what parts of “that old time religion” are you holding onto? If you are looking back 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago to a time when things seemed to be so much better, just what are you hoping to retain or recreate?
Ironically, just this week I received an article in my newsfeed listing “9 things the successful church did a decade ago that no longer work today.” The title jarred me: I graduated from seminary two decades ago; my doctoral dissertation is now more than a decade old. I reviewed this list and wondered “How many things did I learn in seminary that are no longer useful for church leadership?” Since reading that article I have been taking stock of my assumptions: are they conservative, rooted in making sense by resisting change, or are they transformative, expecting God to be revealed in renewal and transformation?
That’s my work on myself. My work with you is different. I know my viewpoints, my orientations – and I am not here to make you agree with me. My role here as interim pastor is to help you as a congregation clarify your own viewpoint. What is essential for your identity as a community of faith? What do you need to retain from your past, because it makes sense of the present chaos and confusion? How can you be better organized to minister to the needs of others? How will you address conflict in healthier ways? How will you honor the legacy of generations of faithful members of this congregation and at the same time adapt to the changing culture that is as close as the cars driving along Joliet road?
For our reflection hymn we’re going to sing Just As I Am. This was Ruth Chvosta’s favorite hymn, and so we are singing it in thanksgiving for her life. When we sing it, listen to the words: it comes from this time before the Civil War. The original poem was meant to contrast the uncertainty of emotion with the certainty of Christ’s promises. Like Ole Time Religion, the song Just As I Am has had a long life and has been used by many faith groups for many different reasons. I hope it serves as a reminder of the testament of faith provided by Ruth and her generation of faithful leadership, but also stands as a challenge to consider what is essential for faithfulness in 2016 at Lyonsville Congregational. I think, above all else, that is something Ruth would encourage us to think about.