Wednesday, November 14, 2018

I vow to thee, my country

Last Sunday, to commemorate Veterans Day, the church choir sang "I vow to thee, my country". It has inspirational lyrics set to a classy tune. Here's the text:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And here's a fine performance:

1. Patriotism is a controversial issue in Christianity. On the one hand there's the knee-jerk cliche about how patriotic displays have no place within the four walls of the church. Likewise, that nationalism is idolatry. Our only allegiance should be to Jesus. On the other hand you have churches that bilk patriotic holidays. It's easy to get more emotional charge out of patriotism than the average sermon, and some pastors piggyback on that sentiment to give their preaching a boost.

Then there's the more balanced view that a Christian is a citizen of two worlds. Although Christian identity takes precedence, that doesn't cut earthly ties. Indeed, Christian identity is naturally expressed through earthly ties–though not exclusively.

2. Then there's the question of the message. Pretty music and inspirational rhetoric can seduce us into singing things that aren't true.

i) The two stanzas present a point contrast between heaven and earth, this life and the afterlife. That's nice.

ii) I don't know what Rice means by "all earthly things above". Typically, heaven is above and earth is below. So the imagery seems confused.

iii) Especially in the context of war, "the love that asks no question" seems like blindly following orders.

iv) Then there's the question of what your "country" stands for. Does that represent your family? A way of life? Liberty? A common history and culture? A people? Freedom to practice the true religion?

What's the altar? Is that a metaphor for willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice (i.e. dying in combat)? And how does that relate to the "dearest and best"? If the "dearest and best" stand for things like family, does that mean you should be prepared to sacrifice your family for your country? In one sense, Rice may mean patriotism requires parents to risk their sons in battle. On the other hand, doesn't paternal or filial duty require you to protect your family at the risk of your own life? You're not putting them at risk, but endangering yourself for their sake. So the message seems confused. But perhaps it depends on which family member is in view. Men protecting women and children. Some family members are required to make the final sacrifice on behalf of other family members. Or for the common good.

3. The theology of the second stanza is vague. Is a faithful heart the ticket to heaven? Faithful in what sense?

4. The message of the hymn is fuzzy. I'm not sure if Rice had a clear idea of what he meant. It may be impressionistic. More intuitive than exact.

5. When parsing hymns, we should make some allowance for the fact that the dual constraints of a metrical scheme and rhyming scheme limit the choice of words, so that precision of thought and expression may suffer. And poetic imagery is open-textured.

6. In light of (2) & (5), it's better to bring our theology to hymns rather than taking our theology from hymns. In one respect, what's important isn't so much what the hymn means to the hymnodist but what it means to the singer.


  1. On "all earthly things above": most likely, this is a poetic inversion. Untangled, the first line is something like, "I vow the service of my love to thee, my country; I vow it to thee above all earthly things; I vow it entire and whole and perfect."

    1. That's an elegant explanation. Assuming it's correct, the sentiment is ambiguous. It doesn't make much sense to say my commitment to my country is higher than all earthly things, if that includes family and friends. Does patriotism override all earthly things?

      Perhaps, though, the idea is that I should be prepared to relinquish my stake in all earthly goods for the good of my family, friends, countrymen. I love them enough to forgo my personal needs and aspirations in order to defend them. Love is costly.

  2. While I'm generally in favor of patriotism, public worship is not the appropriate place for it. I would not sing that hymn in a service, even if we put the best spin on its rather questionable meaning.

    I also would not worship in a church that has the American flag displayed by the pulpit.

    I think American patrotism is appropriate, as Ben Shapiro points out American patriotism is about a set of ideas- virtuous ideas, not just an arbitrary loyalty to the state or even to the land.

    That said, there are appropriate and inappropriate displays of patriotism. I think it is good to stand for the National Anthem. It is too bad that, on one hand, it has been turned into a sort of loyalty test. And on the other hand, others have refused to stand out of ingratitude and idiotic leftist grievances.

    The Pledge of Allegiance I'm much less sure about. Should we have subservient allegiances and loyalties to our country, that are beneath our allegiance to God? Yes. But the Pledge strikes me as straddling the dangerous line between patriotism and nationalism.

    1. So long as you pledge your undying allegiance to the Peoples Republic of California! :-)

  3. It was written in Britain in 1921, so it is hard to imagine that the First World War is not shaping all of the rhetoric; Rice was the British ambassador to the US, responsible for trying to bring the US into the war. "The final sacrifice" is pretty clear in that context. The vague civic religion expressed would be familiar to all who attended British public schools (as I did). It's not Christianity in any meaningful sense. The tune, on the other hand is magnificent because it is written by a brilliant composer, Gustav Holst (best known for the Planets). It is attached to much better words in Trinity Hymnal 660, though the rhythm is not easy for congregational singing.

    1. Thanks for the historical background!