I’m relaying this story from my colleague, Douglas, who is the organist and choirmaster at our church. I’m not necessarily sure what precipitated the conversation, but I found it fascinating. I’m interested in the thoughts of others…speculations as to “why.” My up-front disclosure: I believe that the spiritual realm is real and quite active (Ephesians 6:12), and I believe that demon possession still happens today (though perhaps, as my friend Sharon Beekman reminds me, not always the way that we think).
Douglas told me that, on one occasion years ago, it was believed that a woman associated with their church was demon-possessed. Douglas and his wife were asked to go over to her place and minister to her through music. Unsure of what would or could be accomplished by this, they still went over, and they sat down at a piano and began to play and sing. The woman sat and listened, and for a long time she remained basically passive. She did not react much. Douglas and his wife worked through, especially, a lot of praise choruses that were considered by many at the time to be “moving” and “spiritually powerful.” No change in the woman’s countenance. They went on like this for a long time. No effect.
Douglas and his wife switched gears. They opened up a hymnal and began to play and sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Almost immediately, the woman became visibly agitated, and as the song progressed she began writhing all the more. The demon in her was obviously not happy. Douglas said that as they sang, the woman’s behavior frightened them, but they kept on…and she kept on. (Douglas did not share what eventually became of the woman.)
To me, what most obviously would elicit a negative reaction from the prince of darkness is the fact that the hymn thumbs its nose at him. Here are the offending lyrics (though, really, the whole hymn is offensive to him):
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate…
And though this world, with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.
What is surprising about Douglas’s encounter was that the praise choruses they sang did not elicit the negative protest of “the devils.” Critics of praise choruses would be quick to point out that this is confirmation of the spiritual impotency of modern worship music…and perhaps this is true, especially as a generalization and especially of early “praise and worship” music. (I do want to remind readers that times have changed and that we’re seeing a positive shift in modern worship toward more substance, rich theology, and historical connectedness, such that the broad-brush generalizations of yesteryear are fading in their applicability.)
This all does raise an eyebrow to the lack of overt spiritual warfare themes in modern worship music. Perhaps Redman’s “We Shall Not Be Shaken” and the bridge of Tomlin’s “Our God” are movements toward awakening about the need to “do” warfare in our worship music, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything as overt as “A Mighty Fortress” in a worship song. For that matter, I don’t know of many old hymns that come close to rivaling Luther’s battle-hymn, either (perhaps some of you do).
For some reason, the theme of “worship as warfare” just keeps coming up. It’s a fascinating and under-appreciated aspect of worship-thought. One thing’s for certain. Whenever I sing “A Mighty Fortress,” this story is at the forefront of my mind, and I end up singing a lot more forcefully in hopes that some of the shrapnel from my praise-bombs fly far enough to reach enemy camp.
Interesting discussion. Offhand I can think of a few early praise choruses that deal with spiritual warfare, e.g. "The Battle Belongs to the Lord" and "Mighty Warrior," the latter of which has lines like "Satan has no authority here in this place / for this habitation was fashioned for the Lord's presence" that sound almost like a rite of exorcism. Still, "A Mighty Fortress" they're not.
Luther's hymns show his pastoral side; most of them are essentially sermons in verse. It's fascinating to put "A Mighty Fortress" side by side with Psalm 46 and see how effective his exposition is.
One) The main reason I so enjoy following your blog is your artistic use of words and ability to sew them together in quiltesque fashion.
Two) Thank you for not pidgeon-holing yourself theologically and discussing this massive element of Christ-followership with an open and critical mind.
Three) I am homilating Luke 10:17-24 this week. Yes, spiritual warfare is a part of what we do, whether furtive or overt, and I think not sufficiently enough by Christ-followers. Therefore, as much as can be incorporated into music, the better. However, I am struck that Jesus says, 'hey power over darkness is pretty dang cool, but you wouldn't have it if it were not for me, REJOICE in who I am and who you are in me.' (loose PM paraphrase).
Hence four) Jesus etheoroun (both literal and mental projection and in the imperfect tense) Satan (read- not Lucifer) started falling pre-incarnation and continues to fall as folks metanoia and submit themselves to the Kingdom of God. To the casual reader, it appears that a few mendicant preachers visited a few small towns and sick folk were touched, but more broadly, in the gospel presentation the kingdom of darkness is defeated just a little bit more as we on-goingly lift up the name of Jesus in song, whether Luther or Egan. Singing spiritual warfare prayers and ideas is probably the best way for the ardent and stoic to participate in a significant activity without even recognizing it as such. So let's join together to sing, proclaim, announce, and destroy darkness' prince as he falls from his self aggrandized position and height of power.
Keep up the good work citizen.
Very kind and thoughtful words, Mark. Thank you…and may God bless your preaching!