As regular readers of this blog may have suspected, I am a recovering Southern Baptist; yet I still enjoy listening to gospel music. A great number of the older songs I learned by heart in my youth. It is not their words, however, that attract me today but rather the subliminal “message” behind the words—the existential attitude that evokes the words. Behind the song writer’s literary certainty and the singer's rapturous expressions, the gospel idiom, the pithy metaphors, vivid imagery, and sweeping idealistic visions of what lies beyond life in the world for the faithful, I am most struck by two real-world attitudes. On the one hand, the certainty masks the awful existential dread of oblivion that occasionally wells up in quiet moments for all of us; on the other, the music and its performance reflects a primal cry of hope. The songwriters and singers express confident hope that life is not an episode of three-score-and-ten years that ends in nothingness; rather the music holds forth the promise of a future on the other side of our terminal episodes.
One can easily get lost in the emotional mythical expectations evoked by the words and miss the simple hope (nothing more or less) that lies behind the language of certainty. Behind the confident language of Zion lies a fragile ambiguous hope parading itself as confident expectation. The writers/singers may appear supremely confident in their expectations but hope reflects only uncertain prospects, and believing it so does not make it so!
Early Christian faith reflects this same dissonance between hope and confidence.
Paul: “We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2; see also Rom 8:24-25; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 5:8).
Acts: “Having a hope in God … that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; 23:6).
Pauline School: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27; 1:5); “In hope of eternal life which God, who never lies, promised” (Titus 1:2; 2:13; 3:7).
Others: “Make a defense… for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15); “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb11:1).
Early Christian writers do not call it a “certain” hope. I found only a few modifiers describing the nature of hope in early Christian faith. Once it is called a “lively” hope (1 Pet 1:3), once it is called “a better hope” (Heb 7:19); and another word that is used to describe hope is “blessed” (Titus 2:13). Once hope is described as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19). It seems that the early Christians were under no allusions about the substance of what their faith held out for them—it was merely hope: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1-2). Paul described the tenuous hope of faith in this way: “hope that is seen is not hope—for who hopes for what he sees”; we hope for what we do not see (Rom 8:24-25). In early Christian faith hope was therefore not equated with certainty—that is, hope was not equated with a “bird in the hand” but rather with the “two birds in the bush.”
Paul described Abraham, the Patriarch, in the following way: in hope he believed against hope that in his old age he would become the father of many nations (Rom 4:18). The dictionary defines “hope against hope” as “hoping without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” That definition, it seems to me, best reflects the character of early Christian hope as a whole; it is also what lies behind gospel music. Hope is a primal cry of faith, reflecting the attitude: I trust God in spite of the obvious finality of death.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University