June 19, 2023

Cancelling Hillsong Music: The New Purity Culture

Hillsong music

The news from several sources, including this article at Christianity Today, that there is a push for Christians to cancel Hillsong music on the basis of the moral trainwrecks that have occurred there in recent years is a worry. It’s a bad idea. The admirable Julie Roys, who I count as one of the good ‘uns, and who has been a rock in the face of church scandals, recently published an opinion piece on her website from Katelyn Beaty, who says, “Yep, it’s time to stop singing Hillsong songs”.

Again, I think it’s a bad idea.

How bad an idea? Well, we all decided in recent years that the purity culture that raged through evangelical churches some twenty years ago was a bad idea, and was er, often divorced from reality. The idea that somehow there was a pure, clean, zealously righteous “someone” for you, as long as you were a pure, clean, zealously righteous someone yourself, was utter tosh.

It led to all sorts of unmet, unrealistic expectations. And all sorts of damaged relationships and, yep, divorces. It was simply another wing of the prosperity gospel, one that said that if you got your virginal ducks lined up in a row then somehow you’d get that smokin’ hot wife/husband and the bedroom would be amazing, and that things would always work out.

Ladies and gentleman, I present to you, Joshua Harris. And I present to you most of us, if we’re honest, given that we’re all sexually broken in some small or not so small way. Marriage is often hard. And that’s because of our hardness of hearts. We are not pure. We are saved sinners, empowered to put sin behind us through the Holy Spirit. And that’s it.

Not that we’re looking for impurity culture. Though given the hellish (and I mean that term) speed with which even evangelical churches in Australia are rolling over on The Sexular Age perhaps some churches are.

But the whole “cancel Hillsong music” thing smacks of the “Ban Harry Potter” gig of the early two thousands among Christians, Woe betide a Christian School library having one on the shelves.

Cancel Hillsong Music

And worse still, the call echoes the secular cancel culture that consigns everything that is not pure – pure at least in the eyes of the progressive, hyper-sexular age agenda – to the dustbin of history. Take Hannah Gadsby for example, who is conducting her own personal purity culture tour against Pablo Picasso. It’s called It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby, and basically it pits a great painter against a terrible comedian. Nice work if you can get it. Though let’s not cancel him just yet, there’s good money to be had in flaying the corpse.

It’s a peculiar mark of the post-Christian era that it ramps up the zealotry once associated with the Salem witch trials, but covers it over with a secular cloak. The idea that vengeance belonged to God has long since disappeared, but the need for vengeance remains. Guess what? As luck would have it, it’s been outsourced to us, or at least to the new secular high priests. Any writer or painter or brilliant one who has not lived up to the the purity standard of a late 21st century Western university intersectional Communications and Cultural Studies bi-curious, pan-sexual furry, with an impending PhD on Herbert Marcuse’s early Berlin era, must be kicked to the curb.

But, of course, it means that they too will be kicked to the curb. Purity culture engulfs everyone eventually, because no one lives up to the standard.

Which brings us back to cancelling Hillsong music. I was a late adopter of their music, I have to say. Being a good old, conservative evangelical Reformed type, I would occasionally roll my eyes and sing “My Jesus, my Boyfriend”. That is, until I realised how churlish, ungodly and plain “cold” that attitude was. I had to examine just how at arms’ length my attitude towards Jesus was. And many a Hillsong song made me do that.

And in recent years, many a Hillsong song has been absolutely brilliant. Great lyrics, great emotional flavour, and tunes that you can actually sing. It’s as if they had put some deep theological thinking into it all. Which of course, they had. Much of it was kicked off by the brilliant combo of John Dickson’s call for the creed to be put to music, and voila, one of my favourites. An absolute banger that I hope I will be singing on my death bed.

But the deeper issue is that once again, we might just be, as always, a day late and a dollar short to cancel culture. Yes, yes, it’s cancel culture, but it’s Christian cancel culture, so it can’t be wrong! Right? Well just ask yourself how that has worked out in the past. Ask yourself about why you still sing Amazing Grace, even though there’s reliable evidence that John Newton was still involved in slavery, and involved with sleeping with his female slaves, as a Christian. Though he did repent of that later, and stopped it when challenged. But you get it!

And of course there’s that “drown the Anabaptists” and “kill the dissenters” things of the post-Reformation era. Hey I’m looking at you Martin Luther! And then there’s the works of Karl Barth who, we now know, lived in open adultery, torturing his wife’s very soul with his insistence that his lover share their house. And John Howard Yoder. And the list goes on.

Do we cancel everything? Well some things seem impossible to return to, such as the works of Ravi Zacharias, but that’s only because so much of that was built upon his own personality, and so contrary to his own actions. But Hillsong songs? Written at different times, by different people for different reasons.

Look, you can read the article here if you want, and you may agree with it, particularly if you think it’s all and only about the money (I don’t, clearly). And even if you think it’s about the badness, is that really a reason to cancel everything? I mean, I think Bethel’s theology is generally off the chain and is super unhelpful, but some of their songs are very much on the chain and very much super helpful. A bit of discernment isn’t a bad idea at this point.

So, let’s not cancel. Let’s not get a campaign up and running to get rid of Hillsong songs. Because as we know from the witch trials in Salem – or at least as we know from the popularised version of it in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, eventually cancel culture will cancel you.

The only person with a one hundred percent rock solid reason to cancel you is the Lord Jesus. Yet the only thing he did was cancel your debt. And oh, by the way:

The passion of our Savior
The mercy of our God
The cross that leaves no question
Of the measure of His love

Our chains are gone
Our debt is paid
The cross has overthrown the grave
For Jesus’s blood that sets us free
Means death to death
And life for me

The Innocent judged guilty
While the guilty one walks free
Death would be His portion
And our portion liberty

That’s the type of cancellation we can all get into.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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