A few years ago I got very agitated by the opening line of Shout to the Lord, i.e., 'My Jesus, my Savior...'. The song itself seemed inescapable - it was being sung in just about every worship context I had anything to do with. I still find it odd that so many worship services start with this song - and nobody even blinks that the first words of the gathered congregation are 'My Jesus, my Savior'. Perhaps one day I'll have the courage to turn to the person next to me and say, 'Excuse me, but I think there's been some misunderstanding; Jesus is actually my Savior'. Of course, the issue could arise with any number of songs - both contemporary and traditional. Yet perhaps the immense popularity of Shout to the Lord is no accident in in this age of consumerist religion.
For all that, there is a legitimate question to put to my frustration - and I've had it put to me often enough. Isn't there a place for individual confession of faith in our hymns and songs? Well, of course there is. How, then, can it be articulated? A recent reading of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters has given me a new angle on this.
In Letter 21 to Wormwood, Screwtape celebrates the confusion they have caused by teaching Christians "not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun". Their success has been in obscuring
the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my wife', 'my father', 'my master' and 'my country' to 'my God'. ... We have taught men [sic] to say 'my God' in a sense not really very different from 'my boots', meaning 'the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit.
These remarks penned by Lewis (in a work which at many levels is a quite helpful critique of pietism) helped me to see that simply changing the singular personal possessive pronoun to the plural personal possessive pronoun only shifts the problem - it doesn't solve it. Certainly, shifting to the plural brings the language of piety into greater conformity to the forms of reference to Christ and God which pervade the New Testament, i.e., "Our Lord" and "Our God" and "Our Saviour" etc. (C.F.D. Moule's remarks in an earlier generation on the 'the corporate Christ' in an essay by that name come to mind.)
Yet our use of this corporate language is not immune to the failure to note the 'finely graded differences' in the use of 'our' that run from, for instance, 'our house', 'our nation' to 'our God'. The insidious nature of the conflation of the last two has been manifested often enough. And church history tells us that 'our Church' and 'our God' have often traded on the same sense of the possessive. The challenge, then, is not necessarily to favour 'our' over 'my'. Instead, it is to learn how to use each of these possessive pronouns in ways that reflect a sense that embodies our response to God's claim on us rather than any possessive claim we might make on God.
Perhaps such learning can only occur as we participate in the various practices by which we 'lose our lives'. After all, there is something fundamentally dispossessive about Christianity. I've been struck this Advent by how this theme of dispossession runs as something of a subplot in the gospel texts that are focused on preparation. Mary lets go of the limits of the possible (Luke 1:34-38); Joseph lets go of convention (Matt 1: 18-25); and John the Baptiser challenges Israel to let go of its sense of privilege (Matt 3:9-10). Perhaps Mary, Joseph and John are examples of those who succeeded in making those 'finely graded distinctions' in the use of both 'my' and 'our'.