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The Hymns That Haunt Us
The Hymns That Haunt Us

Earlier this year, NPR told the story of Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor who had stopped believing in God. In March, when she just couldn't keep it to herself anymore, she told the American Atheists Convention that she was one of them.

Coming out as an atheist felt good. But when she got home to Tallahassee, Florida, she discovered that a video of her coming-out speech had gone viral. Her church and community shunned her.

I was saddened but not surprised. Many people attend seminary because they are seeking answers to serious questions about the faith. When they do pastoral care, those questions become sharper.

What really caught my attention about MacBain's story was this: "I miss the music," she told NPR. "Some of the hymns, I still catch myself singing them," she said. "I mean, they're beautiful pieces of music."

After I posted a Facebook comment about the way hymns sneak up on this born-again atheist, a friend reminded me of comedian Steve Martin's comic tune, "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." At the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Martin waved a single sheet of paper and told the audience, "This is the entire atheist hymnal, right here."

Among the song's more memorable lines: "Romantics play 'Claire de Lune.' / Born agains sing, 'He is risen.' / But no one ever wrote a tune / for godless existentialism."

Martin is clever, but wrong. John Lennon wrote just such a tune in 1971. Lennon's tune for "Imagine" is indeed inspiring. But Lennon's text posits an existence with "nothing to live or die for." With no countries, no possessions, no heaven or hell, no religion, Lennon promised, ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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The Hymns That Haunt Us
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July/August 2012

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