This past Sunday, on the way to church, I was singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” When I was in fifth grade, my best friend Steve Gonzales and I sang this as a duet at an evening service, proving that the contemporary worship wars had their roots in my dad’s tiny church in Fredonia, New York, in 1973.
My kids started complaining that I was ruining the song (whether they meant “Amazing Grace” or “Gilligan’s Island” I’m not sure) and I pointed out that you can sing “Amazing Grace” to almost any classic sit-com theme song: “My Three Sons,” “Andy Griffith,” “The Brady Bunch,” and so forth and proceeded to demonstrate. It also works to “House of the Rising Sun” and many other popular songs.
The theological value of “Gilligan’s Island” is manifold (the seven castaways, after all, represent the seven deadly sins and the island is hell itself), but the value of the adaptability of “Amazing Grace” is really quite a lesson for us. We can sing those words to a plethora of tunes, sometimes slightly altering the melody or adjusting the phrasing of the words a tad, but in the end, the tunes and the lyrics are both recognizable in strange and wonderful ways.
The gospel is a lot like this. It can go into cultures and transform them, even as it leaves them still being their own distinct culture. Christianity doesn’t tell you to replace your native tongue with another more “valid” one. Indeed, “Jesus is Lord” is uttered in hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects every day. It doesn’t tell you to rearrange the furniture in your house in order to maximize your spiritual power. It doesn’t tell you what shape your steeple needs to be or even if you need a steeple. It doesn’t tell you which artistic media are right and wrong.
Some years ago, ABC ran a special about Easter and the closing shot was a compilation of images from churches around the world as they celebrated the Resurrection. There were turbans and robes, suits and ties, long beards and shaved heads, light skins and dark, old and young, men and women. And the sound to the clip was an amazing variety of languages, some singing, some speaking. I couldn’t help but tear up thinking about what heaven will be like when all of our cultures are finally reconciled to their Maker, and we behold the Source of this amazing grace. How sweet that sound will be as we replace that song with the more ancient “Holy Holy Holy.” Which does not, I think, work very well to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island.”