Heckles at NTE

I’m writing this post on the slimmest of chances that it gets to its intended reader.

I’ve recently arrived home from the recent National Training Event run by the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES). I have nothing but unreserved praise for the conference (it was my 9th and I don’t think I’m alone in saying it was the best ever – and not just because Don Carson was speaking). It was really great to celebrate what God is doing among the 1500 students who were all there.

One thing that did annoy me though was at the end of one of the evening sessions we finished with Amazing Grace (the new, hip Chris Tomlin arrangement).

Chris Tomlin’s version finishes with the verse:

The Earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God who called me here below
Shall be forever mine.

But just as we had finished singing this verse someone sitting near me decided to shout out a heckle! They called out “One more verse, the gospel is for eternity”. The mood of the room turned and people shuffled out annoyed. What I gather (this person made a similar heckle last year when they shouted out “one more verse”) that they are disappointed that the Chris Tomlin arrangement doesn’t include the verse referring to being there for ten thousand years. Two points:

– The verse that they were concerned wasn’t being sung isn’t original to the song. I own a copy of Olney Hymns, which is a collection of the three hymnbooks penned by Newton and Cowper. In the Amazing Grace entry, it contains 6 verses (one of which I had never heard of) but none of them were the verse being heckled about.

– Putting historical gripes and humanist demands for ad fontes aside – the last two lines of the actual last verse do communicate the eternal nature of our relationship with God.

It was a pretty disappointing display by this heckler. It was disappointing that he was willing to make his personal preference the focus of the night. The talk, the video, the performance, the music were all meant to be drawing our attention to the task of gospel proclamation. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m struggling to remember a single line of Don’s talk that night but I can sure remember the heckle! I imagine I’m not alone.

It was disappointing because he knew that his protest wouldn’t actually achieve anything (the tech guys can’t just whip up a new verse and the musicians just play it).

But mostly I’m disappointed because if indeed the heckler feels any remorse over his actions he can’t possibly apologise to the 1499 people he annoyed.

Were you there? What did you think?



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6 responses to “Heckles at NTE

  1. Peter

    I love a good heckle! I’ve made a few in the past. One actually got a response out of a performer mid song (Kate Miller Heidke) mostly my heckles have been jokes or for amusement, not political or antagonizing. I feel sorry for you that this experience has left you down… I wonder if, when the names are read out of the book of life, that we will be able to heckle… If so I’ve got one saved up for you brother 🙂

  2. Dannii

    “Heckler”, now that’s not something that I’ve been called before! I called out in hope that we might sing that verse – I’m sure most of us know it well enough that we wouldn’t even need the words on the screen. In a way doing my part for 1 Corinthians 14:26, I truly meant it as an encouragement. Even if we didn’t sing, it is still good to be reminded of Don’s message, that our gospel is eternity. I called out because I felt that the mood had shifted when they sang the song! Gone was my sense of painful self-appraisal because of the many rebukes Don gave us, gone was the thirst to proclaim the gospel. Instead the music drew my attention away from gospel proclamation as we sang the lame Jesus-is-my-boyfriend “you are forever mine.”

    Now there are many reasons for leaving out that verse. It’s grammatically different, and it wasn’t by John Newton. But surely anyone who is happy to sing Chris Tomlin’s arrangement would also be happy to sing the 10k years verse too! If there’s such a thing as an Amazing Grace purist, someone who rejects the traditional 4th verse because it wasn’t my Newton, they would never be happy to sing the Tomlin version either. I’ve talked to many people about this. No one (not even you, as far as I can tell) would actively dislike adding the 10k years verse to the Tomlin arrangement: most agree with me that we’d be better off with it, though a few are ambivalent and don’t care either way. The public sentiment is that the verse is sorely missed. I like the slightly altered Tomlin tune/rhythm, I think the chorus is acceptable (I’ll be honest and say it’s not the best chorus ever) and I like the other selection of verses. But the traditional ending, full of energy and joy for God to judge and reign over the earth is ruined by “you are forever mine.”

    To be most charitable “forever mine” does suggest a lasting relationship, but such words are found in many Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. But the active removal of a verse so clearly about the future, and the active selection of that song on that night, the night where the Don most clearly spoke about our future with Christ, was a mistake. Sure the “forever mine” verse communicates, but so less effectively than the 10k years verse communicates!

    I think the 10k years verse is one of the metaphors that has most clearly communicated to me what our future will be like, right up there next to CS Lewis’ grass metaphor. Saying that after ten thousand years we won’t even have scratched the surface of how much joyful praise we’ll be giving to God is powerful indeed. We’ll be praising God for all time because of his wonderful gospel, that he saved wretches like us. We won’t be singing for all time because Jesus is now ours. To be most uncharitable, the gospel is missing in the last two verses of the Tomlin arrangement. Neither of them even suggest that we have offended God, or that we need his incredible self-sacrifical grace. I don’t want to be that uncharitable though (most good songs have verses that don’t mention sin), so my position is simply that the 10k years verse plays an important role in the song, and we lose out if we skip it.

    Now apparently one significant reason why that verse was left out is for copyright reasons – we can’t alter Tomlin’s copyrighted arrangement. That doesn’t make much sense to me – churches (and NTE itself) frequently alter songs, to leave out a verse or bridge, or to repeat a chorus or last line. Saying that we can’t add or substitute a public domain verse into a song filled with other public domain verses seems unfairly restrictive, but I don’t know enough of the intricacies of copyright law to be sure what the legalities are. I’m going to approach Tomlin’s publisher to try to get NTE special permission to add the 10k years verse in future years, if the music team thinks that would be wise (and I hope they will.)

    If there’s anything to apologise is that I didn’t sing out that verse by myself. Next time…

    • steveboxwell

      Hi Dannii

      It worked! Thanks for replying. Thanks for the insight into your headspace on this as well. I for one am sorry that I have had to address you in such a public way (well… as public as my little blog is). I would have much preferred to sit down and chat with you about this, but then that kind of dialogue is really not an option I had as someone who felt caught in the cross-hairs.

      If I may, a few responses to your response:

      – I want to maintain my position that the 10k verse is not the “traditional” ending as you put it. It may be your traditional ending, indeed it was the ending I grew up with but it is not the traditional ending – it was added to the song some 70-80 years after its original composition and itself was pinched from another song. One of my friends from the south of the US has told me that the 10k verse is entirely foreign to them in their circles – it may be that it wasn’t Chris Tomlin’s traditional ending. Indeed it may not be the traditional ending for many people at NTE from countries other than Australia.

      – That said I’ll take a few of your points as fair. I do like the 10k verse. If it were in Chris Tomlin’s version I don’t think it’d wreck it.

      – But even with these points acknowledged as good and fair I want to say this. What is of most concern here is not your logic but your hubris. I have needed to be reminded again and again that being a Christian is so often less about being right than it is about being a servant. Please hear me when I say that you were not an encouragement to me, the people around me or the 20 or so people who came up to me during the week and asked if it was me who yelled out (evidently our voices have a similar timbre)! Your intention and the consequences of your action were at significant odds both this year and last.

      – I presume you were making a joke about with 1 Cor 14 but it highlighted something to me – there were other options open to you. If you really wanted, in the year that you had between NTE 2009 and NTE 2010 you could have contacted Michael, chatted through your issues, listened to him and his thinking on the issue and then perhaps something would have been done about it. As it was though you instead chose a path that flattened the night and stole focus. It was the night Don was asking people to become Christian for goodness sake! I am confident you didn’t want to steal focus but invariably that’s what your protest did.

      – Finally a few words on your Jesus-is-my-boyfriend drive-by. Might I suggest that such criticisms are ill-placed. The Latin maxim de gustibus non est disputandum or “there’s no accounting for taste” comes to mind. Ultimately this once again boils down to preference and I want to encourage you not to make preference the main game. Make serving other as an outpouring of the gospel the main game.

    • Dannii

      Hi Steve, thanks for your understanding comments.

      Firstly, I had not considered that the verse’s inclusion might be regional. While 150 years is a long time and all the hymn books I can remember seeing have included it, that could still be the case in many places. That said, Tomlin would certainly have been aware of the verse and would have deliberately excluded it, whatever his reasons were.

      I personally felt that the music team stole the focus of the night (thankfully Trevor was more subdued this year. I think it was he that in 2007 took centre stage and acted like a soloist. May have been someone else, I didn’t know the names of the band then.) I am not alone in thinking that My Chains Are Gone was a flat ending to an otherwise great night. I’ll maintain that it ended with a JIMB moment, and for the worse. It is one thing to dismiss an entire church, denomination or movement with those words, but it’s another thing to say that the usually on-the-mark AFES missed the mark here. AFES cares greatly about what their music conveys – they even write their own songs for NTE! They deliberately chose an arrangement that diminished heaven and ended with the soapey “you are forever mine.” Maybe we move in different circles but I don’t know anyone who has said they like that ending.

      Maybe I alone felt that it was worthy of a protest. I’ll accept your rebuke though that the way I went about it was not encouraging. If a small group of us had instead just sang the verse would that have been any more acceptable?

  3. I wasn’t at NTE (I have attended a number of previous years some time ago) and can’t comment on the specific incident being discussed.

    But I would like to comment on the Tomlin lyrics and express my own disappointment with the verse. I think the final line is the best bit of a bad verse. I don’t mind saying “shall be forever mine” (the language of mutual possession is part of the covenant promise and personalising it has scriptural precedent and is sometimes emotionally and spiritually justified). My beef is with the first three lines.

    The Earth shall soon dissolve like snow
    The sun forbear to shine
    But God who called me here below
    Shall be forever mine.

    This verse is yet another addition to the woeful eschatological final verses of all too many hymns and songs of the last two hundred years in which the Christian hope of resurrection and the renewal of all things is exchanged for a world-denying desire to escape materiality and the earth for an otherworldly heaven. It is not scriptural and distorts the Christian message. Our hope is not redemption from the world, but the redemption of the world. I’ve written more on this here (with many links to specific exegesis of relevant passages).

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