Blinded by Pop Praise

To see God “high and lifted up,” just open your eyes.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, December 9, 2002 (vol. 46, no. 13), p. 56.

This year, an upbeat song called “Open the Eyes of My Heart” has been storming up the charts of the Christian worship industry. (Yes, worship music has bestseller lists.) Taking its cue from Ephesians 1:18 and Isaiah 6, this song has millions of us imploring, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, I want to see you … high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory.”

Scripture, of course, implies that we might not be eager for this prayer to be answered. After his brush with the hem of God’s robe, Isaiah responded with dismay—not quite the stuff of up-tempo pop music. Indeed, even if we make a more modest request from pop praise music’s early days—“open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus”—the scriptural record of both Christmas and Easter suggests that we probably wouldn’t recognize him at first.

From birth to death and back to life again, our Christian holy days are feasts of embodiment.

Still, we’re not the first to ask God to do something for which we may be unprepared. Americans of an earlier generation heartily sang, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold,” with no particular effect on their bank accounts, but that wasn’t the fault of the song. God’s people can pray and hope for face-to-face intimacy with their Creator, even if, like Augustine praying for the gift of celibacy, we softly add, “just not quite yet.”

But what puzzles me is why we sing these songs with our eyes firmly shut. What would Jesus have said to Bartimaeus and the other blind beggars if they had asked for sight while squeezing their eyes closed as tightly as possible? Yet in churches across the land, we sing about open eyes—in the words of another chart-topper, “I once was blind, but now I see”—while inducing voluntary, albeit temporary, blindness.

Maybe evangelical Protestants shut our eyes because there is so little to see in our churches. Open your eyes in, say, an Orthodox church, and you are surrounded by images of saints and stories from salvation history. Open your eyes in many Protestant churches and you see, well, other Protestants. Not always the most inspiring sight.
But I suspect the deeper reason is our assumption that spiritual sight—the “eyes of the heart,” to use Paul’s phrase—has nothing to do with the world of the senses. For the biblical writers, the eyes and the heart were joined in a careful balance of inward will and outward attention—“My child, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways,” admonished the proverb—but for us, the outer world is just a distraction from our interior life, that fuzzy realm of half-formed thoughts and fleeting emotions. The world inside our eyelids is where the action is.

Christmas refutes this equation of sensory deprivation with enlightenment. Jesus began life as a wide-eyed baby—and surely a crying baby as well, notwithstanding the pious embellishments of “Away in a Manger.” Was there anything less “spiritual” about the baby Jesus’ cries for his mother’s milk than the adult Jesus’ prayers to his Father? To answer yes is to chip away at the Incarnation, setting us on the road to a shut-eyed spirituality. As the church fathers wrote, that which is not assumed—taken into God’s own life, made spiritual not by being removed from real life, but by being fully lived for the first time—cannot be redeemed. From birth to death and back to life again, our Christian holy days are feasts of embodiment.

Indeed, because Christ lives in my body, not just in my “heart,” my spiritual life has everything to do with the fact that I haven’t exercised properly in three weeks, that Haydn is on the radio at the coffeehouse where I am writing, that my cell phone is sitting in my pocket with 4.8 comforting ounces of always-on distraction, that the tea I was served half an hour ago has produced a pleasant mental buzz and a certain restlessness in my legs, and that my nose is still aching from a collision with my son’s head yesterday during one exuberant leaping hug.

The challenge of the spiritual life, of course, is to find Christ there, which can seem like searching for a manger in a haystack. That is surely why Paul prays, in the text to which the song alludes, that the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened, so that we can indeed perceive God in the world beyond our eyelids, with its perplexing mix of magnificence and misery. As for opening our eyes—well, even Bartimaeus and his friends had to do some of that for themselves.