During the early months of the pandemic I noticed the Bethel Music song ‘Raise a Hallelujah’ become something of an anthem in the charismatic evangelical congregation I’m a part of. It was a frequent feature of our lovingly pre-recorded Sunday services and was top of the lockdown Spotify playlist that we compiled together over social media.

‘I raise a hallelujah, in the presence of my enemies… My weapon is a melody… Heaven comes to fight for me…’ It was easy to imagine the resonance this message had with my fellow worshippers, as we all reached around for the emotional, spiritual and mental resources to face the unprecedented reality of lockdown and the physical and economic threat of Covid-19. ‘Heaven’ is on our side to defeat the ‘enemy’ virus, and our part is to sing loudly, unmoved and confident, in anticipation of the coming triumph.

However, I couldn’t help but hear these lyrics against a global backdrop of rising Christian nationalism,[1] with which (to me, at least) the Bethel community seemed to be complicit. I sat on my sofa in silent, unseen protest, wondering what a visitor to our YouTube channel might think. Would they envisage us standing firm against the challenges of the virus, or would they project other ‘enemies’ – possibly even themselves – into our triumphalist imaginaries? Churches in the UK may lack the unified political force of the American Religious Right,[2] but we have a not-wholly-undeserved reputation for being hostile towards groups some of us perceive as ‘outsiders’, and for over-egging supposed threats to our ‘religious liberty’ in order to reinforce narratives of persecution.[3]

I was interested to explore how this internationally beloved song resonated in contrasting use-contexts. One high-profile example was the 2020 #LetUsWorship ‘protest tour’, organised by Bethel worship leader Sean Feucht as an act of resistance to public health restrictions preventing religious gatherings. A video recording of the three-hour long Washington finale features sung worship, guest speakers (including a Republican senator), and times of prayer. Feucht’s personal contributions focus on the perceived affront to Christian religious freedom, the backlash to his activism, and the ‘extreme turmoil and despair and brokenness’ that Feucht associates with the protest movement set in motion by the killing of George Floyd. Other topics addressed include abortion, the occult, Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, Christians in government, and the coming Presidential Election. A number of candidate ‘enemies’ are thus suggested for the song, which appears around the midway point: officials preventing gathered worship, personal critics of Feucht’s, Black Lives Matter activists, the practice of abortion and its endorsers, practitioners of witchcraft, and even other (differently worshipping) Christians.

In her book on ‘theolinguistics’, Valerie Hobbs identifies three concurrent ‘sacred-making’ functions that religious language performs.[4] 1) Thearticulation and reinforcement of beliefs and worldviews (axiomatic). 2) The promotion of community formation around ‘common sacred ideals’, and subsequent boundary maintenance (social cohesion). 3) The provision of emotional resources to help community members in times of difficulty (emotive). Some particular functions of ‘my enemies’ within the #LetUsWorship performance of ‘Raise a Hallelujah’ are suggested as follows.

Axiomatically, as an allusion to Psalm 23, ‘my enemies’ reinforces the identification of Feucht and his audience with King David and his royal status. From this proceeds the message that Christians should expect opposition and interpret it as evidence that they are serving God’s purposes. Moreover, Christians who persevere in worship can, like David, expect God’s intervention on their behalf against their enemies – thus sacralising and claiming the power and authority of ‘Heaven’ for the social and political agenda of the event.

Secondly, the most obvious way that ‘my enemies’ promotes social cohesion is by reinforcing the event’s construction of group identity in oppositional contrast to the range of concrete antagonists suggested by the content of the prayers and speaker contributions. The highlighting of perceived hostility towards the movement fosters mutually protective solidarity, while the benefits of having the power of God on side motivates conformity to the group’s ideals. Meanwhile, Feucht’s individualist appropriation of the lyric, and of the David comparison it invokes, positions him as a worthy leader and example, attracting a community of loyalty and imitation with himself at the centre.

Lastly, the fearlessness with which the song acknowledges ‘my enemies’ serves an emotive function,complemented by the opportunity to exercise that fearlessness in loud corporate singing. In the case of #LetUsWorship, the specific enactment is in pointed defiance of shutdown rules and the reproaches of the movement’s critics. At the same time, the reinforced comparison with David and the implied assurance of vindication instils pride and perhaps triumphalism, while the sense of belonging arising from identifying common enemies brings comfort and reassurance.

In summary, application of Hobbs’ theolinguistic framework confirms some of my a priori concerns about the harm potential of ‘Raise a Hallelujah’. It reveals the song in service to a sociopolitical agenda that I personally do not support. Of course, Christians hold a diversity of sociopolitical views, and adjudicating between ‘biblical’ authorising claims is by no means trivial. However, the event’s blanket characterisation of anti-racist activism as ‘division’ and ‘rioting’, and its framing of a privileged faith group as the victims of persecution, are injustice-perpetuating distortions of reality that should make Christians of all political leanings uneasy.[5]

My church community may not intend hostility or triumphalism when we ‘raise a hallelujah in the presence of [our] enemies’, but Feucht and Bethel and #LetUsWorship are part of the wider, complexly-intersecting, internet-extended context in which we participate and from which our own words and worship draw meaning. We have a responsibility to attend considerately to the various possible ways that such a song may land. At the very least this means making our own intentions clear and seeking to discern and openly resist harmful and misleading agendas within our extended communities. Even then, some songs become so ideologically entangled with such agendas that I struggle to see how or why they might be salvaged; for me, ‘Raise a Hallelujah’ is one of them.

The ideas raised in this blog article are explored further in Carolyn’s newly published article in the Journal for the Study of Bible and Violence. You can find it here: /jsbv/issue-one/i1-whose-enemies/

[1] https://sojo.net/articles/american-christianitys-largest-export-nationalism
[2] https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2013/01/30/is-there-a-religious-right-emerging-in-britain
[3] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/stephen-evans/christian-persecution_b_13510898.html
[4] Valerie Hobbs, An Introduction to Religious Language: Exploring Theolinguistics in Contemporary Contexts (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021), p. 26.
[5] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/not-accident-false-thug-narratives-have-long-been-used-discredit-n1240509

Carolyn Whitnall completed a ‘Bible and Violence’ track MA with the CSBV in 2022 and began a PhD under the supervision of Helen Paynter in 2023. Her research explores the interpretation and use of scripture in the neo-charismatic evangelical movement sometimes called the New Apostolic Reformation.

As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

In the Presence of Whose Enemies?
Tagged on:                 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen − twelve =