Great Fiction Distilled Into A Hymn

This Sunday we sang the hymn, “Once To Every Man And Nation“, which was written by James Russel Lowell. As I sang it, I realized “This hymn gives us the essence of great fiction!”

First read the hymn and then see my notes below:

Once to every man and nation,
      comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
      for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
      offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
      ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
      when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
      and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
      while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
      of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
      Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
      with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
      time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
      who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
      yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
      and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
      and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
      keeping watch above His own.

Now what does great fiction need first? A conflict! This comes at the beginning of verse 1 with the “strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side”.

Can the decision between these two be delayed? No! A good story has immediacy! At the end of verse 1, he says “And the choice goes by forever” meaning choose now or it will be too late.

But is the good side favored by everyone? No! If it were popular then no one would choose wrong and there would be no story. In verse 2, the good side gets a “wretched crust” and it appears unprofitable and poor. It doesn’t make sense to the masses.

What next does a great book need? A hero! Again in verse 2: “Then it is the brave man chooses while the cowards stand aside”.

But does the hero have instant victory? No, a great story gives him setbacks at every turn. A great story makes him sacrifice in order to achieve his goal. A great story frustrates him and the reader! Verse 3 shows his doggedness as he “toil[s] up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back”.

Does the hero win in the end? Great fiction leaves that in doubt to the utter brink of the book. Great fiction keeps the reader in suspense! Verse 4 shows this by saying, “Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong; Yet that scaffold sways the future…” We don’t know who wins!

The reason we don’t know who wins is because it DOESN’T MATTER in the short term. If you do it right, the story can be satisfying whether or not the hero wins or loses. Why? Because, not just for fiction, but for great Christian fiction, there is something beyond this life. Behind it all, “behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own”.

God is in control. All the hero needs to do is do his or her best—be willing to sacrifice all—and God will take care of the rest.

I can’t describe the power of this hymn. It simply pulses with it.

Just like great fiction should.

By the way—do you know to what issue he wrote this hymn? Slavery! He was calling the people to choose the right path and to abolish slavery. Much like today with abortion, the nation was at a fork in the road. May we choose what is right! May we choose to save the lives of these tiny children.

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