My local Starbucks has recently been playing Paul McCartney’s cover of the Harold Arlen–Johnny Mercer song “Accentuate the Positive.” According to Wikipedia, the song “was published in 1944. It is sung in the style of a sermon, and explains that accentuating the positive is key to happiness.”
Johnny Mercer relates how the song originated: ‘[My] publicity agent … went to hear Father Divine and he had a sermon and his subject was ‘you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’ And I said ‘Wow, that’s a colorful phrase!’”
According to the song’s lyrics:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene
Then, exactly as a preacher uses illustrations to underscore his point, the song continues with two biblical examples:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said “We’d better accentuate the positive”
“Eliminate the negative”
“And latch on to the affirmative”
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between—no!
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
I like the song well enough, but I can’t seem to find where Jonah and Noah exactly voiced those sentiments. I’m trying to picture Jonah, deep inside a fish (it wasn’t actually a whale), spending three days and nights in there and telling himself, “Well, at least it won’t rain in here.” Speaking of rain, I have trouble imagining Noah thinking to himself, “Well, at least there won’t be a drought.”
What Jonah actually said in the biblical text was “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me… yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”
In a way, Jonah did accentuate the positive, but not by thinking cheery thoughts. In essence he said, Hey, I’m as good as dead in here, but now I’m going to pray to the Lord. By the end of his poem, Jonah is declaring that he will give thanks to God who saved him, and in fact, the fish deposits Jonah onto dry land shortly after. (You can read all this in Jonah 2:1-10.)
Noah, in contrast to loquacious Jonah, utters not a single word in the four chapters of Genesis 6–9 that concern him. Genesis 6:8-9 tells us that Noah was a righteous man, and in Genesis 9:1 God actually blesses him and his sons. All we really know about his response to the coming flood was that he trusted God enough to listen to him and build that ark. Whether he accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative, we are not told.
By the way, Mr. In-Between makes no appearance in either story.
Interestingly, it seems that in the Bible you have to accentuate the negative before you can accentuate the positive. Jonah knew he was as good as dead before he prayed. Noah knew that God was going to send a flood of destruction, which is why he listened to God and experienced deliverance and subsequent blessing.
A few weeks ago the Jewish community observed Yom Kippur. Talk about accentuating the negative. Whole days were spent confessing all possible manner of sin. Only then could the positive make sense: God forgives, delivers, heals, restores. Only when sin is faced as a reality in our lives does God’s restoration and deliverance from sin mean anything.
Let’s move past Noah and Jonah to the New Testament, where we find one of Jesus’ apostles, Peter, preaching a sermon that I imagine was different than one of Father Divine’s:
And Peter said to them [his fellow Jews gathered to hear him], “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (See Acts 2:38-39).
In other words, deal with sin and repentance first, and then according to the promise of God we can have forgiveness through Jesus, and the “Holy Spirit,” which among other things means God’s personal presence with us. That, incidentally, means faith in God and his Messiah, rather than the vague “faith” of the song lyric.
Johnny Mercer was headed in the right direction, but he didn’t quite get that negative/positive balance right.
I just wish he had a quote on the subject from Mr. In-Between.
To talk about negatives, positives, sin and forgiveness, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Accentuate the Positive.” – Wikipedia