Friday, June 03, 2005

The Words We Sing Do Matter!

When Christians gather to worship God do the words matter?
(or is it all about the music? should we raise the poetic bar? does our music express the words we're singing?)

I. The Theololgy of our Songs
Matt Redman says
"I'd never write a song just to teach something, but I am waware when writing a song that it could end up teaching somebody" (p57, Ian Stackhouse, The Gospel Driven Church)

And yet, Colossians 3v16 says...
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (ESV).

Which would seem to suggest that our singing has a key part to play in teaching each other the truth. And this would seem to make sense. Graham Kendrick once quipped:
"Show me your songs, I'll show you your theology"
And, that what we've sung is often better remembered than what is preached, sadly.

The sad truth is that some of our songs, even some of our favourites, are plain bad and wrong theology. I've long had a bug-bear about "Lord, let your glory fall". I was encouraged to see Ian Stackhouse agree with me that this song demonstrates a "peculiarly pre-Christian hermenutic" (if you know what that means!). Likewise, we don't need another pentecost (though I agree with the sentiment). And I honestly don't think its particularly helpful to view the cross as the place where Christ "...took the fall, and thought of me, above all." Actually, I think Christ's chief concern was the glory of God (though the cross does concern us too).

Implications?
1. Songwriters ought to write lyrics before music. And those lyrics ought to express Biblical truth, whether the song is subjective or objective in focus.
2. Worship-leaders ought to check the theology of their song choices. Would we happily preach what we sing? If not then perhaps we ought not to sing that song. Worship leaders would also benefit from looking at which person the song is written in... is the song addressed to God or each other... And how does that affect how we sing it.
3. Sometimes at least (when the song is addressed to each other... hint: "He is..." is a good indication), we ought to sing with our eyes open and try to make eye contact with people in church. Let us sing to each other!

II. The Language of our Songs
Nick Page has written brilliantly about the art of songwriting in his book "And now for a time of Nonsense". His basic point being that much of what Christians sing is thoroughly imcomprehensible.

Sometimes our songs are incomprensible in the jargon we use. How many of our songs use images that we do not understand that fail to illustrate doctrines we don't understand. (Agricultural images abound in suburban churches).

Sometimes incomprehensible in the bad and trite poetry we use. Images that conflict and contradict... do rivers flow over seas? Does the Bible portray Jesus as a "rose trampled under foot"?

Implications?
1. Let us think about the words we use. Let them express the gravity and glory of the subject they speak of.
2. Let us write good poetry (and as a songwriter, I must remember this too)
3. Let us use images that actually help us to understand the doctrines we're singing about. Page comments on the simple success of Amazing Grace in doing this, which stands behind its longevity.

Here's some I can actually imagine of elevation & excavation...
"A star, Lit up like a cigar, Strung out like a guitar...
A mole, Digging in a hole, Digging up my soul now"
(U2, Elevation)

Or these, on doing things properly...
"If you're gonna jump, then jump far, fly like a sky diver
If you're gonna be a singer, then u better be a rockstar
If you're gonna be a driver, then u better drive a race car"
(Natasha Bedingfield, If you're gonna)

Conclusion
The Word we Sing do matter. They matter because they should express a thankful heart. And we need good words to do that. Words that are true. Words we understand. Words that we can sing with joy and thankfulness. Words that will build up the church. Words that will tell of Jesus.

Songs that show that Jesus is worth more than all the money in the world.
That Jesus' love lasts longer than all the possessions I own.
That Jesus justice is in stark contrast to the injustices of this world.

9 comments:

  1. Good point, well made. Let's hope people take it on board. Engage brain and emotions!

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  2. The words we sing are very important in sing song worship. During our sing song worship we connect with God, therefore what we sing must be centered upon Jesus and the Cross, otherwise we may fall into some dodgy ground!

    CJ Mahaney was very keen to mention in his book "The Cross centered life" that singing songs that Glorify God and are cross centered is imperative. ( I dont have the book with me to quote - but u get the idea).

    Question: So do we approach a church that we feel is not giving the cross or Jesus the full center in their songs?

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  3. That song, 'Above All', by Micheal W Smith has been bugging me for a while now. You're the only other person I've seen that has pointed this out.

    It's amazing how much modern worship songs reflect the man-ward focus that has become so characteristic of evangelicalism today.

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  4. My colleague Paul Webber suggests we change the lyrics to...

    "Crucified and laid behind a stone,
    You lived to die rejected and alone
    On the cross, hanging there for me
    You paid the debt, you made the way so I go free"

    Which I think is a bit better.

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  5. Dave,

    Hmm... very interesting. I'd never really thought too much about this before, but I realise I should have been!! As a flautist, my knowledge of lyrics is quite lacking for most songs (both modern and traditional) - it's a little tricky to play and sing at the same time ;)

    I have to say that sometimes with more traditional hymns I do wonder what exactly it is I'm singing... with all the hithers and thithers and such like, the meaning gets a little obscured. However, I think I should definitely give more thought to the biblical basis for more modern day worship songs (as I've got more time on my hands without exams, I think I may well do that!!)

    Thanks for presenting such a challenging subject!

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  6. Hear hear! A hearty amen to that. My husband has had to listen to a fair few rants on the way home from church services - and the rose being trampled on the ground was a prime culprit.
    Now I feel a wee bit more justified, I might even (gently and lovingly) approach a worship leader on the subject. Also being a bit of a grammar stickler I have plenty of other issues, but I won't subject you to the whole list just now.

    A while back I found this
    http://hippocampusextensions.com/issues/08/an_essay_on_hymnody.php
    essay on hymnody, which I hope you like as much as I do!
    Keep up the great blog!
    Liz

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  7. "If we wish to rise above the greeting-card level of poetry, we may need to thumbthrough the dictionary and make long lists of words that rhyme. There is noshame in this.
    The best rhymes come from hard work, not spontaneity. Ourrhymes should sound natural, not contrived. The final rhyming word,especially, should sound like it really belongs, not like it got stuck there just forthe sake of rhyme.
    A minor rhyming disaster may be observed at the close of the song ABOVE ALL POWERS where the lyricist needed something to rhyme with“You took the fall” (never mind the bizarre metaphor of faking defeat in a boxingmatch) and chose “You thought of me above all”.
    Not only does the final linesound limp and contrived, but it commits a theological misstep: Christ thoughtof Me above all? Really? Above doing the Father’s will and defeating powers ofevil and the immediate sensation of pain? Begging your pardon: the only personwho thinks of Me above all is Me."

    www.emergentvillage.com
    /downloads/resources
    /mclaren/postscript.pdf

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  8. Cat,

    if the cross isn't central to our songs or our church life, our preaching,... i suspect the only thing to do is to approach the leaders and ask what exactly they consider to be more important...

    often we drift towards what David Gibson has called "Assumed Evangelicalism" where we simply take the cross for granted...

    and so we talk about prayer without recalling the cross by which we can enter God's presence...

    or we talk about Bible study without the cross, by which our eyes were opened to meet God in his word...

    etc.

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