Saturday, October 14, 2006

Winning hearts and minds

Songs are brilliant. They enable human beings to express creativity. They allow us to encapsulate great truth in ways that are memorable and easy to communicate. And they engage both the mind and the heart - a song can unlock emotions in ways that straigh speech may not (though the spoken word is very capable to evoking great emotional response)

Jonathan Edwards was once accused of being too emotional in the language of his preaching. He responded by saying something like - I only raise affections in proportion to the truth considered. Therefore to speak of Jesus, heaven or hell requires great emotional/affectional engagement... whereas the to-do list for a day isn't quite so engaging, generally.

This rule of thumb is a useful one for those who write and select songs for Christian meetings. The New Testament doesn't call this worship - but it does speak of it as singing. Singing to God and to one another.

Jesus sang with his disciples, and the Bible as a whole contains a whole songbook (Psalms) not to mention a book that is a love song (Song of Songs) and many other songs and poems throughout. These are variously addressed to people and to God.

Lyrics vary in the amount of truth they express - some are brief and simple. Others are complex and soar in the concepts and beauty they seek to express. Lyrics are then combined with melodies. A good melody will fit with the lyrics and enhance them - helping to ignite joy at some points, sorrow at others and so on.

But, there's a problem. The church today appears to be blessed with many songs. Not a problem! Many of these are full of doctrinal truth, yet accompanied by dirgy tunes that fail to reflect in any measure the gravity of the truth considered and the expected gladness. Such songs stink of idolatry as great words are reeled off without appropriate response.

Others go as far as being empty of any doctrinal truth but are fitted out with music more emotional than a boy-band ballad. Such songs take us soaring, but to where? Our hearts and minds are in no way tethered to the glorious truth of the gospel that God has revealed. Such songs stink of idolatry and God's people are caught in the hype and emotion with no real content.

Often the latter are said to mark spirit-filled worship, but the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. God's people are said, in Ephesians, to be Spirit-filled when they speak truth to one another, and sing it. When the Holy Spirit isn't speaking. because the only voice heard is our fluttering hearts, how can that be Spirit-filled? Equally in the former case - the Holy Spirit is the one who produces joy and love in the gospel, sorrow over sin, heart-broken repentance. And unemotional encounter with truth is also sadly lacking.

If it doesn't seem too cold - bear in mind I have a degree in Mathematics - here's a suggested graph to test our songs by...



If a song is low in truth, let it stir our affections gently. Where a song is high in truth let affections be duly raised - such that our mind, body and soul is caught up in the great and marvellous works of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And let us sing such songs to one another that we altogether may grow as the body of Christ, as God's church for whom Jesus died. Captivated together not by our own intellectual or emotional self-indulgences but in God's glorious gospel.

If our songs are centred upon the Cross, expounding its resounding perfections, its great achievement, its eternal power and glory, God's wrath and mercy, his grace and love... our affections will surely be stirred greatly.


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7 comments:

  1. Good stuff.

    I'd take issue with just one thing: "Such songs stink of idolatry as great words are reeled off without appropriate response." Just because a tune is not wonderful music to our current ears doesn't mean that those singing it are not rejoicing in the truths they're singing - that they're reeling off the words without appropriate response. I've sung many hymns which could do with better tunes to suit them, but still managed to reflect on the words while singing and have my emotions stirred to adore Christ. I've heard many tunes which could be dirge-like in some churches being injected with great joy as people do want to sing appropriate response, which transforms those tunes.

    I agree absolutely that we must aim to have music according with the truth being sung, but idolatrous? How is a poorly expressed response to the gospel idolatrous? None of our response is ever adequate - even in singing those hymns whose music wonderfully accords with the truth contained.

    And all that when I did really agree with your post in the most part. Even if your graph looked more like stats than maths to me ;-)

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  2. I'll accept that true words poorly expressed are better than empty words exhuberantly expressed... and that there are some cultural differences in expression...

    Can it be godly to be provocative?

    And yeah, it is more stats than maths...

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  3. that graph reminds me of the one they ripped up in dead poets society :-), the poet in me refuses to let poetry and songs score on graphs!!! (and yeah I know that's kind of the point of the post and you do have a latent mathmo geek in you somewhere!)

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  4. graphs are bad... and what makes a song doctrinally good - scripture quotes? jargon? well expressed truth? ...and for that matter, while i sit here and refute myself: how can you measure affections...

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  5. the graph is lovely - as what it was meant to be - a picture of proportionality rather than a plotting of statistics.

    Mmm. Songs and singing. What a vexed subject it is, which is really desperately sad when you think of what it is we are/should be trying to do in our singing.

    As for your question hwat makes a song octrinally good, the answer is at least partly context dependent. It could be jargon, if that jargon is understood by those singing and therefore acts like like a trigger for glorious truth, take the line 'full atonement, can it be?' in 'Man of Sorrows'. Rightly understood, singing those words will burst open a box full of delights for the well-taught believer, making it quite possibly a rapturous song line. If not understood, the song words function as a means of confusion (or perhaps of provoking thought and questions, whih is not so bad after all). Incorrectly understood, those song words could be poisonous. Congregational and confessional context is key.

    Obviously authorial intent is important for evaluating a songs 'intended (inherent? not sure) goodness' but at the end of the day, the same set of words can be good bad or ugly depending on the singers and the leaders and the life of the church in question.

    Ooh, I feel like I'm coming over all postmodern!

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  6. Thanks Pete.
    Context is vital. I'm realising that as I delve into Esther.

    Out of context it could be the book of Xerxes, or Mordecai, Haman or Esther.... and yet read as part of the Bible its clearly a book about God - and, I think, of the old fued between the Amalekites and Israel... that once again rises to threaten God's promise to his people.

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