Saturday, August 16, 2008

Worship Music, the Phenomenon

Continuing with the theme of posting quotes from books, just because I find it generates some fascinating discussion...
    Quentin Crisp once said, "A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one's sexual preference." I'm not saved and don't think I ever will be, but if such a miracle were to take place, I can't imagine anything worse than being forced to pay for my salvation by listening to worship music for the rest of my days.

    Worship music is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music -- not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold. Every song follows the same parameters. It opens gently with tinkling arpeggios or synthesized harp glissandos that portend the imminence of something celestial in glacial 4/4 time. In the second verse, the band -- invariably excellent players -- soft-pedals in, gaining in volume to the bridge. And then the chorus. Heavens, the choruses. They could put U2 out of business for good, they're so huge. Another verse. A middle eight. Then, a breakdown when the audience takes over singing. Another massive chorus. Fin.

    This isn't music to appreciate; it's music to experience. People at a worship service close their eyes and, as ecstasy spreads across their faces, begin to rock rhythmically, arms out, mouthing the lyrics. It's more than a little sexual and a tad uncomfortable if you're sitting next to an attractive person who's been overcome by the Spirit.

    Worship tunes tend to evince an adolescent theology, one that just can't get over how darn cool it is that Jesus sacrificed himself for the world. "Our God is an awesome God." "O Lord, you are glorious." "How can it be/That you, a king, would die for me?" Moreover, it's self-centered in a way that reflects evangelicalism's near-obsession with having a personal relationship with Christ. It's me Jesus died for. I just gotta praise the Lord.

    Not for nothing is "Amazing Grace," which marvels at the author's salvation, one of the few traditional hymns to be regularly included in modern worship services. Absent is any hint of community found in hymns such as "The Church Is One Foundation" -- the Jesus of worship music is a mentor, a buddy, a friend whose message is easily distilled to a simple command: praise me. Not "feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner." Simply thank Him for His gift to you (and make sure to display copyright information at the bottom of the screen so royalties can be disbursed).
This diatribe comes from Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock. It was (obviously) written by a non-Christian, but actually, this passage is more harsh than the rest of the book reads. As a whole, the book is a fairly engaging stroll into the world of Christian music, arts, and culture, as seen from an "outsider."

This particular passage fascinated me because, like many things within the "church," I've been around worship music my entire life and I would have trouble looking at it from an unbiased, inexperienced point of view. I understand that we can't expect someone who doesn't know Christ to understand how or why we worship -- I get that.

But at the same time, do we ever truly step back and look at how or why we worship? Why is so much of the music the same? Why is it the way that it is? Why are the lyrics the way they are? Have we settled for bland mediocrity in our worship music, just because that's the standard, the base, that we understand? What about his points about the lyrics pointing to evangelicals being self-centered in their faith?

At the very least, it's interesting to acknowledge the point of view of people outside the church. This is far from the first time I've heard from people who absolutely abhor worship music. This isn't a critique of God or Jesus, this is a critique of a certain part of Christian culture.

I think his entire argument -- and especially those last two paragraphs -- are worthy of discussion.


Big Doofus said...

I do agree that there is too much emphasis on the individual in our congregational worship. I also agree that the lyrics are often a bit too simple or inane for my tastes--and I think the church deserves better.

We expect our pastors and teachers to have a personal and rounded knowledge of scripture, but we don't seem to care when it comes to the "worship songs." This is a problem.

The Presbyterians do a good job with this--they sing the Psalms. It's a great way to worship.

Big Doofus said...

One other thing. The author seems to adhere to the social gospel--which is common in Latin American countries. Would he think the songs were fine if we just switched the subjects so that we were crooning about taking care of the poor?

At any rate, he's bitter.

Joe B said...

My reaction to this is that this guy says he is not saved, but he's awfully sophisticated about church. This dude is not some random observer. But I actually want to read this one.

1. I'm not surprised that nobody sings songs about feeding the poor. It's nothing to inspire worship. If anything, knowing God inspires you to feed the poor, rather than to sing songs about feeding the poor. We don't sing songs about any other Christian duties, do we? (if we do, they are probably pretty dumb songs!)

2. Why should music for worship resemble music for "appreciation", anyway? After all, commercial jingles don't either, and neither do ringtones. And for the same reason: appreciation of music is not the point. It is about unifying the thoughts and feelings of the gathered people into a concert of the soul. It bugs this dude that people succumb/submit to this concert, and i do not care if he doesn't like it. As a twenty year-old not quite Christian, I was absolutely spellbound by this spectacle, and it was the first indication I ever had that God was beyond me and my own opinions. I actually muttered once aloud "Oh, no, I have seen God!"

3. I think worship music is fine, although the lyrics are incredibly and unnecessarily formulaic. And sometimes dumb I guess ("...lord to give up I'd be a fool..." Good grief!) Lazy? maybe. It's probably just narrowness, like everything else in the institutional christian world.

4. He's right about the individual versus corporate voice of worship. But what would we expect? Evangelicalism preaches an individual gospel without no Kingdom of God -- why would we sing a different gospel than we preach?

5. This thing about the pseudo sexuality of worship? Come on. Let me be the one, as usual, who draws the sword. It is natural and okay that worship bears some resemblance to romantic or physical passion. It also bears some resemblance to eating good food, right? Pleasure. Passion. Arousal. Ever read the bible? All that pervasive sexual metaphor? Now, should passion be excluded from worship just because it also crops up in the back seat, in the bedroom, or on the kitchen table? Passion is in everything in life that matters, including worship, and that's okay. It is God's fingerprints. Consummation. Life and death, living and dying, compressed into a fleeting moment. Why would any of that call into question the authenticity of worship?

Joe B said...

The social gospel is the gospel too. Just not by itself.

scott said...

I'm not surprised that nobody sings songs about feeding the poor. It's nothing to inspire worship.

I disagree. It's not so much singing "Ooh la la, I need to feed the poor." It's singing about social justice as an attribute of God, just as holiness or power is. In fact, I remember a song from college titled "The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor."

Same with how we could be singing about a wider range of "God," I suppose. "We Are God's Witnesses," we are sent to do this, etc.

void77 said...

Joe, you climbed in my head and stole all my thoughts!

I agree.

Singing songs about how God hears the cry of the poor, rescues me from my enemies, or heals the sick is a far cry different than me singing about doing it myself.

And songs where it feels like I want to make love to Jesus is just ... creepy!

When it comes to worship songs, I prefer to exhault God - to sing about *His* glory, *His* majesty, *His* being. Not my own.

Just rambles ...


Kerry Lehman said...

hi all. kerry lehman (scott's sister-in-law) here. scott--i'm so glad that you are not only reading this book, but are getting some great discussions generated about it! i loved this book, and a big part of why i loved it was because sections like this made me curious, a little miffed, a lot introspective, and (mainly) interested in discussing with others! kris (scott's brother; my husband) and i had a great discussion about this section when i read it last month. many of the things we discussed have already been mentioned here, so i won't rehash them. you knew, though, that i wouldn't be able to read others' posts and not put in my two cent's worth ;) so i will say this:

1. i have to challenge myself often on the fact that a) christian churches/christians in general/me in particular often fail miserably to act on christ's commands to take care of the poor and sick, love the hard-to-love, etc., and b) there is an obscure and vague line for christians between focusing too much on the much-maligned "social gospel" (which to me is simply a way of saying "the philosophy that the message of the bible is MORE about taking care of the less fortunate humans in our midst than it is about a personal relationship with a savior) and not focusing enough on the acts of service and caretaking that we are commanded to do by our savior.

2. i am not a professional music critic, but seeing as the author IS, i can appreciate some of his comments. it also makes perfect sense to me why he wouldn't like these songs. they are simple and repetitive for a reason--so they stick in your head (which he admits later that they did!) and so we are focused on the words and the ACT of praising our lord, rather than the incredible artistry of the musical composition (which, let's be honest, many of us would fall prey to if the music and/or lyrics were more complex, unique, and/or creative.) if you don't have a love relationship with god, you wouldn't really want to be stuck with a type of music meant solely to assist in the expression of said relationship. it'd be like me watching porn and then trying to write a review on the production value of the film...

3. i think christian worship songs serve their purpose, for the most part. in addition to what i said above, i would add that we all know that music evokes emotion, and christians want that emotion to be reverence, gratitude, and/or awe for/of god when we are worshiping, not an appreciation of the musical style or composition. the closest analogy i can think of is this: i don't consider myself to be an extraordinarily "mushy" person (i find "chick flicks" gag-inducing, laugh at sentimental hallmark cards, etc.), but on certain occasions--like my anniversary with my husband, for example--i find myself feeling a little more sentimental and "lovey-dovey," and don't mind at all expressing myself with a sappy card, poem, thought, etc. and that's how i feel about worship. while i am not in general an overtly emotion-driven christian (i would make a terrible charismatic!), when i sing worship songs, i like to engage my emotions and, often, be "mushy" with god. worship songs help me do this.

i'm enjoying the dialog on this book! you guys have some good, thoughtful comments! beaucoup props to you all! ;)

Big Doofus said...

I really think that our corporate worship should reflect united praise to God for who He is, what He has done, and what He will do. That's not to say that feeding the poor doesn't ever belong in a worship song. I just don't want to mix up the real gospel with the results of the gospel in our lives--if that makes any sense.

void77 said...

Well said, Big D.

Corporate assembly - to me - is about celebration, remembrance, and reenforcement. Its the last one - reenforcement - where we discuss how to "act" *like* Christ. The remembrance part is all *about* Christ. And that leaves the songs in the celebration *for* Christ. Songs are just one part of our corporate worship gatherings, and they fulfill a distinct purpose - to glorify and honor God. Overloading the lyrics with a multi-faceted purpose dilutes the emotional aspect of music and delivers a thin product that may more fully engage the mind, but leaves the soul thirsty for more.


scott said...

Yay, glad to see Kerry commented. It's her fault for recommending this book to me. I can tell already that people are going to hate me for this comment... Read on with caution.

I agree with everyone that worship music should be about God -- it doesn't necessarily need to be complex or artistically fancy or go deep with theology.

But then, since we're talking about emotions and celebration, technically, I could just chant nonsensical blather and "woo-hoo" the whole time, and God can take it as praise. Right? No words or lyrics even needed.

I'm all for simple songs with simple melodies that we can remember. After all, the more we can sing in a living room with an acoustic guitar and no lyrics on a screen, the better! But for goodness sake, the "worship top 40" lists are chock full of bland songs with lyrics that require no thought because they are nearly devoid of any meaning whatsoever, other than, as the writer said, "God is really cool." Even the Psalms, which are, for the most part, pretty simple and straightforward praise, are much more complex. And wouldn't it be nice to be memorizing scripture rather than bland worship lyrics? I can honestly recite more worship songs than I can Bible verses!

I look at the top 25 worship songs, and I see the word "I" or "Me" in nearly every title. Absolutely no "we" or "us" or "our" regarding Christ's church. The author is completely right on that account.

I dig some of the old Maranatha songs that are just Bible verses set to music. Or the Psalms, like Rog mentioned.

Eric mentioned not wanting to "overload" the lyrics. So let's compare the lyrics to a couple of worship songs. How about this one...

I will bless the Lord at all times,
with praise ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the Lord,
who will hear the cry of the poor.

Let the lowly hear and be glad:
the Lord listens to their pleas;
and to hearts broken God is near,
who will hear the cry of the poor.

Ev'ry spirit crushed God will save;
will be ransom for their lives;
will be safe shelter for their fears,
and will hear the cry of the poor.

[Okay, that one wasn't too bad. Sure, it was *Biblical* and all, but it's so wordy! And it doesn't even rhyme! Let's go with this one instead.]

Come, now is the time to worship
Come, now is the time to give your heart
Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God

[Wait a minute... who are we singing to? Are we just telling each OTHER to sing? I'm confused. Let's try something else.]

Draw me close to You
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear You say that I'm Your friend

You are my desire
No one else will do
'Cause nothing else could take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace
Help me find the way
Bring me back to You

[Yes! THIS one rhymes! Plus, we've either got Buddy Jesus, or we've got a desirous, passionate embrace.]

There we go! Now THAT'S how you write lyrics! ;-)

soebeck said...

We Must Go (God Of Justice)
Tim Hughes

God of Justice, Saviour to all
Came to rescue the weak and the poor
Chose to serve and not be served

Jesus, You have called us
Freely we’ve received
Now freely we will give

We must go live to feed the hungry
Stand beside the broken
We must go
Stepping forward keep us from just singing
Move us into action
We must go

To act justly everyday
Loving mercy in everyway
Walking humbly before You God

You have shown us, what You require
Freely we’ve received
Now freely we will give

Fill us up and send us out
Fill us up and send us out
Fill us up and send us out Lord

soebeck said...

We sang this song in church this last week... thought it was appropriate.

Kerry Lehman said...

me again ;) i agree that the whole "me" and "i" thing in worship songs can be a negative thing, but in many ways it's this type of personalization that makes the songs so special. often, when i read the psalms, i find myself having a healthy longing for the feeling that david (or whomever) is presenting in his very personalized messages: "you will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever." i long to share in those feelings. somehow, a verse phrased that way, as opposed to "he will show us the way of life, granting us the joy of his presence..." is much more effective and meaningful to me, because i realize that a *real* someone experienced those sentiments (and therefore there is hope for me to as well), rather than just me being part of a universal "we/us" that is told that we have the potential to experience something. not sure if that makes sense or not, but it's the same reason why i love to sing a song like:

savior, he can move the mountains
my god is mighty to save
he is mighty to save
forever, author of salvation
he rose and conquered the grave
jesus conquered the grave

so take me as you find me
all my fears and failures
fill my life again
i give my life to follow
everything i believe in
now i surrender...

maybe it is self-centered, so filled with "i's" and "my's", but for me, it really does personalize it in a way that a) makes me feel that it is real for ME, not just most people, and b) forces me to be more accountable for the fact that i am singing lines about things like "surrendering," rather than just being part of a corporate "we" that is surrendering...

and scott, about your point--it didn't make me mad, i think it's completely fair. really, as with all things spiritual, it comes down to our heart attitude. if people can sing something like "amazing grace" or "my jesus i love thee" or "i surrender all" without ANY emotion, passion, commitment, etc. (and we all know they/we can), then it's just as fathomable that we could sing complete blather with a heart fully bent on worshiping the king. god loves when our heart is moved by/because of him--not in a merely "emotional" way, but in a real way--and he loves our willingness to make our worship 100% about him (i love the image of king david dancing like a fool for god, much to the dismay of his wife...oh, to have that kind of abandon.)

scott said...

Nifty song, Soebs. I don't think I've ever heard that one before.

Obviously, I don't think any of these forms of worship are wrong or unBiblical. There's nothing wrong with each of us having personal preference and stylistic differences. And I definitely don't mean we should just exchange the word "we" for "I" in all of our current worship songs -- that sure wouldn't work! There is room for both. There is room for communicating to God about his power and his holiness, and about how *I* feel about that, as a mode of thanksgiving and praise. And there is room for praising God for his compassion and love for the weary and downtrodden, the poor and the sick, and about how *we* as the bride of Christ feel about that (since, after all, most of our worship services are a corporate event). The thing that surprised me about the I/we thing is just that the theme of "God's church, the body" was fairly common in old hymns, but it is fairly rare to find as much about it in modern contemporary worship.

And it's not like I'm a huge fan of all the old hymns, either. "Mighty To Save" is actually one of my favorite worship songs to play.

I also understand that worship music IS more for us to experience than appreciate -- but still, musically, worship music sure does have a LOT of bland sameness! What the author wrote about every song following the same parameters is pretty spot-on.

Joe B said...

"I disagree. It's not so much singing "Ooh la la, I need to feed the poor." It's singing about social justice as an attribute of God, just as holiness or power is."

I consider myself smacked down. You're absolutely right. I should have asked WHY this attribute ofGod does not inspire songs of wonder and awe. Wow!

Joe B said...

"And songs where it feels like I want to make love to Jesus is just ... creepy!"

Fellas, we are not called the "bride" of Christ for naught.

Fill in the blanks and spiritualize it any way you want. Come wedding day, you'll be singin' it!

Joe B said...

The quote of the week:

"it'd be like me watching porn and then trying to write a review on the production value of the film..."

Two big fat thumbs up, Kerry!

Joe B said...

"Songs are just one part of our corporate worship gatherings, and they fulfill a distinct purpose - to glorify and honor God."

My old hymn book is divided into sections like worship, fellowship, evangelism, etc. Not surprisingly there are none about justice.

Joe B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
void77 said...

"I consider myself smacked down. You're absolutely right. I should have asked WHY this attribute ofGod does not inspire songs of wonder and awe. Wow!"

Because, we don't see it as so tangibly evident in our lives. 4,000 years ago, when David was running from people or Israel was fighting other nations, sure. But today? What, are we going to write songs about? How God is fighting terrorism and brings justice to the world? Or praising God because he introduced AIDS into the world to smite homesexuality? (extreme sarcasm..For the record, I *don’t* believe that) What one person’s view of justice is can be starkly different than another persons.

Sure, God is just. And its an attribute. And if someone feels like writing a song about it, go for it. But songs and music are inherently emotional things; and topics that don’t evoke an emotion don’t get much “airtime.” And right now, we’re all about the personal relationship with Christ.

Which brings me to the “creepy” feeling about “making love” to Jesus. When Christ used the “church is the bride” metaphor, I’m pretty sure he was talking about …. the Church! As a whole. It’s a *metaphor*. I think we all agree that Jesus was God and a man. I worship Him – for all that he is … deity and man. So as a man, I have a hard time with songs that sound like love letters that I would send to my girlfriend when I was sixteen. A woman may not share that same reluctance. And while I’ll sing along, I’m not really “connected” (for lack of a better term) with my soul and my intellect. My intellect has to work harder to “translate” what I’m singing into something that my soul can align with.

Okay, Joe … Hit me!


Joe B said...

You'll make a lovely bride

void77 said...

So in this view of us as individual brides, I guess we're all just the "Girls Next Door" and Christ is running around in heaven with a big'ol smoking jacket and Heffeneresque grin on his face waiting for us all to get home?

Hmmm...Okay, guess I'll go on that crash diet so I can fit into my dress.


Joe B said...

Yet another reason to follow the master

Joe B said...

Comment deleted
This post has been removed by the author.

August 22, 2008 8:09 AM

Makes you wonder what devious, sarcastic creep has been lurking around here, doesn't it?