Worship Wars; or, praise malaise

occhiovivo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the most e-mailed NPR stories of this past week caught my eye: “Modern Hymn Writers Aim to Take Back Sunday.”  Songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty feature prominently.  They are well known for writing the Irish-inflected hymn “In Christ Alone.”  Keith Getty issues a gem of a quote on what I would term the contemporary “praise malaise”:

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

This resonates with me.  My formative worship experiences were with Lutheran hymns.  Compared to the vapid choruses of today’s jangly ballads, traditional worship songs offer a rich textual landscape.  They are heavy on rhyming and light on repetition.  They paint a strong narrative revealed in patterned stanzas.  And they draw from a vivid, diverse lexicon, producing images which the worshiping mind can continually engage with and readily grasp.

Not so for most contemporary praise songs.  I am not at all trained in music, but when it comes to wordsmithing, I will throw my two cents in.  Some praise choruses drag the worshiper through a lyrically parched salt flat.  Sometimes it seems as if one can go for a couple of Power Point screens without seeing a polysyllabic word.  Another regrettable phenomenon of praise songs is when the subjects and objects are predominately pronouns (I/we/you/me).

There are ubiquitous words that, for better or worse, have little impact on a congregant like myself:

fire
flame
grace
great
hands
love
mercy
sing

Worship music is supposed to cultivate a worshipful mood.  But those who are more abstraction-oriented than affective need to chew on the specific reasons for praise.  These words help:

atonement
banner
blood
Calvary
crowns
diadem
foe
majesty
might
prince
wretch
scepter
tempest

I guess there is a little bit of a martial strain in this list.

To put it all out there, here are some praise songs that I find textually deficient:

Blessed Be Your Name
Consuming Fire
Happy Day
Your Grace is Enough

And here are some hymns that I think could bear to be studied by today’s songwriters:

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
Loud Rushing Planets
O God, Our Help in Ages Past

I’m not totally set against contemporary worship music.  I like to sway to drums and feel the guitar solo as much as I like to rattle off baritone.  But it would be great if more contemporary songs could be just as textually rich as the great hymns.

Deepen your Christmas cheer

2012.12.22.cogitduck024

Christmas is nearly here!  But the fiscal cliff is looming, the sadness of the Newtown school shooting lingers, and between sequestration and gun control, the national political climate is as sour as ever.

At minimum we have to deal with intransigence across the aisle, and at worst, even the morally milquetoast media has had to churn up some sort of recognition of evil in the world.

So we need not just the feeling but the substance of Christmas about as much as we ever did.  Few things speak to that feeling and substance as much as the classic Christmas carols.  Not like the several, insipid remakes of the trumpety 70’s standard This Christmas, but like the old, theologically rich hymns.  They enrich us with images of heavenly grandeur and poetically remind us not just of our dire rebellion against divinity, but of the awesome grace precipitated with Jesus’ incarnation.

This year I’ve found a couple of hymns particularly inspiring.  There’s the splendid grammatical construction in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, “let nothing you dismay.”  And as we sing on, we’re reminded starkly of a dark power at work in the world:

Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

We can enjoy the superficial cheer piped through department store speakers, but our joy is deepest when we countenance real evil, our own fallenness, and know that Christ has overcome these.  So in a sense films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are quite fitting for the holiday season.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is another tune that delivers the theological goods with a poetic punch.  Within a few short lines near the end, we have unfolded Christ’s humility and the salvation of those who call on him:

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Take a little time to appreciate the noble sentiments that come with the classics this year, and you’ll deepen your sense of Christmas cheer.

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