On Contemporary Worship Music: Songwriters I
“The Psalms illuminate the mind for the purpose of enkindling the soul, indeed to put it to fire. It may indeed be said that the purpose of the Psalms is to turn the soul into a sort of burning bush.” – Stanley Jaki, Praying the Psalms
“Human beings come only with difficulty to any significant time of turning and transformation.” Frank Burch Brown, Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully
The landscape of contemporary worship music (CWM) is a cross between a carnival and a grand theft auto zone. There's a little bit of everything plus everybody's got their guns blazing. If anyone tells you otherwise, they don't live in the 21st century. They live far away from the wild west where Christians point he-said/she-said/they-don't-glorify-God fingers at each other.
But it's not all bad, though the mean-spirited, snarky, cynical ad hominems abound, like this, for example:
"If there has ever been an age so myopically transfixed by its own importance and significance and a people so quick to dismiss its spiritual heritage, the age is ours and the people are evangelical Protestants."
I mean, c'mon. Are you serious? You're torquing the history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and theology angle in one doomsayer sentence. Hyperbolic statements like these are irresponsible, even if all-too common. I suggest that they are just as damaging as the bad music this (respectable) author decries. To put it bluntly: Statements like these are toxic.
This morning I have spent my time on two tasks. One, I've been listening to "preview all" samples of CWM on ITunes. So far we've previewed Sovereign Grace Music, Hillsong United (Australia and London), Red Mountain Music, Sojourn Church Music, Indelible Grace, Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Vineyard Music, Jesus Culture, Passion, Soul Survivor, Sandra McCracken, Vintage 21, David Crowder, Brian Moss, BiFrost, Brad Kilman and Robbie Seay Band. It's been a full morning. But let's get more quickly to the point of this post.
I'm preparing a talk that I will give at David Crowder's Fantastical Music Conference in late September. The talk is based on a paper I've written for a course here at Duke. Task two for today is to revise it. Unfortunately it's turned into a 31-page, single-spaced paper, bloated with unnecessary quotes and un-clear transitions. This afternoon we kill the darlings. Editing is everything, as Dr. Gordon Fee often told us. My intention over the next month is to post a few excerpts from my Crowder talk.
But before I conclude today's post, let me say two things. One, I don't think that I will be saying anything particularly new. Others have said it before me, and in some cases they have said it far more elegantly. Two, my heart is positively inclined towards the rambling territory that is CWM, especially with respect to the pop-rock and folk variety which occupies the primary attention of my paper.
I met with Bruce Benedict this past Monday. Bruce runs a fine blog called Cardiphonia. At the end of our shared cafe negro (té negro, in my case), he loaded me up with about 50 CDs of CWM. (He also kindly oriented me to the who's who and what's what of Reformed/Presbyterian church musicianship.) Some of the music Bruce gave me is so so, some it is good. Some of it is plain wacky. Bruce knows that. But since there is little new under the sun, my aim will be to trace points of connection and to discover ways in which I might say something of genuine service to the CWM movement.
Oh, one more thing. Lester Ruth said something recently that bears repeating. In an essay where he analyzed the Trinitarian content for CCLI's top 25 between the years of 1989-2005, he concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the Trinitarian orientation was faint. Yet he ended his essay with a nice twist. If CWM songwriters are not writing music that is suffused with Trinitarian content, he argues, then the problem lies at a larger scale. The problem lies at the level of congregations and pastors and teachers. "Christians," he notes, "will write and choose more Trinitarian songs only if love for the Trinity resides deeply in their hearts." That is such an important statement. And again: "Songs will shift as Christians learn to love the Triune God for being Triune." The title of Lester's essay is "Lex amandi, Lex credendi." By that he means to say that what you love, you will believe, and in fact you will more likely write songs about the things that you love rather than simply believe.
My point is this. The burden of responsibility for writing theologically sound music should not be placed exclusively on songwriters. The responsibility should rest jointly on congregations along with pastors, teachers, artists and theologians. Together we should carry the responsibility for holy and holistically nourishing songs. Together.
Who is my neighbor? My neighbor includes songwriters whose music I find poetically philistine--or esoteric. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music comes across theologically shallow and musically dense or narrow. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music falls into a lyrically incoherent or constipated pattern. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is all the songwriters I've mentioned above plus all the ones I haven't--the Lutheran high churchmen, the Methodist activists, the Anglican sophisticates, the Pentecostal enthusiasts and the emergent/alternative/hipster/restless young artists who are trying to make sense of things as best as they can.
I'm new to the CWM neighborhood, I readily confess. I hope that the comments I offer are appropriately tempered. And by God's grace I will learn how to be a good and helpful neighbor.
Here are a few books that I've found especially useful in my research this summer. Apologies for the bunched-up format.
The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship, edited by Robert Woods and Brian Walrath; Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings, edited by David W. Music; Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views, edited by Paul E. Engle; Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, by James F. White; Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God, by David F. Ford and Daniel W. Hardy; Worship Old & New, by Robert Webber; Doxology: A Systematic Theology, by Geoffrey Wainwright; Te Deum: The Church and Music, by Paul Westermeyer; The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church, by Robb Redman; Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense, by John M. Frame; Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations, by Dan Kimball; The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, by John Witvliet; Worship by the Book, edited by Don Carson; Inside Out Worship: Insights for Passionate and Purposeful Worship, edited by Matt Redman; and Worship at the Next Level: Insight from Contemporary Voices, edited by Tim A. Dearborn and Scott Coil.
I leave you for now with the beautiful words of St. Augustine, in his commentary on Psalm 149:1.
“My brothers and sisters, my children, O seedlings of the catholic church, O holy and heavenly seed, O you that have been born again in Christ and been born from above, listen to me—or rather, listen to God through: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. Well, I am singing, you say. Yes, you are singing, of course you are singing, I can hear you. But do not let your life give evidence against your tongue. Sing with your voices, sing also with your hearts; sing with your mouths, sing also with your conduct. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’.
You ask what you should sing about the one you love? For of course you do want to sing about the one you love. You are asking for praises of his to sing. You have been told, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. You are looking for songs of praise, are you? ‘His praise is in the church of the saints’. The praise of the one to be sung about is the singer himself. Do you want to sing God his praise? Be yourselves what you sing. You are his praise, if you lead good lives.”