CWM: Songwriters III: "The sweetness of melody mixed with doctrine"
“Liturgy is not play acting, but it is the evocation of an alternate reality that comes into play in the very moment of the liturgy." -- Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms
“She realized suddenly that there was something about music that had never been revealed to her before: it was not merely the production of sweet sound; it was, to those who understood it, an emotional and intellectual journey.” -- Pelagia in Louis de Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin
"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." -- Mark Twain
Case Study: Tongue-twisting Lyrics
I sang a song in church once that left me befuddled. The first verse talked about God as Creator, mostly in general terms, though with an intent to convey God’s mysterious transcendence. Then the chorus appeared. Then in verse two suddenly the lyrics moved to a description of the cross. I say suddenly because the transition didn't happen in a lyrically logical way. Nothing too terrible about that, but it wasn't clear how the songwriter intended to connect the ideas of God as Creator and God as Savior. In the chorus the song stringed a series of adjectival phrases, where we were invited to behold the personal dimension of this Savior God. But what kept me in a continual state of distress was that the songwriter described God the Father in terms which the Scripture reserve for God the Son.
The problem occurred at both a theological and poetic level. First, instead of conveying the beautiful interplay between the Persons of the Trinity, the songwriter ended up, to my mind, deepening a confusion, as if it were sufficient to state the Names of the Trinity--Father and Son, they're great, they're up there, down here, all around, they're great. But the songwriter stated things in a mashy kind of way. Second, the songwriter stringed together a series of phrases that he believed carried affective weight. But after a couple of times of singing the song, I couldn't sing it any more. Failing to hold together what Scripture holds in careful tension, the song spoke wrongly of God. “That’s not the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,” I kept thinking.
"Let me hear you pray, let me hear you sing and I'll write your theology."
The reason why our songs matter so much in corporate worship is that we, quite literally, sing ourselves into ours songs. We become what we sing. My New Testament professor Gordon Fee would tell us often: “Let me hear you sing, let me hear you pray, and I will write your theology." He was right. The question, then, is double. What ought we to be singing ourselves into? And if we were to examine the content of our songs over the course of time, say a month or a year, what image of the Christian faith would they relate? If Mark Chaves is right, in his book Congregations in America, that the average worship service in America involves 20 minutes of music out of a total 70 minutes of a service, then that means that nearly one-third of a service devoted to music. That's a lot of formative power. Our songs drill into us, week after week, year after year, a vision of God and our place in that vision.
No liturgical songwriter stands alone
As we consider this second diagnostic question (see first here), my encouragement to "liturgical songwriters" is to avail yourself of the pastors and theologians around you. If you don't have one near, perhaps you could seek one out through correspondence. As I mentioned in a previous entry, the responsibility for holy and holistically nourishing songs should rest jointly on pastors, teachers, musicians and theologians, if not also, at some level, the whole congregation. Nobody should carry this responsibility alone.
Ok, then. The second question.
Question 2: How do you know that you have written a right song?
This question brings us into tricky territory. What we are dealing with here are things that might function for the songwriter at a sub-conscious level. The answer to this question, therefore, may not be found in explicit statements of the songwriter but in the evidence of their music. I wish to list a few answers so that we can get a sense of the landscape of possibilities. I will put a part of each answer in quotation marks to signify technical jargon.
How do you know that you have written a right song?
1. When it has “proclaimed Christ crucified”
2. When through it believers “have touched the Father heart of God”
3. When it “proclaims the gospel” or "significantly connects" to non-believers
4. When it declares the “true knowledge of God” or "sings the whole counsel of God"
5. When it “reflects the Trinitarian shape of Christian faith”
6. When it has provided music to serve “the church’s calendar”
7. When it has supplied music to serve “the denominational hymnal”
8. When it has yielded “service music" for the church’s liturgy
9. When “we sense in it the anointing of the Spirit” or it “exalts the Spirit”
10. When it “gives voice to our people,” whether culturally, ethnically, racially or linguistically
11. When it “advances the church’s mission of justice” or “gives voice to the voiceless in society”
12. When it captures “the sublime nature of the Divine”
As with our first question, the answer that we give to this question may be complex. We might say that quite a number of these answers describe us accurately. That's fine, because that's how most of us operate at a practical level. Perhaps, then, I might conjecture that two or three operate dynamically together over the course of time. The issue is rarely one song here, one song there. Thankfully one "bad" song does relatively little damage. It's a whole series of slightly skewed songs that do the damage.
(This, by the way, should come as good news not just for songwriters but for preachers. Some of us preachers should be very grateful that our questionable sermons didn't plunge the church into somnolent apathy or heresy.)
In sum, whatever answer a songwriter believes best describes his or her work, the implication is that these are the kinds of songs that the church should be singing because they are the “right” kinds of songs, which is another way of saying that these songs inscribe orthodox worship.
In our songs we don't simply declare, we perform our theology
Why again does this question matter? It matters because it opens up for us a way of seeing how songwriters might significantly form congregations through their songs--over time. "Over time" of course is the key phrase. The "corpus of songs" is also a key phrase. What concerns is the collection of songs that we sing over the course of time. (In some circles the fancy term for this is a hymnal.)
What do these songs tell us about the Triune God, our neighbors, miracles and money, the visible and invisible world, social justice and the realm of evil, and so on? What do our songs tell us about how all these parts are related to each other? For instance, how much thinking language, how much feeling language, how much action language appears in our songs? And how do we as songwriters view their relative weight in relation to each other?
The summary of my whole point is this. In corporate worship the church does not simply declare, the church performs its theology, a performance involving spiritual, doctrinal and ethical formation. Our songs in corporate worship shape our understanding of our lives. They influence how we view God. They alternately inspire or enfeeble behavior. In corporate worship the people of God learn now how to become their already-not-yet selves, God-created, Christ-redeemed, Spirit-sanctified, and, I would argue, the Psalter offers an invaluable aid in this formative work.
It's a tremendous responsibility that the church's songwriters bear. For that reason they deserve some of our best prayers and some of our finest words of encouragement. If you're a songwriter, know that my prayers are with you. Know that we as pastors and theologians want to work with you, even as you seek to offer the church what it needs dearly, artfully crafted songs that resound the truth of God.
Next Time and Four Things (including hip hop worship)
Next time: a way in which the Psalter helps us as songwriters write both "I wanna" and "I will" songs.
I leave you here with four things:
1. A quote from St. Basil the Great.
2. A poignant story of a young Chinese man who lost his arms in an accident and now plays the piano with his toes.
3. My (liturgical songwriter) friend Josh Banner's answer to my first question. I'd love to hear any other answers out there.
4. Two examples of hip hop worship, one more "humble," one more "sophisticated."
“What did the Holy Spirit do when he saw that the human race was not led easily to virtue, and that due to our penchant for pleasure we gave little heed to an upright life? He mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing, just as clever physicians frequently smear the cup with honey when giving the fastidious some rather bitter medicine to drink." -- St. Basil the Great