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?

In sum
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


Unknown said…
Hola. I just had the pleasure of reading parts zero through two on CWM Songwriters. Gracias.

Thank you for patiently taking the time to work all of this out. I will return to this again and again.

There is such good meat here that, well, I have to go write something now.
Brian, please do write something. I'd *love* to hear your thoughts on this. You're the modern troubadour after all. Now what we really need is not to live on opposite coasts of each other.
Epic said…
I confess, I'm thoroughly engaged. Have been for years, but thanks for helping me draw my thoughts out. Details below:

(sorry for length, brevity is something I struggle to learn in my writing)
kelly said…
I'm really not that engaged with the current discourse about worship music so I don't have a sense of what it's like as a whole. From my limited perspective, though, it seems that when people talk about worship songwriting they tend to talk either primarily or exclusively about worship lyric writing.

There are a lot of other elements of songwriting that would be tasty to chew on. For instance I'd love to hear people talking about how the typical pop song structure we use in worship songs may or may not reflect well the narrative structure of God's work in the world. Or how about discussing if unison, harmony, or counterpoint best reflect the unity-in-diversity of the trinity and the church.

We wouldn't want to go that direction to the exclusion of talking about lyrics, but it would be good to consider songs more fully as an art form. As we reflect on what it means to worship so rich and beautiful a God, we may even begin to imagine new and more amazing musical forms and elements than we currently have.
Mark Chambers said…
Thanks for these posts David. I appreciate very much how you are approaching this topic.

Most often in these discussions, it is the lyrical content that is addressed. And rightfully so. You have pointed out exactly that what we sing and pray is our theology. As John Witvliet says "our songs are sung prayers." Part of the dilemma that you point out is that writers need to seek out theologians, etc. to help them in their craft. But what about the churches they already are a part of or serve in? Do not the pastors of the congregations feel the need to lead them theologically or are they too just looking for the next popularly, marketable worship service/strategy?

I would also like to echo Kelly's comments. Far too often the musical content of our songs is left out of the discussion. I would venture to say that is because of the subjective nature of music, folks tend to think(live out - ala James Smith "Desiring the Kingdom) that all musics are created equal, which I remain unconvinced of. Perhaps musical styles (not specific songs) are of cultural importance and worthy of our attention and appreciation but maybe not all of them are "profitable for me."

Here is an example:

The song "Shout to the Lord" has always left me uncomfortable and unsatisfied on a musical level. In trying to wrestle through this I decided to sit down and analyze the song. I soon discovered a musical device that contributed to my discontent with the song.

I then realized that the equally popular song "Indescribable" makes use of the same device yet it does not leave me with the level dissatisfaction I have with "Shout to the Lord." In fact I find this song very compelling (though I do have a beef with another part of it but that is a discussion for another day.)

What I discovered was that the writer of "Shout..." employed a musical device in a manner inconsistent with its history/language whereas the same device in "Indescribable" is used in a manner that makes complete sense musically. The musical language employed in "Shout..." illustrated a lack of appreciation for the commonly accepted usage of a particular musical device whereas the writer of the other song knew how to employ the device and use it in a musical, meaningful manner. (how's that for alliteration?)

I for one am all about stretching the boundaries of musical language but I also want to be aware and cognizant of those who have gone before and given me the language I use communicate today. The words we use in our songs matter as do the chords and melodies, etc. Whether we like it or not we find ourselves in the midst of river of musical history and we must come to grasp where we fit into that continuum. If I use a musical device in a manner inconsistent with it historical and therefore commonly accepted usage (most likely tacitly) I need to have good reason to do so. If we want to break the rules of music theory I need to know them first.

Sorry for the long post. I tried packing a lot of info in small space. Hope it helps.
Marc, thanks for sharing your thoughts in your own blogpost. That was very vulnerable of you.

Kelly, yes, the musical question hovers at the edge of my mental vision, but I've stayed away from it for now. It's a complicated question, and one that I'm not sure I am capable of handling well.

Others have taken a crack at understanding the possibilities and limitations of the pop-rock musical genre for worship. Greg Scheer has a nice essay about it in a forthcoming book, edited by Michael Hawn. I think Crowder's original impulse was to press this question to the forefront. I'm sure it'll come out at the conference itself.

But I want to confirm your instincts. It's not all about the words. It is also about the music. And if I can splice the "words" category, it is about the poetry and the content--it is equally, perhaps, about *how* we say *what* we say. Luther had strong opinions about this issue, by the way.

Mark (the other Mark, with a 'k'), I appreciate your desire to help me think the musical side as well. I agree that pastors bear a considerable responsibility for the "health" of their congregations. Of course, much of this depends on the different liturgical traditions and the role that a pastor might play in it (say, in a Baptist or Presbyterian viz. an Anglican or Orthodox).

The good folks over at Heart Sounds International ( would agree with you wholeheartedly that not all music is created equally. On the one side you have the question of contextualization. What does it mean for the church throughout "space and time" to contextualize its worship in the native language of its culture (or cultures)? This involves, I believe, an impulse towards musical diversity. On the other hand, you have the question of unity. What are the forms and instruments of our unity across history?

Does our unity reside in our music? Our words? Our actions? Our spaces? Our common mission? The presence of the eschatological Spirit in our midst? All the above? Or various combinations of these elements plus others?

That's a complicated question that we'll leave for another time. But I think the interesting question that you hint at is how we--as songwriters--exercise continuity and discontinuity in our music over the course of time. What does it mean for a liturgical songwriter to be a faithful bearer of the church's tradition (big category here--so pick your own for now) while also seeking to give voice to the newness appropriate to the new musical sounds and cultures in which the present generation finds itself? That's an exciting question, I think.

But I better end here before we start writing a new blog entry.

All this to say: great questions. I sure hope I'll get to see some of you at the conference. If not, we'll keep talking amongst ourselves and within our respective congregations or fellowships. We have a lot of good people who have gone before us, folks who have thought these things through in very careful ways. We'll keep asking them for help too.

Alright, I'm off to write a paper on Calvin and Luther's respective appropriation of tradition, or at least what the historical theologian David Steinmetz thought about the matter. Good times.
Epic said…
I ought not push this further, but I can't help it:

I suppose the discussion of worship music (as separated from lyrics) would essentially be a discussion grounded in culture. A cultural form and function analysis, if you will. In my mind, you define what function is proper, and then you may have a shot at musical form. But any analysis is subject to cultural norms, symbols, and traditions.

In a general sense I think discussing music style/taste is hugely subjective. As worship is essentially an expression, (or function) of the heart you could argue that you can worship God (musically) while banging on pots and pans. You could argue that "pots and pans" can not produce music, but you could not argue "pots and pans" can not produce musical worship.

I think that is why lyrical discussions end up with more objectivity than musical discussions (and therefore end up being more productive).

For what it’s worth, my current position on worship-music style is this: be yourself and be excellent. If that is G-C-D-C (simple, common progressions) then do that, if it is metal… do that, if it is folk, do that… but be you and be excellent.

Church culture changes slowly, but sometimes I think the liturgy needs people who are willing to stand on the outskirts of church, in order to make excellent worship music. (music made with the intent to serve the liturgy) Sometimes (not always) I think such “outskirtish” people serve the liturgy more than those who try to jump into the already accepted mainstream. Please note that the accepted mainstream of worship music has many people who hold my utmost respect.
kelly said…
Hey Marc, sorry for the delayed response, but I appreciated your comments and had some additional thoughts that I wanted to pass on.

I agree with your major points: that musical styles are deeply embedded in cultural norms, that discussions about lyrics tend to be more productive than discussions about the other aspects of music, and that we should seek excellence in whatever our native form is even if its very simple. In fact some of my favorite worship songs only have 2 or 3 chords. But there's one part of your comment that I would frame slightly differently. It's a minor difference but I think it has some important ramifications.

It seems to me that the difference between lyrics and musical forms is less about differing degrees of subjectivity and objectivity than it is about education. Significantly more people can discuss literary/poetic issues intelligently than can discuss music theory intelligently. For better or worse, most people that would be involved in this kind of discussion have at least had high school English and can discuss language issues with some basic sophistication, whereas very few people have the background to discuss the non-linguistic elements of music at even the most basic level. As a music theory buff this saddens me, but I also know many outstanding musicians and songwriters that don't understand what's going on 'behind' their music but still produce really excellent work.

So when discussions about the musical forms and styles become primarily about taste, I think it's not because they are more or less subjective, it's only that people don't have the language to discuss anything beyond personal preference.

The reason I think this matters is that I have found the objective/subjective divide to be a common weapon used against valuing the arts, in both the world and the church. We still hold on to the largely discredited Enlightenment notion that ideas are more valid if they are objective, rational, scientific, defined as being outside of the messy realm of people and their hearts. I'm pretty sure this weapon was first developed with religion as its target but the arts were collateral damage.

The literary/linguistic elements of music are no less subjective than the other elements. They are meaningful to us as thinking feeling subjects in and from particular communities. They don't really have importance or relevance in the impersonal, objective world other than being ink marks or pixels or sound waves. But they are not less valuable for being subjective. Given that they create a connection between subjects or persons in worship, linking us to one another and to God, they have supreme importance in the intersubjective realm - the realm of community.

I hope the distinction I'm making here is at least a little bit clear and helpful. It's something I've been thinking about for a while and trying to figure out how to articulate.
Epic said…
Wow Kelly,
Wonderful, concise, and brilliant thoughts; I’ve never approached music from your standpoint, but upon consideration it makes complete sense! Thanks so much for taking time to post. I will admit my view on the topic has been happily altered.

Though I understand worship subjectivity exists, and subjectivity can be positive, I dislike how worship music often hides behind “subjective” walls. Subjective positions are fine, but defensive subjectivity kills any efforts at progress. I’m hungry for progress. Maybe it’s just because I’m still young, and youth loves change.

Maybe this is why worship music is a definable genre; stuck in a mold of musical form that lacks movement because it lacks the ability to assess itself. Or, in other terms, subjectivity absent of objectivity is ignorance. For some reason conversations about musical style become quite personal. That makes it hard when comments intended at progress are taken as “personal” attacks. Until now, I have lacked the ability to figure out why that is.

I’ll be thinking about what you said for some time, obviously! Thank you again!
Kelly: well said. Now go write your book.

Marc: young is good. Keep the fire, brother.

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