CWM: Songwriters IV: "I wanna" and "I will"

A week from tonight I'll be in Waco, Texas, headquarters to Dr. Pepper ("America's Most Misunderstood Soft Drink") and the setting for David Crowder's Fantastical Music Conference. I'm excited. Good tex-mex food, here I come. I also look forward to seeing friends like Charlie Peacock and David Dark. I look forward to meeting folks whose songs I've sung, like Matt Redman, Derek Webb and of course the redoubtable Mister Crowder. The schedule is up now. You can see it here. I'll be the guy doing the workshop on the Psalms. No surprise there. But we'll have a great time. I've got some fun exercises prepared.

Before I go into the material proper of this entry, I wanted to recommend a few things.  First, Bruce Benedict pulled together a really helpful summary of the Wesleys'  hymnody. Well, not so much summary, as an abridged listing of theological topics they covered in their 6,000+ songs. See here. Second, I was very encouraged to read Red Mountain Church's philosophy of corporate music. What a great vision. I especially loved point #9. If all churches took that tone about corporate worship, ooph, just imagine how relaxed our congregants would feel. We could sing excellently but not feel like whatever mistakes we made meant that we were back in junior high and we'd suddenly passed gas in front of all the cute girls (or boys). Mortal and apocalyptic embarrassment need not accompany our public mistakes. Finally, while I would not follow Zac Hicks in all his exegetical readings, I really like the way he carefully explains his method for choosing songs. His point 3a is eminently sensible. For those of you who are music leaders, you could see this as a helpful model for your own work of discernment.

Alright, now to my main point. (See here for parts One, Two, Three.)

"I wanna" and "I will"
All of human experience can be described by this phrase. Consider my week so far. On Sunday evening I told Phaedra, "All I wanna do is watch an episode of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." I was beat from my soccer game. So we watched that night how Mma Ramotswe got herself a real Botswana diamond. Monday night I was equally tuckered out.  But I needed to work on our finances. So I said, "I will work on our family budget. I will. I'm tired and I don't want to and I'm not going to find good news, but I will." So I did.

Some days you do things out of a rousing immediacy of desire. I wanna go shopping! I wanna a meaty novel! I wanna a double malt, double chocolate shake! Other days you do things because you know it is right and good. I will study. I will help with chores. I will pray. I will visit my cranky grandmother. I will eat broccoli.

You find this pattern repeated throughout Scripture. St. Peter is a patron saint here.  At the last supper, he cries, "Even if all fall away, I won't (or I wanna not)!" (Mark 14:29). On another occasion, when some of Jesus' disciples had found his teachings too difficult, Jesus asks his friends, "Do you want to leave me too?" It is Peter who dares to respond for all: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). This is Peter's way of saying "I will stay." And, as tradition tells us, Peter dies crucified upside down because of his decision.

What does this have to do with the Psalter and contemporary worship music? One of the things that the psalms do particularly well is to train us how to sing both "I wanna" and "I will" songs. This is another way of saying the Psalter fosters well-ordered affections. In the Psalter, as John Calvin beautifully puts it, “we have permission and freedom granted us to lay open before [God] our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men.”  This is a powerful freedom. It is the freedom to be fully human, un-suffocated by fear or shame. The Psalter supplies us with edited language to express our un-edited emotions, and what a great gift that is to us.

On the one hand, then, the psalms provide us with "I wanna" prayers. I wanna awaken the dawn (Ps. 108). I wanna give thanks in song (Ps. 28). I wanna praise your justice (Ps. 101). I wanna my enemies to perish (Ps. 35). On the other hand, we encounter "I will" prayers. I will yet praise You (Ps. 42). I will not be shaken (Ps. 62). I will lift up my eyes to the mountains (Ps. 121). I will remember the days of long ago (Ps. 143).

What is my point? Perhaps what we find in CWM is slightly more "I wanna" than "I will" songs. The "I wanna" come in two sorts. There are the "I wanna" compositions. They sound like this: Boom--a song came to me! Boom--Let's all sing it! There are also the "I wanna" subject matters. It usually sounds something like: All I wanna do right now is to praise you. Many great hymns, of course, have emerged out of experiences of spontaneous desire. Charles Wesley, for example, composed spontaneous eruptions of praise while riding his horse across the English countryside.

The problem, I think, occurs when a spontaneity model becomes a normative mode by which a “legitimate” worship song comes about or is seen to "only rightly" express Christian desire. We need both "I wanna" and "I will" songs. Many CWM songwriters agree with this conviction. What I perhaps wish to remind us again is that the psalms provide us a rich model for how to sing both kinds of songs. Mindful that we as songwriters exercise a formative power over people, it's helpful to keep revisiting the rhythms of the Psalter to show us how to wield that power well.

Bonhoeffer said something once that I find very helpful as I think about the calling of liturgical songwriters. It leans, granted, towards the "I will" end. But the effect of his admonition is salutary as well as hopeful for the "I wanna" desires of our hearts. It puts these desires in their right perspective.

That said, I will let Bonhoeffer have the last word here. (Note: when he says "Word of God," he means chiefly Jesus.)

“If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ…. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. 

If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the prayer of our heart.”


thanks for this, David. Can you be more specific about following Zac Hicks on "his exegetical readings"? are you referring to the document you link or something else? just curious.

as always, great resources and teaching -- thank you.
Zac Hicks said…
Living Palm has the same question I have :).

Thanks for the mention...and I appreciate your blog in general and this series of posts in particular. I'd love to hear your thoughts on my "exegesis." Are you talking Scriptural exegesis or song exegesis? I love a good discussion.

Adam said…
Great stuff David! I hate to miss the conference, but I hope to have a good time at the writer's retreat at Laity.

Sometime, I'd love to hear any thoughts you have about how to incorporate lament psalms into the liturgy of today.
kelly said…
It seems a primary goal of spiritual maturity is to move the 'I wanna's closer to the 'I will's so that they eventually line up. Or more precisely to get to the point to where our desire to do God's will naturally flows from our love and gratitude rather than a sense of duty and burden. Even hard stuff.

Sometimes the things we sing are aspirational in this regard. How many of us really mean it and practice it when we sing 'When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say "Blessed be the name of the Lord"' And yet it's not lying to sing these words, its expressing a hope of how we want to live.

I'm with Adam on the lament psalms. I've often wondered what it would look like if our worship songs had the same conceptual range as the psalms, praising God, crying out in times of need, expressing anger or impatience with God, etc. This correlates to Bonhoeffer's challenge to give our prayers the same conceptual range as the Lord's prayer.
cardiphonia said…
David, I love your pics in this one. they are always a joy! Great thoughts. I really hope you record your talk at DCFMC too.
Zac, I need to hoof it through some school work today. I'd love to take a moment tomorrow to reply to your question. For the record, I love what you're doing on your blog. I find myself continually edified reading your posts. I also enjoyed reading your "Two Services: Why?" And as a small point of connection, I'm friends with Daniel Carroll, the OT prof at Denver seminary, and have had many good friends study there.

Bruce: whaddup. Thanks for introducing me to Zac, RMC and other folks via your Links.

Adam: the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has very excellent resources about lament, psalms and corporate worship. Do check it out.

Kelly: I do think there is a general movement whereby our "I wanna" prayers yield to and become, by God's grace," our "I will" prayers. I wonder, though, if there remains a legitimate place, both within the narrative of Scripture and throughout all of Christian experience, for our "I wanna" desires to exist for their own sake. Might they serve a good, healthy, maybe even very ordinary purpose?

In fact, I think "I wanna" desires can be seen to exist in very close relationship to the reality of "wonder." One would also want to think clearly about the theological role of human "passion" (I put that word in quotes on purpose). How do we think, say, Christologically about human passion/appetite/desire, whether that involves gastrointestinal desires or appetites for wisdom or passion for creative enterprises, using my terms here interchangeably to describe the same dynamic in human persons.

Ok, I better stop here. I need to read some Institutes of Christian Religion (though I might cheat and spend a little time reading about Bach's liturgical life in Leipzig and Fanny Crosby's hymns. Best to be well-prepared with fresh historical data before I arrive at Crowder's shindig).

Zac: "Living Palm" is the very, very lovely Tamara Murphy.
Rich Tuttle said…
digging your blog. I've added it to my bloglist at

Rich Tuttle
Epic said…
Enjoyed engaging your thoughts lately. They seem particularly pertinent to my own struggles as a worship songwriter; If I could provide a litmus test, I bet you'll find an engaged response at the Crowder-de-fantastica conference!

I did put my thoughts down, its not as objective as your own, but blogging helps me process the clutter in my head! :)
Epic said…
Also, if I may provide a request for a future blog. It would be nice to see a top 10 list of places you frequent for news, inspiration, and foundational, yet progressive thought on the topic of Christian Arts.

Or, does such an item exist already? Meaning I've revealed that I am just too lazy to visit the archives? :)
Rich: thanks for saying hi.

Marc: thanks for your continued effort to make sense of your work. At some point I'm going to have a new website. When I do, it will include an extensive resource links page.

Zac: I'm sorry I wasn't able to get to your question until today. The weekend ended up being busier than anticipated. Like I mentioned earlier, I really appreciate the tone of your essay. It invites people into a conversation and stimulates important questions. I like that. The "singability" question is so good, as is the question whether a song is conducive to "congregational" singing, rather than performative singing.

Perhaps my quibbles about your essay have to do with how you've phrased things. In a longer essay context, my guess is that you’ll have fleshed these things out. While I agree that, in the main, music should serve text, I think in practice things are little more complicated than the way you suggest. I think this becomes especially evident when you move out of traditional, Western cultural settings. Many of us may feel that "slow" music should accompany "sad" or "funereal" topics. But I've found that other cultures read the relationship between music and text/subject matter differently. In a way reminiscent of medieval carnivals, loud and upbeat and even shrill or excessively buoyant melodies are seen to be most appropriate for use around "deathly serious" subject matter. I saw this recently with a song composed by Sudanese Christians. Again, I understand what you're getting at. I've sung the songs you mentioned and feel similarly. I'd simply want to suggest that there is a greater degree of complexity between music and text than the word "complement" might allow.

(Blogger won't let me post my whole comment, so I'm splitting it in two.)
When you ask whether a text is "in accord with the truth of Scripture," my guess is that a good Baptist, Quaker, Presbyterian, Anglican and Pentecostal will agree with you wholeheartedly. I've seen songwriters mish-mash the three Persons of the Trinity. It's a terrible sloppiness that confuses a congregation and can be damaging. But I'm not sure I have the same problems with the word "intoxicating" that you do. I find that a great deal of spiritual writers find that it aptly describes the intense quality of desire for God that the Christian experiences in presence of the Almighty. Also, I might not read the exegetical meaning of Eph. 5:18 in the same way that you have. Some biblical commentators find the contrast not so much between "drunkenness" and "Spirit-filled" as between "drunkenness on wine" and a similar kind of "drunkenness" on the Spirit. Key of course is how we understand “similar.”

Obviously there is no intention on Paul’s part to substantiate a mindless and wildly out of control state. But an intensity of worship marked the believers in Acts 2 to the extent that bystanders wondered if they were “filled with new wine” (2:13). For the record, I won’t press the exegetical issue in any kind of hard way. But there is a long-standing tradition in church history to see the Song of Songs as an extended metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his church. My point here is not to make a strong case one way or another. I simply want to suggest that perhaps Darrell Evans isn’t completely “out of” accord with the truth of Scripture and that a description of God’s love as “extravagant” captures the excessive and at times unspeakable quality of Christ’s love for his church.

I will say I am with you 100% on the question of whether a song is “logically coherent.” It’s such a basic aesthetic principle.

Perhaps, in the end, what makes me nervous is when I stumble on over-simplifications of the hermeneutical process. The move from “biblically sound” or “theologically sound” to “liturgically sound” is rarely a simple one, as I’m sure you know. I think you’ve done a great job getting us to think about the categories that matter. I love it that you provided us with good and bad examples. And I very much like the way you end your essay. Many thanks for that.

Popular Posts