A Songwriting Rant image

A Songwriting Rant

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I'm a huge fan of contemporary worship music. I don't even apologise for it, despite the scorn respectable middle-aged men are supposed to pour on it. No, most of it isn't Bach, but then neither was most church music. No, most of the lyrics aren't When I Survey, but then neither were most of Isaac Watts's hymns, let alone everyone else's. And the sheer power of music to move us, lift us, and catch us up in dancing, singing, joy-filled praise, when combined with thoughtful and God-exalting content, is such a gift that it would be churlish to sneer at it. So I'm not the guy who sits tutting with his arms folded when the Newday Big Top is bouncing to That's Why We Move Like This; I'm right at the front, bouncing with them.

But.

It is also true that many modern songs are scatty, cloying, fluffy, incoherent, repetitive, flighty, bumbling, empty, careless, shallow, heretical, repetitive, nauseating, anaemic or repetitive. The fact that they nevertheless make their way into our times of corporate worship is not primarily the fault of the songwriters (although some of them should know better), since they are simply writing songs which express their praise to God, and if the rest of us want to moan about that, we should simply write better ones. No: the fault lies partly with the worship leaders who choose drivel and, by force of personality and microphone, force the congregation to sing it; and, even more culpably, with the elders who say and do nothing about it, preferring a smorgasbord of new and catchy melodies to the weighty and substantial songs which will actually teach sound doctrine to those who love Jesus, and preach the gospel to those who don’t. (At two of the festivals I attended this summer there was a moment of madness from someone on the stage during the sung worship time; at neither of them did anyone resembling an elder get up, correct, shape or even make a joke about what had happened.) So when I rant about songwriting, I’m not really ranting about songwriters, but about the pastoral carelessness, verging on negligence, shown by a fair few guardians of the church simply because someone is holding a guitar. For most modern charismatics and evangelicals, our hymnody is our liturgy - a problem which is the subject of a whole other post - and that makes thinking it through carefully extremely important.

That all sounds a bit nebulous, so let me highlight six particular bugbears, in the hope that nobody will apply all I have just said to any individual songwriter, worship leader or elder, but rather recognise a twinkle in the eye amidst the pokes in the eye. In no particular order:

1. Jesus is my boyfriend songs. This catchy phrase has become something of a blunderbuss recently, having been applied generically to anything which expresses love to God (which I would imagine was a good thing), and as such has come to mean everything and nothing. What I mean by it is what Preston Sprinkle means by it: ‘Something is wrong when I can sing a worship song to God and then turn to my wife with the same lyrics. Because, when I look at you, babe, “my heart turns violently inside of my chest,” and I feel like “I’m madly in love with you”, “you are more beautiful than anyone ever”, “there has never ever been anyone like you”, “I want to hear your voice, I want to know you more”, “I want to touch you, I want to see your face”, “I’m desperate for you; I’m lost without you.” Is our love for God an amped up version of the romantic love we have for our significant others? Despite the sense we get from some of our worship songs, the answer is: No.’ Preston’s article, which argues that the idea of “falling in love with Jesus” is actually a very unhelpful one, resulting from nineteenth century Romanticism being read back into first century Jesus-devotion, is well worth a look if you want more on this.

2. Random lists of superlatives. Yeah God, you are so amazing, beautiful, glorious, wonderful, powerful, astonishing, astounding, incredible, indescribable, loving, great, wise, sovereign, kind ... Obviously, God is all of those things. But listing them like that brings about a slightly flat sense of diminishing returns in those of us who are singing, as if each attribute in the list becomes smaller with the addition of each extra one. Partly that’s a question of focus; great hymns usually meditate on a particular aspect of who God is, and make it live poetically, rather than piling up largely unrelated adjectives which can otherwise get lost in the noise. But partly it’s also proof of the maxim I first heard from Joel Virgo, which he used to apply to preaching, but I think applies equally to songwriting: “Don’t say things are amazing. Say amazing things.”

3. Lack of Trinitarianism. I was at a funeral recently singing “Eternal Father, strong to save” (the one which closes each verse by praying for “those in peril on the sea”). The entire hymn, Victorian and English though it is, is structured around the Trinity: verse one is a plea to the Father who makes and binds the sea, verse two to the Son who walked on and calmed it, verse three to the Spirit who brooded over it, and verse four to “O Trinity of love and power, our brethren shield in danger’s hour.” That sort of thoughtful Trinitarianism, even in hymns which we might dismiss as rather quaint and overly reminiscent of the scene in Titanic, was standard fare for songwriting and liturgy for hundreds of years (as even a cursory flick through Hymns Ancient and Modern or The Book of Common Prayer will indicate). Yet the vast majority of modern songs are functionally binitarian or unitarian, and only use generic forms of address (you, God, Lord) as opposed to specific ones (Father, Christ, Jesus, Spirit, etc). If you’ve ever heard people start their prayers with “Yes, Father Lord Jesus, we ...”, you’ll know that this phenomenon has got into the evangelical water cycle, and its main way in, I suspect, has been through our songs.

4. Nonsense. Songs can be confusing because they are ambiguous (who is doing the reclaiming in “We must spread the word of his soon return to reclaim the world for his glory”, and where does the comma come in “for the glory of the risen king Jesus shine your light”?), or impenetrable (which is true, for most in my church, of “ineffably sublime”), or theologically questionable (was there really a “battle in the grave” after the cross?), or confusing (are we really “waiting here for you”, and if so, until when?), or metaphorically mystifying (rivers and fires are frequent examples). But there are also some lyrics which, even after having sung dozens of times and given a fair bit of thought to, I genuinely cannot fathom. Nothing else could take your place to feel the warmth of your embrace. Wait: what? If someone else was in your place, they would feel the warmth of your own embrace? How does that work? You spoke the earth into motion, my soul now to stand. I give my life to follow everything I believe in. I’ll walk upon salvation. What on earth do they mean? Again: I am not criticising the songwriters, who obviously do know what they mean, even if they haven’t expressed it that clearly. The question is whether people in the church do, because if they don’t, either it will baffle them (which is bad), or they will sing it anyway and simply assume that sometimes worship songs just won’t make sense to them (which is worse).

5. Assuming shared experience. This is for all those who grew up in Christian families, and don’t remember a sudden darkness-to-light moment (which many in our congregations did). For many, “I still remember the first day I met you” is not true. Neither is “Oh, I feel like dancing,” or the vast majority of songs with the word “feel” in them. Neither, since we’re taking on sacred cows, is “Tis grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” It was true for John Newton, obviously, and it is true for lots of people. But it’s not true for lots of others, and given an evangelical culture in which dramatic binary stories are preferred to gradual awakening ones, this may cultivate an unhelpful sense of inferiority or exclusion amongst a group of people, and/or lead those who don’t have such a story to feel like, until they do, they haven’t really experienced amazing grace.

6. Splicing in secular songs. When I was at New Wine this year, there was a performance of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name, as a worship song (the band leader had his arms raised throughout), in the middle of the morning meeting. In a recent Bethel album, the lead vocalist launches into David Gray’s Babylon in the middle of a corporate worship time, urging the congregation to “let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now.” Now: creative types take risks, and sometimes they don’t work, and I’ve said a number of very silly things in public meetings before, and we don’t need to get paranoid or thought-policey about that (and we certainly don’t need to feel spiritually superior about it). But in neither of these cases did anyone in authority bring any sort of correction or instruction at the time, at least as far as I know, presumably putting it down to a quirk, or even embracing it without realising how ridiculous it was. That, when you’re serving many thousands of people (which both of these were), is quite a problem.

Intentionally, this has been a rant. Some points can be made better in a bombastic way than in a nuanced way, and regular readers will hopefully know my huge esteem for the enormous gifts God has given us in people like Stuart Townend, Chris Tomlin, Darlene Zschech, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Kari Jobe, Martin Smith, Bob Kauflin and many others. But in amongst the generalisations, there may be some helpful challenges for some of us, especially for those whose commission it is to shepherd the church. If there are, then please pray for me next time I find myself in a green room.

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