INTRODUCTION: MY DARK SECRET
I hate church music as we know it. There, I said it.
I was raised cushioned by the familiar, chorus chord progressions and the good-looking, smiling faces of worship leaders. I was inundated by affirmations of God’s goodness and reminders of man’s lack. I was acclimated to the paradox of the rock star style and trappings of the worship service contrasted with the periodic flailing on the floor of the leader saying “I’m not worthy to breathe, much less play these songs!” I grew to be ever-aware of the tension in these leaders between using the talent God had given them and trying not to be TOO talented or, God-forbid, creative, because they would somehow eclipse God’s glory by being the individuals He created them to be; and I drifted off to mental sleep as the worship leaders would unveil their final act: as if proving their self-deprecatingly claimed brokenness by imitating broken records, they would drone out the most monotonous melody possible at least three hundred times.
As my tone may suggest, I am tired of being a moderate when it comes to the debate of music in church. Slight critiques and constructive criticism suggest the pruning of something which we wish to preserve. This is not the way I look at church music today. Other than, obviously, the truths they contain, which of course exist outside their bounds, there is nothing in these songs I feel obliged to cling onto.
My attitude toward, as I see it, the decline of church music has mirrored in many ways the seven stages of grief. I went through angsty depression for many years. I was that nasty person sitting in the back pew making fun of the choruses. Then I went through a stage of acceptance, realizing that people seemed to get something out of this music so who was I to criticize it? And now I need a new analogy. Because I am done being depressed and I am done being accepting. And I am done showing reverence and fear toward something that is not holy. Having now dealt with my personal insecurities (can I have issues with worship music and not lose my salvation?), I perceive some deep flaws in how Christians view worship and a great need for reevaluating what music in church should or could look like. I do not claim to have definitive, God- breathed answers to complicated issues. I only have a few ideas/principles and a burning passion for music. I am going to plunge forward into a series of confrontational articles. These will emerge mainly from my own observations and questions; they will seek scriptural perspective and embrace community feedback and may (possibly) even offer a solution here and there. Alright, onto part one!
PART ONE: A PAGE, A VOLUME
“In the beginning God created…” Emphasis on “the”. THE beginning; for the dimension of time was invented by an eternal God. From that point on, life takes place on the line of time. Things have beginnings and endings. Human beings are born, grow and experience entropy. Each life is like a page in a great volume. Each life is a small story within a greater one.
God came into this story at a specific time and experienced this strange, measured, human existence. His page in history was foreshadowed in the ages before Him and shaped the ages since.
Why? Why wasn’t God just an overarching presence across history? He is eternal—the same yesterday, today and forever. So why appear as a temporal human being on our timeline? This is of course a huge question with many huge answers. He came to save us from our sins; to die for us and make us righteous before God. And he came to relate to us; he came and did specific things with specific people. He had a specific personality. How strange! The God of the universe had a certain kind of laugh, a certain skin color, a certain language and accent. This is ironic: he came to relate to everyone by being an individual. How could God limit himself in this way? I feel that various “Jesus” films try to make sense of this by making Jesus dull and monotone. Because he is God, there can be nothing quirky about him, right? Jesus being an individual living at a certain moment in history is either utterly odd or oddly brilliant.
Since I was young, I have always resonated with narrative and theme in music. I loved the conceptual elements of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and I got caught up in the stories in The Sound of Music and The Music Man which gave context and meaning to their songs. I have always loved songs that told stories: tragic love songs or western ballades. And in “Christian” music I was always touched by hymns and songs which told the story of Jesus’ life. I look forward to Christmas every year when we reflect through music on the beautiful, unexpected, painful, mysterious, tragic and redemptive story of Emanuel, God with Us.
No wonder this music has such resonance. For we live and dream upon layers of story. God created time which necessitates story. Jesus was the capstone story: God summing up His plan and person in one man. We each live out a story and read, watch, listen to and sometimes write stories. We connect to others through personal stories. We connect to larger truths and universal experience and ache through epic stories. And we connect, we literally relate to God himself through the story of Christ.
My critique segment will be brief, for as I have said, I don’t want to prune church music as we know it as much as I want to envision what it could be. So here is a concise look at the status quo: Church worship music doesn’t tell stories. It doesn’t give us chapters with textures and cliff hangers. It gives us summaries and conclusions. Like the monotone voice of Christ from those boring films, we praise in monotone generalities so that no vocal range or individual experience will be strained. We become trite to please all. Let me reiterate: Christ became unique to relate to all. Sure, we echo certain truths such as “He died for us” or “He loves us” but we don’t make it personal. It is easier to make blanket statements than to tell His story or weave Him into ours. Christians, even the inspired Word of God was written in different styles by various personalities!
A powerful example of story in music that we have all been touched by is the love song. If you think about your favorite love song, I think you will be struck by the uniqueness of the story, and the personality and style of the teller. You will notice lines that are surprising or elements of the couple’s history that you have never experienced. Would it not make more sense that we would relate better to an exact situation which we have been in, written in a style similar to ours? Who could write a song that I can relate to better than me? Do you see what this implies? We relate to uniqueness. Art is a combination of connection and surprise. A sentiment is expressed which we can latch onto but is stated in a way that’s unexpected. And it’s the unexpected that sends a chill down our backs.
Does this not sound like the very core of our Christianity? Reason grounds us while faith lifts us.
So when we proclaim summaries all day it’s like a love song that goes something like this:
“I used to be alone
But now I have someone
I used to be in the dark
But she makes everything light
I will be happy forever
Mary is awesome
Mary is awesome
Oh, how she loves me
Oh, how she loves me…”
Would this song move you? How would you feel if this song was dedicated to you? If not ecstatic, why not? What’s the problem? Could it be that neither you nor the other person are known through the song? You might be thinking that I am focusing too much on feelings or being too individualistic. In answer to the first question: what are you trying to accomplish through repeating a line ten times? You are trying to summon a feeling. Rather than digging into a story, you are giving a baseless climax: “The hero wins! The hero wins! Repeat ad nauseam. So you better feel excited…now!” A song that examines the details and intricacies of God’s character and life on this planet, OR a song that reflects on an individuals’ testimony presents truth and honesty first, allowing emotion to come later as connections are made and surprises occur. Concerning being overly individualistic, as I have been trying to illuminate here, generalities allow us to look at ourselves, while specifics force us to look outside ourselves. We may worry that some personal expressions of honest Christianity may not reach everyone. But how DEEPLY do generalities reach? We are called to minister to individuals. We do this by expressing and addressing individual needs. Why can our music not follow this model?
Ministry should examine every page of every life, should point to the pages of Christ’s life, and should bind each believer into the mysterious, dynamic, and redemptive volume God has been writing since the beginning.
I will close with another love song, one that many of us have sung in worship recently:
“Christ by highest heaven adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald, angels sing,
Glory to the new born King!”
Merry belated Christmas!