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Praise Songs: Central Purpose

In Rants on May 25, 2013 at 4:35 am

I teach senior English and early in every term, I assign a paragraph.  Usually it’s some simple literary analysis.  I don’t even need to look at them to know that 60% of them will read like a tangled fishing line.  For many, the best we can hope for is that all the sentences will be about the same subject.  This will only be possible if the student remembered the concept of the “topic sentence” that has been taught since at least the forth grade.  But even with the topic sentence, many papers show no logical development, as if the ideas were just tossed in the air and caught on loose-leaf paper in the order that they came down.  Thankfully, this is a problem easily fixed, at least temporarily.  I wish I could impress on all students, even the very young, that all writing needs to be organized–not just the writing one does for an English teacher.

Praise and worship songs are not an exception to this principle.

 I think every great piece of writing, whatever the genre, has some purpose and every detail serves this central purpose.   It’s should be no different with a praise song.

 Like this one: “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman

Verse 1:

 Blessed Be Your Name

In the land that is plentiful

Where Your streams of abundance flow

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed Be Your name

When I’m found in the desert place

Though I walk through the wilderness

Blessed Be Your name

 

Chorus:

Every blessing You pour out

I’ll turn back to praise

When the darkness closes in, Lord

Still I will say

 

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your name

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your glorious name

 

Verse 2:

Blessed be Your name

When the sun’s shining down on me

When the world’s ‘all as it should be’

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed be Your name

On the road marked with suffering

Though there’s pain in the offering

Blessed be Your name

 

Praise 1This song has one central purpose: God is worthy of my praise regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself.

The verses come in pairs.  The first set uses the same metaphor–human experience of life is as varied as terrestrial landscapes.  Sometimes we experience life as a fertile and productive valley where “streams of abundance flow.”  At other times, life is as desolate as a desert wilderness.  The second set of verses repeats this idea.

The chorus declares that regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself, I will praise God, and then, in the second  part of the chorus, I get to do just that.  Those who just got the big promotion or were told by their child, “You’re the bestest mom in the world” will, through the singing of  this song, turn these blessings into praise.   Those who discovered that their marriage was in trouble,  or were told by their doctor it’s “not the good kind” will praise God no less, simply because He is worthy of it.

The best songs we sing in church have a single purpose.  The means by which this purpose is achieved — structure, symbol, metaphor, allusion, etc.  — all support this end.

There are some praise and worship songs that read like a bad high school paragraph.  I find it really hard to a song that hasn’t settled on a purpose, because I don’t know why I am singing it.

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Praise Songs and Higher Times

In Rants on May 20, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Praise 1I know that I said I would look at praise and worship songs as an English teacher, but I’m cheating and looking at praise and worship songs wearing a philosophical hat.

In a recent post, David Murrow explains “[w]hy men have stopped singing in church.”  He says that there are some positives in the switch from hymnal to the projection of lyrics onto a screen in front of the sanctuary, but he concludes that “the negatives are huge.”

One of these negatives is that “[s]ongs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

[W]e went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows (Murrow).

 I experienced some frustration this past Easter for this very reason.  The songs that were chosen for the Easter service were all appropriate thematically, but almost all were new to me.  I’m pretty quick to catch onto songs, so it wasn’t really an issue of not being able to sing them.   I am obviously not the same as the men who don’t sing in the Murrow post.  But there was something else  that I realized that we’ve lost since hymnals have become obsolete.

 And it has to do with the way we view time.

 In our culture, we understand time to be exclusively chronological.  So much so that many who are reading this are saying, “Well, what the heck else would time be?”  Chronological time, or “secular” time, is the idea that one thing happens after another.  There is no meaning behind this ordering of events–it is ordinary time.

 Higher time (kairos) is infused with meaning.  It doesn’t replace ordinary time, but complements it.

Higher times “gather and re-order secular time” (Taylor 55).  If you think of chronological time as a long rope, higher time takes that rope and ties it in a knot so places on the rope that are usually further apart, are now touching.  These “kairotic knots” (54) meaningfully reorder time.

 So, your birthday 2013 is closer in kairos time to your birthday in 2012, than it is to the other days that lie between them.   This is because your birthdays all share the same meaning and the ordering of kairos time is one of meaning.

 In the secular world, this is the only sort of time there is and I think we lose something if we view time as a mere sequence and neglect this other way of experiencing higher time.

 What does this have to do with praise and worship songs?  I think the songs we sing in church can go a long way in helping us to experience higher time.

 Back when we sang from a hymnal, we’d sing the same songs every Easter  In this way, the songs helped to connect all this Easter with every Easter I was alive for.  But all these Easters were connected to every Easter all the way back to the first when Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, “Whom were you seeking?.”

 The principle is the same with Christmas. We also sang the same songs at every funeral, and after the offerings were collected.  The songs linked these events too each other in higher time.

 The modern, secular view of reality is an impoverished view.   This view of reality ought to be countered at every point if people are going to experience a life of fullness available in Christ.  Certainly, the songs that we sing can help us to experience time as meaningful, but all aspects of communal worship can be looked at.

Perhaps a little more attention given to the traditional church calendar is worth a look.

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Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors

 

 

Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors

In Rants on May 18, 2013 at 2:31 am

Katheryn Scott’s “At the Foot of the Cross” contains these words:

Trade these ashes in for beauty

And wear forgiveness like a crown

Coming to kiss the feet of mercy

I lay every burden down

At the foot of the cross

 I’ve sang this song quite a few times and the I have never sung it in the same way twice.  That’s a good thing; we won’t always experience good poetry, good art of any kind, the same way.  We will, however, experience bad poetry the same way every time.  I’ve read Hamlet many times and it still surprises me.  The same can be said for the songs of Josh Garrels and the book of Genesis.  The best church songs will have the same quality.  The presence and power of the figurative language contributes to the effectiveness of a song to bring some listeners into worship.

 One of the first times I sang “At the Foot of the Cross” I was caught by the idea of trading “ashes in for beauty.”

The next time I noticed that this phrase was preceded by the word “these.”  This demonstrative pronoun puts the ashes  I’m singing about right here–I walked into church covered in them.  In Biblical language, to wear ashes, or “sackcloth and ashes,” is to demonstrate grief or repentance; importantly, it is an act of humility.   This song, if sung honestly is a song of confession where the worshiper acknowledges his or her sin and the need for forgiveness.

By grace, these ashes are exchanged for beauty the song reminds us, for we are transformed to royalty as a crown is placed upon our heads.  We aren’t just forgiven, but received as children of the King.  This transformation occurs, not by our merit, but by the death of Jesus on the cross.Praise 1

 We sang this song in church again a few weeks ago.  I was caught by the line “Coming to kiss the feet of mercy.”  In Luke 7:38, there was a woman who had “lived a sinful life”–Luke doesn’t say she was a prostitute, but this is certainly likely.  When I sing this line, I am placed in the position of a prostitute.  This is the point and the power of the line.  I cannot judge others when I remember that my sin is no less than that of the woman in Luke.  But my guilt as well as the woman’s is, nonetheless, erased by Jesus death on the cross.  She wept and wet his feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.  This is the response that this line can evoke in those who sing it–overwhelming gratitude.

 This is only one verse: there are two more that are just as powerful.

 Not all the songs that we sing in church use metaphors like this–nor need they.  Metaphor and allusion are but two tools that the poet might use.  And there are many tools.  However, when figurative language is used in a song, it should work to achieve the purpose of the song–in this case, lead those who sing it into confession–an awareness of ones guilt and gratitude in complete forgiveness.

 This is an example of how figurative language (and allusion) can work powerfully in a song.

But then there are those praise and worship songs where the figures of speech get in the way of, well, praise and worship.

Here are some of the metaphor issues that completely distract me from engaging with the song:

  • one dimensional comparisons just lie there with no meaning to explore in the comparison
  • cliché–these metaphors are so overused so as to become meaningless
  • barrage–when figures are so numerous that there is no opportunity to receive them
  • metaphor mosaic–when figures are so completely unrelated that I don’t know if we are talking about clothing, branches,  wind, or wineskins
  • And then there are the dreaded mixed metaphors

Previous Posts on this topic:

Good Metaphors

Next Post:

Higher Times — Why it’s good to sing the classics

An English Teacher Looks at Praise and Worship Songs

In Rants on May 17, 2013 at 4:15 am

Praise 1One of the things we do in church is sing.  I love singing.  When I was a kid I didn’t; I think I must have driven the Sunday school teachers crazy.   I was one of a group of boys who delighted in changing the lyrics of the Sunday school songs and then giggled at our cleverness.

 I am much older now, and most of the time, the songs are very effective in bringing me, sometimes  incrementally, to a place of worship.  This is, I believe, the purpose of singing in church.  But some songs, at least for me, can work contrary to this purpose.

 In these cases, I just can’t get past something in the song and I end up focusing on what I believe is bad writing and not on the intention of the song–be that praise, thanksgiving, confession, prayer, or whatever.

 I struggle with whether this is my problem; perhaps I am too critical.  I am critical of movies, songs on the radio, books and restaurants, so it’s difficult to turn it off on Sunday morning.  But maybe I should try harder.

 On the other hand, perhaps everyone would benefit from praise and worship songs that overly critical people like me could sing without distraction.  Would it not be better if the songs we can in church were excellent in every way?

 I understand that there is a lot of personal preference in the songs we like or don’t like.  This can’t be avoided entirely, but I believe there are objective standards  to which I am appealing.  As a matter of fact, some of the songs that I think are excellent I don’t particularly like.   I understand that all  human art is likely pretty poor to its heavenly audience no matter how good it is, but I do believe that it is important that our offerings of praise be our best, nonetheless.

 My first impulse was to level an indictment at specific examples of songs that I believe fail artistically (or theologically).   But, this approach can be upsetting and the point of the critique is completely missed.  John Stackhouse wrote a blog critiquing inferior worship music and many were unable to receive what he had to say.

 I thought it would be better to praise aspects of some songs that are excellent.  My hope is that present and future worship leaders and song writers would give a great deal of thought to the songs they sing and write so as to powerfully serve the connection between mere human beings and their creator.

Next Post:  Good Metaphors, Bad Metaphors

Fatal Attraction to Freedom

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 12, 2013 at 2:44 am

I used to have sheep, about a dozen ewes and a big ram named Joe.  This combination resulted in about twenty lambs in the spring.  Once these little ones discovered the wonderful world beyond the teat, they became a huge problem.

The ewes and Joe would happily eat the grass in the center of the field, but the young ones would walk around the perimeter of the pasture always testing the fence.

In the Modern West, “Our vision of freedom is primarily socio-political, with the greatest threat to human flourishing being the other, whether the Nazi, the slave-owner, or the autocrat.”  The ancient conception of freedom is much different.  They had “what could be called a more religious or philosophical vision of liberty, the greatest threat to human flourishing is the lack of wisdom, phronesis, or virtue” (Hunger Games and Dystopia).

Sheep FenceMy experience with my sheep tells me that the ancients have the truer understanding of freedom.

If my young sheep could get out, they would.  This was a problem; outside the fence was death.

Death came in two forms.  The first was coyotes.  I don’t suppose any further explanation is needed on this point, but let’s say there no sheep would survive the night.

The second threat was grain.  I had a lot of whole corn and high protein pellets on the farm to feed the 4,000 pigeons.  There were also various grain-based feeds for the cows, sheep, pigs and horses.  If these lambs got into any of this feed their behavior was predictable—they’d gobble up too much for their digestive systems to handle and they’d die.  I’d find them with their legs sticking in the air.

Sheep eat grain with a kind of desperate ecstasy.  I know this, because we fed it to them regularly.  A few cups per day.  If you ask a young sheep what he’d wish for if he could have anything, he’d ask for a pile of grain, and, the next time you saw him, he’d be on his back and his tongue would be blue.

When the Bible refers to people as sheep, don’t picture the white fluffy ones you see in all the Sunday school books.  Picture one that spends all day striving for the glorious freedom beyond the fence.

 

Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.  But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests, without the transcendent, we may nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.  The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.  The collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.  In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and the zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.  The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.  The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents buffered selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth-century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.  After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.  Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.  Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.  Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2

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Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2013 at 4:53 am

Zombie - hobbesZombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check.  I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me.  Without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.  This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.  The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The zombies usher in a world where this third group invokes their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.  The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives.  Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out,  “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).  But zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent.  Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures.  Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23). At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything.  Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.  According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment.  Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust).  Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).  In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.  In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality.  We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad.  But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others.  This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.  The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way.  Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.  The line between monster and human is blurred.

Next zombie post: Zombies and the Crisis of the Modern Identity

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