I was in a worship setting a few weeks ago and we sang a few songs that I was quite familiar with. Songs we’ve sung enough for me to start thinking about the lyrics. They were perfectly fine, but there wasn’t much there to consider–neither my mind nor my imagination was not stimulated.
What was going on? The words were fine, the music was fine. Then I realized what the problem was. All the songs in the set were about abstract ideas.
The lyrics of a lot of our praise and worship songs are abstract. They are about grace and freedom and fear and sin and victory and you get the picture. These are really, really good things to sing about, but we need to think about them more concretely.
Let me be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with songs about abstract ideas. Psalm 145, a psalm of praise, is mostly abstract. If David can write a song like this, so can you. But a steady diet of this type of song is a problem–and we sing a lot of them.
We need also to sing songs that are concrete. In Psalm 98 we find harps and trumpets, the sounds of singing, ram’s horns, and geographic features: the sea, rivers, and mountains. In Psalm 103, we have “diseases,” “the pit,” “eagles,” “the east,” “the west,” “father,” “children,” “dust,” “grass,” “flowers,” “wind,” “children’s children,” “angels” and “servants.”
We interact with the world of concrete things with our bodies. Our songs, too, will engage ideas through our imaginative connections with our bodies.
The definition of imagery that my students often recite is, “When the poem evokes one of the five senses.” This is a good definition, but it is limited because it doesn’t take into account the evocation of other physical experiences, such as nausea or cramps, that aren’t one of the five.
The word imagery is linked to imagination. When Frost writes, “The woods are lovely dark and deep,” we do not see the woods with our physical eyes, we see them with the eyes of our imagination. We have a whole body in our imagination that can experience all sorts of physical sensations. This is imagery.
Imagery is a common literary device. It’s so common because writers have long realized that we experience the world, first and foremost, through our bodies.
Poets use imagery to create vivid and realistic experiences in our imagination. To illustrate, this is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Whose woods these are I think I know.His house is in the village though;He will not see me stopping hereTo watch his woods fill up with snow.My little horse must think it queerTo stop without a farmhouse nearBetween the woods and frozen lakeThe darkest evening of the year.He gives his harness bells a shakeTo ask if there is some mistake.The only other sound’s the sweepOf easy wind and downy flake.The woods are lovely, dark and deep,But I have promises to keep,And miles to go before I sleep,And miles to go before I sleep.
There is so much to say about this poem, but we will look at just a few lines. In the last line of the first stanza we watch, though the eyes of the speaker, the “woods fill up with snow.” This short phrase communicates, without explicitly saying it, exactly the type of snowfall we are imaginatively experiencing. For the woods to “fill up,” the snow is falling straight down and it’s heavy–you know, those big fluffy flakes that fall slowly when there is no wind. All this meaning is packed into a few short words–meaning is beyond the words, so to speak because it’s all happening in our imagination.
To contrast the peaceful picture before us, the sound of the harness bells come from the impatient horse who doesn’t have any conception of a beauty that would stop a journey home to hay and oats. The three “k” sounds in, “He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake,” reinforce, though sound, the contrast of the jarring bells with the soft muffled sounds of the snowy surroundings; “The only other sound’s the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake.” Our imaginations are guided by the poet to a very specific, concrete experience.
Dark and deep woods might feel creepy, but for the word “lovely.” With this word, the image that is evoked is one of beautiful peacefulness. Taken together, readers imaginatively experience this very particular, beautiful and peaceful setting.
We have physical bodies and we are surrounded by physical things. It makes sense that our poetry would use imagery in order to communicate experience. Are there physical experiences that writers of praise music might wish to evoke in order to lead us into worship?
Imagery gives us concrete experience. Our understanding of abstract ideas comes to us through physical things as well. A good example comes from the chorus of “Great Are You Lord.”
The Concrete Chorus of “Great Are You Lord”
One of the reasons I like “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters is because it is so concrete–embodied even. Most of the verses are fairly abstract, praising God for giving life and being love, and bringing light to the darkness. But the chorus and the bridge bring our physical bodies into the song.
Chorus:It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You onlyBridge:And all the earth will shout Your praise
Our hearts will cry, these bones will sing
Great are You, Lord
While we sing the song, we confess that the air in our lungs, the one we just inhaled a moment before, is a gift from Him. And we use that very air to praise him. I think that’s amazing. If you think about it for a second, we owe him our very breath. And what else can we do in response to this realization but use that gift in worship? This little line is incredible. In the very act of singing, we are doing what we are singing about. And it’s so biological.
Isn’t this breath-to-praise pattern part our everyday worship? Any and every gift from God can be just as seamlessly turned into praise of the giver. This is what holistic worship is. We worship God with our all the gifts he’s given us. Everything from the most basic breath, to our time, money, talents and passions, are turned into praise in the same seamless beauty in which we breathe and sing.
Wow! When this dawns on you, it changes the way you sing the song. It’s an idea that moves from the body, through the imagination to the mind and it evokes the emotion of gratitude and the desire to worship. That’s what I’m talking about–holistic worship. That’s what I am advocating for all songs that we sing in church.
The bridge is just as biological, and just as spiritually profound. It states that “All the earth will sing your praise.” The earth is that physical reality in which we live and it praises God in all its physicality. What would be more natural, than the crown of creation joining the terrestrial chorus in praise of our creator? But it’s not our voices this time, nor our feelings or thoughts. It’s not even our souls or spirits. In league with the rest of the material world, our very bones–the core of our physical being, will sing praise. This is profound in every sense of the term.
Again, the repeated singing of these lines brings you deeper into worship as the profundity of this idea sinks into our understanding.
Our whole life is about interaction with the world, both spiritually and physically. To worship with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body would naturally involve songs about abstract ideas of salvation, accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, the cross, bread and wine, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, rain snow, and . . . a horse and bridle?
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