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Praise Songs: Sound

In Rants on June 2, 2013 at 1:20 am

Praise 1I am totally cheating on this one.  I’m using a song that will not likely be sung in church.

But I just have to share Josh Garrels with anyone who will listen.  His music is incredible.  You don’t need to be a Christian to think so.  He’s just good and he writes what is true, and it’s beautiful.

Praise and worship songs usually get the sound right, at least in the general sense.  Probably without really thinking about it–songs with happy words are usually happy.

But poets, and by this I also mean songwriters, can manage this on a line by line level.  Josh Garrels frequently does.  Listen to this song and attend to where the music changes slightly.  The words and the music work together.  This is no accident.

 Slip Away

 

 Hold on, before I slip away

 The flames gone, dark I am afraid

 How strong, is flesh and blood

 I cannot, can take back what I’ve done

 To you, my sweetest friend

 I betrayed you, I walked away again

 Now all that’s left, is what might have been

 Please forgive me, before we reach the end

Hold on, before I slip away

 My loves gone cold, I’ve gone astray

 How strong, is flesh and blood

 I cannot take back what I’ve done

I find the correspondence of sound to sense in the poetry of this song greatly enhances the experience of it as a whole.  This correspondence could also significantly contribute to the corporate worship experience.  Some sounds suggest strength, others suggest sadness.  What sounds suggest joy?  What might happen to the musical line when singing about regret?

Again, if the sound doesn’t work with what the words say, that’s not so bad, but when the sound of the song contradict the sense, it’s a bad song.  Unless of course the writer is being ironic.  Are there ANY ironic praise and worship songs? Hmmm….

More Josh Garrels here.

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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: 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

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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