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Praise Songs: Pronouns

In Rants on June 9, 2013 at 4:09 am

Praise 1Should we ban the use of he pronouns “you,” “I” and “me” in our praise and worship songs?

Of course not, but the songs we sing on Sunday are full of them and they shouldn’t be.  They reveal how we understand God and others and the world, but they also reinforce the self-centeredness that comes so naturally to us.  Rather than lead me into a reality where I am not the centre of the universe, many songs carry the same message as television commercials.

Let’s start with “you.”   There is no inherent problem with this word.  But there is something we’ve lost along with the word “Thou.”  It’s not really the word “you” that’s the issue, but a tone of familiarity and intimacy that I am wondering about.  I think some of our songs consistently reflect an intimacy which might be going a little too far down the continuum, toward the “Jesus is my girlfriend” extreme.  On one level, the intimacy is appropriate because the Holy Spirit is within us.  But we can’t lose light of the fact that we are also addressing the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe.

As for “I” and “me”–one of the main idols in our culture is individualism and we are hardly aware of our ritualized devotion to this false god.  In the West, everything comes to us through the filter of individualism.  It would be a very good idea for every Christian to become very intimate friends with someone from a non-individualistic culture (traditional African and Middle Eastern perhaps) and listen very carefully to how they understand the Bible.

I am barely aware of my own devotion to the god of individualism.  But I catch a glimpse of it in many praise and worship songs.

Worship should be God focused, so it follows that worship songs ought to be focused on God and not on me.  So then the question is, how often ought we see the pronouns “me” and “I” in song set?   Notice that even if I am singing a line that says, “I love Jesus,” I am still singing about myself, or more accurately, my feelings.

Keith & Kristyn Getty & Stuart Townend wrote a song called “Come People of the Risen King” which is sung as a people of God, rather than a person of God.

Come, people of the Risen King,

Who delight to bring Him praise;

Come all and tune your hearts to sing

To the Morning Star of grace.

From the shifting shadows of the earth

We will lift our eyes to Him,

Where steady arms of mercy reach

To gather children in.

 REFRAIN

Rejoice, Rejoice! Let every tongue rejoice!

One heart, one voice; O Church of Christ, rejoice!

Come, those whose joy is morning sun,

And those weeping through the night;

Come, those who tell of battles won,

And those struggling in the fight.

For His perfect love will never change,

And His mercies never cease,

But follow us through all our days

With the certain hope of peace.

Come, young and old from every land –

Men and women of the faith;

Come, those with full or empty hands –

Find the riches of His grace.

Over all the world, His people sing –

Shore to shore we hear them call

The Truth that cries through every age:

“Our God is all in all”!

This is not to say that there is no room for a song that communicates a personal response  to God.  Of course there is.  Nor am I suggesting that we can’t sing songs that use the words “me” or “I.”

I am suggesting that when we are selecting songs to sing in collective worship, we need to primarily focus on God and not ourselves or our feelings toward him.  This shift in focus will be reflected in the pronouns.

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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