Year: 2018 (Page 1 of 4)

The Perpetual Victim: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”

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Everybody whines and complains on occasion.  It can be how we process disappointment.  Some, for one reason or another, whine and complain all the time.  This can be a defense mechanism; “If life is going to suck anyway, I might as well anticipate the disappointment.”

In “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor describes the perpetual victim and provides the antidote to this poisonous view of oneself.

The Perpetual Victim

Mrs. May, protagonist of “Greenleaf,” declares, “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”

Mrs. may owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends,

“Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.”

No wonder she considers herself a victim, if she thinks weather and soil are her antagonists.  She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries; they are gifts.   And so is the help against which she rails—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.”  Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm.  Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is.

This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted.  For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality.  Mr. Greenleaf likely ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Mrs. May frequently speaks of how hard she works.  She believes she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” and that “before any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t do a stitch of actual work through the whole course of the narrative.  Conversely, Mr. Greenleaf is always occupied with farming tasks.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf.  But she doesn’t see any of it.  She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she has received.

Mrs. May’s Faith

Two quotes will suffice to give us the state of Mrs. May’s faith:

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

“She thought the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”

Symbolism

Mrs. May seeks no relationship with God and her rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols.

A stray bull has arrived on her place.  In the opening scene, he is compared to a Greek God, complete with a wreath upon his head.  He stands beneath her window like a bovine Romeo.  Not only is this an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, it is also a reference to Zeus who, in the form of a bull, rapes Europa.  When the wreath “slipped down to the base of his horns . . .  it looked like a menacing prickly crown.”  The bull has become a symbol of Christ.  Mrs. May’s view of this transcendent visitor is far more terrestrial–“an uncouth country suitor.”  As a symbol of Jesus, the bull is persistent in his pursuit of Mrs. May.  She consistently tries to get rid of him.

Another symbol in the story is the sun.  Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.”  The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property.  In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.”  Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The symbolism of the bull and the sun as two figures of the Trinity some together in description of Mrs. May’s view out her window.

The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them.

The “shadow” is the bull, a manifestation of the sun on this side of the impenetrable trees.  Mrs. May lives in rejection of God and all his gifts.  She believes herself to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

Lillies of the Field

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” onto the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

It is not accident that both Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf each have two sons.  In this way O’Connor can compare the generational affect on rejection and acceptance of Grace.  The May boys are as unhappy and resentful as their mother.  The Greenleaf boys are flourishing.

It is because they are flourishing that Mrs. May resents the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28,

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

Victimhood and Gratitude

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

O’Connor’s point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment.  Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, while lecturing Mr. Greenleaf on the supposed ingratitude of his sons, she says, “Some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”  She doesn’t know that she’s speaking only of herself.

The cure for Mrs. May’s form of perpetual victimhood is gratitude.  Unfortunately for her, Mrs. May’s ingratitude and victimhood is terminal.  She never receives the cure, although in the moments before her death, she does see what she’s been missing her entire life.

She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

As she dies in the unbreakable embrace of the bull’s horns, she sees the insignificance of the tree-barrier that separated her kingdom from God’s.

A Walking Dead Zombie Christmas Message

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

We’ve seen nine seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.  The remaining children are still alive.

At the end of the mid-season finale of the 8th season AMC’s The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes reveals that he’s been bitten.  Fans were upset. 50,000 fans signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from the show. He was removed.

Why were they so upset?

I think it’s because children, Rick’s children, Carl and Judith, and Maggie’s child, unborn at the time, mean something. They are a glimmer of future hope in a very dark world. Perhaps they represent our hope as well, because, for some of us, the real world is very dark as well.

In season 9, Henry is spared and Carol burns a group of former Saviours alive to protect him.  It’s a trade we all accept.  Why?

Besides innocence, children represent hope.  And to kill a child is to kill hope.  To save a child is to preserve hope.

AMC's The Walking Dead brings Christmas Hope. Click To Tweet

The thing is, we shouldn’t be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes. Gimple, or any loss of a child in suture seasons because this is what  zombie storytellers always do–they give us characters that embody things that we value and then the kill them.

Night of the Living Dead

This goes all the way back to Night of the Living Dead in which most of the traditional values are murdered.

  • Barbara embodies devotion–dead.
  • Johnny, cynicism of every kind–dead.
  • Ben, the hero–dead.
  • Tom and Judy, romantic love–dead and dead.
  • The Coopers, the nuclear family–dead, dead and dead.  This, of course, includes little Karen, representative of innocence, who slays her mother with a cement trowel.

Zombies Are Trying to Tell Us Something

If you are watching a show about zombies, get ready for the things you hold dear, and the characters who represent them, to snuff it.Click To Tweet

Zombie narratives force us to face the contradictions between what we profess and what we actually believe. It’s why monsters appear, and why the zombies have been so popular for the last fifty years.

On the one hand, we profess that there is no God, no universal truth, no ultimate meaning in life.  In our culture, individuals get to make these things up for themselves.

On the other hand, we believe that families and promises and honesty and courage and fair play matter. We live and act as if things like these are universal and objective.  We believe it’s wrong to deny someone their rights.  We believe that it’s wrong to exploit the weak. That it’s wrong to use women for sex against their will. We believe it’s wrong to kill and eat other people. We believe these things to be universally wrong.  We profess that life has no universal meaning, but we love the parts in TWD where the characters talk of the “something else” that we are fighting for that goes beyond survival.

Zombie narratives don’t let us get away with these inconsistencies.

Much of what Carl did in the final episode of Season 8 was to make his life have some meaning before he died–I can’t recall exactly, but I think his last words included, “I did this” as he pointed to all the people he safely evacuated from exploding Alexandria.

Does Carl’s life have meaning? Does his death?  Yes or No?  We can’t have it both ways.

His future is now certain–he will either be dead or he will be lurching-dead–that’s it.  In the fictive world of The Walking Dead, millions have already met one of these two ends.

But the central question to zombie narratives is, if there is no transcendent meaning, is our existence any more meaningful than a zombie? Death is certainly at the end.  Perhaps we can say, “I did this.”  Is this adequate?  Is this all there is?

Don’t get mad at Gimple.  This is all our idea.

Unless, of course, there is a transcendent God in whom Truth and Meaning dwell–who Loves the world so much that he has come to us as a baby, to live among us to show us the way out of zombieland.

Merry Christmas

The Meaning of Zombies

If you are interested, here is the first post of a series about the meaning of zombies: Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

The Liturgy of Loud

Bru-nO / Pixabay

Why is the music so loud?

Before we go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not talking about loud music, because I don’t mind loud music.   I’m talking about bass levels that evoke the adjective “ridiculous” from someone who doesn’t mind loud music.  Levels that make me wonder if there is some technical malfunction because there’s no way this could be intentional.

I spoke with some sound engineers and musicians from various churches and I asked them why the loud bass mix.  Here are the answers I received:

“It Isn’t Loud”

Most were quick to assure me that the music wasn’t too loud from the perspective of safety, pointing out there is little danger of hearing damage at the volumes of even the loudest worship bands.  I told them that I wasn’t worried about my hearing or my cholesterol or my blood pressure.  Other concerns were in play.

I explained that it wasn’t the volume.  It was the bass–the bass guitar and the bass drum were disproportionately high.  I explained that the bass hum dug through my ears into the back of my jaw, that my shirt was vibrating against my body and that I worried that my buttons would vibrate open.  I explained that sometimes I had to stop singing to check if my heart was in atrial fibrillation, that I was uncomfortable with feeling my esophagus vibrating and feeling ripples in my stomach acids.  I explained that I think it is too loud because my bowels had been liquified.  They nodded–they knew what I was talking about.  They told me it wasn’t a mistake.

“We Love it Loud”

Who is the “we” of, “We love it loud”?  Christendom?  Is it everyone but me? True Christians?  The worship team?

I pressed one song leader and he said, “Young people prefer the high bass mix.”

I have been to places where young people listen to music and dance.  They do love it da bass.  I usually leave.  Is this what is expected of me on Sunday mornings.

The singing we do in church is corporate worship.  A diverse body of believers worships God with our voices.  We do so in cultural ways.  We used to have one culture, but about a hundred years ago, youth culture began to diverge from that of older generations.  So we now have two cultures–what does culturally expressed corporate worship look like when we have two distinct cultures?

What does culturally expressed corporate worship look like when we have two distinct cultures?Click To Tweet

Do we go with the majority?  Do we go with a mix?  Do we go with a homogenization?  Do we go with one of the subgroups and the other can lump it?

This is serious stuff and none of these options are very good.  It seems to me the last one is the worst.  I don’t think anyone has ever considered exclusively singing songs like “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,”  or bringing back the pipe organ.  These are fine for their subgroup, but a minority ought not to dictate how the whole church worships.  So why does it seem obvious that we need to crank up the volume and bass levels because “we” like it that loud?

I’m thankful that I attend a church that doesn’t crank up the bass every Sunday.

“People are Less Self-Conscious if It’s Loud”

Another answer to my question, “Why so loud?” was that people sing better when it’s loud because they feel less self-conscious.

This might be so, but how do you know?

Are they really less self-conscious if the music is still loud, but the bass is more balanced?

When I look around there are a lot of people singing enthusiastically, but these people sing enthusiastically whatever the volume or mix.  I also see people not singing at all, but these folks don’t sing even when it’s loud.  I know of at least one person that has stopped singing because he’s focused on his shirt buttons and his pulse.  If there is one, perhaps there are others who find that the mix is getting in the way of worship.  And again, I am not opposed to loud music.  If you want to support tentative singers with loud music, you have my blessing. I am questioning the ridiculous.

The Liturgy of Loud

Corporate singing is a liturgical element of our worship services.  As with all liturgical elements, it is what we learn in the repetition that makes rituals so powerful.  What we learn isn’t just in our heads, it’s deeper than that–we learn it in our bones.  Let’s look at what we learn through the singing of songs when we can consistently hear the voices of the worshipers.

  1. We learn that we have an individual voice that is important in worship.
  2. We learn that our imperfect individual voice blends with other voices to create something beautiful–the gift of worship to our Lord.
  3. We learn that worship involves active participation.

What do we learn from a very loud praise band with a high-bass mix?

  1. I learn that my individual voice is unimportant.  When I cannot hear my own voice, we are ritually practicing the insignificance of the individual worshiper.
  2. We learn that the voices of the corporate body are also unimportant.  When we can’t hear, we are ritually reinforcing the negation of Christian unity and community.  If that sounds too strong, well then, we are at least missing the opportunity to ritually reinforce the importance of Christian unity and community.  One of the greatest joys I derive from corporate singing is the sense of “the throng of worshipers.”  It starts with hearing my wife singing with me, and then the sound of one or two voices behind us, and then I become aware of my place within a choir of hundreds of voices coming together in the praise of our Lord.  It is a liturgy of unity.  Sometimes, I cannot hear my own voice, let alone the strong voice of my wife’s strong alto 10 inches from my ear.  When the mix and volume obliterate the sounds of all these voices we are ritually negating the throng.
  3. With the elimination of the sound of other voices, worship becomes highly individual.  Perhaps this is why the same bass mix we are using in worship contexts is so popular in rave parties and dance clubs.  Our culture is hyper-individualistic, so it makes sense that our music would reduce a collective experience to individual physical sensations.  Marshall McLuhan was right when she said that the media is the message.  What message is the media of rave/club music communicating?  Do we want to communicate this message in Christian corporate worship?
  4. In Modern churches, worship can easily become passive.  Part of this is because Modern worship resembles a secular concert, where our passivity is expected.  The other part is that I don’t have a role to play in worship if I have no voice and can hear no others.  Sure, I can worship individually, but that would be counter to the purposes of corporate worship.

All rituals, including those in church on Sunday, shape our identity as a people.  Therefore, corporate worship should be designed to shape us into the people of God as active worshipers.  (Importantly, we ought not to mistake movement with active worship.)

When the mix and volume of the praise band obliterate the sounds of human voices we are ritually negating the worshiper in corporate worship.Click To Tweet
Perhaps the most important things about corporate worship is placing your voice among those of others. High bass and volumes remove the corporate from corporate worship; I can't hear anyone else. Worship is reduced to an Individual experience.Click To Tweet

 Dynamics and Earplugs

There are two arguments behind which advocates of a ridiculously loud and high bass mix advocates hide.

  1.  Music needs a variety of dynamic levels.  This is absolutely true.  But one of them need not be absurdly loud.   The first verse is usually fine because it’s just a soloist and an accompanying acoustic guitar and/or piano–we can hear ourselves and each other.  The second verse builds.  We have left corporate worship; natural human voices have been stifled.  Chorus–now comes the bass, even the words from the amplified voices are incoherent.  If we ever hear each other again, it’s on one of the repetitions of the bridge. 
    Is it still corporate worship if I've only heard the voices of other people during one verse of the song?Click To Tweet
  2. Ear plugs are a courtesy provided for those who find the volumes discomfiting.   This is a nice gesture, but misplaced.  First, the earplugs do nothing to block out the discomfort created by the high bass-mix.  Second, earplugs do the same thing as the loud music does–they block out the voiced of other worshipers.  The take the corporate out of corporate worship.

“The Bible Says It Should Be Loud”

Another answer to my question is that the Bible mandates the music should be loud.

One verse that is cited to support this assertion is Psalm 150:5.

“Praise him with loud crashing cymbals!”

Another, is 1 Chronicles 15 where David commands the people to play loudly on musical instruments, which they did.  I certainly agree that our corporate worship won’t always be solemn or contemplative; much of it should be joyful and exuberant and some of it will be loud.  It is appropriate to respond to God’s grace with enthusiasm.

Revelation 19:1 tells of the great multitude in heaven is crying out,

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God!”

There is no mention of a musical accompaniment here. This verse may suggest that we turn down the bass;  the very fact that the words sung by the heavenly host are recorded in the rest of Revelation 19 indicates that they were heard and understood, despite the accompaniment, if there was any at all.

I’m no theologian, but I think that these verses have very little to do with volume, but are reflective of an attitude of worship.  It is a bit of a hermeneutical stretch to suggest that they indicate a Biblical mandate that the electronically amplified instruments in enclosed spaces must approach 90dBA.

It strikes me that the Biblical defense of the bass mix is an attempt to justify one’s musical tastes with isolated texts.

“You’re Just an Old Fuddy-Duddy”

In my interviews with worship leaders and sound engineers, nobody told me that I was just an old fuddy-duddy.  But since they were all 25 years younger than me, I wonder if they were thinking it.

Maybe I am a fuddy-duddy. When it’s too loud, I am agitated and lead away from worship into irritation.  But even if I am the only one who feels that excessively loud and bassy worship music is irritating, we should evaluate the hidden consequences of the Liturgy of the Loud.

Perhaps the most important things about corporate worship is placing your voice among those of others. High bass and volumes remove the corporate from corporate worship; I can't hear anyone else. Worship is reduced to an Individual experience.Click To Tweet

Further reading: Here is the first in a series called “The Poetry of Worship” 

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Songs that are written just to teach a moral lesson or some theological principle are not very good songs.  Written just for the head, such songs are more like a sermon or a lecture.

Because our culture is no longer a thinking culture, we don’t have too many didactic songs turning up in our worship sets.  Our culture is a feeling culture;  many of our songs are written for the heart.  At their worst, they are meant to manufacture worshipful feelings, and little else–this is sentimental worship.

Sentimental worship is no better than intellectual worship because it engages only a part of the worshiper.Click To Tweet

Holistic Worship

Human beings are complex creatures.  According to Jesus, we are heart, soul, mind, and body (Mark 12:30).  But these aspects are not distinct.  They are involved in everything we do in life–in the meals we eat with family, in conversations with friends over coffee, when we visit a museum or attend a concert.

Each of these aspects can be evoked in our imagination.  I can imagine being thirsty.  I can imagine frustration.  I can imagine temptation.  Poetry can evoke these in our imagination as it engages our hearts and our souls and our minds and our bodies.

Our experiences are richer if they involve our emotions and spirit and intellect and body.  The most meaningful worship of the Lord our God, will be the worship of the whole engaged worshiper.

Holistic worship should be the ideal for which we aim.  It is not enough to say that the singing will be emotional, the sacraments and offering will be physical, and the sermon will be intellectual.  For the most meaningful worship, each element will seek to engage more of the aspects of the worshiper, more significantly.

Bad poetry does not deliver the experience.  If it is didactic when it delivers only an idea.  When it goes directly for the emotion, it is sentimental.

Sentimental Worship

Sentimentality is indulging in emotion for emotion’s sake.  It seeks to stimulate the emotions directly, rather than through experience.

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. — Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde talks about the cost of emotions–emotions are paid for through an experience.  We feel grateful when given a gift.  We feel sad when someone we love is sick.  In these instances, a price is paid for the emotion.

I chose the picture at the top of this post because it is a beautiful example of sentimentalism.  Anyone who has experienced actual love, knows its cost.  The whole hand-heart thing can create a flutter in the chest (when it doesn’t evoke nausea).  I understand this hand gesture to mean, “Here, have some of my love,” or “Loving this!”  But it’s cheap.  It cost nothing to give it.  It costs nothing to receive it.

We obviously want to avoid singing praise and worship songs that are the equivalent of the hand-heart gesture. Click To Tweet

The poet/songwriter seeks to communicate experience through their words.  With physical, intellectual and emotional dimensions, experiences are holistic.  While we sing, the emotion will be a by-product of this experience.  A sentimental song will seek to evoke the emotion, by-passing the experience.

With some praise and worship songs, the emotion, not the experience, is the goal.  The music builds, the instruments blend with soaring voices, the lyrics repeat and the melody rises in a perfectly orchestrated conquest of our emotions.

How can we avoid such sentimentalism?  By offering worshipers a holistic experience.  Our songs will certainly engage the emotions, but they ought not to leave the mind, spirit, and body in the foyer.

Emotions should not be the object of sentimental worship. Emotions should be a by-product of holistic worship. Click To Tweet

7 Ways to Avoid Sentimentalism in (the Singing Part) of Worship

  1. Be very selective when it comes to lyrics.  Words are important.  They can bring the heart, soul, mind, and body into worship through significant experience in the imagination.
  2. Make sure the song is unified around a specific purpose.  When it is, our heart, mind, and body are directed to a particular experience.  Without unity, we begin to ask questions, not the kind that leads to deeper worship, but the kind that draws one out of worship.
  3. Fill out music sets with songs that are more concrete.  This is where the body comes in.  Experience is made up of physical interactions, therefore, songs with physicality will engage the imagination.
  4. Use metaphor effectively.  Effectively used metaphors can engage our spirits as we can catch glimpses of higher things.
  5. Use symbolism.  In symbols, the spiritual indwells the material.  It is here where we might encounter the transcendent.
  6. We must avoid Cliché — a cliché is a phrase we’ve heard so often that it no longer has meaning.  We don’t want meaningless lyrics.  Only a few of the big-name writers are letting clichés slip into their lyrics, but many amateur writers have a real problem here.
  7. We must avoid nonsensical phrases.  I recently came across the phrase, “release the chains.”  Instead of experiencing gratitude for the unearned freedom I had in Christ, I was thinking of the plight of oppressed chains.  Engaged minds experiencing the words that we sing.  These words must make sense.  If they don’t, we are thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.”
7 ways to avoid sentimentalism in worship.Click To Tweet

The Modern church was guilty of attending too much to the desires of the mind.  In an attempt to right this imbalance, churches (indeed our whole culture) are now creating a space for feelings in the songs we sing.   However, the pendulum has swung too far.  Balance can only be achieved if we appreciate holistic worship.

It doesn’t do for us to fragment the worship, any more than it does to fragment the worshiper.   Holistic worship does not consist of intellectual parts, the sermon; emotional parts, the singing; and physical parts, the offering and sacraments.  Consider all parts of the worship service holistically.  A preacher thinks his sermon a failure when it touches only the head of the hearer.  So too the worship leader dispairs when the singing falls only on the hearts of the singers.

I hope that this series helps songwriters write more powerful lyrics and helps those who select the songs for singing in church services to choose the good ones.  By signing only good songs, more good songs will be produced.

My ultimate hope is that the body of Christ would be edified as we bring the best of our flock, the sacrifice of our praise, to the altar before our Saviour and Lord.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

Related: Why Is the Praise Band so Loud? (it shouldn’t be)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Symbol Basics

Symbols are objects, actions, or persons that evoke meanings beyond their literal presence.  They are literal, but they more than literal as well.

Where a long explanation might satisfy the mind, poets use symbols because they can evoke complex ideas in the imagination without all the explanation, which would be inadequate anyway.  Sometimes a symbol carries a single meaning. but they can also signify many things.

There are conventional symbols–we all know that the red rose is a symbol of romantic love and that a wedding ring is a symbol of faithfulness and unity.  But sometimes symbols are contextual.  The One Ring is a complex symbol found in the context of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Bible is full of symbols.  Joseph’s coat was a literal coat, but it was much more than that–it symbolized his father’s preferment.  The Hebrews regularly piled stones up to commemorate significant events, like the crossing of the Jordan River.  Elisha wanted Elijah’s cloak, not because he was cold, but because of what it symbolized.

One of the most significant symbols in Christianity is the bread and the wine of Communion.

“Behold The Lamb”

“Behold the Lamb” by Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend makes more use of symbolism than do many other Communion songs.   Here is one verse of this song:

Verse 2
The body of our Saviour Jesus Christ
Torn for you eat and remember
The wounds that heal the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one
So we share in this Bread of Life
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King

The bread in communion is symbolic.  It is literal bread (or wafers, or crackers, or gluten-free Rice Chex), but it is more.  Symbolically it is the body of Jesus that was, in the words of the song, “torn.”  The literal “wounds” and actual “death,” symbolically “heal” and “bring us life” respectively.  The sharing of bread and wine is a symbolic reflection of  “the bonds of love” that unite us in Christ’s “sacrifice.”

Compressed into Symbol

The cool thing about symbols is that meaning is compressed into them and then it expands out from them.

All kinds of meanings are crammed into the object, action, or person.  Into the communion symbols, all the meanings of Christ’s Crucifixion are compressed into the bread and wine.

Symbols are packed so full. they explode by way of the worshipers' experience. Singing symbols can lead us into powerful and transforming worship experiences.Click To Tweet

Jesus begins the process when he says, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.”   He speaks of his body being “broken” and his blood “poured out.”  The events that follow these statements, called The Passion of Christ, make symbolic meaning of bread and wine.  This is a partial list of all that is compressed into the Communion elements:

  • Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
  • Judas’ betrayal
  • The scourging and crown of thorns
  • The struggle toward Golgotha
  • The nails in his hands and feet
  • The mockery of the onlookers
  • The words he spoke from the cross
  • The spear in his side

The literal objects of bread and wine contain all this and more.  And then all this compacted meaning expands.

Expanded by Experience

The communion symbols are packed with meaning, and, simultaneously, they are expanded by the personal experience that every worshiper brings to the Lord’s table.

  • We know that, had we been there, we might have been numbered among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21).
  • We know that, by word or deed or omission of word or deed, we have said, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72).
  • We know the place from which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46).
  • We have prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke: 23:42).
  • We desperately want to hear the words, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke:23:43).

The action of compression and expansion that comes with symbols can be a very powerful experience.

Singing Symbols

This compression and expansion occur whenever we sing symbols.

When we sing symbols, it’s obviously not just our emotions that are engaged, nor even our minds–our imaginations enter into the act of worship.

We don’t sing symbols very often.  So I don’t have another, non-Communion example of effective use of symbol in a praise and worship song, So I’ll provide another example of the use of symbol, let us turn to one stanza from Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.”

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The speaker’s son is “blue-eyed” which symbolically suggests innocence.

In line 5, the son has “Heard one person starve” but “many people laughing.”  What or whom is compressed into the symbolic “one person” who starved?  Into the symbolic “many people laughin'”?  How is this symbol is expanded into your experience?

In line 6 we find “a poet,” often a symbol of someone with the ability to see what others cannot.  He is dead.

Think about that clown in line 7.  What does the clown represent?  What is significant about his being alone.  In an alley.  Crying?

This rain is not hard just in the literal sense.

Compression and expansion.

With almost a symbol per line, no one can hear this song the same way each time they listen to it.

I’m not suggesting this density of symbolism in all of our praise and worship songs, but you can see how even one can add powerfully to a song.  Symbolism is a powerful, and underutilized tool in popular, contemporary praise and worship music.

It is my hope that some future songwriters would take on the challenge and add symbolism to their writing toolbox.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Music has sound, but so do lyrics.

Yes, even without music, the words themselves have sound.

And the sound of the words can carry meaning.

Onomatopoeia

One way that words have sound is called onomatopoeia.  This, as you probably remember, is when the word sounds like what it means.  Words like crash, crackle, and smack are examples of onomatopoeia.

But onomatopoeia can be way cooler.  Here’s a line from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

In this case, the sounds of the whole line echo what is being described.  Read it out loud a few times.  Do you hear the hum and buzz of the bugs on the quiet evening air?  The sounds and the combination of sounds make the sound of those kinds of evenings.

Music has sound, but so do lyrics. Yes, even without music, words have sound. And the sound of the words can carry meaning.Click To Tweet

But this is only the beginning–the sounds of words and lines of verse can be even more suggestive.

Phonetic Intensives

Phonetic intensives are onomatopoeia on steroids.

Here are examples of what Arp and Johnson call phonetic intensives (excerpted from Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Eighth Ed.)

  • the sound fl often suggests moving light, as in “flame,” “flare,” “flash,” “flicker”
  • gl often suggests unmoving light: “glare,” “glow,” “gleam,” “glisten”
  • sl is often associated with wetness: “slippery,” “slick,” “slide,” “slime,” “slushy”
  • st often suggests strength: “staunch,” stalwart,” “sturdy,” “stable,” “stern,”
  • short i often indicates smallness: “inch,” “imp,” “thin,” “little,” “bit,” “kid,”
  • the tt in the middle of a word often suggests sudden movement, as in “spatter,” “scatter,” “shatter,” “rattle,” “clatter,” “batter”

This list is just the beginning of the incredible sound resources that are available to the poet to add meaning through the sound of words.  You don’t have to memorize this list in order to write poetry.  For one thing, the list is incomplete.  The other reason is that you already know it.  We all do.  This isn’t stuff that a bunch of poetry nerds invented.  They discovered it–it’s in our language.  We just don’t think about it.  Poets think about it.  Good songwriters are poets.  Good songwriters will consider how their lyrics sound.

We all know that sounds have meaning; we just don't think about it. Poets think about it. Good songwriters are poets. Good songwriters think about how their lyrics sound.Click To Tweet

If you want to communicate a peaceful beauty, don’t use too many r or k or t sounds because these sounds are not peaceful or beautiful.  If you want the worshipers to feel happy don’t use words with long vowels like “slow,” “deep,” “moon.”  These sounds create a whole different mood.

Read the lines of your songs out loud and listen to them.  Use your ears and feel them coming off of your lips–are the sounds of the words in combination consistent with what you are trying to communicate?  They don’t have to directly line up all of the time, buy the sounds certainly shouldn’t work contrary to your purposes.

Rhyme

I remember thinking it was funny that “love” was rhymed with “prove” in Joy to the World.  I used to sing, “And wonders of his lūve” to make my brother laugh.  He always did.

John Stackhouse wrote a blog post some time ago in which he criticized Chris Tomlin’s lyrics, including his use of rhyme, or lack thereof.

The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes.

Perhaps it is true that Tomlin’s rhymes are not as thoughtful as they should be, but the fact that they don’t rhyme perfectly is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Perfect rhymes, that is, rhymes that repeat the final vowel and consonant sound exactly, can suggest things like innocence, stability, simplicity, certainty,  and order.  Imperfect rhymes, also called slant rhymes, can suggest the opposite.  If you are writing a song of confession, slant rhymes might be just what you want.  What song are you writing?  How can you use rhyme to reinforce the meaning?

Songs that rhyme suggests an order is reflective of the Christian worldview--indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place. That despite seeming chaos, God is in control.Click To Tweet

I like rhymes, not just because I am a Classicist, but because of what they suggest about the world.  Songs that rhyme suggests a pattern of order and control–a stability and predictability.  This order can be reflective of the Christian view of reality–indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place.  We are acknowledging and finding comfort in God’s Providence.  The order suggested by rhymes, despite the seeming chaos that surrounds us, suggest that God is in control.

Common Rhyming Problems

Don't use these rhymes in your worship songs: love/above, jewel/fool, feet/seas, out/out, name/fame, up/cupClick To Tweet

There is such a thing as a bad rhyme.  And there are other rhymes require caution in their use.  Here’s my partial list:

  1. feet/seas: the “close enough” rhyme — the fancy word for this sort of thing is “assonant rhyme.”  Assonance is the term that describes a repetition of vowel sounds.  A true rhyme is created by both the vowel and consonant sounds.   Stackhouse thinks assonant rhymes indicate a lack of skill or patience.  Perhaps he’s right, but on rare occasions, I think there is a place for them.  But never because of a lack of skill or patience.
  2. out/out: the same-word rhyme — there can be a good reason for rhyming a word to itself.  Repetition is used for emphasis, so the word you rhyme with itself must be a pivotal word, poetically speaking.  If it is not a word of significance, then take this opportunity to create a powerful effective rhyme.
  3. love/above: the cliché rhyme — the love/above rhyme is a cliché.  This pair has appeared in hymns for centuries.  Cliché is never OK.  Never use a cliché rhyme.  (oh, and never use a cliché)
  4. name/fame: the bad-diction rhyme —  don’t sacrifice diction for rhyme.  Don’t sacrifice rhyme for diction either.  The point is, don’t sacrifice.  I always wince in that song that uses the name/fame rhyme.  Yes, God is interested in his glory, in being known in all lands, but this is not the same as seeking fame.  That’s what people on American Idol do.
  5. jewel/fool: the forced rhyme — the bad diction rhyme is when you use an inferior word, just because it rhymes with a good one.  A forced rhyme is when you bring in two inferior words just because they rhyme.
  6. up/cup: the “Oh, Come On” rhyme — this means you’re not even trying.
Types of rhymes to avoid in the worship song you are writing: the *close enough* rhyme, the same-word rhyme, the cliché rhyme, the bad-diction rhyme, the forced rhyme, the *Oh, Come On* rhyme Click To Tweet

Rhythm

All songwriters know about rhythm.  I think rhythm is a requirement for corporate worship–some rhythmic consistency contributes to the “singability” of a song.

Rhythm can be restrictive, but real poets seem to be able to use the perfect word in the perfect place, without sacrificing meaning or rhythm.

Sometimes we find metrical variations in poems.  In the best poetry, these variations are purposeful.  In an inferior poem or song, the metrical variation is a result of the “close enough” mentality.

“Nature’s First Green is Gold”

To illustrate the function and power of sound and rhyme, I offer Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, there is so much that we could talk about in this poem.  The first line alone includes personification, metaphor, and paradox, and does so in such a simple and subtle way, that all this poetic activity doesn’t interfere with the simple sense of the line.  I will offer a short analysis focusing only on the sound, rhyme, and rhythm of this poem.

There is alliteration in the first line: “green is gold.”  The alliteration is not simply for the sake of alliterating; these words carry the central purpose of the poem.

Line 2, alliterates the h sound.  This is the lightest, most ethereal sound in our phonetic collection, and it’s describing the ethereal beauty of nature’s first green.  Contrast this line with line 7; where the d sound is alliterated.  This sound is the heaviest, most terrestrial of sounds.  See how the sounds echo the sense of these lines?

The whole poem is filled with long vowels.  Read line 4 out loud.  The sounds are of the same sad regret that the words convey.

The rhythm is regular, except for in the first and last lines.  The metrical variation  emphasizes “Nature’s first green” and “Nothing.”  These words frame the poem and carry the movement from elusive beauty to its loss.

Poets utilize every possible resource to communicate an experience to their readers.  What is their motivation?  Surely none have a purpose more important than the poets who write lyrics that will be used in the praise and worship of the King of the Universe.

Some thought, then, might be given to the sound of the lyrics even before the music is added, some thought to the rhymes and rhythms and what they communicate above and beneath the meaning of the words.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We sing to, and of, a transcendent God.  We cannot fully understand who he is or what he does.  And that makes it hard to understand our relationship with him.   It’s all an enigma wrapped in, well, you know . . .  God and his ways are way beyond literal language to even begin to explain anything about these.  So how in the world are we supposed to write songs about it all?

The same way that the biblical authors help communicate the mysteries of the God we worship. They use poetry.  It’s what you need to use when you are trying to say something that cannot be said. And a key tool that poets use in their songs is  metaphor. This is because metaphors are the best tools for dealing with complexity and mystery.

In Isaiah 64:6 God is the potter and we are the clay.  God is compared to a hen in Psalm 91:4.  And in Isaiah 42:14, to a woman in childbirth.

Even Jesus Christ, wholly God, used metaphors to explain who he was.

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35).

“I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5).

“I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12).

Most of life is mysterious and complex.  A lot of things cannot be expressed or understood directly or simply.  In order to express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, we make comparisons to something else.

But metaphors do more than help us explain and understand things.  In the hands of a skilled poet, they activate our imaginations.

Understanding Metaphor

Before we get into some examples, we need to get some of the technical explanations out of the way.  This is very important, for if you don’t make the comparisons correctly, they will be ludicrous, not magical.

A metaphor has two parts: the thing you are describing (A) and the thing you are comparing it to (B).  In the metaphor, “The wind howled,” the wind (A) is compared to a wolf (B).  Note that you can name or imply either part of the comparison.  In this case, A is named and B is implied.

Just a few other related terms, that you probably remember from high school.  A simile is a comparison, but it is indirect, usually using the words “like” or “as”: “The wind sounded like the howling of a wolf.”  Personification is a type of metaphor when B is a person–“The wind whispered through the leaves.”  The term metaphor can be used to refer to the general category that includes the metaphor proper, as well as simile and personification.

Importantly, the B part of the comparison is very important–if you say the wind howled, you are communicating a feeling that there is something sinister about it.  If the wind is whispering, it’s a lot less lonely.

Mixed Metaphors

When you write a song, you want to be careful with metaphors.  You don’t want to accidentally write (or select) a song for worship with a mixed metaphor.  These are embarassing, because there are still people out there who know one when they see one.  So what is a mixed metaphor?

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.  Bread doesn’t lay down its life for anything, let alone sheep.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is, it just leaves us puzzled, or shaking our heads.

I’ve only sung Needtobreath’s “Multiplied” one time, and it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I remember it because of the problems with metaphor.

Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

In this verse, we have God’s love (A) being compared to “diamonds bursting inside us” (B).  It makes sense to compare God’s love with something as beautiful, multifaceted and long-lasting as a diamond.  It also makes sense to compare the feeling of being loved by God as a “bursting” sensation.  But it doesn’t make sense to compare anything to a bursting diamond, because that’s not what diamonds do.  In the last line has a similar problem: “blazing wildfires” don’t sing.  Both of these are mixed metaphors.

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace: My Chains Are Gone” also suffers from a problem with a mixed metaphor.

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns climaxes on a mixed metaphor.

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate, and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry, but if we are going to write poetry to be used for the glory of God, it ought to be good.  And mixed metaphors are not good.  They are bad.

The Magic of Metaphor

When metaphors are done correctly, they can be magic.  Let’s start by looking at a poem written by a pro.  Here is Robert Frost’s “Bereft”:

Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

As with all great poetry, there is so much more going on here than metaphor, but the metaphors are wonderful.

In line two, the sound of the ocean turns into a roar, which suggests a lion, and in line 11 the tone is “sinister.”  In line four, the door is “restive,” meaning it’s unable to keep still–like a person, so this is personification.  There is more personification in the “sombre” clouds.  All these metaphors combine to suggest turmoil within the speaker and a sense of some sort of danger.  The threat increases as the leaves are metaphorically compared to a snake in lines 9-10.

When the stormy conditions are described metaphorically, we can imaginatively understand the complex feeling the speaker is experiencing–it is a particular kind of loneliness–loneliness mixed with existential fear.  Even if we’ve never before experienced this feeling ourselves, we know just a little about what it feels like because we’ve read the poem.  Frost has described an indescribable feeling to us through metaphor.   That’s the power of metaphor.  Can you imagine how much more profound our singing-worship would be if we used metaphor in this way?

A Metaphor that Works: “My Lighthouse”

I’ve written previously about the wonderful metaphors used by Katheryn Scott in  “At the Foot of the Cross.”  Scott’s metaphors are great examples of how to effectively use standard comparisons that lead to deeper worship.

Metaphors in our worship songs can help us express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, but they can also activate our imaginations.Click To Tweet

“My Lighthouse” from Rend Collective Experiment employs an extended metaphor, a comparison that is extended through the whole song.

 

Verse 1
In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Verse 2
In the silence You won’t let go
In the questions Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Chorus
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
shining in the darkness I will follow You whoa
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise You will carry me safe to shore
Tag
Safe to shore, safe to shore, safe to shore
Verse 3
I won’t fear what tomorrow brings
with each morning I’ll rise and sing
My God’s love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Oh You are my light
Bridge
Fire before us, You’re the brightest
You will lead us through the storm

Sometimes our life is like a “troubled sea.”   Notice that the troubles aren’t general and abstract; they are of a particular kind of trouble.  They are not in the categories of lost car keys or bankruptcy or divorce.  What stirs up these waves is a lack of trust.  The forces behind these turbulent waters are wrestling, doubts, questions, failures, and God’s silence–a lack of trust in God.  The metaphor invites us to look beyond our troubles to hat which we can trust to take us through them–to the lighthouse.

Lighthouses have two functions: to warn ships of danger and to guide them to safe harbour.  Remembering God’s promises will shift our focus from the dangers of doubt; the lighthouse will guide us “safe to shore.”  Christ and his promises are a guiding light when we are on the dark and stormy seas, when we struggle with trusting God.

The metaphor doesn’t simply tell us that we can trust in God in our troubles, it places us on a boat, caught in a storm off of the coast (of Ireland I imagine) and it shows us a lighthouse through driving wind and rain.  We can trust the lighthouse to guide us.  And then, as we sing, we discover we will be all right, not by our own strength, but by looking to him.

That is the magic of metaphor.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

I recently came across a song written by some aspiring songwriters. I think they’ve been at this for a while now because it had more than a few things going for it. The music was particularly good. I’d be happy to sing this tune, and I suspected that I’d catch myself humming it during the week.

The lyrics had no noticeable problems.

What was going on?  The words worked, the music worked.  Then I realized what the problem was.  There wasn’t much there for my mind or my imagination.  Only my vocal cords were engaged.  The song contained nothing but abstract phrases about Jesus constant.

Are our praise and worship sets too abstract? Click To Tweet

The lyrics of a lot of our praise and worship songs are abstract.  They are about grace or freedom or God’s sovereignty or sin or 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.

At least some, if not most, of our songs need to be 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.

Imagery

The definition of imagery that you usually find with a quick Google search 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, nervousness, or a charley horse.

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, 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 here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of 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.”

We interact with the world, both spiritually and physically. So, our worship songs will engage our heart, mind, soul, and body. Abstract ideas of salvation will be accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, etc. Click To Tweet

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 only
Bridge:
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 of 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?

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash

Purpose

A praise and worship song must have a purpose.  This seems obvious.   Of course, they all have one general purpose: to bring a group of people into the praise and worship of the triune God.  For a song to effectively achieve this general purpose, it needs to have a narrower one as well.

An excellent praise and worship song will hold together; it will be unified around a purpose--a very specific purpose.Click To Tweet

An excellent song will hold together; it will be unified around a central purpose.

All our songs are generally about God and the Gospel as it intersects the Christian life.  If you are writing a song that praises God, narrow it to praise just one of the persons of the Trinity.  But you can be still more specific.  If you are writing about God the Father,  narrow it to one which praises God as a father, or for his Creation, or for his strength to overcome what opposes us, or his grace to save us, or his providence, or his love, or any number of specific things for which we could praise him. Of course, this narrowing of purpose might mean your song won’t be sung as often, but it will be sung longer because it will lead to more meaningful worship.

Once you’ve settled on a narrow purpose, everything in the song will serve it.  Music and instrumentation will serve the purpose and most songwriters have a good handle on this because they are musicians.  But every aspect of the lyrics will serve this purpose as well.  We’ve already discussed diction here and here; diction serves the central purpose.  But there’s more.   Rhyme, sound, imagery, figures of speech,  rhythm, and meter, and everything else that constitutes the song, will contribute to this central purpose, or at least not detract from it.

Why a narrow focus?

After we sing a song a few times and get past the worshipful feelings it generates, the words of an excellent song will take us more deeply into worship.   It will do so because it will guide our thoughts and imaginations to specific ideas and images upon which to meditate.

If I ask you to think about water, your mind can go in a thousand different directions.  You might think about the ocean, or a glass of ice water, or the rain running down the road, or about that time the dishwasher hose burst.  These are all interesting, but because they are undirected, your thoughts flit from one to the other and never settle anywhere.

Now imagine a small stream in a misty forest, flowing through, and over, and around grey rocks and pebbles.  Some are covered with dewy moss and strewn with yellow and red leaves.  With this specific manifestation of water, I have a directed an imaginative experience.  Hopefully, you saw the beauty, a particular kind of beauty, for this was my purpose.  Particular kinds of water can evoke ideas of peace, or awe, or fear, or cold, or discomfort, or cleansing, or sadness, or any of a hundred other ideas and images to experience.

Singing in church certainly will involve emotions, but worship should be about more than feelings.  A specific focus directs engages minds and imaginations more effectively than do generalities.

Singing in church certainly will involve emotions, but worship should be about more than feelings. A specific focus directs engages minds and imaginations more effectively than do generalities. Click To Tweet

Is “Holy Spirit” too General?

“Holy Spirit” by Francesca Battistelli brings praise to the third person of the Trinity.  Musically, it will serve well to bring congregants into the worship of God, but I wonder if it is too unfocused to result in the deeper worship we’ve been talking about.  You can decide for yourself and leave a comment.  

Verse 1
There’s nothing worth more, that could ever come close
No thing can compare, You’re our living hope
Your presence Lord
Verse 2
I’ve tasted and seen of the sweetest of loves
Where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone
Your presence Lord
Chorus
Holy Spirit You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory God is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence Lord
Your presence Lord
Bridge
Let us become more aware of Your presence
Let us experience the glory of Your goodness

While singing this song we praise the Spirit for his worth and glory and goodness.  We also sing about the longing we feel and the hope he gives.  We also celebrate the freedom from shame and our own loving feelings toward him.  We also confess he is the presence of God, both within and outside of me.  And, lastly, we offer a prayer for awareness of his presence.

There is a lot going on in this song, so much so that my thoughts don’t settle on one idea because they are rapidly rushed off to the next one, and then the next.

We can sing about all of these things, but we might need four or five songs to do it in such a way that brings people into more holistic worship–one where the mind and imagination have a particular idea, story, feeling, object on which to meditate or experience.

To review last week’s lesson: this song also has one word that doesn’t quite work.  Did you see it?

“Blessed Be Your Name”

A song that illustrates the benefits of a more focused purpose is “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” by Matt Redman:

Verse 1
Blessed be Your Name in the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flows
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
Pre-Chorus
Every blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in Lord, still I will say
Chorus
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 theres pain in the offering, blessed be Your name
Bridge
You give and take away, You give and take a -way
My heart will chose to say, Lord blessed be Your name

This entire song is unified around a single idea found in Job 1:21: God is worthy of our praise in both the good times and the bad times.  The bridge proclaims the first part of the verse: “You give and take away.”  The title and refrain carry the central idea–“Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  The rest of this song does nothing but imaginatively expand on this theme.

The first verse is about praising God for the good times and the bad times.  The second verse repeats this pattern.  The pre-chorus gives two lines to blessing God in the good times and two lines to doing the same in the bad.

There is not a line or a word in this song that doesn’t clearly serve the specific purpose.

I have sung this song in times when it felt as if I was alone in the wilderness and other times in bountiful circumstances.  It’s like it’s a different song.  Its claim is that both the good and the bad times are blessings for which we praise God.  Meditating on the nearly spontaneous movement from receiving to praising has brought me into deep worship.  The act of singing itself becomes a testimony to the song’s truth.

I believe that the simple unity and specific focus of this song is one of the main reasons this song has been sung so often, and for so long in Christian gatherings.

My thesis in this series on The Poetry of Worship is that most of the songs we regularly sing in church are good songs.  But with repeated singing, a great song will bring us into deeper worship.  A specific focus can direct the hearts and minds of those who sing the song to a particular aspect of the nature and character of God, or of the Christian life.  This leads, of course, to an edification that lasts far longer than the Sunday service.  Perhaps a week.  Perhaps a lifetime.
Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

I have had the privilege to act as a consultant for aspiring praise and worship songwriters.  It was a great experience.  I was inspired by the creativity and passion that the writers brought to these songs, and I was happy that I could help to make these already good songs even better.

When giving “cool feedback,” I found that one of the hardest things for me to communicate was why a particular word made the writing sound awkward and amateurish.

I read a lot of artless writing.

I do it professionally.  The amateur writer doesn’t know that the monosyllabic and ordinary word, “shows,” is sometimes the best word, as in this quote from the last lines of Hamlet:

                                                   such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

In this case, as in almost every case, “shows” is always better than “exhibits,” often better than “displays,” and usually better than “reveals.”  When I encounter the word “discloses,” I know that someone has been abusing their thesaurus.   It all depends, of course, upon the poem, and the line within the poem, but these words, usually, don’t quite make it.  Amateur writers will use them for various reasons–to make a nice rhyme or to maintain a rhythm, or because they think it “sounds” better.  It doesn’t.

And it’s hard to explain why.  Most simply, it’s because it’s just not the perfect word.

It’s not too difficult to say why the use of the term “desire” is better in “It is my desire to honor you” than it is in, “You are the love of my desire.”

But it is not so easy to explain why the word “ransom” is better in the line, “His wounds have paid my ransom” (“How deep the Father’s Love”), than it is in the line, “He is the ransom for my life” (“King of my Heat”)?

How do I know that one way of saying something is a lot better than another way of saying something?  I don’t know, I just know.  And it’s not just me.  Many other people also have this mysterious power.  And you can have it too.

Developing a “Poetic Ear”

If you want to use words powerfully and beautifully you need to develop a poetic ear.  Teaching literature for over 30 years has trained my ear.  I read a lot.  I read the work of amateur writers, and I read the best writers of poetry and prose in the English language.  Consequently, I know where a piece of writing is on the continuum.  It is no surprise, then, that I am sensitive to lyrics in our worship songs that more closely resemble my students’ writing than it does that of Robert Frost.

You too can develop this poetic ear.  Read and study great poetry.  My guess is that the poetry with which most praise and worship lyricists engage is that of other praise and worship lyricists.  Even the big songwriters are often writing with unremarkable diction.  Reading these won’t help to develop the poetic ear.  If you really want to develop a sensitivity for good diction, read the very best wordsmiths–Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, the Brontes, Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Percy Bysshe Shelly, John Keats, etc.

If you want to write great praise and worship lyrics, don't use other praise and worship songs as your model. Develop a poetic ear by reading the best poets and writers of prose and poetry Click To Tweet

It will take time, but if you start reading the best novelists and poets, in ten years’ time, you will be writing much better lyrics than you would if you didn’t.  “Ten years?!” you cry.  Well, if you are 36 now, I’m telling you that by the time you are 46 you will have moved a long way down the spectrum toward being a poet.  That gives you 30 years to write great songs.  That’s lots of time.

Lyricist or Poet?

Good writers never compromise diction for the sake of rhyme or rhythm, or anything else.  They strive to use the perfect word in every instance–they don’t settle.  The perfect word will have the precise denotation and connotation, and serve the rhythm and rhythm perfectly.  If they just can’t make it work, the poet will rework the line or the whole verse, or even the whole song. They don’t stop until it is perfect.

You can’t start here, however.  Before you know what the perfect word is, you need to have developed the poetic ear.  Even then, it will tie you into knots at times, but that’s the challenge of poetry–and I don’t think we have any choice.

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What I am asking is not easy, but if we aspire to write songs in praise of our King, these songs need to be excellent.  Not for his sake, but for ours, and for those whom we lead in worship.  We need to strive to be poets, not just lyricists.

And becoming a poet takes at least as much time and effort as it takes to become a great musician, and how long did that take?

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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