MonthDecember 2018

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

Free-Photos / Pixabay

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 significance.  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.  Sometimes a symbol carries a single meaning. but they can also signify many.

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 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.   The songs we sing in preparation for partaking in Communion can enhance the experience of communion by helping us unpack these traditional symbols.

Some might argue that congregants don’t think about these things in communion, or while singing songs about communion.  I’m not sure of my response.  I have a few:

Some do.

Why not?

If there is some value in this type of experience, perhaps worship leaders can teach engage symbols in this way.

It will lead to deeper worship.

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” 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?  How is this symbol is expanded into your experience?

In line 6 a poet, symbolic of wisdom or the ability to see what others cannot, 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)

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