Guest Post: Rose Bexar on “Standing on the Promises,” Sitting on the Premises Dr. Rose Bexar

by Anna Blanch on November 13, 2009

Once again, I hand over the post to Dr. Rose Bexar and the 6th and final part of her series “On Listening Critically.” Other parts can be read at their original posts:

Part 1: Taking Stock of a New Fandom,
Part 2: Animals are for Eating, and Other Timeless Truths
Part 3: Listen to the Band

Part 4: Sounds Fair, Reads Foul
Part 5: Why Should the Devil have all the good music
You can find out more about Dr. Rose on her Contributor profile. You can take a look at some of the other recent contributors and their profiles here.

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On Listening Critically, Part 6: “Standing on the Promises,” Sitting on the Premises
Dr. Rose Bexar

I was thrilled to the core to discover that this year’s Reformation Day service for Germany’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, broadcast on NDR, would feature Die Prinzen as special musical guests—and that Bishop Käßmann was basing her sermon partly on “Schwein sein”! NDR has a live Internet stream, so I was able to watch, and it was about as enjoyable as any Lutheran service I’ve attended. The sermon was pretty good; Die Prinzen were fab as always, and so was the madrigal group who also sang; and they had an actor reading from Martin Luther’s sermons, which was very cool, especially since he looked a good bit like Luther. (It reminded me of my trip to Oxford four years ago for the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge 2005 conference, which featured Joss Acklund reading “The Weight of Glory” from the same pulpit from which Lewis originally preached it!) What I didn’t like, apart from the “frozen chosen” sense I always get in liturgical churches, was the congregational music. Case in point: The final hymn, very appropriately, was the Battle Hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I don’t have the German words memorized, but I do know the standard English translation, so I prepared to sing along. But the organ on the first verse was so badly off from the tempo I know that I couldn’t keep up—not only was it too slow, but every other note was held too long. And then Die Prinzen sang the third verse a capella (I did sing along then)… and that was all!!!

“Good grief,” I thought, “they’re as bad as the Baptists! No wonder Jens started jes.41!” I already knew that liturgical churches were bad about that sort of thing, but I would have thought that if anyone could sing one of Luther’s hymns correctly and victoriously, especially that one, it would be German Lutherans. (For the record, if I found myself in a place where church options were limited, I’d be okay with Missouri Synod Lutheran.)

In my experience, the problem is generally not the hymns themselves, although there are some rather bad ones—think “In the Garden”—still in common use. The problem is that people get trapped into perpetuating the following attitude: Hymns are old; therefore they must be slow; therefore they must be boring; therefore we will be bored while singing; therefore, if we must sing hymns, we will sing only verses 1, 3, and 5 so as to get it over with as quickly as possible while still singing them at the slow tempo we think befits their age and with absolutely no conviction that we are singing the truth. The flip side of this faulty line of reasoning, of course, is the equally faulty belief that the alternative must be the kind of ill-composed noise that I lamented yesterday and that Ralph C. Wood, among others, has compared to pornography.

It is entirely possible to bring a congregation into worship through a good mix of well-written choruses and contemporary songs, camp meeting songs, and classic hymns sung at their proper tempos, fast to slow. I know lots of worship leaders who do it every week. The trick, apart from recognizing that hymns can be sung faster than 60 beats per minute, is taking the time to think critically about the lyrics of the songs and understanding the theology each one communicates. “Theology is only thought applied to religion,” G. K. Chesterton quipped, and songs about God ought to be written thoughtfully… but sometimes one wonders just what the lyricist was thinking.

Since I’ve brought up the topic of victory, I’ll use a few songs on that topic as examples. Let’s start with something relatively easy:

Well, I went to the enemy’s camp and I took back what he stole from me,
Took back what he stole from me,
Took back what he stole from me.
Well, I went to the enemy’s camp and I took back what he stole from me.

He’s under my feet, he’s under my feet,
He’s under my feet, he’s under my feet,
He’s under my feet, he’s under my feet,

Satan is under my feet.

Notice something missing there? I went, I took, my feet—as it’s phrased, it sounds like God had nothing to do with this victory at all! Now, it’s very likely that whoever wrote these lyrics was thinking of 1 Samuel 30, when the Amalekites raid Ziklag and David goes after them with God’s blessing to recover everyone and everything that was stolen, but you’d have to know the Old Testament fairly well to know that story and make the connection on your own. It’s far too easy to stick to the surface and allow this song to become a statement of pride. (Musically it gets old fast, too.)

Here’s one that’s better:

Through our God we shall do valiantly,
For it is He that shall tread down our enemy.
We’ll sing and shout the victory:
Christ is King!

For God has won the victory
And set His people free.
His word shall slay the enemy,
And the earth shall stand and see

That through our God….

The circular structure can make it a little hard to stop unless you know to take the coda after “Christ is King” the final time through, but at least the focus of the song is in the right place.

I could continue with camp meeting songs (my personal favorite is “Victory in Jesus,” which the Baptist church I attended in high school invariably sings too slowly), but since space is limited, I’ll go back to “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As Luther correctly explains, Satan even in his fallen state is a power we cannot hope to overcome on our own (“On earth is not his equal”), but when we entrust ourselves to Jesus, Satan cannot truly harm us.

And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

Luther also notes that individual losses may still occur (“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also”) but that in the long run, all who are in Christ share in His victory, and “His kingdom is forever.” Note well the fact that you will completely miss Luther’s insight into the nature of our enemy and of our Lord contained in this hymn if you sing only the first and third verses.

And that insight brings me to a final point about paying attention to lyrics: Good church music does not simply fill a spot in the liturgy, entertain us, or entrance us into a “spiritual” experience. Rather, when we sing as we ought, we both internalize and declare truths about God—Who He is and what He has done for us—in such a way that we can give Him the reverence He is due while expressing our love and gratitude to Him Who first loved us. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “praise” and “worship” come from roots dealing with value, the former from the Latin for “price,” the latter from the Old English for “worth”; our music thus bears the burden of acknowledging before both God and men the value that we give to God. What and how we sing matters because of about Whom and to whom we sing. A large part of what Matt Redman calls “coming back to the heart of worship” is remembering that fact and contemplating precisely what our music says about how we value God.

In an excerpt from a sermon on the First Commandment that was read at the Reformation Day service, Luther states, “Woran du dein Herz hängst, das ist eigentlich dein Gott” (What you hang your heart on, that is in truth your god). Let us all strive to better hang our hearts on the true God in our music as in everything else.

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