This month I may be preaching to the choir (pun intended), but I don’t think it fair to limit my discussion of critical listening to secular, “worldly” music. While it should be fairly easy to generalize the points I made in earlier in this series to the CCM scene, in all its glory and infamy, the application to Sunday mornings may not be so easy. Especially for those of us in Spirit-filled denominations, the temptation to tune in and check out during morning worship is great indeed, and it is no more excusable to sing along with bad music because you’re attempting to focus on God than it is to do so because you’re attempting to focus on the road. While I must confess to not spending enough time on the letter of some songs in the past and getting caught up in what I thought was the intent, my literary studies have prompted me to pay closer attention to what the words actually say. And what I’ve found is that a wisecrack an evangelist once made about the Red Hot Chili Peppers unfortunately applies to so-called worship music as well: “Some music is so bad, even Satan won’t listen to it.”
[NB: Of the churches I’ve attended regularly throughout my life, I don’t recall any that have had more than ten instruments on the platform on a regular basis. I will thus be speaking primarily from a small-church perspective because I have no idea how the dynamic works in megachurches. But the basic principles should still apply.]
Alan Noble made an excellent point a while back on Christ and Pop Culture: as Christians, we need to think critically about all art, whatever its form and whatever its intent, and especially if its intent is to worship and glorify God. This fact holds especially true for music, as he discusses in an earlier CAPC post. Chuck Colson recently observed that we are created for music and commanded to sing, but as I have argued, we can’t just sing along with whatever’s on the radio because it sounds nice. Words have meanings, and understanding the words we sing is as important as understanding the words we read or hear spoken.
I’ve often heard ministers encourage the shy and the tone-deaf to sing during morning worship by noting that the Bible commands us to make a joyful noise but doesn’t specify that it has to be a good noise. While that’s true, we do want to give God our best, which means both singing as best we can and not just singing along mindlessly with whatever the worship leader happens to pick. Both Moses and Paul command us to keep our minds engaged as we love, serve, and worship God, and that includes listening critically to the hymns and the praise and worship choruses we hear in church.
Critical listening in a church setting can require a good dose of charity. If the church pianist is playing the hymns she’s known for eighty years by ear as best she can on a tinny, out-of-tune upright piano because that’s all she has to offer God, don’t gripe that there isn’t a full orchestra. Offer to tune the piano. And when the song leader is a second alto and transposes every song into her range and out of yours, you can either politely explain the problem or stop singing. Her service is to Christ, not to you. But not every cringe-inducing scenario is worthy of that kind of excuse. For example, when the leaders of a church back home—I’ll call it First Dufflepud—were facing a long and particularly stressful week, I volunteered to bring some friends down from college to lead the service and give the pastor and worship team a rest. Everyone agreed, and we had a pretty good time introducing some new songs to the congregation. Afterward, the worship leader, whose inability to sing more than a wild approximation of a song’s written melody I had chalked up to tone deafness and lack of training, asked us for the words to a chorus she hadn’t heard before.
“Don’t you need the music, too?” our drummer asked.
“Oh, no,” said Sister T blithely. “The Lord’ll give me a melody.”
As the saying goes: … Right. Good luck with that.
Now, I could almost write off the willful ignorance that was rampant at First Dufflepud as a stereotypical blue-collar attitude if I weren’t from a family of blue-collar ranchers and oilfield workers. My relatives might not be rich or overeducated, but they’re not stupid or ignorant. The real problem at First D was pride in humility, superiority in inferiority. What I wonder is whether that diagnosis can be generalized to the woeful state of recent P&W music, especially that coming from or inspired by Hillsong.
Having grown up on a good mix of old-school praise songs, camp-meeting songs, and great hymns, I’m not about to claim that any one style of song is inherently superior to another for the purpose of praise and worship. (More on that tomorrow.) Where melody, harmony, lyrics, and intent meet the power of the Holy Spirit, God is glorified and hearts are changed. But too much “worship” music isn’t written in a way that’s conducive to congregational singing, which defaults toward written and improvised harmony. When the melody line is bouncing all over the scale and approaching atonality, only the most vocally adroit can sing along, and there is no room left for harmony. That’s one problem. The other is that the lyrics, however sincere and sound the songwriters’ intent, are bad poetry and often bad theology as well. The confluence of both problems can be epitomized by a song I heard in a friend’s car some years back. The volume (not to mention the melody) was low enough that I couldn’t hear more than the chorus, which suddenly came into the singer’s mid-range and consisted of “Let Him kiss me” chanted ad nauseum on a melodic line that didn’t even rise to the complexity of sing-song. This was before I had read much medieval theology, but I knew even then that that was not the way to allegorize Song of Solomon 1:1 without sounding creepy. If Bernard of Clairvaux found “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” shocking enough to spend eight sermons setting up the allegorical context and explaining how one grows in relationship with Christ to the point that the soul can by right so brazenly claim the kiss on the mouth that is intimacy in contemplation… how can a modern songwriter hope to capture the idea in a single worship chorus? And if one doesn’t want to go back that far for an example of how to write Scripture songs, an example much closer to home would be “1 John 4:7-8 (Beloved).”
Look, as Christians, we are people of the Word. We have an obligation to use words correctly in our writing and to understand words correctly in what we read and hear. And that includes being aware of the ways in which language, especially Christianese, can be misunderstood and thus serve as a stumbling block to some. It also includes being aware of the difference between the assumed intent of a song and what it actually says. If you want to talk about exalting Christ, for example, you shouldn’t misapply John 12:32—which is about the Crucifixion—to write something like “Lift Jesus Higher.”
But this stage of the argument calls for specific textual comparisons, so I’ll save that for tomorrow.
 This was the church where a seasoned citizen told me to my face, though not quite in so many words, that she didn’t see why I was wasting my time going to college at all, never mind studying chemistry.