31 October 2010

A WORSHIP SONGWRITING AND CULTURE CRITIQUE: "WE WILL WORSHIP YOU"

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Preface: I purposely chose a song that I had no history  or connection with to talk about / critique for a number of reasons, some of which will be apparent as you read. It is also worth saying that I realize I cannot know the circumstances of this song's writing, what group of people it was originally written for, or the specifics of the writers' personal faith journeys. Those things do matter somewhat but when the song ends up in the midst of other people in other circumstances than (perhaps) it was intended, this kind of song should stand on its own and clearly communicate its message. 


I have talked with friends of mine who also lead, or have led, and even have written these sort songs about these things and even challenged some of them in their own songwriting, just as I have been challenged  to address these issues. Brian McLaren, a personal hero of mine, writes about some of these things and more here: http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/lettertosongwriters.pdf . By no means have I completely expressed my thoughts on church / worship music here nor my personal journey with it. I hope to more in the coming months. For now here are some thoughts on a particular song, of which I still have not heard but only read the words. 


Someone I know recently heard a song, "We Will Worship You" by Carlos Whittaker and Jason Ingram, on Lancaster's local Christian music radio station WJTL . Neither I nor this other person regularly listen to this station these days but occasionally we have found it helpful, memory evoking, and occasionally entertaining to revisit this example of western Christian subculture. 


I grew up listening almost exclusively to what is called "contemporary Christian music" and eventually upgraded, as I and my peers insisted at the time, to mostly worship music which seemed more "pure" and "toward God" instead of just about the Christian life. Worship music is the sort of thing people sing in church and the kind we liked used modern, if not slightly dated, popular instruments and sounds to allow people to sing along and perhaps feel the spirit of the Christian God more easily. 


I still enjoy hearing some of any of those types of music from time to time, in fact many of my friends still very creatively and skillfully write, record, and perform it.  I also know that I learned a lot about making music and helping people eventually participate in it through these avenues. CCM, worship music, and myself have quite a history
Having led worship music services,in one form or another, pretty regularly from  the age of seventeen until late last year when my church folded, I was inside the culture and helping to challenge and recreate it for a good chunk of my life. Now, pretty far on the outside of it all, hearing the familiar phrases and sounds spun in new ways I have often felt detached and sometimes very confused. This brings me back to the song my friend heard.


Being a part of the culture, certain phrases have certain meanings that aren't necessarily restricted to the actual words but instead the emotions those phrases evoke because of their placement in a song. If you have ever repeated a soaring chorus over and over with a large group of people whether it be a hymn or contemporary "praise chorus", you might know the emotion and feeling of elation that becomes attached to those words. If you haven't experienced this in a church service think of singing "Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel...." from "O Come O Come Emmanuel" or the long "Gloria"s from "Angels We Have Heard On High" both Christmas carols. Hopefully you get the idea. If not think of your favorite song to sing with friends and then analyze the words.


This guy is ecstatically surrendering to something, but what?

Back to our topic. The song in question neither of us had heard before so,for us, there wasn't any emotion attached to the words. That and the words is what led me... allowed me to start writing. Here are the lyrics with commentary bit by bit.


"We Will Worship You"
by Carlos Whittaker & Jason Ingram

We fix our eyes on You, You are God alone
We fix our eyes on You, You’re our only hope
For all we have to lose is our very souls


It starts out pretty basic with a common declaration of focus on God,  that this God is only God, and that therefore He is the group of singers' only hope. Then it takes an odd lyrical turn. The next line that suggests that because of these things that have been declared, the "For", that "all we have to lose is our very souls". First the phrase is strange as it seems to self contradict. The phrase "all we have to lose" generally is followed by something small. In orthodox Christianity, the soul is pretty paramount especially in the afterlife which, to many, is the main reward for being a Christian. Second, add to that the emphasis of the soul's importance with the word "very" and it seems almost like a joke. And third, I don't see how the bit about losing one's soul should be the main reason for doing and saying the things before that line. 

We fix our eyes on You, You are God alone
We fix our eyes on You, You’re our only hope
For all we have to lose is our very souls


And if you weren't sure that those were the actual lyrics, as we were not at first, they get repeated.

Save us from these comforts
Break us of our need for the familiar
Spare us any joy that’s not of You
And we will worship You
Yeah, we will worship You


For the next part we have a request to be saved from "these comforts". Every version of this song that I've seen doesn't have any comforts listed in the words so the singers must be referencing the common everyday comforts of the world. Sometimes we do need some saving from reliance on and absorption into those, so I get this. And of course our comforts would be familiar since they are comforting and so the next thing makes sense though I don't see how it connects to the previous section.


But then another confusing line strikes, "Spare us any joy that's not of You". My understanding of most Christian theologies is that all joy, not just pleasure because that isn't necessarily true joy, is actually from God. Is that not true for most Christians? If not then what kind of "joy" comes from something that is not God? Also interesting is the word "Spare" at the beginning of the line. Usually one requests to be spared pain or someone's unbelievable explanation but not to be spared joy from any source.


After that the singers seem to indicate that if all this is done, by saying "and", they will worship said God. I hope this is not intentionally conditional but that is how it reads. Interestingly we have yet to sing, or read in our case, how the singers are to worship aside from singing this song of course. Many worship songs seem to think that singing is the best way to praise or show affection for the one the song is directed toward. Much could be said about that but we are moving along here...

Satisfy us, Lord, in Your unfailing love
Satisfy us, Lord, that You would be enough
We have nothing here, let Your kingdom come


Here we have another request that the singers be satisfied with the Lord's, probably the same figure as "God", unfailing love. I guess instead of being satisfied with joy and comforts. And that this love would be enough which makes good sense actually since it is unfailing and from God. Seriously, I get it. But then the wierdness happens again....


The next line says that "We have nothing here, let Your kingdom come". Now even I, in my rather unorthodox Christian beliefs, agree that Jesus' of Nazareth's Kingdom of God is the actual point of the Christian God's story and mission but the first part? "We have nothing here"? Nothing if you don't include almost everything that Jesus is recorded as speaking about. Nothing if you don't include everything that God created FOR all of humanity, one way or another, in the creation narrative. Even if what is here is completely unredeemable without the "kingdom" coming, the kingdom doesn't come in a vacuum outside of this world. If there was nothing of worth here why would God want to save it, regardless of how you believe He does the saving. Furthermore, the people standing next  to each other singing this song are basically saying that they are all worthless as well. This line is not good, not helpful, and frankly quite escapist in the tradition of the Essenes which I'm sure not many singing this song would want to exemplify.

Save us from these comforts
Break us of our need for the familiar
Spare us any joy that’s not of You
And we will worship You
Yeah, we will worship You


The verse is repeated again.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah


And then we have a very common word in the Bible and in worship songs repeated a few times which loosely translates to "Praise Yahweh" or "Praise Jehovah" and usually in a very physically celebratory manner. Dancing would be an option here.

Save us from these comforts
Break us of our need for the familiar
Spare us any joy that’s not of You
And we will worship You
Yeah, we will worship You


Another repetition and the song is left at a good thematic spot as the singers declare that they will worship which should translate as "follow through" or just sing the song more.


There are plenty of songs that have been or are favorites of mine which others might find the lyrics silly or irrelevant to our time and yet they still touch me for any of the reasons I talked about above. So I'm not mocking this song or the writers but instead offering my concerns about the haphazard nature of modern church/worship music writing. Stringing catch phrases together is bad enough but generalizations about the worth of all of creation, including one's spiritual brothers and sisters, is really sloppy and can lead to dangerous things depending on who ends up singing and believing the song's lyrics. 


People might end up singing your song and believing what it says. Maybe not these people but possibly someone.

I have started writing many songs in this larger category of church music only to either never finish or choose not to ask others to sing them in a communal setting for a few possible reasons. One, they weren't focused enough or appropriate for the purposes of a church service. Two, while the emotion of the song made sense for me, the words weren't actually connected to it or making enough sense for clear public understanding. Maybe the emotion and words weren't actually connected at all! And third, maybe most importantly, the words didn't suggest a way of following through in real life on the song's theme and/or they didn't describe something that the singer should try to exemplify. In other words, the song wasn't instructive. 


If a song of mine were to meet my own requirements I would then ask myself, "Fine that it's instructive but what does the song instruct the singer to declare they believe and to actually do?". A song can be plenty instructive but wouldn't it be awful if my song explicitly made them repeat things that actually were bad and those people acted accordingly?! Yikes. A mentor and friend of mine, upon me asking why modern church music wasn't more instructive compared to the hymns of old, despite some of the disturbing things in them.... he responded that in centuries past many, if not most, congregants couldn't read and so what they knew about God they learned and remembered in song. I remember thinking about that for a moment and responding that maybe with the information overload that the world is today and the kind of experience-based sermons preached in churches that perhaps today's congregants needed instructive theology in their songs all the more.


Maybe these don't need to be every songwriter's requirements for church music but they are at least worth considering. If you are a church music songwriter this is my message for you: be aware of what you are asking people to sing, therefore believe, and then live out of.

05 October 2010

QUOTE OF NOTE: A MERTON PARAPHRASE

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I don't always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you, pleases you.




- A paraphrase of Thomas Merton 
via The West Wing 
by Aaron Sorkin
 
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