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Entries in Worship (6)


Want to write a hymn? Learn poetry

The September/October issue of Touchstone has a great little piece by Anthony Esolen regarding hymn writing. He echoed many things I have thought myself, but he's a great writer and says it much better. 

Now, this assumes that one wants to write a hymn. Most of what is produced today is referred to as a worship song, not necessarily a hymn. I wonder if that is deliberate; hymns are associated with the old and stodgy, so better to call it a worship song. Anyway, I don't know if the rules apply to what we consider choruses, but I don't see why they couldn't. I think all music sung in church should follow these guidelines. 

Become Conversant With English Poetry and English Meter

Some songsters seem to think that a creative aura floating a few feet over the head and a knack for sort of  rhyming are enough to get them started. That’s a little like saying that we should let you paint the walls of a church be- cause you can name most of the colors in the big crayon box. 

Poetry is an art; the raw stuff of the art is provided by your language. But you’re no more an artist in language because you talk all day long than you are a musician because you whistle in the car. There’s no way around it. You must steep yourself in English verse, and see—rather, hear—what centuries of artists have done with the sounds and shades and gleams and feints and glories of our words before. 

I agree that song writers could benefit from understanding poetry. Poetry is hard. It takes thought. Good songs benefit from rhyme, meter, and rhythm. What better place to learn than poetry?

Attend to the Musical Structure of Hymns

You can tell at a glance when a hymn is not a hymn but an off- Broadway show tune. It has bizarre intervals and strange syncopation and time-changes and ties of a half and an eighth and three-quarters of a sixteenth and who knows what. It “wanders” melodically ad lib. It cannot be sung by a congregation.

I think many of us have been in a service where the only ones who can seem to follow the song are the ones leading it. Give me a simple, repetitive, singable tune any day. There is a sentiment out there that reptition is bad. It can be, but when we're storing up biblical truth it's extremely helpful. Does it not follow that having good worship songs stored in our heads is also good? One of my most UN-favourite Christian songs is "Good, Good Father." I don't like the words at all. But it has a repetitive tune. Inevitably on the days when we have to sing it, I have the tune rolling around in my head. If only there were better words attached to it.

Immersion in the Bible

Finally, Esolen encourages the writers to meditate on Scripture, "as Christ did, and the apostles, and the poets after them." I cringe when worship songs contain only vague references to the Godhead. My church has sung songs where the only indication that the song is actually Christian is the presence of the capitalized "You." It is as if they afraid to use words like Christ, redeemed, or crucified. 

What has happened in church music is that its creators try to make it sound like popular music. Doesn't that mean it has more appeal? Perhaps. But one thing I ponder often is the fact that Sunday morning worship, a time with God's people, is supposed to be a calling away from the rest of our lives. It is a time devoted to worship. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a worship song in a contemporary mode, but I believe we have gone overboard.

When I was in my firs year of university, I told my roommate that I had to sing at church but didn't know what to sing. She, not a Christian, suggested John Lennon's "Imagine." Sometimes, some of the songs we sing today aren't too far off from that.

The idea that everyone can do everything because we all have the freedom to do so trickles down to the fact that we refuse to recognize that there are some people who simply can't do a particular thing. I can't write a worship song. I don't have the ability to do so. And if I wanted to try, I'd labour long and hard to do it, and I'd take Esolen's advice.


From can't read to don't read, and its affect on worship songs

Update, Tuesday, April 11: Oh the shame. How could I have possibly missed my misuse of the word "affect" in the title of this post? "Affect" is a verb. I should have used "effect." Oh well, maybe my error was only noticed by a few. Mea culpa.

I don't like the song "Good, good Father." It's one of those songs which is so vague, it could be sung about a human father. I was wondering yesterday as we sang, what kind of spiritual truths the song actually teaches. He's a good father. Okay, fine. What does that mean? The song doesn't really delve into specifics. In fact, it doesn't use the word "God" at all.

There has been much written about worship songs. Tim Challies had an interesting article recently about the impact of digital technology on the use of the hymnal. People are divided over the matter. He doesn't think we should go back to hymnals. I don't know as if it's a matter of "shouldn't" or "can't" go back. What would happen if we did go back to them other than just a barrage of complaints? His observations are worth considering.

The reality is that worship music is influenced by the nature of popular music, so that when we get tired of singing a song, we need to find another. And if we must keep producing new songs every few months, is it any wonder they may not have a lot of depth?

At one time, literacy was not universal. The ability to learn about God had to be found through the preached word and through hymns. For someone who could not read a word, he could hear a word and learn a spiritual truth. These days, it isn't really a matter of can't read, but don't read. There is a reason why literacy programs are pushed forward. If a child can sit in front of a device which reads to him, is there any incentive to be a good reader? I love audio books, and it is often a much different experience to listen than to read, but I only listen to them when I can't hold a book; like while driving, riding the stationery bike, or knitting.

What happens when people don't read a lot and are faced week by week with worship songs that tell them little about God? Or only emphasize the subjective, personal aspect of our faith? We won't learn objective truths about God; we will learn about our experience of God or how we feel about God. 

I would like to suggest something which is probably shocking: I think that potential worship song leaders should expose themselevs to a lot of good literature; especially poetry. Seeing how great writers used words helps us write good material.

And what about learning to read music and understand theory? These days, if you can strum a few chords, read a chord chart, and find a YouTube video, you can proclaim yourself a song leader. A pastor goes to seminary to get biblical training. If we are going to add someone to the leadership of our church who focuses on the music, why not expect him to have training in that area? It is false to say that all someone needs is sincerity. To believe it is one or the other is a false dichotomy.

When my daughter was about seven or eight years old, she loved the song "Wonderful Grace of Jesus." In those days, people knew the parts, and it was a really enjoyable song to sing. My daughter actually said one Sunday that she hoped we would sing it. If worship songs are less about what God has done and more about how we feel about it, what are today's seven and eight year olds learning? It's worth thinking about.


A durable worship

I just finished the discourse "On Spiritual Worship," in Charnock's Existence and Attributes of God. There is always so much to think about. Charnock probes everything so deeply.

I recently acquired the first volume in the works of William Perkins. In the introduction to the book, the editors mentioned smoothing out punctuation issues. Charnock uses some very creative punctuation, and with our modern understand of how punctuation works, sometimes, it's work to untangle what he's saying. I can't help but wonder if a good editor could help with that.

Throughout this discourse, the emphasis is always on the fact that because God is a Spirit, we must worship him in Spirit. At the end of the discourse, Charnock gives some exhortations for practical use, including fostering right conceptions of God:

Nourish right conceptions of the majesty of God in your minds. Let us consider that we are drawing to God, the most amiable object, the best of beings, worthy of infinte honor, and a highly meriting the highest affections we can give; a God that made the world by a word, that upholds the great frame of heaven and earth; a Majesty above the conceptions of angels; who uses not his power to strike us to our deserved punishment, but his love and bounty to allure us; a God that gave all the creatures to serve us, and can, in a trice, make them as much our enemies as he hath now made them our servants. Let us view him in his greatness and goodness, that our hearts may have a true value of the worship of so great a majesty, and count it the most worthy employment with all diligence to attend upon him. When we have a fear of God, it will make our worship serious; when we have a joy in God, it will make our worship durable. Our affections will be raised when we represent God in the most reverential, endearing, and obliging circumstances. We honor the majesty of God, when we consider him with due reverence according to the greatness and perfection of his works.


Memory, meditating, and music

I just finished a little book by Edmund Clowney, called Christian Meditation. My first reaction to having finished this was "Why have I not read anything by Clowney until now?" He was a very eloquent writer. I have already added a couple of books to my wishlist for the future.

The book, as the title suggests, is about Christian mediatation. The foundation of Christian meditation is threefold: " ... it is centered on the truth of God, moved by the love of God, and directed to the praise of God."

Those three points are the basis of the book as he unfolds them. He focuses on meditating upon God's character, his wisdom, and his acts, all which are found in God's word. Christian meditation depends on the truth, which is found in God's word. There are a lot of references to the Psalms, which I liked.

When we think of meditation, perhaps the picture we have in our heads is of someone sitting cross legged on the floor, chanting a meaningless mantra in order to empty our minds. That is not Christian meditation. Early in the book, Clowney points to the meaning of "meditate," as given in Psalm 1:

When the psalmist speaks of meditating on the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:2) he uses a word that means "to mutter." The word occurs again in the second psalm to describe the rebellious mutterings of the kings who would cast off God's yoke (Ps. 2:1). It is also used to describe the growl of a lion and the cooing or "chattering" of doves (Isa. 31:4; 59:11). It seems evident that the psalmist's meditation is closely related to the repetition of the words of Scripture.

At the end of the book, practical suggestions are given, and one of them is memorization, and considering this notion of "muttering," the relationship between meditation and memorization is obvious. Memorization helps us with meditation, because it involves repetition. As we read and think of Scripture over and over again, it becomes part of us.

Clowney extends this to meditation through singing. What better way is there to memorize Scripture than to memorize it with the aid of music? How often have you heard a chorus of a song you have known from childhood, and find yourself remembering every single word? Music and memory go hand in hand. This means that what we sing is important, because singing contributes (or it should) to meditation on godly truths.

Clowney says this:

The hymns of the church are the richest source of written meditations on Scripture. Changes in musical taste have eliminated beautiful hymns from use because their tunes are no longer in vogue. But the whole treasury of hymns from across the centuries lies before the Christian in meditation.

The words of songs, therefore, are important. Really important. Content matters. Just because the tune is great and it's easy to learn doesn't mean the content is worth meditating on. It seems these days, we are more worried about how many instrumentalists we can fit on the platform, not how enriching the words are. But I'm being a curmudgeon, and showing my age. I know some talented musicians; I'd love to see them use those talents and bring the words of the Psalms to bear on their compositions, like Sons of Korah have done. I think our problem is that we believe our worship music has to sound similar to popular music, and I don't think I agree with that. Music rant over. 

It is my goal this year to memorize some Psalms. I'm not sure how many but I know Psalm 46 and Psalm 145 will be on my list. And I don't want to memorize them just so I can say them without error; I want to think about them to ponder them, so that they will sink into my bones.


The dogma is the drama

I began reading a book which came highly recommended to me by a real life friend, and an online friend, Michael Horton's A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship.

In the introduction to the book, Horton quotes from Dorothy Sayers' Creed or Chaos?

Surely it is not the business of the church to adopt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ. It is the dogma that is the drama - not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to lovingkindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death - but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.

Guess what just went on my wishlist?