Sunday, March 19, 2006

Worship Music and Dead Language

In a certain circle of thinkers, the topic of modern worship music and its problems has been thoroughly examined and debated. Because of that, I’m quite hesitant to throw my thoughts in, but since I have not yet heard anyone address the topic in precisely the way I’m about to, I feel compelled to write anyway. If someone else has approached the problem from the following perspective, please let me know so that I can give them credit.

When I say that I think that modern worship music often fails to worship God in spirit and in truth, I am speaking from my own experience. Every week, when I go to church and hear the worship music, I struggle with my spirit to understand, believe, and mean the words that I am singing. I see “Worthy is the Lamb” projected on the screen for me to sing with everyone else, but the words are utterly meaningless to me as I sing; however, should I read those same words in the Bible or in a work of theology, the actual denotive and connotive meanings of “worthy” and “Lamb” are called to my mind. The difference is that since I have grown up in the church, I have heard the same set of words used in the same context, setting, (and often the same musical key), thousands of times. Holy, wonderful, love, peace, grace, righteousness, cross, sin, blood, crown, beautiful, pierce, Christ, Jesus, God, Spirit, Son, Lamb…this isn’t a complete list, but it does include some of the most overly used words in worship songs. The consequence of confining ourselves within the same idiom for decades is that the words in the idiom have become empty symbols (there’s a deconstructionist reading here somewhere. Perhaps Mr. Edwards could help find it?). While the words projected on the screen and leaving our mouths mean “holiness,” our minds possess no thought that resembles the definition of holiness.

If I am correct in my assertion that the language of worship has become a dead language, then what is the songwriter to do in order to create music which sincerely worships God in spirit and in truth with artistic excellence? Is it possible to write worship music without ever speaking of Christ by His name? The solution to this problem is balance, discernment, and unpacking meaning. There are some words that must be used in worship music, at least occasionally. For those words, like the name of God and Christ, the important thing is to balance their use and to know when to use them for the greatest effect. Someone, a blogger whose name escapes me right now, once suggested that we take the Lord’s name in vain when we sing it twenty times in the same song. While I’m not sure I would completely agree with this statement, I do believe that he was correct in pointing to the fact that repetition diminishes power and meaning. If a secular song about a relationship repeated the word “love” fifty times, you wouldn’t believe that the singer loved someone more than a singer who sang the word “love” only once after spending most of the song detailing what that love meant. It is very important for worship songwriters to balance their use of specific words and to discern where to place them so that others will best grasp the meaning and purpose of the word in context.

Let me give an example to explain what I mean by unpacking meaning. When the poet uses language to express himself, he will use very specific words. One word in a poem holds within it a spectrum of meanings, both connotive and denotive. Instead of writing three lines of poetry to express something, a good poet often chooses one word that evokes the same meaning. In modern worship music, this same thing has occurred. The word “holy” has within it a wide array of meanings: set apart, sacred, righteous, pure, untainted, otherworldly, good, etc…By using such dense language, the songwriter can write lyrics that are full of complexity and depth; thus better expressing the theme of the song. But, as we have seen, in modern worship these words have lost their spectrum of meaning. When we sing holy, not only do we not think of the many meanings of the word, we rarely think of even the dictionary definition. Instead of one word standing in for ten thoughts or words, it now stands in for nothing; all that is left is the written symbol and the sound of the word. I believe that the solution to this problem is that worship songwriters must unpack the meaning of the words that they typically use. Thus, instead of using holiness, spend a line or two in the song describing God’s holiness. This accomplishes two things: first, it reduces the overuse of the worship song idiom, which will eventually lead to a time when people can hear the word “holy” in a song and again call to mind all the meanings attached to it; and second, it will be easier for those who sing along to focus on the meaning of the lyrics because the words will be outside the standard idiom.

As I said, I am speaking from my own experience and therefore what I am suggesting might only apply to myself. Please let me know if you experience something similar or different when you worship, or if you think the solution I’ve spelled out here (balancing the use of specific words, discerning where those words should be placed in a song for the greatest impact, and unpacking words in the worship idiom to revitalize meaning) is insufficient or misguided.

8 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think it depends upon people other than intellectuals actually recognizing that there is a problem with worship lyrics that don't hold meaning.

I also think, to many people who are not familiar with/don't grok our vast tradition of beautiful hymns that combine theology with poetry, empty words are just as good for praising God as empty sounds--the point is the heart. Praise music is the filler that allows us to "make a joyful noise" for God. It's not an immoral position, but it is one I've been rather incapable of sharing (and don't feel I should be required to.)

noneuclidean said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "It's not an immoral position". What does the "it" refer to?

I do agree with your statement that we need people other than intellectuals and that the real issue is with the heart; however, my focus is practical. Practically people can praise God through music that is filled with "empty words", but as songwriters, we should (or they should) do what they can to help people praise God in a deeper and more meaningful way. So while the responsibility ultimately lies with the individual and their heart, the artist is not without blame either.

Do you have any ideas on how we can get people other than intellectuals to desire worship music that glorifies God in spirit and in truth?

Josh P. said...

I agree with you Alan. As a matter of fact, I get rather bored. I often make up funny lyrics in my head that rhyme with the actual lyrics. For Example "Shepard King our great defender" I often think "Stephen King our great defender." Sound stupid? Well it is. I just don't identify with the music or lyrics. I ask honestly, do bland music and trite lyrics really honor God? Perhaps we shouldn't settle for okay when it comes to God. Perhaps we should strive to create something that actually makes people feel something.
I really think Sunny Day Real Estate did it best. Best Christian Music I ever heard.

brian said...

Thank you for your thought provoking words on the subject. As a worship leader/songwriter/church musician type of person I live in the trenches with these realities on a daily basis. I don't dismiss all of what is called "modern worship", but it does take a hefty amount of discernment to sift through the rubble. At the same time, I think you could say the same thing about a good bit of the flowery hymns that were written in the past. When planning for worship I try to look for "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" from across many different generations. Every age tends to have its own predominant sin, and I think it takes courage to get beyond our own perspectives and preferences.

I don't think the words are dead though (even in spite of our efforts to kill them). A look through Revelation 4 is a good reminder that some words never get old. As you pointed out, the challenge is in singing/writing the "new song" in a way that guides the soul to worship in spirit and truth.

I think there are some songs were singing in the world of "modern worship", but it is important to remember that most of the songs coming out of the genre are written within the confines of a record label owned by a corporate giant. That being said, I think our challenge is not only in writing words that matter, but in re-discovering true community.

josh k said...

Hmmm... Even though I'm not a christian, I do remember Christian school, and chapel, suffering from the same problem. We'd recite Psalm 100 every week, on friday. It began to be a bunch of drones stating: "The lord is my shepard. I shall not want, ect..." accept it sounded more like "thelordismyshepardIshallnotwant" Which left a beautiful piece of writing abandoned of all meaning.

JEdwards said...

I wholeheartedly agree with what you're saying. My problem with contemporary worship songs is twofold.

First, as you say, the endless repetition of a word simultaniously reduces the word to a meaningless sound and associates that meaningless sound with some desired effect. If you look at cultures that practice "magical" arts, use fetish objects, etc., you see the same process.

I could roll out some deconstructionism on this, but I'd rather roll out Saussure. He talks about the triangulation between the signifier, the sign, and the signified. The sign is the synthesis of signifier and signified. The signifier, the word "holy" for example, is really just an abitrary collection of letters producing a sound. It obtains meaning through its association with a signified and its opposition to other signs. When the word holy is associated with God, it has meaning, but as this word is repeated endlessly (as often happens in worship songs) it become dissociated from the signifier and reduced to, what Saussure would call, a floating signifier.

[Incidently, I saw a great example of this in a 1968 avant garde film from Paul Sharits called T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. In this film, there are only three images, all somewhat disturbing, with a track in the background endlessly repeating the word "destroy"--after a few minutes, the word becomes completely disassociated, and people in the audience began to hear other words mixed into the soundtrack. The word had become completely decontextualized, and it lost all meaning]

The word itself becomes fetishized. Now we can have the emotion and the power of a word like "holy" without needing God.

This connects with my second problem: Worship songs selectively choose "positive" human emotions or manifestations of God. We limit our own emotions and the full manifestation of God.

For example, here is the chorus from Chris Tomlin's "Better is One Day":

Better is one day in Your courts
Better is one day in Your house
Better is one day in Your courts
Than thousands elsewhere
Better is one day in Your courts
Better is one day in Your house
Better is one day in Your courts
Than thousands elsewhere
(Better is one day)
Better is one day in Your courts
Better is one day in Your house
Better is one day in Your courts
Than thousands elsewhere
Better is one day in Your courts
Better is one day in Your house
Better is one day in Your courts
Than thousands elsewhere

And here is the verse that inspired this chorus from Psalm 84:

9 Look upon our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

In the latter example, you have a clear picture of what is and is not included in the courts of God. Now, we may disagree with the psalmist or about dislike the way he is phrasing things, but at least the Psalm give us something to disagree over. Chris Tomlin's version is so saccarine that it's hard to see who would disagree with it.

Contemporary services stop at verse 18 of Psalm 139; they never sing Psalm 94, 99, or 102. These verses make me uncomfortable too, but without these passages that show God's anger or our own frustration with God, I can't really know what "Holy, Holy, Holy" means. These passages are hard, but at least they give me something--someone--to wrestle with.

This is the real danger of these songs, we remake God in our own image by selectively choosing what makes us happy and discarding what makes us uncomfortable. And the cost of making God attractive and appealing is just too high. When the church stops trying to hide the uncomfortable and make Christianity into a series of magical words without meaning, I will be proud to stand up and sing joyfully to God. As it is, when my church gets up to sing their praise songs, I stand up, but I don't sing.

I just can't do it honestly.

noneuclidean said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Josh P.
I agree about Sunny Day, but you really should check out The prayers and tears of arthur digby sellers at prayersandtears.com . You can download their old album for free and they have an amazing hymn they cover called Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (Ps 109:22. You should at least download that. His sincerity alone makes the song very compelling. I keep thinking to myself, why should worship music sound like secular pop music? So I agree that Christians need to make better worship music, it just so happens that most of the people that actually make the music don't seem to think about the importance of worshiping God in Spirit and in TRUTH. Brian (the guy who posted below) and the Prayers and Tears guys are at least putting in some work on this problem.

Brian
It really encourages me to hear from people that are actually doing something. I feel bad everytime I write about an artform that I'm not personally working in. I to write fiction, and I am in a Hip-Hop group, but as for worship music, I can't seem to write something that I feel is worthy. I thank God for people like you, so keep working. As you pointed out, there are many more elements that contribute to this problem: capitalism, lack of community, insincerity in music and lyrics, a view that everything that is old must be holier...the list goes on and on. The only reason I chose to write this post was that I felt that I could say something constructive.

Josh K.
I find myself struggling with this same problem when I read the Bible. If I read a passage that is a popular catch phrase or a common quote in Christindom, I often ignore it because I'm to familar with it to see it's meaning and beauty. It is a constant battle just to remember that these are the words of God, not just "floating signifiers".

JEdwards
I wasn't sure if it was a deconstructionalist or a structuralist reading that I was looking for, but I knew that the signifier, signified, and sign were an unspoken presence in my post. Thanks for clearing that up.

"Better is One Day" is one of the songs that really bothers me as well. But I have a personal conviction that I should sing despite the poor art. And I feel this way for a number of reasons. First, we are called to mae a joyful noise, so even if it is a bad song, in the end I feel that I need to glorify God with my heart and with my mind and voice. When the church is playing a song that I feel is poor in quality, I still sing, but I try to be sincere and purposeful with the words that I sing. Second, I feel that unless I am able to explain to all those around me why I am not singing, I could very easily become a stumbling block. What is better, to sing with a grateful heart with floating signifiers, or to not sing at all? I feel that it is better to sing, so if by my not singing (even if I can do so with a pure heart), I cause someone who might look up to me to stop their singing, I believe that I have caused them to stumble. Again, this is a personal conviction, I completely understand why you choose not to sing.

As for the tendency among Christians to choose lyrics that are warm and fuzz, this can also be seen in sermons, pictural arts, clothing, literature, etc...Many believe, and I would agree, that it is this warm and fuzzness (Thomas Kincade Christians) that has aloud Super-Chruches to spring up. People hate to be offended, so give them an unoffensive message/song, and they'll love you. It's a sad truth, and one that we need to be in prayer and in action about.
Thanks for the comments everyone.

Josh P.
I agree about Sunny Day, but you really should check out The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers at prayersandtears.com . You can download their old album for free and they have an amazing hymn they cover called “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (Ps 109:22)”. You should at least download that. His sincerity alone makes the song very compelling.

I keep thinking to myself, why should worship music sound like secular pop music? So I agree that Christians need to make better worship music, it just so happens that most of the people that actually make the music don't seem to think about the importance of worshiping God in Spirit and in TRUTH. Brian (the guy who posted below) and the Prayers and Tears guys are at least putting in some work on this problem.

Brian
It really encourages me to hear from people that are actually doing something. I feel bad every time I write about an art form that I'm not personally working in. I to write fiction, and I am in a Hip-Hop group, but as for worship music, I can't seem to write something that I feel is worthy. I thank God for people like you, so keep working. As you pointed out, there are many more elements that contribute to this problem: capitalism, lack of community, insincerity in music and lyrics, a view that everything that is old must be holier...the list goes on and on. The only reason I chose to write this post was that I felt that I could say something constructive.

Josh K.
I find myself struggling with this same problem when I read the Bible. If I read a passage that is a popular catch phrase or a common quote in Christendom, I often ignore it because I'm to familar with it to see it's meaning and beauty. It is a constant battle just to remember that these are the words of God, not just "floating signifiers".

JEdwards
I wasn't sure if it was a deconstructionalist or a structuralist reading that I was looking for, but I knew that the signifier, signified, and sign were an unspoken presence in my post. Thanks for clearing that up.

"Better is One Day" is one of the songs that really bother me as well. But I have a personal conviction that I should sing despite the poor art. And I feel this way for a number of reasons. First, we are called to make a joyful noise, so even if it is a bad song, in the end I feel that I need to glorify God with my heart and with my mind and voice. When the church is playing a song that I feel is poor in quality, I still sing, but I try to be sincere and purposeful with the words that I sing. Second, I feel that unless I am able to explain to all those around me why I am not singing, I could very easily become a stumbling block. What is better, to sing with a grateful heart with floating signifiers, or to not sing at all? I feel that it is better to sing, so if by my not singing (even if I can do so with a pure heart), I cause someone who might look up to me to stop their singing, I believe that I have caused them to stumble. Again, this is a personal conviction; I completely understand why you choose not to sing.

As for the tendency among Christians to choose lyrics that are warm and fuzz, this can also be seen in sermons, pictorial arts, clothing, literature, etc...Many believe, and I would agree, that it is this warm and fuzziness (Thomas Kincade Christians) that has aloud Super-Churches to spring up. People hate to be offended, so give them an inoffensive message/song, and they'll love you. It's a sad truth, and one that we need to be in prayer and in action about.

Shalom,
alan


Shalom,
alan

Anonymous said...

Ask God what He wants to hear, then wait... He will let you know what to do next. Ask Him to let you delight Him. You can trust Him and drop everything else that distracts you - when you ask Him to empower you. Enjoy !