Thursday, April 2, 2009

Content Vs. Style

As I've gotten older, I find myself appreciating the rich, theological depth of the more "traditional" sacred music. You usually find these types of songs in hymnals, and most of them were written before the 20th century. When you compare new religious (worship) music to the old hymns, the new stuff just can't compare when it comes to content. In most cases, I detest the shallow, touchy-feely, "Jesus is my girlfriend" lyrics that tend to plague modern worship music. There's just no substantive content to most of it. Thus, my affinity for the older songs. I'm in a strange boat, however. While I love and appreciate the old school lyrics, I prefer a more modern musical style, and let me tell you, finding songs that are "old school" in content and "new school" in style are hard to come by.

I learned recently that my personal opinion on this issue is the minority. There are many within the church (including my church) who feel that older sacred songs should be sung with only the accompaniment of a piano or organ, or perhaps both. Their musical tastes are a little different from mine: they prefer the old content and the old musical style. Also I learned that many who feel this way also think that any deviance from the old musical style in some way negates or diminishes the content of the old song. In other words, they feel that when a modern musical style is combined with the lyrical content of an old hymn, the hymn becomes somehow "less" than what it is when accompanied by a piano or organ.

I disagree with that line of thinking, however. As I see it, the only "value" of a sacred song is in the content of the lyrics, and I don't think the content of a song is diminished by the musical style in which it is played. After all, what is the content or value of a song if not the theological truths it proclaims? The content certainly can't be in the music itself or the melody. The music is just an arrangements of specific notes and tones, arranged to form a coherent melody. Certainly the value or content of the music is in the words that are formed and arranged in order to bring glory to God. Here's a good example (click on the song "Nail My Glory" on the music player). If you didn't follow the link, you're missing out. It's a great song. Allow me to describe it to you: it's loud, fast, rock n' roll. The lyrics are as follows:

No more, my God, I boast no more
Of everything my hands have done
I quit the hopes I held before
To trust the merits of Your Son

Now for His love I bear His name
My former pride I call my shame
What was my gain I count my loss
And I nail my glory to His cross

And by Your grace I will esteem
All things but loss for Jesus’ sake
Oh may my soul be found in Him
And of His righteousness partake

All of the works of my own hands
I dare not bring before Your throne
My faith responds to Your demands
By pleading what my Lord has done

You may be surprised to know that this song was written by Isaac Watts in 1709, author of such hymns as "O God Our Help In Ages Past," "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross," and "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed." Now, does the fact that Watts' words are set to a more modern musical style make them less true? I should think not. They have not changed. The rich, theological truths they proclaim remain unmolested.

Here's a another example, except this time, here are the lyrics to a "modern" worship song:

Looks like tonight the sky is heavy
Feels like the winds are gonna change
Beneath my feet the earth is ready
I know it's time for heaven's rain
It's gonna rain...yeah

Cause living water we desire
To flood our hearts with holy fire
Rain down, all around the world we're singing
Rain down, can you hear the earth is singing?
Rain down, my heart is dry but still I'm singing
Rain down, rain it down

Back to the start, my heart is heavy
Feels like it's time to dream again
I see the clouds and yes, I'm ready
To dance upon this barren land
Hope in my hands...yeah

Do not shut, do not shut
Do not shut the heavens
Open up, open up
Open up our hearts

Give me strength to cross this water
Keep my heart upon your altar
Rain down, yeah
Give me strength to cross this water
Keep my feet, don't let me falter
Rain down, yeah

I have no idea what this song is about. It's merely a conglomeration of churchy sounding phrases (holy fire, heaven, heart, etc.). Some of the phrases don't even make sense ("Can you hear the earth is singing/feels like it's time to dream again" HUH?) I don't know what the song is trying to say. I don't know what it says, if anything, about God. I don't know what it says about my relationship to God. I don't see how it praises God, or leads one into worshiping him. This song has little or no theological value at all. Plus it just doesn't make sense. The theme of the song seems to be a request for rain, as if rain is needed and is good, but towards the end of the song the lyricist states, "Give me strength to cross this water." Wait a minute! I thought you wanted water!

If you followed the link and listened to the song as it was played, you'll note that it is likewise modern and of the rock n' roll variety. But here's an interesting question: would setting the lyrics of this song to a piano and organ tune make it any less goofy? Would its content somehow become more valuable and rich? Certainly not! The lyrics would still not make sense, and it would still fail at telling the worshiper anything about God, or why he deserves praise, honor, and glory.

So then, I conclude, that the only thing that matters in worship music is the content of the lyrics. The musical melody, style, or tune does not factor into the value of a worship song (it should be noted that there are plenty of old hymns that are just as big of stinkers as many modern worship songs - they would likewise be useless in any musical style).

I explained this line of thinking to a friend of mine, and he challenged me by asking if I would be OK with a rap worship set in the morning church service. My response was "Yes, as long as the content of the song glorifies God." Now, that is not to say that we should convert all of our worship to rap - our culture has not dictated to us that rap is the acceptable medium of the masses. In other words, our culture dictates the driving musical style to us. Who knows, maybe in 20 years rap will be the main musical style of our culture. At that point in time, an all-rap service will make sense. And if and when it does, churches should not hesitate to have rap worship - as long as the content is sound.

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