Apparently, somewhere over the mountains and the sea, God has a river flowing with love. And, when they are truly in a state of worship, a person can actually feel a God-song rising up in them. While it would be nice to know the location of such a river or the sensation of a “God-song,” the problem is that neither of these claims are true, despite the fact that they are lyrics found in two popular worship songs that have been sung for years by Christians all over the world. While the intentions of the writers of such lyrics are likely good and their motives surely pure, such phrases present false realities far from an accurate representation of God and the Christian faith. The trends in the material being written, recorded, and universally sung are often so far-fetched that they are laughable to both the believing and non-believing culture alike. Instead of being deeply saturated in the imagery of the Psalms, current songs are sinking in shallow and simply unintelligent metaphors and rhymes. Instead of serving as a soapbox for sound doctrine, lyrics are full of incomplete or incorrect theology. And instead of using song to meet a person in the depths of a valley with the fullness of the gospel, music that is supposedly Christian offers unrealistic portrayals of life as a believer. All the while, followers and worshippers of God are growing increasingly desensitized to it.
It is safe to say that desensitization is rarely a positive movement for Christians, in almost any realm. Whether it is desensitization to the poverty and injustice so easily observed in the world, or to tainted mindsets and behaviors concerning sex, money and power, to become desensitized often requires compromise of conviction and principle. One of the great crises on the brink of today’s Christian culture involves a gradual but steady desensitization to the detrimental faults that plague it’s music. As standards for what is appropriate music for the presence of God lower and lower, so do believers and entire churches settle. Week after week, worship pastors find no harm in leading their congregations in singing lyrics that aren’t based on the Bible or even necessarily what is true of God. The problem is evident outside of the church as well. Day after day during their long drive home from work, the Christian’s car radio blares popular, intellectually dull music. And, in both scenarios, the Christian is forced to indulge such music because it’s all that is dictated to them. Thus, desensitization occurs. Songwriters will continue to write without accountability as long as worship leaders and radio stations continue to play their music.
Even in the secular world, certain subject matter in music requires more complex language than others. For example, a song in memory of someone who has recently passed away will be a great deal more solemn than one in memory of the drunken events of last Friday night. It is fitting, therefore, that songs written about the existence and goodness of God should be held to a different standard entirely- one that musicians and writers are accountable to. When lyrics should be stimulating and challenging the mind of the believer, they have actually become an excuse to turn it off. What is meant to be holy songwriting is littered with mindless words and phrases. Doctrine is all together ignored for the sake of a catchy tune. And there is an overemphasis on the happiness of life, which ignores the realities of suffering and hardship. Fundamentally, lyrics that rightly proclaim who God is, worship Him appropriately, and truly edify believers will be intellectual, theological and honest. Songwriters must employ these characteristics in their crafting of a true, Christian song. Writing labeled as such leaves no room for vague and cliché language, the lack of sound doctrine, and sugarcoated pictures of daily life.
If, as Christians believe, everything is theological, then there must be a theology of music that has fruitful implications for and informs songwriting. The biblical evidence offered in favor of Christianity being a “religion of the song,” as Don Saliers calls it, is found throughout history and is rather immense (Saliers 11). Some of the first accounts of God’s provision in the Old Testament were celebrated through song. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, Scripture records they sang a victory song. “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…’” (Exodus 15:1). Furthermore, ever since the gospel took on flesh, it has been communicated and celebrated in and through music. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned because of their work, the Bible records that their singing is what brought inmates and prison guards to a saving knowledge of Christ. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). From the Old Testament to the New, God is made known and His works are praised through song (read To Sing With Understanding for further biblical perspective).
It is not easily protested that music and song are crucial to Christian history. However, this is not music for the sake of music but, rather, music for the sake of worship and even evangelism. And to worship something requires an understanding of it. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” Another version of this verse reads, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15). With the kind of language used by Christian songwriters today, it is possible that many people are singing songs, whether personally or corporately, without their minds; without a proper understanding of what it is they are saying. Isaac Watts, perhaps one of the most well known hymn writers of old whose words are still sung frequently today, said it this way: “I would neither indulge any bold metaphors, nor admit of hard words, nor tempt the ignorant worshipper to sing without his understanding” (Brand, Chaplin 86).
Intellectual: Lyrics from a Sound Mind
Because God clearly gave humans the most intricate minds in all of creation, nothing should be done thoughtlessly. Although this has widespread application, avoiding thoughtlessness in His worship is perhaps of the utmost importance, in light of the fact that the greatness of the human intellect pales in comparison to that of God Himself (Brown 103). As John Calvin wrote of Saint Augustine, “There must always be concern that the song be neither light nor frivolous, but have gravity and majesty.” Right and high thinking is not just important to offering God acceptable worship, but it is absolutely required if a believer is to get anywhere near the demands of His presence (Owens 145). The words to the hymn, “Take My Life and Let It Be” suggest that even intellect is to be surrendered in the reality of who He is: “Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.”
It is the failure to employ such intellect that leads to lyrics like, “I can feel this God-song rising up in me.” This lyric actually exists, listen to it here. Unfortunately, however, a “God-song” does not. This phrase is simply the failure to find a more meaningful and thought-provoking description of the feeling a person can experience in a state of worship (Brown 90). Mindless lyrics also lead to vain repetition, in which a specific line or phrase of the song is repeated over and over again until it creates a sort of “pep rally” that has singers or listeners hypnotized for no reason at all (Owens 147). Jesus warns His followers to avoid vain repetition in prayer in Matthew 6:7-8. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard or their many words.” He clearly had a problem with the addition of more words as an attempt to boost spirituality. Not all repetition is void of purpose, however, and some might actually be based on biblical content. But what is being repeated and why are questions that must be asked.
In his critique of one of the most popular Christian songs to-date, “How He Loves,” one blogger had a field day over the repetition in the chorus of the phrase, “He loves us. Oh, how He loves us.” While the lyrics in the verses are actually quite strong in imagery, he is right- the major emotional connectivity to the song is almost entirely dependent on the repetitive musical build up of this one phrase. However true that phrase may be and however beautiful the other writing in the verses is, if the worship leader or singer were to strip the song down until only the verses remained, it would not be nearly as popular (find his blog here to determine whether or not his arguments are valid). The hype of this particular song is found in the emotional high of the chorus. Again, repetition in and of itself is not inherently useless and wrong. It can often be used to call the person singing or listening to focus on a very significant aspect of God or can serve as an epiphany, of sorts, of a truth he or she had never quite fully understood before. Sometimes, specific lyrics repeated over and over again in songs (the classic ”Holy, Holy, Holy” comes to mind) are taken straight from the awe of God demonstrated in Scripture. It is not wrong for a songwriter to repeat words and phrases of such a nature. What is wrong, however, is when this is a tactic used to mindlessly fill space in a song, complete a rhyme, or manipulate a person into a spiritual state of hypnosis, in which they really have no idea why or what they are singing. Songwriters and mainstream worship leaders know how to use repetition to continually recreate an emotional peak of euphoria that can often be unfounded.
The well-known missionary, Amy Carmichael, once prayed, “Make us Thy mountaineers; we would not linger on the lower slope…” Likewise, this should be the prayer of every songwriter attempting to give an accurate portrayal of the God they love- that they would avoid the lower paths of cliche and unintelligent language; that their craft would demonstrate a higher, more beautiful, more intellectual level of thinking that accurately represents the mind of Christ that is fully present within them and a love for God abounding more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (Philippians 1:9, 2:5).
Theological: Lyrics from Sound Doctrine
Correct theology is just as important as intellect when it comes to songwriting. Karl Barth once said, “The best worship has always been richly theological.” Orthodoxy, or the prevailing spiritual and theological beliefs of most Christ-followers, involves the root word “doxa,” which refers to praise and worship. Therefore, there is such a thing as a correct or orthodox theology when it comes to praise, and there should be a general perspective and practice of it (Humphrey 55). Even the grammar implored in the act of worship boils down to theological truths. God receives the worship (John 4:24), Christ perfects it (Hebrews 7:23-25), and the Holy Spirit prompts it (Romans 8:15, 26). Wherever the Trinity is present, theology must be nearby. As John Wesley exhorted believers to do, “Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.”
The greatest implication for songs that are deeply rooted in theology is that the singing of every verse and every chorus, every word and every line is an opportunity to reflect on and be challenged by the truths of God and His word (Witvliet 20). In fact, music can really only be valid as worship when it services the Word from beginning to end (Hughes). It is also the opportunity to profess tenants of the faith to an unknowing and unbelieving world. Gordon Fee, a popular contemporary Christian songwriter and worship leader, claims: “Show me a church’s songs, and I’ll show you their theology” (Kauflin 101). Theology speaks loudly in music. Kevin DeYoung, a well known pastor and author, contributed a two part series of blogs to the Gospel Coalition with extensive theological implications for songs in churches, one of which being that the root of music in the church, like every other aspect of it, must be love. Theology requires a deep love for the Father and music is an avenue to demonstrate it to the church and to the world.
While there is a difference between incomplete theology and incorrect theology, both are extremely detrimental. There are plenty of examples of serious problems in contemporary Christian songs due to a lack of theological depth or correct theology in general. For example, one song that has been on the list of the top twenty most popular Christian songs for several weeks, according to K-Love, is “God’s Not Dead” by the Newsboys (listen to it here). Its chorus contains the words, “My God’s not dead, He’s surely alive. And He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.” While there are two mentions of the phrase, “roaring like a lion,” in the Bible, neither of them are in the context of what the songwriter is alluding to here. First, the devil “walks around like a roaring lion, seeking who he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And second, God roars like a lion to an unrepentant nation who comes back humbly in the book of Hosea (Hosea 11:10). Christian songwriters should never forsake good theology or biblical correctness in search of good musical flow. They should never be guilty of an “anything goes” attitude toward their lyrical decisions. Just because it fits rhythmically, melodically, or just because it rhymes does not mean it should be in the song (Owens 139). As Francis Schaeffer said, “The fact that a great artist is saying it does not make it any more true than the most lowly man speaking the most awful prose.” While metaphorical images can and often do provide appropriate and meaningful portrayals of God and the faith, songwriters must use them in accordance with correct biblical understanding. These word pictures should not lead to mindless singing or listening in which the worshippers or listeners lack a proper understanding of what they’re claiming about God and/or themselves through song.
The examples given thus far have been of relatively newer Christian music, dating back to the 1990′s at the earliest. But just because it’s an old classic does not mean it’s exempt from theological flaw. Don’t rule out some of the time-tested treasures; even hymns are susceptible to these fallacies. It’s nearing Christmas, so perhaps it would be appropriate to take a look at one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. The song, “Away in a Manger,” though sung by nearly every Christian at least once a year and likely to be every child’s first depiction of the night Christ was born, is inaccurate on several occasions. A few of the stanzas are worth noting and commenting on here:
The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus No crying He makes
First of all, the Bible clearly affirms Jesus was both fully God and fully human. Human babies cry. It’s a minor point and might be dismissed as irrelevant. But in actuality, teaching children (or adults) that Jesus didn’t cry as a baby, let alone as a baby newly entering this frightening world, is not teaching them that the fullness of God and of man dwelt among them that night; that He became one of them (John 1:14). It is ignoring His dual nature. The reality of His humanness is that He was brought low, and low enough to the point of bitter tears.
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
In this verse, believers are to ask Jesus to stay near them, as if there is a chance that He might not, that His love is not indefinite and that He could or would leave. They are also to ask that He love them; in fact, to pray that He love them. But God is love (1 John 4:16b). It is His nature; a nature that compelled Him to provide the epitome of love- the personhood of His Son. The irony of asking this baby, the Lord Jesus, to love is that He Himself is the greatest possible provision of the greatest possible love (1 John 4:9).
It could be argued that songs written specifically on the subject of Christ’s birth and resurrection should be impeccable. After all, the incarnation and resurrection are two of the very pillars of the faith and, as such, they should be treated with the highest level of doctrinal scrutiny.
Honest: Lyrics from Real Emotions
It is possible there is too much joy in Christian worship. This is not to say there isn’t much to be joyful about, and that worshipping God does not both give and demand the greatest joy. But as veteran songwriter, Andrew Peterson, said in an interview with the Gospel Coalition about his latest album, “Joy untouched by sorrow is mere happiness” (more of this interview can be found here). However, praise is too often considered to be the only acceptable form of worship. For many, to acknowledge life in the shadows is to be unfaithful (Brown 93). Because of this mentality, song lyrics depicting the Christian faith come dangerously close to trivializing suffering and are quick to offer an easy answer for it when such a thing is not likely to exist.
Two famous authors were quick to critique such dishonest writing. When asked why most religious verse is so bad and fails to reach a high level of poetry, T.S. Eliot responded, “Largely, I think because of a pious insincerity. People who write devotional verses are usually writing as they want to feel, rather than as they do feel” (Brand, Chaplin 76). Perhaps one of the most brutally honest novelists and storywriters, Flannery O’Connor also had strong opinions on emotional frankness and openness in her writing. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality…and that his business is somehow to arrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible in the progress” (76).
Crafting lyrics from both the peaks of bliss and the valleys of despair brings about the proper balance of life’s blessings and its sobering realities (Brown 92). Not only that, but it is a very biblical principle. “Mixed emotions. Loose ends. The Bible is like this because life is like this. And if life is like this, then our art had better reflect it too” (Brand, Chaplin 77). The Psalms are a prime example of joy touched by sorrow. Countless times, David asks the Lord why He is hidden from him, why He causes him affliction, and how much longer he will have to endure it (Psalms 88:14, 35:17). But notice how David never stops there. He adds a purpose clause, where David proves he knows his God to be good (Humphrey 176). It seems truly biblical songwriting does not shy away from doubt or tough questions of God or raw expressions of very real and troubling emotions in difficult times. Instead, it confronts them head-on while never ceasing to make a full return back to the goodness of a faithful God.
For the Christian, the lack of honesty in songwriting might not be as noticeable. It stems from years of the mentality that music, whether in church or on the radio, is for feel-good, happy, and overall cheerful sentiments. It was made the widely accepted mode of operation in the Christian culture and has gone undetected ever since. While it is tragic that there are likely so many believers who have, at one point or another, felt their less than joyous worship has been squandered, it is more of a tragedy that the average non-Christian who hears the same music will likely find that it doesn’t connect with the whole of their life, which implies the gospel won’t either. “I don’t think I’m overstating my case in saying that most of what claims to be Christian music actually does a great disservice to the Kingdom and our King because it limits His reign to very specific areas of life” (see Brent Thomas’ post titled, How to Think Biblically About Christian Music). Honest songwriting entails asking God hard questions, expressing doubts and worries, confessing sin, etc. Faithfulness to do these things will create music that relates to the non-believer.
God-honoring songwriting should be intellectual, theological, and honest. So how did Christian lyrics loose these roots? They did so gradually. It’s not as if overnight Christian music went from hymns like “It Is Well” to songs like “Days of Elijah.” It happened unintentionally. No one in particular set out with the ambition of writing shallow lyrics. But nonetheless, it happened repeatedly, which is enough to begin a cycle:
First, the technology in question (Christian music) was internalized. Internalization is the acceptance of a set of norms established by people or groups influential to the individual. The move from hymns to music from popular Christian artists such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, David Crowder, etc. so subconsciously became a part of the believing society that it was accepted as a norm. Then, once this happens, that music is passed through the filter of a culture, where it is adopted and socialized. Socialization occurs when individuals are made aware of the behavior others expect of them as to the norms, values, and culture of their society. The Christian culture adopted this music through avenues like mega churches, such as Hillsong, that suddenly began writing and producing their own music, which became the norm for their community and others. Christian radio stations like Moody Radio and K-Love began to deem what music is or isn’t “good” or normative based on what they either did or did not play. Meanwhile, massive annual conferences and events, like Passion, started setting the seemingly guaranteed standard for what would be the most popular music the entire following year. This is the desensitization that was previously discussed. Finally, if it makes it this far, the music is adopted by the culture and is then thrown into a system where it can be legitimized by mass-production. Legitimization is when an act, process, or ideology becomes legitimate by its attachment to norms and values within a given society; it is the process of making something acceptable and normative to an audience. For Christian music, Christian record labels like Sparrow, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and CCM serve as holy gauges by which all Christian music is measured for quality over the course of time.
This cycle continues until the music being created is no longer coming from intellectual and theological roots. It is no longer coming from honesty and conviction. Instead, it’s coming from artists attempting to do what it takes to win over the culture that makes their music socially acceptable in order to be legitimized by a system that mass-produces it. Worshippers become consumers and are just another market. Songwriters become entrepreneurs, businessmen, salesmen, and the like. Even worse, they become performers. The very fact that Do-It-Yourself songwriting and, more specifically, worship or Christian songwriting guides and books (like this one) exist is proof of this cycle. Lyrical writing inspired by personal testimony or inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and profound spiritual epiphanies is an art that has, to some degree, been lost. Now, anyone can write a song with the help of twelve easy lessons. Lyrics are too often written with the end goal and desire of coming full circle through the sociological cycle. This is not the mark of God-honoring songwriting. This is the mark of an industry. And an industry that excuses intellectually and theologically lacking, happy-go-lucky lyrics in the name of music that sells.
The redemption of Christian music will come when and only when this cycle is broken. First, the responsibility rests with the songwriters, who must take a look at and grapple with their convictions a little more than they have been. What are my motives for writing this song? And what am I really saying about God and about life in doing so? Christian music must return to an intellectual and theological foundation. At the same time, songwriters are to be faithful in allowing their song to speak to, what Francis Schaefer refers to as, the major and minor themes of life, the joys and the sorrows. He wrote, “If Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art” (Schaefer 86). The bulk of this critique and critical analysis is meant implicitly for songwriters, for intellectual, theological, and honest songs come from intellectual, theological, and honest songwriters. The creative mind cannot replace the intellectual mind. Money cannot replace doctrine. An industry cannot replace God-honoring and God-fearing worship. Songwriters have allowed these exchanges to happen for far too long. But the culture has a responsibility as well. They must refuse to settle; to stop adopting shallow music simply because a church, radio station, or big conference is behind it. The culture must regain its sensitivity. Christians must be intolerant of the errors of shallow lyrics, theological misses, and watered-down truth. Supporting such a system that legitimizes anything and everything for profit, regardless of its quality and integrity, is the beginning of the slippery slope toward consumerism. Instead, Christians should be supporting songwriters of the faith who are practicing their art well, regardless of the popularity or money it involves. Josh Garrels is an incredibly skilled and honest singer/songwriter who has been around for years now and has released entire albums to the public for free, yet he has never once appeared on Christian radio and it is not likely that his songs are sung in many churches. This isn’t to say those artists whose music becomes incredibly popular or who make a nice amount of money from it are all necessarily at fault. But, believe it or not, there are extremely talented Christian musicians whose music, though filled with thought-provoking words, never gets heard by the thousands. Settling for nothing less than beautiful and doctrinal music will lead worshippers and listeners to these artists and their songs, which are worthy to be heard.