Monday, June 10, 2013

A time of nonsense

In Robin Parry’s little book on the Trinity in worship, I picked up the title for Nick Page’s delightful exploration of a deplorable condition in modern worship songs. And hey, this is not the rant of a traditionalist dinosaur. Like Parry, Page is an English charismatic Christian who embraces the “worship song” ethos, and wants to see it live up to its potential. Published in 2004, one would like to think that Page’s diagnosis and cure have been accepted and applied. Sadly, in my observation, not as much as one would wish. A couple of years ago I pressed a fellow pastor about a particular song choice, wondering if it was incoherent. He didn’t see it that way; I think Nick Page would have.

The author of And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why Worship Songs are Failing theChurch, Nick Page is a free-lance author with a wide range of interests, many (though not all) connected to the church and Christian life. Think of DickLowden, with an English accent and Christian faith. The man is funny. And that lets him get intensely serious with an issue he cares deeply about. Maybe it’s because I come at this concern from the opposite side – I think worship songs have a complementary role, not a primary role, in congregational song – but through Page’s humor I find his observations and arguments compelling.

Page equates the writing of worship songs in our generation with the flowering of hymnody in the past. As with old hymns (most of which we no longer sing, for very good reasons) he assumes most of the new will fall away, leaving the best for the next generation(s). When I came to this realization myself, some years ago, I became much less anxious about dealing with new music. And much more eager to settle only for the songs with some lasting values: are the words true and meaningful? Do the melodies sound anything like what the words mean? Can a large inter-generational group sing them well? Well, enough about me, let’s get on to Why Worship Songs are Failing the Church. This book is directed toward song-writers, but in my view it should be read by those who select the songs (worship leaders and pastors) and by everyone who wants to have a voice in worship discussions.

When we equate music with worship, and worship with music (and really, why does this still happen?) we isolate worship from life. (24) Excellent point. Can someone who embraces the notion of “lifestyle” worship continue to use the word “worship” when they mean “singing,” or isolate “worship” from “preaching”?

Page presses for song-writing that uses every day vocabulary. He is ferocious on the use/abuse of church and Christian and yes, even biblical, clichés. And he urges songwriters to creatively explore metaphors, imagery, ideas that communicate biblical truth in common language. If the words we sing were more transparent, more concrete, more like the way we talk, then maybe our “lifestyle” worship and our sung worship would be more congruent. Someone once wrote, “When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” (25) How much do we sing that we (a) don’t believe, (b) don’t understand, and/or (c) have no intention of actually living out? Ouch. (And yes, this is true also of hymn singing, isn’t it?)

A free-lance writer with wide-ranging interests had better have a love for words. Nick Page does. And he so obviously loves to sing. And is eager to be a genuine worshiper. His critique from within his own tradition is “friendly fire.” It ought to be read by all evangelicals, at least, and other Christians who look to that charismatic tradition for their worship songs. Page applauds those who are not writing nonsense, names some who are, and illustrates that nonsense with a series of songs by the fictitious Kevin Molecule, worship leader at the Stokes Poges Strict Tabernacle. In a series of letters to his music publisher, we get a look inside the head of the worst-case scenario . . . Which is to say, perhaps, the all-too-common. Incoherent? Honestly, Kevin’s songs are no worse than some you and I have heard, seen, and either been forced to sing or have refused to sing. Like this excellent viral video, Kevin’s songs can hardly serve as a parody for what is being sung in churches of all kinds.

Here is Kevin Molecule's first song:
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
We glorify the Lamb once slain
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
We enter into the land all over again.
Build a great big throne with our worship,
Help us live in resurrection power;
And you will reign
Like a bride ordained,
For our anointed consummating hour.
                (repeat) Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, etc.
(just before page 1)
Excuse me: this is what I meant about incoherent lyrics. Yes, all the words make sense, and we can even trace the sources of the ideas. But, really? The songs get better (or, not) throughout the book, and at the end (122) we learn that with only a very few (very obvious) exceptions, they were cobbled together from actual published worship songs.

So much for the words. But, seriously, if you can find this book, it is worth reading Kevin’s songs. And asking, “haven’t I sung this one?” Page also addresses song-writing, and has an excellent description of the pop song as the model for worship songs. (36-39) Remember, this is from a friend of the concept. He calls the model “the spiritual equivalent of the paper plate.” (39) “So much of worship is turning in on itself,” (42) which of course is its pop song legacy and the unintended consequence of worship as entertainment (44f) – his critique, not mine! To make up for the innate lack of qualities, because the words and melody can’t quite sell some songs, we press for greater performance forces (bigger bands). Friends and fellow worship leaders: If our pastors and churches are pressing for more people on the “stage” to “lead worship,” we need to be asking some questions. Are we too close to the entertainment roots of our worship music; and are our songs inherently dependent upon volume to “work?” These are not my questions today – they come from Nick Page.

Page is not all critique. He provides some excellent advice to would-be song-writers. Read poetry; study excellent songwriters of all genres; ask others to evaluate your lyrics; be an artist; take time. His fifth chapter (52-81) denies that sincerity is enough; here is a charismatic arguing for the importance of technique. His model is Newton’s “Amazing Grace;” he urges writers to write from their own experiences. “They [your song lyrics] should not be rehashes of other people’s experiences or rewrites of other lyrics.” Ironic, since Newton’s best-loved, most genre-crossing hymn is also the most-cribbed genre-crossing hymn ever written.

Time and space prohibit me from going into Page’s excellent critique of cliché. Perhaps we should demand of our song-writers some evidence that they have successfully completed a course in English composition. And that they keep Strunk & White on their desk or music stand. Readers may be uncomfortable with Page’s argument against using biblical imagery. I know that I was at first, and have lingering doubts about how far to extend his critique. But I will say that the most incoherent worship songs I’ve ever seen on a screen were full of biblical vocabulary, metaphors, images, and quotations. So, um, maybe we should also demand of our song-writers some evidence of biblical and theological competency. Finally, and to this point, Page proposes that if worship songs are to become the best they can be, the genre may need to take the words out of the guitar players' hands, and put them into the hands of poets and pastors. Interestingly – and I don’t think the irony is lost on Nick Page – that partnership produced most of the most-lasting hymns.

Nick Page, And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: why Worship Songs are Failing the Church
(Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic Media, 2004)

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