Monday, January 11, 2010

Worship lyric misconceptions: The emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

One of the most important things to remember when you're writing poetry and music lyrics (very different thoughts about prose. . . .different blog) is that your audience may come away with different interpretations of your symbols, metaphors, and imagery. Briefly, with prose, I think it is important to find the author's actual intent. Despite what postmodernism tells us, I think it is possible and profitable to find out exactly what a writer said, in prose.

With poetry and lyrics, it is profitable to mine what the author is saying and to try and determine meaning, but the nature of the genre itself leads to different emphases and greater/lesser degrees of importance based on symbols and metaphor.

(I know everything I just said should have about 14 blogs worth of material. . but just go with me on this)

So, when you write a song it is important to note what is being emphasized in your lyric, and what, by way of musical build, emotion, placement, etc. . . . is "standing out" in your song.

As worship leaders, when we choose and write music, it's important to choose songs that are communicating orthodox biblical truth. But, it's equally as important to note what the emphasis of the song is, and what folks will be humming to themselves as they leave on Sunday.

Let me give some examples.

Friend of God by Israel Houghton. This is a very popular worship song, it communicates a biblical truth, that God has called us friends (James 2:23; John 15:15). I think the music is great. The concern is that the song would connote an "over-familiarity" with God because of the repetitious "I am a friend of God" through all the choruses. Songwriters would, in fact, call that line, the "hook" of that song. Israel addressed this concern and even said that's why he wrote the bridge "God Almighty, Lord of Glory, You have called me Friend". This bridge speaks of God's transcendence and excellence, and less of his nearness.

I appreciate the effort to balance the song out a bit. Unfortunately, everyone "leaves" that song with "I am a friend of God" going over and over in their head. It's the hook, it's the most emphasized part of the song. So, for that reason. . I choose to not use that song at church. Because of an over-familiarity with God in our culture, and a less than exalted view of Jesus among many folks. . . I don't want to make a point about God's nearness in that way. . with that emphasis.

(again, I"m not blackballing this song, or telling you, you shouldn't sing it. . .just fleshing some things out).

Breathe by Marie Barnett. We went around this song last time, so, not to pile on, . . but again, the line you walk away humming from that song is "I'm desperate for You" with the qualifier "I'm lost without You" which seems to mean that God isn't here (even though, as said last time, you can understand that song in a much better way). I lead this song from time to time, but don't use a steady diet of it, for those reasons.

Cannons by Phil Whickam. I love this song. The verses are pretty squishy and don't say alot of deep truth. It's basically a riff on Psalm 19 "the heaven's declare the Glory of God, day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge". Phil says in the song:

"it's falling from the clouds a strange and lovely sound I hear it in the thunder and the rain
It's ringing in the skies like cannons in the night, the music of the universe plays".

meh. . . it's ok. I think it "disney-fies" Psalm 19 a bit with strange and lovely sounds coming from the clouds. . but, here's the key:

The line you walk away humming from that song, . . the hook if you will. . . is "I'm so unworthy, but still you love me, forever my heart, will sing of how great you are"

That is a truth that I want to emphasize and "shine a light" on as we sing. So, if the whole song was like the verse, I probably wouldn't lead it. The gospel truth in the chorus is great.

That's enough for now. . . a few closing thoughts.

One way around these pitfalls is to write verbatim from scripture (which everyone tries to do at times), or to try and write modern "hymns" with layer after layer of theological truth. I'm trying to get better at this. . the Getty's are the modern forerunners in this area, I use their music alot, and appreciate what they write. Check out It's great stuff, though the music is not always as contemporary as I'd like. (I just re-arrange it).

The knock on modern worship music being theologically light, is unfortunately, correct sometimes. We need to proclaim deep, Gospel, God exalting truths in a clear way when we write for God's people to sing together. That's my heart as I choose and reject songs. I want to pastor people and help them to see God as He is, High and lifted up, and nearer than your next breath.

I'll look at some more songs next time, perhaps in a more positive light. . . please don't hear me knocking on these songs. All of these folks are better songwriters than I am. I'm just taking you through my thought process as I choose what our church will sing together. . . a task that unfortunately gets little attention sometimes. And, many times, the wrong emphases or criteria are used in said task. More to come. . .

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