25 Jan

Up this week, ‘Spirit Fall’, a song by Susie Woodbridge, Chris Lawson Jones, and Nick Herbert. Lyrics here, video here.

You breathe life, You restore
Awaken my soul, I know that I’ve been made for more

You speak truth, You renew
When I’m in Your presence You show me the glory of You

Spirit fall, Spirit fall
Fall on us for we are Yours
Fall on us for we are Yours

You will make, all things new
Until you return all creation cries out for you

There is power in Your presence
Hope and healing in your presence
There is freedom in Your presence
Spirit fall

One of the first things I look for in a song is how explicitly Christian it is. That’s because I think that a song that is distinctively lacking in Christian content is not really a Christian worship song, nor does it encourage people in a positive, Scriptural faith.

In the 4th century there was a group polemically called Pneumatomachi– the Spirit-fighters – so called by their opponents because they contended that the Spirit did not have a place in the Godhead and by correlation should not be worshipped.

This song is in danger of the opposite fallacy – of focusing entirely on the Spirit in an unbiblical lopsidedness that destroys the integrity of the Trinity and misdirects devotional practice.

For the whole song mentions only the Spirit. While prayer and worship may be properly directed towards the Spirit, since the Spirit is fully God and co-equal in honour, dignity, and worship with the Father and Son, it is also not the typical pattern within the Scriptures, and here it is directed at a spirit without mention of Father and Son.

The second problem I have with this song are the lyrics, ‘until you return all creation cries out for you’. I presume this is partly an echo of Romans 8:18-25. But we are not awaiting the Spirit’s return, but the Son’s. The creation groans and suffers, and we who have the Spirit groan inwardly, but the creation is not crying out for the return of the Spirit, that is not an accurate dynamic.

Lastly, the focus of this song is again an extrapolation of a narrow element of Scripture. The book of Acts talks a number of times, but few, about the Spirit ‘falling’ on believers. Acts 10:44 and then 11:15 (referring to the same event actually) are the only ones that come to mind. These refer to the coming of the Spirit on Gentiles as they first receive the gospel and believe in Christ. There’s no reason, I would argue, to think that believers need the Spirit to ‘fall’ on them apart from the entering of the Spirit that accompanies their conversion. In this sense, asking the Spirit to fall on us continually misunderstands the Spirit’s work in our life and relationship to us.

 

Sinking Deep

19 Jan

Today we’re talking about ‘Sinking Deep’, a Hillsong offering from Aodhan King and Joel Davies.

Here are the lyrics, and a video.

Verse 1:

Standing here in your presence
In a grace so relentless
I am won by perfect love
Wrapped within the arms of heaven
In a peace that lasts forever
Sinking deep in mercy’s sea

This song hits all sorts of contemporary experiential Christian ‘spots’ – surrender, presence, pursuit, ocean-imagery, love, devotion. In fact that’s just the first verse! In my view this is borderline – these are all elements found in Scripture, they have a place in Christianity, but they are not configured in this way, and these are not the major motifs of Scripture at all. ‘Surrender’ is not the dominant theme of Christian living, and speaks more to mystical aspirations of ‘losing all in the cosmic void’, for which the very common ocean theme works very well. There is a preponderance of ocean metaphors in this genre of worship music, and I suspect it speaks to a paucity of poetic imagination for vastness.

I’m wide awake drawing close
Stirred by grace and all my heart is yours
All fear removed
I breathe you in, I lean into your love
Oh your love

The chorus is particularly weak here, since it falls into the category of ‘mistook you for my boyfriend’ lyrics. Apart from dropping the null signifier ‘grace’, which hear just functions to say, ‘hey we’re talking Christian language yo!’, the chorus would work very well in a romance ballad. Certainly I don’t pretend to know what ‘I breathe you in, I lean into your love’ is meant to mean for a Christian worshiper.

When I’m lost you pursue me
Lift my head to see your glory
Lord of all, so beautiful
Here in you I find shelter
Captivated by the splendour of your face
My secret place

Verse 2 contains the one vaguely scriptural reference – obliquely to Luke 15 I would presume. But it then goes on to represent glory in aesthetic terms. We’re ‘captivated by the splendour of your face’, but that splendour has been interpreted as the ‘Lord…so beautiful’. The Bible doesn’t major, and barely minors, in the theme of the aesthetic beauty of God as a reason for worship of him. Indeed, it’s more likely to portray him as the Creator of a beautiful creation, rather than the Beautiful Creator.

Your love so deep is washing over me
Your face is all I seek, You are my ev’rything
Jesus Christ, You are my one desire
Lord hear my only cry, to know you all my life.

The Bridge is the best part of this song, and that’s not saying much. Again ocean/water imagery to depict an immersive experience in God that is more resonant with mysticism than Christianity. Finally, a mention of Jesus Christ that is direct and unambiguous, and some actual expressions of prayer which is what this song has been wanting to get to all along. Given how vacuous many worship song bridges are, this one is both outperforming itself in the bridge category, as well as lifting up the rest of the song to be almost Christian worship.

1.5 stars.

Come Away

27 Dec

I haven’t had too much to be cranky about lately, but here’s a song that’s truly terrible.

It’s ‘Come Away’ by Jesus Culture. Here, enjoy the madness on youtube.

The song’s lyrics (all of its lyrics!) are:

Come away with me, Come away with me
It’s never too late, it’s not too late
It’s not too late for you

I have a plan for you
I have a plan for you
It’s gonna be wild
It’s gonna be great
It’s gonna be full of me

Open up your heart and let me in

I think I could sum up my dislike of this song with one element: If you were a committed Satanist you could happily sing this song. The song’s lyrics are so generically vague that they could be applied to any god you happened to worship, or other divine or semi-divine figure. Or your boyfriend.

To give the song a modicum of credit, it does have some biblical roots, interpreted through the warping lens of individualistic romance-and-adventure Pentecostalism. ‘It’s never too late’ palely reflects the truth that the Gospel offer of redemption extends to all sinners, and can even embrace Saul of Tarsus. ‘I have a plan for you’ is a commonly-twisted and misapplied rendering of Jeremiah 29:11 ripped out of context and applied as a promise of success and blessing for individuals. ‘It’s gonna be wild’ had nothing to do with the Scriptures and everything to do with American obsessions over the ‘wildness’ of the Christian life as an ‘adventure’ and ‘romance’ with God conflicted over whether he is a neo-renaissance paleo cowboy-rockstar-lover, or we are. And ‘open your heart and let me in’ reflects American evangelicalism’s weak doctrine of repentance as ‘invite Jesus into your heart’ coupled with charismatic mis-emphases of spiritual experience being about ‘surrender’.

Misguided, vacuous, and not a single mention of Jesus. A zero.

The Heart of Worship

12 May

“The Heart of Worship” is a song by Matt Redman. If you’re unfamiliar, lyrics here, and youtube here. Here is some backstory on its origin.

I’ve had occasion to sing this song a few times over the weekend, and I am going to offer, not quite a critique of the song, but a philosophical critique of the underpinnings of the song.

Ostensibly the song presents itself as a song of repentance for making worship “a thing”, and promising to bring “more than a song”. These simple and earnest words, in my opinion, set the song withing a paradoxical frame that it struggles to escape.

Verse 1 says

when the music fades / and all has slipped away / and I simply come / longing just to bring / something that’s of worth / that will bless your heart.

Besides the jargonesque phrase “will bless you heart”, the key element here is “something that is of worth”. It characterises an attitude about worship, specifically musical praise, that it is an act of offering in which believers give something to God that ought to be of a value commensurate to the receiver.

I’ll bring you more than a song / for a song in itself / is not what you have required

In the next lyrics, the singer promises to bring “more than a song”. A song is not seen as sufficient, as valuable enough. God requires “more than a song”.

I suspect that this song is operating out of a framework that reifies singing as worship and treats this idea of ‘worship’ as a “thing”, a thing that we offer to God that is comparable to OT sacrifices. We bring a “thing” and we offer it to God, hoping that it will be regarded as acceptable. Worship is a “thing” that we actually do, it has an external, almost ontological, existence.

The song is actually struggling with this reality, but trapped by it. What more does God require? The language of sacrifice in the New Testament is applied by Paul in Romans 12:1 to the presentation of the body as a spiritual act of worship, and after lengthy reflection on the relationship between Old and New Covenants, the author of Hebrews says we offer up a “sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15. I want to suggest that these passages:

1. Present worship as an offering of the whole self to God throughout life (Romans 12)

2. Recognise that praise is a speech-act in which we thank, glorify, and honour God.

In this sense, a song is what is required, because the very act of saying thanks is thanksgiving. The very act of praising God is praise. The very act of worship is worship. There isn’t something ‘more’ to this. There could be something less – there could be dishonest thanks, unfelt praise, false worship, but there isn’t something ‘more’.

There’s a profound irony in Redman’s song, in that I have often criticised songs that seem more about singing than about God. Here we have a song that is about what’s wrong with making it all about singing, but it is itself a song that merely perpetuates this self-referentiality. One may sing this song, feel great about how it’s not all about singing, missing the irony that one hasn’t, in this song, actually moved beyond singing about singing.

The chorus is the best element of this song:

I’m coming back to the heart of worship / and it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus / I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it / when it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus.

As a Christian song, “Heart of Worship” is actually quite good. As a congregational worship song, it strikes me inadequate. It’s as if we have come together to sing about how inadequate our singing is, but the song itself struggles to move past this. If our repentance is because we reified worship as singing into an offering of something that is fit and meet to God, this song is an attempt to offer something ‘more’, something that is more worthy of God as an offering, rather than a recognition that this very reification is itself problematic, that there is no offering to be made.

Verse 2 seems to recognise this problem:

King of endless worth / no one could express / how much you deserve. / Though i’m weak and poor / all I have is yours / every single breath

There is indeed no fitting offering that matches the worth of God, and so the offering of the whole self is the only act of devotion left to the believer. But then we are launched back into the pre-chorus, which states that we will bring ‘more than a song’. The tension is complex precisely because the song is asking us to offer all but then devaluing that very offering.

Is this a bad song? Probably not. But it’s a song with philosophical problems that struggles to escape the objectification of worship as real offering even as it critiques the failures of that reification.

 

 

 

Video

Worst Worship Ever?

15 Feb

A friend of mine tweeted the link to this. Not sure if serious or satire, but definitely suitable for the Cranky Worshipper.

Troublesome tricks with tricky lyrics

29 Dec

I haven’t had that much to be cranky about lately, but I was in a church recently that managed to bore me to death with endless repetitions of the same chorus, splicing songs together to make a mess of both of them, and generally made me feel like I was an a accessory to the worship band, not a member of a worshipping congregation.

 

Anyway… while we were there we sang “How he loves”, originally by John Mark McMillan, but covered by just about everyone. Now, I only knew the version by David Crowder, in which the lyrics go like this, particularly verse three:

And heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss

But when we sang them in church they were suddenly

And heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss

To be honest I was shocked, this sounded like a terrible change for the worse, that turned something delicate and touching into something visceral and slightly amusing. It seemed out of character for the song and as you might know I’m not a fan of changing lyrics.

But I was wrong. At least about the changing. Because David Crowder asked John Mark McMillan to change them. It’s so interesting to me that in that blog post, McMillan has to defend the change and his permission-giving. Personally, I totally understand why Crowder wanted to change the line, in my opinion its a vast improvement. Again, if you read McMillan’s post, he gives you an understanding of what ‘sloppy wet kiss’ was meant to convey. I don’t think it succeeds, but that’s my take.

I also appreciate the fact that Crowder went and asked nicely. That’s what you should do. It’s certainly not what our worship leader did when we repeated the final chorus and he decided we should all sing:

oh how we love you

Suddenly a song that, while not perfect, is a lovely song about the greatness of God’s love for us, is turned into a narcissistic reflection on how much we love God. That doesn’t amaze me. It doesn’t move me at all. Why are we singing about that, when we were busy reflecting on God’s love for us?

 

Anyway, this just illustrates some of the problems that arise when lyrics do get changed, and there are multiple versions floating around. At least with this one it turned out to be relatively easy to track down the original and the change and the why and wherefore. It turns into a nightmare when people get hold of old hymns and start messing with them anyoldhow…

What we are doing when we are singing

14 Apr

I thought I might write a little piece on what I think it is that we are doing when we are singing. I take it that singing is a performative act, and as such it is very different to other forms of singing which are performance.

 

Of course, using such similar words doesn’t help, does it?

Performance singing is the kind of singing that dominates popular music, it is singing as an act of entertainment performed by the few towards the many, where the focus is on the artistry of the act. As performance, there is a dramatic aspect of the event, insofar as the performer takes on a persona, which involves a kind of suspension of authenticity. 

 

Performative singing is a very different kind of speech-act: we are committing ourselves to the words we say, and in a sense ‘enacting’ them as we sing them. The psalms are our exemplars in this, in which we call ourselves and each other to praise, trust, lament, prayer, etc.. Most modern worship songs are primarily declarative – we are declaring statements that we (ought to) believe to be true. And if they are good declarative songs they focus on declaring the glories of who God is, and what he has done, most centrally who he has revealed himself to be in Christ, and what he has done for us in Christ.

 

This is one reason why I cannot agree with those who bring non-believers in for music ministries – they are essentially doing performance while the rest of the congregation are doing performative worship. While performance is a kind of dissemblance based on dramatic convention, doing performance in place of performative speech-acts is dissemblance without convention, and more akin to deception.

It’s also why I don’t think you should sing songs you don’t believe. There is something deeply inauthentic about such an act. It’s why when last week’s bad song of the week, “You Said” came up at church recently, I stood silent. Note that I mean we shouldn’t sing songs we don’t believe are true, not that we shouldn’t sing songs we ‘don’t feel like’ – the thing about singing is that in declaring, promising, etc., we may sing things we don’t ‘feel’ are true, but the very act of singing them is transformative of our own attitude, our own beliefs! Which is why getting songs ‘right’ matters. The way we sing is (part of) the way we worship, and so is formative of our Christian convictions and way of life.