Misusing verses in songs, please stop

31 Mar

Reuben Morgan is our culprit this time. The song is “You Said”

Lyrics. Video.

This song is built on a number of “You said” statements that take a portion of scripture as a promise. The verses aren’t too bad, but the chorus is abominable.

You said, “Ask and I’ll give the nations to you.”
O Lord, that’s the cry of my heart.
Distant shores and the islands will see
Your light as it rises on us.

 

The first line comes from Psalm 2:8

Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.

 

The problem is there is virtually no sound biblical interpretation that makes this a promise to Christian believers. In context, the psalm addresses the royal Davidic king. It’s almost certainly a messianic psalm, and its promise here is the promise of God the Father to the Messianic King, Jesus. So in what sense can this be the cry of our heart? We might, I suppose, pray that God will deliver the nations to Jesus’ reign and authority, but that is not quite the same thing. It gets worse, because the Tag and Ending of the song repeats:

“O Lord, I ask for the nations”

This is a prayer that is simply an illegitimate transferal from what is promised to Jesus to ourselves. I can’t sing this song in a congregation, it’s too wrong. Reuben Morgan, learn to read the Bible.

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Test: My Jesus, My Boyfriend

4 Mar

(A quick word about tests and song selection. Even if you don’t think my song is the best example of a particular test, I urge you to consider the test itself. The songs I offer up are usually just the ones that came across my path and gave me the impetus to write the particular post)

The logic behind this test and the Supreme Leader test is that Christian worship songs have a strong overlap of semantic domain. It’s right, and appropriate, that the sentiments expressed towards the God of the Bible overlap on the one hand with the devotion rendered to earthly leaders, and to other (so-called) gods, and on the other hand with the emotions expressed to the objects of earthly love. We ought to expect that kind of overlap. That is why the absence of explicit references to what makes this a Christian expression of those sentiments is so troubling. Stripped of its specific object, these worship songs are insipid, vacuous, and we can’t tell the difference between singing to God, the Leader, or our significant other.

The ‘My Jesus, My Boyfriend’ test derives its name from one particular popular song, but today I’m going to apply it to another, Reuban Morgan’s song “I give you my heart” (Lyrics, Performance)

This test is also called the Eric Cartman test; the South Park character Cartman becomes an Christian rock music sensation by substituting ‘Jesus’ for ‘baby’ in contemporary pop songs. (I am not endorsing ‘South Park’, and to be honest never watched the episode in question, it just peculiarily and perfectly illustrates my points here.) Essentially we are reversing that process. If we can take a song and substitute references to Jesus into ‘baby’, ‘my baby’, etc. ,and the song makes sense, then we’ve failed the MBMJ test.

This song falls the test. We can easily substitute ‘baby’ in, and the song expresses a kind of devotion that might be appropriate to a girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s a little unusual in its wording, but that has more to do with the form of lyrics in Christian worship songs, but I don’t think lyrical genre is enough to save this one.

Let’s take a look at our new lyrics:

This is my desire, to honor you
Baby, with all my heart I worship you
All I have within me, I give you praise
All that I adore is in you

Baby, I give you my heart, I give you my soul
I live for you alone
Every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake
Baby, have your way in me
have you way

Reuben Morgan, please write better Christian songs.

Dumb and Dumber, “Come Thou Fount”, and re-writing old songs for the worse

11 Feb

One of the things I get cranky about is when we re-write songs. If it’s a modern song then it’s usually a copyright violation. I hate copyright for lots of reasons, but in this case, I find it more of a moral violation of author rights. If it’s an older song, out of copyright, songsters feel like they have open slather to mess with songs. Usually for the worse.

One song people love to mess with is ‘Come thou fount’. Here’s a link to the wikipedia page which has an excellent run down of various lyrical versions.. Now if changes were made because you were singing in a context were basic english was preferable, e.g. among ESL speakers, I might be more forgiving. But usually changes are made because people think that other people won’t understand. So they dumb the song down.

I’m pro-contextualisation, but dumbing things down is not contextualisation, it’s patronisation. Let’s look at 3 common changes in this song:

1. Praise the mount -> praise the name
The first change takes the reference to the ‘mount’, i.e. the mount of crucifixion, and makes it more general.

Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of thy redeeming love

In the older version, the lyrics are pointing us to the crucifixion as the central focal point. The speaker describes himself as ‘fixed’ upon it, a reference not only to being ‘fixated’ with the cross-event, but also a reference to being ‘fixed’ on the cross itself, I mean ‘hung on the cross’. We are reminded that in the death of Jesus there is a substitutionary element by which we die there with him. Futhermore, the Cross is the place of God’s eternal, unchanging, redeeming love.

Making the change to ‘Name’ eliminates all this. While it is true that the concept of ‘the Name’ has good scriptural resonances, they are unncessarily imported into this context, and are better left for other songs. We lose the play between fount and mount. We lose the geographical/spatial play. We lose the double play on ‘fixed’, and lastly we lose the specific elements of revelation of God’s redeeming love that are associated with the cross for a more ‘generic’ expression of love.

2. “interposed his precious blood”
often replaced with “bought me with his precious blood”

‘Interposed’ is a great word. It’s not overly difficult.
The construction of the word involves placing (positioning) something between two other things (inter + pos-; pos- being a latin root for placing/positioning verbs). Jesus interposed, placed his blood, between us and the judgment of the Father. We didn’t need to rewrite this, people just did sobecause they thought others wouldn’t understand. Hey, how about you just teach your congregation a new word.

3. I saved the best for last.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer,
hither by the grace I’ve come
And I hope, by the good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home”

Often changed to:
Hither to thy love has blessed me
Thou has brought me to this place
And I know thy hand will bring me
Safely home by thy good grace
or some modernised language version of the same.

The opening line is a ref to 1 Sam 7:12.

It’s worth looking this line up and reading the context. Here is a biblical picture of a time in Israel’s life where they raised a memorial, in the form of a stone or cairn, and called it the ‘Stone of Help’. It’s the remembrance of God’s grace in bringing his people ‘thus far’. So to sing these lines is ourselves to engage in an act of remembrance, to remember God’s grace to us and how God has brought us to the place we are.

Sure, it makes no sense if you don’t know this. So a good way to deal with this is to educate, not dumb down. In a congregational setting you can introduce this song, or revert your wording and briefly explain the first couple of times what these words mean. People will understand. Suddenly you’ve got a congregation that know a bit more Old Testament, and are singing this song with more reflection and insight. And if someone new or absent asks, 80% or more of people will remember such an unusual lyric and be able to explain. What a great testimony to have believers explaining to one another the lyrics of this great song and its Biblical reference.

While these re-written lyrics, apparently stemming from a rewrite by E. Margaret Clarkson, aren’t terrible, they’re not really improvements, in my opinion. And they lead to endless re-writes and changes, and suddenly no-one quite knows the song anymore because there is no song, there are only songs, each one ‘improved’ by its latest redactor. But what if we’re not improving songs?

Don’t dumb songs down, smarten people up.

Tomlin, “Glorious”, and the ‘Supreme Leader’ Test

30 Jan

So let’s talk about the ‘Supreme Leader’ Test. This is a test designed to see if a song is actually a Christian song. The test goes like this:

If the song in question was decontextualised from its provenance, could it be sung without adaption as a hymn of praise to the leader of North Korea?

Let’s talk a bit about the decontextualisation part and why that’s important. I understand the author-is-dead position and people who want to read as if authorial intention is irrelevant. But if a text is part of a communicative act, and you want to provide a different interpretation to that act, you are providing a different implied author in your reading. So the act of reading a text in a radically feminist manner, for example, often involves construction an implied author and setting that is, in some cases, radically feminist, in other cases, extremely patriarchal. In both cases, we may know that attributing such things to the author and setting is not fair, but death-of-author readings say this doesn’t matter. For this test we are doing a little bit of ignoring the possibility of authorial intent. We’re setting it aside a bit.

So this test involves some partial blinding of ourselves to the author and the provenance of the song. What if the lyrics just turned up on the internet with no author attributed? What if we thought they were translated out of Korean into English? Could this song be readily understood as song to a dictator, or another deity, etc..

There is a companion test along similar lines that we will probably meet, the ‘My Jesus, My Boyfriend’ test.

Okay, so let’s get to the song. Chris Tomlin, Glorious (links to lyrics), youtube performance.

There is nothing in this song that suggests the identity of the King in question.
There is nothing in this song that identifies any member of the Trinity.
There is nothing in this song that distinctly alludes to or employs Biblical language (The allusion criteria would at least give us a clue if we stripped the provenance of the song that it was still a song emerging out of a Christian-influenced or derived culture)

Members of other monotheistic faiths, and some polytheistic ones, could happily sing this song.
Members of devoted political parties could happily sing this song.
Members of the factions of deluded dictators of small nations could happily sing this song.

I don’t think Christian songs need to necessarily have deep exegesis, connect us to biblical texts in a redemptive historical paradigm, explicitly mention Jesus by name, in order to be good. But this one just does nothing, nothing to suggest I’m singing praise to the Triune God of the Bible. Generic praise is faint damning praise.

Write better songs Chris Tomlin.

Welcome to The Cranky Worshipper

30 Jan

So this is my new blog, and I thought I’d start of by introducing what it’s all about. Basically I’m not a fan of poor Christian worship songs, specifically lyrics, and so here I’m going to rant and rave in a considered manner about various songs, and why they are bad, and hopefully this will actually be a positive contribution because there are all sorts of songs we should stop singing, and there are lots of ways we could improve our lyricism.

I studied Literature, so you’re going to get a lot of critical commentary about lyrics.
I also studied/study Theology, so you’re going to get a lot of criticism about the theological content of songs.
I’m a musician, but not a theorist of any kind, so I’m going to avoid complaining and raving about the musical side of songs.

Coming up in my first actual post I’ll be discussing the song that finally kicked this blog off, and my “Supreme Leader” test for song lyrics…

Oh, I’m also open to writing posts on songs you nominate. Just be sure to send me a link to some lyrics and a link to a video or audio performance.