Truth in Christian Music?

I'm singing a Michael W. Smith solo in church this Sunday, with the choir. It's a little surprising: before attending First United Methodist, I wouldn't have expected the liberal Mainline to go for contemporary Christian radio-style mysic.

I've been thinking a lot about the lyrics of this song (and many others I've grown up with)...


Can you hear - there's a new song -
Breaking out from the children of freedom.
Every race and every nation -
Sing it out, sing a new hallelujah!

Arise! Let the church arise!
Let love - reach to the other side!
Alive - come alive!
Let the song arise!

And I want to take the song literally - I want to believe that there's a "new song." But I'm not sure I have ever heard a new song. It was a new song in AD 35, but the song I've heard in my life experience seems old and tired. Like Rob Bell's "velvet Elvis."

But at the heart of Christianity is something that keeps birthing anew. I know this. I believe this! Not everywhere, all of the time, but certainly everywhere at different times Christianity blooms in new ways. Michael W's song finishes:

Africa sings a new song
reaching out with the new Hallelujah
Every son and every daughter
everyone sing a new Hallelujah.

And I can't help thinking that's such a reflection of Western, colonial assumptions. Maybe Africa IS singing a "new song," and of course I assume Christ is truth and beauty, but the Christian West has been responsible for so much chaos, suffering, and poverty - particularly in Africa, and in the 3rd World in general. It's not for me to tell the world that "Africa sings a new song." It's for Africa to tell that to the world. It's for me to acknowledge and help own-up to past wrongs of my ancestors.

There's a Newsboys song I've referenced before. It goes:

Wherever we go, the dumb get wise
And the crime rates drop
And the markets rise
It's a curious thing
But it's just our thing

Bullies make nice, crooks repent
And the ozone layer shows improvement
It's a curious thing
And it's humbling

Rather than being a "curious thing," I think it's more of a "fantasy/idealistic thing." Because wherever Christianity goes (historically) it HASN'T made people more educated, it hasn't affected drops in crime, and it certainly hasn't helped improve the ozone layer (yes, yes, the Enlightenment was Christian, but so was the Inquisition)! Quite frankly, Christendom has often done the opposite of these Newsboys lyrics. Except maybe "markets rise"... Western Consumer-Capitalism has certainly emerged from the wealth of the Christian West as the dominant (and in my view, devastating) economic system in the world.

At George Fox's Theology of the Land symposium, we heard from elders of native peoples speak specifically about how Christianity has led to the rape and decimation of the ecosystem, as well as of their own culture, heritage, and general social well-being. And these were mostly Christ-followers stating this.

So what's the point of singing about all this goodness and transcendence if Christianity isn't actually producing it? At it's very best, I think the intent is to INSPIRE people to embody what we sing about. But at it's worst, it's delusion - a false belief that we've actually achieved something that is so very very far away.

What songs do you sing? What hymns resonate with you? When you sing about the church, do you believe it's true, or do you pray for it to be?

9 comments:

Joan Ball said...

Peter: I can't speak for Africa or Ozone. Nor can I speak or indigenous people or the Crusades. I can bear witness to one life changed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of God- my own. I was raised to believe that faith was a human construct meant to control the masses or bolster the emotions of the weak willed and weaker minded sheep that claimed it. Faith came into my life first as an ill-defined power greater than myself and later, in my late 30s, as this awesome transforming force of grace that I could not ignore. Perhaps the song is worn for those who toiled in pews and Sunday school classes - was blind but now I see - but for me those words describe a life changed. A witness to something that I once ferociously denied for which I now cannot express fully enough my gratitude.

Peter said...

Sheesh, do I sound like a wet blanket!? Joan, thank you! Yes: for all my lament and critique, I cannot fully articulate my thankfulness and even [still] excitement over grace and love I have personally experienced in Christ (Christian radio, notwithstanding).

Systemic guilt - and shortcoming - is one thing. Personal experience and transformation is another.

Bless you,
Peter

Joan Ball said...

Hey Pete: Perhaps it is less "wet blanket" and more "wish it was all it can be" which is a wonderful and noble calling if we keep each other from drowning is a sea of tears over the gap between the ideal and the reality of our faith systems. Of course this can be a challenge when things frequently appear more broken then fixed. My question: how do we take individual steps toward the ideal each and every day - becoming the change rather that continually planning, ruminating and hoping for some future change that somehow, like a carrot on a stick, remains just beyond our grasp?

Peter said...

That's such a hard question, Joan. Because it's so different for each of us. In my former life, I would say that "moving toward the ideal" would have involved giving up non-Christian music, no more R-rated movies, swearing less, avoiding alcohol, and spending as many hours as possible each week in church services. And I'm not exaggerating: THAT was the vision. THAT was the goal.

Now, for me, it's included things like giving up eating meat, working to be more "green" in my lifestyle, and being more concious of - and gentler and more empowering to - marginalized people.

That doesn't take away my responsibility to try to live in a way that is "holy" - there is still personal accountability, and I still believe in moral standards of living (although that definition has evolved), but it doesn't end with ME. It merely begins there.

I think the most fundamentally DIFFICULT thing about the call and cross of Christ today is the difficulty in America of functioning as human beings apart from our present system of consumption and consumerism. All of our identifiers for success and even "goodness" and "responsibility" are wrapped up in it.

So I'm still asking questions because I still frankly don't entirely know. But day by day, I'm trying to untangle... PAYING OFF DEBT. That's another personal way in which I'm trying to be a Christian...

Thanks for the questions Joan, good food for thought.

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

Christians do need to Transcend in some ways. But Christians have boundaries and the ancient songs remind me that they've been there for a long long time--and they should be there for a long time to come.

Cobalt Blue said...

In response to the question in your post, one of my favorite hymns is "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." I believe that the songs we sing help form a relationship with the Divine as well as expressing our deepest humanity. If we listen as we sing the words, I think that great music calls us beyond where we are to someplace better.

So, I imagine I have a thousand tongues with which to express what the Divine is and has done in my life, and I imagine all the people in the pews next to me have a thousand tongues each, and I wonder what changes the world would see if even that small percentage of people lived out the ideal expressed in the song.

I have one more comment I would like to share-when I hear and see about how Christians in the world live into the radical call of compassion, community and hope, I am humbled at how mean and small my own faith is, and I hunger to be a part of that transforming work. I cannot, in integrity, sing a song that suggests that Christianity, as an institution, is responsible for all that is good and right in the world.

God is working in this world despite our best intentions, and despite our most sophisticated theologies, so I am content to let God claim the glory for all that is, has been, and will be redeemed. I fervently hope my actions and relationships are reflective of that "life and health and peace."

Peter said...

Cobalt, thank you for your honesty! REALLY well said.

You said, "God is working in this world despite our best intentions, and despite our most sophisticated theologies..."

I completely agree.

This also: "I cannot, in integrity, sing a song that suggests that Christianity, as an institution, is responsible for all that is good and right in the world." Like you, I have a hard time feeling honest in singing such things. There is much goodness in the church, but history and personal experience prove the church does not have a monopoly, or even a consistent track record, in goodness.

Geoff said...

Hey, Peter...long time since my last visit. I ran across this post and thought to respond...

I am a 30+ professional musician/performer, songwriter, producer and, most importantly, Christian.

The original question about truth in Christian music is where I wish to speak, having been a worship team member, and worship leader.

The problem as I see it is not just the questionable nature of the words writtem about God that are at issue. If we are going to question the lyrical content (if not also the musical style), then we must also question the 'calling' of these folks, too.

I have met a amazing number of people who should not be where they are, engaged in the ministry work they are doing, particularly in the music field. Since they were neither commissioned, called, directed or commanded by God to be there, they are so engaged by their own desire.

They believe, think or feel they are doing the right work. You know, "I believe/feel/think this is where God wants me to be." But the one word that is missing is that they KNOW it is where God wants them.

As a result, they serve (and admittedly, very well in many cases) and live, even work in the music field. They write songs, publish them, tour in support of them, all the while oblivious that their music, no matter how good it may be, is not truly 'on target'.

Your example of Smith's song is a case in point. I may not be popular for my view, but when someone is 'out of place' in their work for God, the work they do may seem to be righeous, holy and spiritually based. But that would be a wrong assumption.

And so, the music sounds good, but upon examination, is found to be filled with desires stemming from fleshly origins of "I believe/feel/think" rather than, "I know because God directed me to do this."

It will wrankle many people to hear this. But it is nonetheless true: far too many people are in the wrong place and engaged in the wrong work. And no place exemplifies this more than the Christian Contemporary Music field.

Peter J Walker said...

Good points, Geoff. I have several friends in the Christian music industry, and they all learned very quickly that the "industry" is just that. I remember one telling me about his contract negotiations: "there's no playing the 'Jesus card.'" If they make you and offer, and you tell them you want to pray about it, they call bullshit. They know you'll be done the street looking for offers from the other studios. It's cutthroat. First and foremost, it's a business.

I'm afraid that too often, the same applies to our churches. We run them like businesses. We organize them like businesses. We strategize, budget, plan and market like businesses. Where exactly does the Holy Spirit fit into that equation?

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