The Songs We Sing

Monday, 7th September 2009 at 8:00 UTC 2 comments

Another heavily religious post, so apologies to the atheists. This tends to happen at this point in the year, as I grapple with a bunch of issues that have come up during Soul Survivor and Greenbelt. One of the major differences between the two events is quite often the approach to music in the context of faith that comes between the two events, and the misunderstandings attached.

There are, one might theorise, about 4 different kinds of Christian music, with specific roles that may intersect, but which are often fairly exclusive, and in confusing them, we make a huge mistake.

First, there’s the theological statement or reflection. The words are meant to convey truth, and if we sign them together it is in part to learn that truth for ourselves. If someone else is singing the song to us, it is so we might have an insight of their faith, or reflect on what they have to say.

Second, we have music that speaks directly to God. It doesn’t necessarily need the big words, and it isn’t necessarily to be sung from the head. This is the kind of music that really winds up many Greenbelt goers; the stuff that uses passion and emotion as much as language and musical superiority. It often describes our reactions to what God has done, rather than the things we are supposedly responding to.

Third, there is liturgical music, music that replaces the words of a formal act of worship. Its easy to forget that much sacred choral music fits into this category, and still holds a claim to being part of today’s faith, not totally divorced of it. And finally, there’s the music we use to communicate our faith to others, which cannot pre-suppose agreement on the part of the listener.

In fairness to Greenbelt, it has much more variety than Soul Survivor, which is almost exclusively about the second kind, where Greenbelt covers most if not all. I should also say that the moods and themes contained in one kind of music are almost entirely found in another, what I’m getting at are the roles the music plays in our collective and personal spiritual lives.

There are probably historical reasons for different music appearing at different times. A church that overemphasises God as Lord of all, based in Heaven and rather inaccessible to mere mortals like us is hardly likely to write a song designed to make out that Jesus is our real and present friend.

What I’m getting at here is that our use of music should be on different levels, that songwriters with guitars and a faith mixed with huge doubts will often write very profound songs that connect themselves to his love, but also that we should find the courage to sing directly to God from our own hearts, both collectively and in private.

This doesn’t mean putting things in to nice happy language, nor does it mean its supposed to be easy. Praising God can be bloody hard; I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve really struggled to get my mouth open even in church where I’m usually regarded as quite a loud singer. True, worship music has often failed to take into account the full range of human experiences, but there is stuff out there.

Its not meant to be easy. I think some people see people singing worship songs and think that this means their life is completely together and that, seeing as they’re choosing to sing them, they must have everything together. But worship isn’t just about being in a hurry to praise God, its also about the hard times, when the praise just doesn’t seem to want to come out. I’m not trying to justify the over arching trend towards seemingly happy-go-lucky worship music, nor the stuff that is genuinely bad, and I do want to offer support and encouragement to those who need it.

Now, language. Its great to hear a song that uses big words to put across a vision of God’s goodness. But sometimes its the simple words that help us best communicate from the depths of our hearts. There is a biblical role for worship “with groans too deep for words”. And Jesus condemned the religious leaders for using big words when praying outside the temple.

So why all the worship songs with great long sections of “woe-oh-oh” that have been written lately. Perhaps its just a reminder that God wants praise and not big language. Perhaps its a passing fad. Who knows. What I can say is that these songs are no less acts of worship. Repeating lines? Didn’t Isaiah say things three times when he really meant it?

There may be stylistic arguments against the endless guitar music being written. There aren’t enough heavy rock/metal worship songs and there aren’t enough dance worship songs. We’re a little short on “I’m depressed but I’m going to worship anyhow” songs, that’s for sure. Its great to sing about our faith, to use song to communicate our understanding of God and so forth, but there must be a role for the totally heartfelt song directed straight to God.


Entry filed under: Church, Language, Music, Religion, Theology.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve thack  |  Monday, 7th September 2009 at 20:13 UTC

    Type two winds up many Greenbelters? 🙂 apart from the couple of thousand who packed in for tim hughes, oh and taize would fit that cat. Iona community’s big sing would be both cat one and two.
    Greenbelt is a broader event than you imply. Been ten year since i was at s s but there used to be pockets of all your types. Greenbelt is firstly an arts festival, s s is firstly a worship event so yes differences, nice blog and guess you knew you were dealing in generalisations.

  • 2. Steve thack  |  Monday, 7th September 2009 at 20:27 UTC

    Think you’ve missed off another area, folks who sing in response to their encounter with the divine, but clearly don’t fit in group one. The quote ‘you can sing about the light or you can ring about what you see in the light’ seems most often to be attributed to t bone burnet. Think many of my fav acts fit this group, they sing of the beauty in the world or its lack following their encounter with the divine, and only on occasion feel any need to sing anything directly about their faith.


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