Thursday, August 11, 2005

In Defense of Praise Choruses


Theological Sophistication Can Sneak Up on You

I don’t usually weigh in on the “worship wars” that wrack some Christian churches, as such matters stand pretty far outside of my context (that is to say, I don’t care). But I had an epiphany the other day, and I didn’t want to keep that from all of you.

Some Christians like to denigrate the worship of others (an ugly hobby to be sure) whether they understand it or not. You know, sacramentalists are too much of one thing, or don’t understand something else (allegedly), and evangelicals lack (fill in the blank). I don’t do that.

It can be said of some examples of the “contemporary” style that the songs lack “deep” theological substance, or that they are repetitious, or that they are “me” centered. I would argue that none of these criticisms are really so bad.

First, if one insists on “deep” theological substance, one should define just what that means? Perhaps we should stick to hymns that parse ancient Christological formations into their finer points? Set the Chalcedonian Definition to music?

Like that wouldn’t be boring. If I were defining it, my hymnbook would consist mostly of Issac Watts and Charles Wesley, with a few lucky composers thrown in for variety. The 65 or so bits by Fanny Crosby that landed in a lot of modern evangelical church hymnals (especially the Baptists) would have to go. I like Crosby, but she doesn’t fit my definition of deep. She writes about warm, heart-felt religion, too. Just like those praise choruses.

Who would get to decide what are deep topics for hymns and songs? You wouldn’t want me to do it. So why should we let you?

Don’t be tempted to admire the mainliners, either. ECUSA’s 1982 Hymnal seems geared toward real musicians and choirs – I found it impossible to follow. I couldn’t sing that stuff, and in my experience, I’ve never seen a congregation actually sing those bits. I’ve seen some hard working choirs drown out their attempts, though. But if they want that, that’s fine. And just because you sing words that you never use, and can’t figure out what the songs are going on about, doesn’t make them deep.

Second, what’s wrong with a little “me centered” singing? I love Jesus, after all, and he loves me. There’s a place for that in our hymnody, kids. If we really refuse to touch that and spend all of our time trying to sing songs about the transcendent majesty of God that just doesn’t come near to the deepest, darkest places of our hearts, I might recommend actually reading the gospels, and maybe a little bit of therapy. I am not kidding.

Finally, repetition can be good. Repetition quiets the heart. While I would never appreciate singing “I could sing of your love forever” – literally forever, it sometimes seems – spending some time with hands outstretched repeating some simple, true phrase from the Scriptures is a very good thing.

What do you think centering prayer is? It’s being with Jesus and quieting the mind to hear from him by focusing on one true thing that will push out all the noise that’s been crowding it. I sat down to learn that from the Eastern mystics, but realized I’d already been introduced to the idea (how unsuspecting I was) by my favorite evangelical, contemporary worship churches.

I realized this when I was so looking forward to joining my friend for worship with his home Christian Community the other day – it was an opportunity to be assisted in quieting my heart before the Lord, and offering him thanks and praise. That is the point, I would suppose, of any liturgy. So bring on the overhead projectors!

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Anonymous said...

Excellent points all around. Paul tells us to sing "songs, hymns, and spiritual songs" and I think we miss something when we throw any one of them out. One of the worship songs I most love repeats "worthy is the lamb" about two dozen times in a row, but I don't mind because that simple phrase said over and over again provides me with a myriad of ways to worship Jesus. Meanwhile, I can't get enough of thought-provoking hymns like "Be Thou My Vision" that enable me to worship God by offering a poetic glimpse of his nature.

Some hymns are boring. Some praise songs are boring. I don't see any reason to cling to them if they put us to sleep and have nothing cool to say. People are welcome to dispute with me on this.

Centering prayer in the form of these songs is not only a good idea, it is therapeutic, and not just for secular reasons either. When we worship God genuinely, I believe we are brought closer together in the power of the Spirit. (I sound more charismatic everyday... I'm OK with that.)

+ Alan said...

Good thoughts Kyle. Aah, those pesky Psalms (originally sung) are a bit "me-centric" aren't they. I imagine we shouldn't get rid of those. Song, in the way you're describing it, is indeed good liturgy, a work of the people, a meditation that helps turn our minds to God, whom alone can transform us and make us new.

By the way, I'm not against singing in our vbcc meetings at all. We've just sort of ended up this way.

Kyle said...

Thanks, guys. Watch that charismatic bid'ness; though I don't think any of us can help it anymore.

It's so important to just make space.

I actually assumed that the reason we don't sing is because we don't have an instrumentalist with the time and inclination - and acapella stuff would be more awkward than I'd want to deal with.

I also heart chanting psalms, so I don't think it a big deal.

Although I'm certain Jesse could play a mean communion riff...

Sam Charles Norton said...

You're right, although it's requiring a real culture shift for me to accept it. But I'm making some progress. I've got Matt Redman's 'Blessed be your name' on MP3, and that works as a centring prayer for me.

Anonymous said...

Another one out of the ballpark! Well said as usual. Complete agreement from one who thinks these things but couldn't express them as you do. Thanks Cap'n, I'm glad somebody is out here saying the stuff you do, and doing it so well. You theological acumen continues apace.

Anonymous said...

Last comment was me.