Praise music: show, don’t tell

It is a commonplace now to lament the superficiality of contemporary Christian praise music. Before I comment on that, let’s not get too indignant. The contemporary praise movement is largely a youth movement. The music is composed by young people for young people. Don’t look now, but young people are almost always superficial. If they weren’t, they’d have nowhere to grow.

That doesn’t make the music any good, of course, nor should we lower musical or theological standards just because they’re young. But you ought to fawn over your child’s hand paintings and put them on the refrigerator just because you want him to keep painting. So also, we ought to be glad and act appreciative that young people are writing praise music and bringing it into the church. Not much of it will survive a hundred years, but that’s ok. What we have now in our hymnals from a hundred years ago is a small part of what was written. Most of everything is forgettable and forgotten, but it takes the junk to get the occasional masterpice. Wheat and tares, and all that.

There are two aesthetic sources of this superficiality.

1. The rarity of a confluence of a biblical mind and a creative bent. I won’t belabor this, just try an experiment. If you haven’t read the hymns of Charles Wesley lately, take out a dozen or so and read them out loud like poems. Now take out the liner notes from one of your praise compilation CD’s and read the lyrics out loud.

This natural rarity is compounded in our day by the churches’ continuing loss of interest in the bible.
This all makes for an inablity to express authentic Christian sentiment from the treasurehouse of thought and language we call Christendom.

2. When you have a profound experience but you lack the thought forms and vocabulary to process and articulate it, but you try and write it in a song anyway, you are likely to resort to repetition. You are good enough of an artist to sense that the first time you sang “God is great” you did not exhaust the force of your experience, so you repeat it 17 more times. And since songs are a union of poetry and music you have the second discipline, the music, to reach into when the first does not seem to offer you what you need. So you end your praise song with 17 repeats of the key phrase embellished with a musical buildup until you get what feels like resolution of your original creative impulse.

The problem, of course, is that what we were told in writing class is also true in song-writing: show, don’t tell. Don’t tell just us that “God is great”: show us that He is great. How? Well, you’re the artist. If you show us by your lyrics that He is great, you will not feel any need to repeat it.

Neither the artists nor their critics seem to make the connection between these two common observations.

Your biblical mind will not only make you a better Christian, but will also make you a better artist. Not so that you can TRY to put a bunch of bible phrases into music (God deliver us from most pious art) but so that you can add to the treasury something that will stand up with the classics.

2 thoughts on “Praise music: show, don’t tell

  1. Excellent discussion. Especially the confluence issue. Maybe that rarity of confluence goes back to a lack of value placed on savoring and treasuring the plain language of God’s revelation to us in homes, churches, and youth groups. There are some who are doing right by the beauty of the language. I’m thankful for Michael Card and John Fischer (and many, many others). And there are times when a simple repetition of “Jesus is the Light of the World” brings me blinking face to face with that light.

  2. I do think there is an ongoing abandonment of the bible both in the wider culture — which is as you would expect in a post-Christian culture — but also in our churches. And by “our” I mean conservative evangelical and confessional churches. I believe the praise and worship movement, with the excitement it has generated in the Gen X’s and whatever else they are calling those young’uns these days, has cloaked an underlying loss of interest in the biblical text which has been going on for decades and decades and decades in the West.

    This is nothing new, it has been documented over and over, but it means more than that there are “liberal” churches who are abandoning the bible and “conservative” churches who are holding fast — no, the entire spectrum is shifting leftward in the sense that the conservative churches themselves are losing interest. It is not so much the conservative pulpits, but the conservative pews.

    But this is a theological point. The aesthetic side of it is not solved by hearkening back to “the beauty of the [biblical] language”. One does not produce Christian art out of an appreciation of the beauty of the text; Christian art comes out of a biblical culture which is strong enough to form intellectual worldviews.

    Said differently, art does not come out of a theological viewpoint, nor does it come out of an aesthetic appreciation, but it comes out of an individual character, and it will reflect the underlying character. What we need are people who naturally think in biblical categories after long years of formation, and then let these people create, without trying at all to be Christian.

    But even reading what I just wrote it is not enough; “Christian worldview” is such a cliche and does not express what we need…much of the time a “Christian worldview” simply means we remember to think like a Christian. But that is not enough.

    Think of Bach: you never get the sense he is trying to create a religious work. He seems to have had a musical impulse, ineffable like all other aesthetic pulses are, and then when he reached out to grasp language in which to express it, found on his tongue and in his fingers the most natural language, that which was closer to his heart than any other vocabulary, St. Matthew’s text. There is no aesthetic distance between impulse and text.

    Some times it seems the Texts are falling away from us, even the best of us.

    Hey! thanks for reading and for commenting. See, you got me thinking again! And talking way too much. Thanks again for visiting!

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