Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Worship Songs Considered

Last summer, I wrote an extended criticism of Contemporary Christian Music, indicting the genre for its rigid formulas in song structure, instrumental arrangements, vocal styles and lyrical content. In that piece, I was primarily focused on the entertainment branch of the industry, the music that people listen to in private spaces. I tried as much as possible to avoid discussing congregational worship music, that is, music primarily intended to be sung in church services by all Christians in attendance. There were two main reasons for my avoidance. The first is that entertainment music and congregational worship music have very different goals and cannot be evaluated with the same standards. The second is that I was writing a deliberately negative essay, and I actually like a substantial number of popular worship songs as popular worship songs.

Still, I have some strong ideas about what worship music ought to be and lately I have been bothered by a handful of songs that deviate sharply from those ideas. Here I'm going to look at two songs that might be dubbed "worship songs", one good, one bad. I'm going to concern myself exclusively with lyrical content here, because musical standards and tastes in worship music are much more flexible than lyrical standards and tastes.

Edit: I originally wrote that this song was written by David Crowder and analyzed it under that assumption. A commenter has informed me that John Mark McMillan in fact wrote the song in the wake of a friend's death. Rereading the lyrics with this knowledge doesn't change my analysis at all.

I first consider "How He Loves", a worship song popularized by bandleader David Crowder. Summary opinion of Crowder: Somewhat more electronically adventurous than most of his peers, gifted leader in person, okay with other people's songs, mediocre melodicist, miserable lyricist.

Full lyrics of "How He Loves"

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so,
Oh how He loves us,
How He loves us all

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves.

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way-

Analysis: The first line is perhaps the most Biblical in the song. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord proclaims himself "a jealous God," desiring an exclusive covenant relationship with Israel, opposing their worship of any other deity. The song's worthwhile content ends here. The simile "loves like a hurricane" is very bewildering, because hurricanes do not love, hurricanes destroy. The lyric continues, "I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy," a confusing metaphor, both because wind is a natural phenomenon and mercy a moral quality, and because it implies an imprecise and involuntary response to this moral quality. The next lines are similarly vague. When? In the midst of the hurricane, or have we broken from figurative language? What afflictions? What glory?

The next line is more theologically problematic. It claims to realize "just how beautiful" the Lord is and how great his love. It is one thing to say that the Lord is beautiful and quite another to presume to know the degree of his beauty. In the Exodus 33, Moses, God's chosen leader of Israel, petitions, "Show me your glory." God allows Moses to see his back, but proclaims, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Is David Crowder greater than Moses? In my opinion, to claim to know the extent of God's beauty indicates a failure to consider God's holiness and one's own sinfulness. So long as we do not enjoy the fullness of forgiveness from sin, we cannot claim to fully know a holy God. The lyric reeks of the "moralistic therapeutic deism" that is seeker-sensitivity taken too far.

The second verse begins much as the first, with a Biblically grounded lyric, and then again descends into meaningless figurative language. Again, "the grace in his eyes" is a cumbersome metaphor. In Christian theology, grace is a moral quality, not something clearly present in appearance, and in conventional language, when one attributes grace to something physical, it is to describe a person's or object's motion, and so "grace in his eyes" seems meaningless. We are drawn to redemption by the cross of Christ - at least nod to it. "If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking" implies that we are in fact drowning, and unless this is a very oblique allusion to the symbol of death in baptism, the image implies the exact opposite of the life-giving nature of grace. The kiss simile is crass and meaningless.

Now, there's nothing doctrinally problematic about "And my heart turns violently inside of my chest," but it's indicative of one of the worst tendencies of modern worship music. It's a worship lyric about the subject experience of singing worship lyrics. I've always found such lyrics to be very alienating, because I don't often have these responses to worship music. A congregational worship song should have lyrics that all believers can sing truthfully at any time, regardless of their dispositions. No matter how emotionally involved I am in a particular worship service, I can always affirm "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." I can almost never affirm descriptions of the phenomenology of worship in song.

Nevertheless, I do not want to deny the worth of the intense emotional experiences that many people have during this kind of worship and I'm not opposed to constructing songs to draw out these emotions. The lyrics of the song's chorus are very simple variations on "He loves us". Were this chorus situated after a song describing the many acts that demonstrate God's love, it would be a fitting conclusion, an opportunity for personal reflection on these demonstrations and for personal expression of the emotions that come from reflection. Not all participants would respond emotionally, but all could affirm that "How he loves us" is greatly. Instead, I come to the chorus wondering "How does he love us?"

I now turn to what I believe is an exemplary worship song, "Awake My Soul", by the group Caedmon's Call. I have presented this song to several people in the past, and for whatever reason none of them have shared my enthusiasm for it. It will nevertheless serve to illustrate some important points.

The image of God invisible, the first born of all life
Before and within, he holds it all in
One name, one faith, one Christ

No one is good enough, to save himself
Awake my soul tonight, to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name, nowhere else can I hide
This grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides


No seam in this garment, all my rags to hide
No less than your love, for Jesus is mine

When I stand on the edges of Jordan
With the saints and the angels beside
When my body is healed, and the glory revealed
Still I can boast only Christ


On the whole, I think that the song's lyrics speak for themseleves, but I do want to point out some structural features. The first verse of the song alludes extensively to John 1, and proclaims Christian truths with an easy poetry. The first line of the chorus is also theological, and the second is an invocation. When Christians sing this song together, they affirm important beliefs that they hold in common, pray a prayer that they ought to pray, and have the opportunity to express their own emotions and needs through this prayer, an opportunity that will be appealing to many congregants because of the gravity of the truths they have just proclaimed.

The second verse maintains a grasp on both theology and personal need. "I trust no other source or name" is an aspirational rather than a factual statement, but it is one to which all Christians ought to aspire. In contrast, "My heart beats violently inside of my chest" is not a statement that all worshippers can affirm, nor is it one that anyone necessarily ought to affirm. There's nothing inherently immoral about having no emotional response to a worship song. The description of grace in this verse makes that of "How He Loves" seem laughable. Rather than a meaningless metaphor, we get a description of this startling gift of God - it calls us to become children of God and simultaneously provides the means to do so. The final verse again personalizes the song's theme of saving grace, drawing on Biblical imagery, which I always approve of, and with its eschatological bent, serving as a companion to the first verse's talk of creation.

At this point, some may argue that what they want in a worship song is a chance for expression of feeling, not a theology lesson. I counter that one has a great deal more to express when one has an emotional stimulus, and the great Christian doctrines are nothing if not emotional stimuli.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grad School FAQ

People have been asking a lot of questions about my grad school plans. I've constructed this FAQ to answer some of the most common ones.

Q: Where will you be attending graduate school?

A: I will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: So you're going to get a master's degree?

A: No. As is common in the natural sciences, I was accepted directly into a PhD program without any prior graduate study.

Q: And what exactly will you be getting a PhD in?

A: Chemistry, with an organic major, and potentially a chemical biology minor. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-based compounds.

Q: How long will your program take to complete?

A: Most students complete the program in 5-6 years, depending on rate of research progress. The PhD is awarded upon submission of an acceptable dissertation documenting an original contribution to the discipline. This takes different people different amounts of time.

Q: Wow, won't you be totally sick of school by the time you're done?

A: I will not be attending school in the traditional sense. I will have a full schedule of coursework and teaching in my first year, and will move into full time laboratory research by my third year. Graduate school will be more like a full time job.

Q: But aren't you going to pile up a mountain of debt?

A: No. My tuition is paid by my department and I will receive a livable salary.

Q: So what do you want to do when you finally get out?

A: The chemistry PhD is uniquely flexible in that a very high proportion of degree holders work in industry, often for pharmaceutical and oil companies. Others work in government labs or in academia. At this point, I am leaning toward an industrial career, but I have been told that I will not really have a good idea of my career goals until a couple of years into grad school.

Q: So you could be a professor when you get out?

A: Not quite. Most academic positions require postdoctoral experience. Postdocs are typically 1-2 year positions dedicated to full time research, and are usually conducted at another institution. Industrial positions do not usually require postdoctoral experience.

Q: When does your program begin?

A: Next August. Can't wait.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Brief Confession

A good bit of the time, when people announce their engagements, my first urge is not to congratulate them, but to ask, "What the hell are you smoking?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

America, I Love You...

But you're bloody retarded. I will not apologize for using that word. It means "slow," particularly with respect to mental processing. No one thinks in good faith that this is a good thing. Last night, Michael Lynche, epically talented soul troubadour, received the fewest votes of any American Idol contestant after an entirely original take on the Beatles' classic Eleanor Rigby. The contestants receiving more votes included prepubescent mike-swiveling balladeer orphan Aaron Kelly, sub-Nickelback constipator Lee DeWyze, and chops enough to land the role of Knight #2 in Millard Fillmore High School Presents Camelot Tim Urban, who needs an awkward lecture from his father on the facts of life before he ever attempts "Under My Thumb" again.

I confess that I'm old and I don't understand the music that kids like these days. Kids, what do you look for in a song? The expressive power of the vocalist? The wit of the lyrics? Hooky arrangements? The musical conversation of the ensemble? Agoodbeatandyoucandancetoit? Your music is strange and impenetrable to me. I cannot fathom the depths present in the music of a Tim Urban or a Justin Bieber. The fault is mine, not yours. Next week, regardless of my feelings, I too will vote for Tim Urban in the hopes that one day, enlightenment shall come.