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.


  1. This is a great post - particularly your point about how songs can alienate the worshiper. This point can be broadened to all songs that presume the people are standing, clapping, or worst of all, dancing. We play this song at my church and I have to say I've never liked the verses, though the chorus can be stirring. The bent tree (wrongfully, but nevertheless still) reminds me of "a bruised reed he will NOT break." Other things that can be said about this are, what regrets? and also, the he/you switch in verse 1 is disappointing. Last - Crowder might have had Eph 3:18,19 in mind in this song.


  2. how He loves us was originally writen by John Mark McMillan when his best friend died maybe you should considered in the situation he was in when he wrote this song, and you will understand it better

  3. I'm surprised at the overall tone of your analysis. In general, it is very Pharisaical and lacks any artistry at all. While you obviously grasp advanced grammatical structure and exegetical skill, you have not applied here your sense for the nuances of artistic expression. Music is art. Music is not scripture. And, while I would also insist that the music we sing (particularly in corporate worship) should not teach any specifically false doctrine I would equally recommend that you save such detailed exegesis for Scripture and works of commentary as it does not serve as an effective tool when applied to artistic lyrics. These songs were written to express the heart of the artist and not as a medium to communicate the gospel message in specific detail. I could in turn point out that "Awake My Soul" specifically omits any information about HOW to encounter the Lord's grace and enter into His salvation and therefore falls as utterly short in presenting the gospel message as D.L.Moody at the famous Chigago revival. In the very same sense it alienates those who have not felt the personal experience of God's grace in the way that the writer specifically envisions it. In more common terms, it's very "churchy". (Perhaps that is why others have not shared your enthusiasm for this particular piece.)
    In total, you appear to be writing a criticism such as this with a particular prejudice against a certain aspect of the genre and with specific intention to tear it down. Your specific negativism both surprises and disappoints me. What you have written essentially comes down to "Why I like this song and not that one" with reasons why the first is of no value and the second is of great worth. That's one man's opinion. Sorry, but I found nothing charming about this particular post, Man Cub.
    ~ Robbit

  4. Robbit,

    You write that these songs were written to express the heart of the artist. That's a questionable proposition; many great songwriters report that they write from the imagination, not to express their actual emotions. But a worship songwriter particularly must write to express something that a congregation of believers can affirm, not just his own feelings in his own private language. And I've argued above that "How He Loves", insofar as its imagery expresses anything at all, doesn't express something that all believers do or ought to hold in common.

    With respect to "Awake My Soul", yeah, it's churchy, and I wouldn't fill a song set with songs like it. But point out to me the lyric that a believer cannot affirm. This song doesn't convey the sensation of grace, it speaks of the truth of grace. It doesn't say everything about the gospel, and I never claimed that a worship song ought to, but it says a heck of a lot, and I think that "How He Loves" says almost nothing. Also, the language of contemporary worship songs is the new "churchy" - it sounds very foreign to people outside the evangelical church.

  5. Also, I think that Chris Tomlin songs usually strike a good balance between accessibility and soundness, even though I'm not a fan of his recordings.

  6. hey Cale,
    I just wanted point out a few things about "How He Loves" that might shed light on its lyrical inscrutabilitly. Ruthlesschic forgot to mention that John Mark McMillan wrote the song from the perspective of his friend entering into heaven and being ushered into the presence of God (after his death). This explains several lyrical features: 1) "afflictions" and "regrets" that characterized this life fade away in light of God's eternal glory in our new life. 2) the grace "in his eyes" then is appropriate because the scene is set in heaven where a believer faces the God of grace Himself. 3) the images of the tree bending beneath a hurricane and of us sinking in a vast ocean of grace, then, simply convey an overwhelming sense of God's love that we will "realize" when we enter into the eternal presence of God. Obviously the analogies fall apart at some point, but I don't think many people scrutinize the song beyond this point.

    Speculating about heaven in this way might come across as presumptuous, but I think the artist's intention is good and by and large the song's impact has been very positive. I've had many people share with me that while singing this song they felt God's mercy and grace washing over them.

    Finally, it helps to understand that John Mark MacMillan is a praise leader at the International House of Prayer, which is charismatic and places huge emphasis on the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Their songs often lack catechetical quality as you pointed out, but they are abundantly emotive, which, as you conceded, is not in itself bad.
    I've known many people who returned from a visit to IHOP really challenged and transformed. They, without exception, describe the worship service at IHOP as Spirit-filled and say that they were enraptured by the presence of God in ways that they have never experienced before. It's tough to keep the tension between worshiping God in both Spirit and Truth (John 4:23-24), and I think we should affirm what "How He Loves" does well instead of dismissing it wholesale.

    On a side note, you might find it interesting that David Crowder added "unforeseen kiss" in place of "a sloppy wet kiss" (in the original lyric) to make it more theologically sound. Heaven meeting earth is not going to be "sloppy," but the image sure captures its "unforeseen" and lavish quality.

    Thanks for a thoughtful analysis of the songs. Obviously we can always use more thoughtful reflection in our worship, and we need to be careful that what we sing is Biblical. Oh and I agree that "Awake My Soul" can make a great worship song. It's so Gospel-centered, and it's a great tune too!


  7. Okay, I'm late finding this but I was recently at a church where they sang How He Loves and it made me never want to go there again. My heart turned violently inside of my chest. Actually, I thought I was going to vomit my heart out of my brain.