22 July 2011

Praise Music: An Amateur Deacon Ruminates

There is a collection of church music commonly called “praise music.” I can’t call it a “school” of music even though it may be such to those who really know what they’re talking about nor can I define any boundaries of where it is or where it isn’t. Praise Music doesn’t appear in most hymnals, that’s about the best way I can describe it.

My dear friend and brother Parson Jim N. just published a fascinating blog post on his reaction to praise music as being something other than admirable Christian music. I would note at the outset that appreciating this Dispatch From No. 3 requires that you follow the link and read Parson Jim’s post. I may reprise it just a bit, but it’s well worth the effort to see what Jim says:


A quick detour – in a comment to my immediate past post, on open carry of firearms, a commentor (who disagreed with most of my opinions) reminded me that it is most convenient to post the link when I’m discussing someone else’s work. A lesson: Always mine the opinions and comments of others for good ideas. Ignoring someone’s good idea someone because she disagrees with you on other things Not Very Bright.

Okay, have you read Parson Jim’s post? No, really – read it. I’ll wait. I’m not in a big hurry.

To me, the heart of his opinion is in the fourth paragraph:

Except for one of these songs in this category I can recall singing, they are all about an unholy trinity of “Me, Myself and I.” It almost seems as if we imagine by singing such words that God is so pleased at the sound of our melodic flattery that the Divine Being surely must bless us with some sort of special or chosen status for our feel-good blather.

And so, his observations center around the lyrics as has his and my conversations on the subject.

The entire “Me, Myself and I” school of preaching is, I find, a touch annoying. My gradual return to a church life began through the “Red Letter” process. In some editions of the Bible, the quotations ascribed to Jesus Christ are printed in red. This, it would seem, would be the central part of Jesus’ teaching and, thus, his church. I’ll stay away from the entire yes-he-said-it-no-he-didn’t-history-says-doesn’t-say-whatever mud pit. I don’t really connect with a lot of the early church interpretation scholarship, probably because I know so little about it. I largely put the history on the back burner as I look for divine inspiration, and consider the words themselves. They make sense to me. They speak to me. I hope they speak to you. But if they don’t, there’s not a great deal I can do about it, we all have to row our own boats.

Another little detour – to the half a dozen people who get annoyed at the “ascribed” thing: Get as annoyed as you want, I can live with it. The one thing I’m certain of is that Jesus never said “No man comes to the father except by me,” or any of the other things ascribed to him in those words in the English language. Nor in the language of 17th century England (the King James version). Nor in Latin (e.g., the Vulgate). And I doubt if he said these things in Greek, although I could be wrong. Assuming for the moment that he expressed the quoted thoughts, it was likely in Aramaic. I have no clue what Aramaic syntax is like, but I doubt if it is a word-for-word translation. And so, back I go to reading the words in the only language I really know and listening for their inherent Truth to me.

I am inclined to doubt that my prayers induce the Lord to buy me things, give me great (and probably undeserved) health or lead him to smite my enemies. (There, I remember the “weather prayer” recited by George C. Scott in the movie Patton.) Usually, the best I hope for is understanding or, failing that, patience and acceptance. I find that placing a purchase order with God or giving him a to-do list is pretty cheeky. Sorry, Joel Oesteen, I won’t be there next Sunday or the Sunday after that or the Sunday after that.

Song lyrics range from the deeply meaningful to the idiotic. Much of the music of my youth, around 1970, contains lyrics which are excellent poetry. Simon & Garfunkel (and others who wrote the songs they performed) were pretty good poets. Ditto James Taylor. Ditto Carly Simon on a good day. Okay, a really good day. Some of this poetry set to music conjures up images and, as importantly to me, feelings of well-being or energy or excitement.

A lot of the old hymns have good poetry although sometimes gets lost in period vernacular or obscure references. “Amazing Grace” is a widely sung hymn particularly favored by folk bands and by police and fire department funeral bagpipers. So the lines are quite familiar:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
Putting it in some historical context helps out a lot. That central lyric, “saved a wretch like me” is the key to the hymn. That line was written by the captain of a slave ship who reformed and repented of the terrible things he had done – – thus, his gratitude and even surprise that God saved “a wretch like me.” One of my favorite hymns, “It Is Well With My Soul” also becomes a little clearer in context. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a lawyer in Chicago at the time of the great Chicago fire. His family escaped harm in the fire but his extensive property was largely destroyed. He sent his family on a trip to Europe while he took care of his business affairs. Their ship sank in mid-ocean, killing all aboard. He took another ship to Europe and when the captain of that vessel informed him that they were passing the spot where his family perished, he retired to his cabin to pen words which I find beautiful and thoroughly Christian, that even when things are extremely bad, nevertheless I am given peace and “It is well with my soul.”

Other lyrics speak to me at times, both within and without a religious context, although with often with a spiritual one. Right now I am thinking of “My Home Among the Hills,” which is a lyrical journey about the hills of West Virginia:

"There autumn hills sides are bright with scarlet leaves,
and in the spring, the robins sing,
and apple blossoms whisper in the breeze,”
and so forth.

Certainly, that lyric and a beautiful yet hard-to-sing melody moves me.

But the music itself also creates a mood, creates an emotional or even physical reaction, a “filling of the Spirit” or a spell of just feeling good. You don’t have to have good lyrics nor even lyrics which make sense. There is the old traditional spiritual “Kum-bay-yah,” now heard more as a punchline to jokes than as a song. For every stanza, you get five syllables (e.g., “someone’s singing, Lord”) and a lot of the nonsense words “Kum-bay-yah.” Once I heard that it that was some sort of diminutive of “come by here,” but when you sing the song it’s just a repetitive chant. Babble-babble, chant-chant, feel good. Other lyrics may be utter nonsense, may fit the music and yet be utter nonsense which means nothing:

“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble,”


get a job.”

The ballad form can be pure but even there we may indulge in some lyrical obscurity. The “Via Dolorosa,” popularized by modern day Christian artist Sandi Patty is an information-light story of Christ’s journey to the Place of Skulls. (Nickel knowledge: Actually, it was the town dump.) I think it was written in English, but part of it is been transliterated to be sung in Spanish. Well, if you want to add a little bit of the exotic to a song, throw in some language that your listeners don’t speak.

When I start to talk about the music itself, I’m going way out on a limb, because I really don’t know a hell of a lot about music. I confess that I have the rich envy of a person with a merely-adequate voice for those with true musical gifts. Some months ago, I had a really fascinating conversation with the organist of our church, a professional musician, about how good “elite” (my word, not his) musicians really have to be. And there is a gulf between the willing singing parishioner and the true musician that I, for one, will not bridge.

The problem I encounter with praise music in church is not so much the lyrics, because I don’t listen to the lyrics as closely as I do the ballads in using my youth. For one thing, I have much less exposure to each bit of praise music. Where I encounter problems is that the music has been written by really talented musicians to match their really high-level abilities. On the rare occasions that the music is printed, I have a really tough time following it. And even if I can follow it, the darn stuff is hard to sing without a really good voice. One of the really pretty pieces of modern Christian music I enjoy is an untitled hymn sung by Chris Rice commonly known as “Come to Jesus.” The lyrics are beautiful, the music is beautiful and it all speaks to me. And if I could put the music into a key that straddles my limited range, I might be able to sing it halfway decently, but only if I could do away with the key changes that confuse the hell out of me. And there, I think, is something that has led to the acceptance of some of the old hymns, fairly average voices can (mostly) sing along.

On the other hand, my brother Dave’s dad’s funeral a couple of weeks ago was at a Methodist church. Oh, I do find that modern Methodism must be theologically sound. I conclude that because the hymnal did not burn my fingers when I opened it. God talks to me that way, you know. But when they did “Amazing Grace,” I found that whoever arranged the song for the Methodists wrote a bass part that I could not have followed with a compass and a troop of Boy Scouts.

Oh, well – I’ praise God my way anyway and just try to get by.

And so, I’m neither I neither strongly support Parson Jim and everything he says nor strongly dissent. I find his opinions thought-provoking. In matters of faith, I cannot ask for any more than that.

Thank you, Jim.

Pippa passes.

1 comment:

Jim N. said...

Thank you, Roger! Your observations are also thought-provoking. I certainly join you in appreciating the Sixties folk-music era, especially the courage that genre exercised in speaking/singing to the real issues of the day. Your observations about the musicality of much of today's praise songs is very interesting. Since your followers out number mine, I thank you for the possibility of expanding the base of this conversation. And the song continues...