(The word ‘band’ purposefully omitted to circumvent accusations of punnyness.)
This past Saturday, the man and I devoted over an hour to personal enrichment via research. This research took the form of subjecting ourselves to aesthetic torture by listening to contemporary Christian ‘worship’ songs with which we were unfamiliar. We were curious about these songs because they were featured in a recent article presented by Chritsian commentator Jonathan Aigner. Aigner in his columns often focuses on different aspects of worship in American Evangelicalism, with topics ranging from churches’ incorporation of secular holidays into their liturgies to the performance-oriented nature of megachurch ‘worship’. In this particular piece, he compares and contrasts a list of traditional hymns to that of an equal number of popular contemporary Christian so-called worship songs, discussing the differences between the two categories in several different aspects, including authorship, musical style (including accessibility/appropriateness for congregational singing), poetic structure, and theological soundness, to which didactic value is also linked.
The article was published late in April of this year, 2016. Aigner, for reasons unexplained, chose to compare the top 13 hymns (he describes how he chose those he did in the text) to the top 13 ‘Contemporary Songs’ from September 2014, as listed by CCLI. The table provided in his article (posted on Patheos) is pasted below. The numbering errors are from the original.
Had Aigner chosen a 2016 list, the sample would have been more current. It also would have included ‘In Christ Alone’ (2001), a beacon of hope amidst the tripe, and one still so close to the top in spite of its ‘age’. Others now in the top 13 (CCLI’s top songs in the US as of the writing of this post) include: ‘This is Amazing Grace’ (Riddle, Farro & Wickham, 2012), ‘Holy Spirit’ (Torwalt & Torwalt 2011). The three that have fallen from the list since 2014 are: ‘Here I am to Worship’ (fallen to #20), ‘Forever Reign’ (fallen to #14), and ‘Blessed be Your Name’ (fallen to #15). So, those three still hover near the top.
Because we were reading Aigner’s article, we looked closely at the list and noted to each other how many of them we hadn’t heard (of). It’s been a few years since we attended a church where contemporary songs are part of the worship, but even then, those churches that did so favoured contemporary hymns, or traditional hymns set to contemporary music (such as those adapted by Reformed University Fellowship) over those of the class called worship or praise songs. We expected that had something to do with why we were unfamiliar with just over half the list: ‘Our God’; ‘One Thing Remains’; ‘Forever Reign’; ‘Cornerstone’; ‘Lord I Need You’; ‘Revelation Song’; & ‘Oceans’. We decided to find out what we were missing.
More than once, as we went through the Youtube videos, I remarked, ‘Didn’t we just hear this?’ Setting strict melody aside (since you usually can’t see the printed music anyway), stylistically, these songs are all played, sung, and performed the same way, even if the ‘artists’ are different people. But since I am no student of popular music, I’ll also set aside the annoying musical sameness of this group of praise-mill products and instead focus on the lyrics. We’ll move through them in no particular order, touching on 2 to 3 per post.
The contribution of the song ‘Cornerstone’ on any level is negligible. As near as we can tell, it is a treatment of ‘My Hope is Built on Nothing Less’ with a (pointless?) Hillsongesque chorus, which consists of ‘Christ alone, cornerstone/ weak made strong through the Savior’s love/ through the storm he is Lord/ Lord of all.’ Why the original is no longer ‘relevant’ or good enough… who knows, especially since the metaphor is consistent throughout the original refrain: ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand/ all other ground is sinking sand, / all other ground is sinking sand’. Jesus is both the cornerstone on which the church is built, and a rock of refuge in a storm, but–does the author of this chorus realize the metaphors are being mixed without the image of either being completed? Ah well, not much more to say on that.
2. Our God (Lyrics here.)
What can be said of this song can be said of many of them: it is inane and repetitive. Inane? Why? Doesn’t it say true things about God? Well, yes, God is the Healer, the Great Physician; Jesus did open the eyes of the blind, and he did turn water into wine. But given the fact that the song opens with these mentions of miracles (we’ll assume, since the two things are next to each other, that it is the giving of physical as well as spiritual sight, since the wine reference is obviously to the wedding at Cana), and that such specific illustrations are then forgotten for the rest of the song, the miracles may have been chosen for the convenience of rhyme. For if the author wanted to focus on the significance of the events or ideas, they would have been further developed, or if he wanted to focus on Christ’s earthly ministry and/or ways in which he proved he was the Messiah, we would have expected more reference to his ministry, either in miracles, or in a segue from miracles to his teaching.
Instead, after the first iteration of ‘There’s no one like you/none like you’, we get this: ‘Into the darkness You shine/ Out of the ashes we rise.’ Wait, what? If we were reading this in any other context than a worship service, say, with our brains plugged in and our thinking caps on, we’d think, Wait, were we just incinerated with a divine thunderbolt, and then reanimated or something, kind of like baby Dionysius being taken out of the cinders of the Zeus-torched Semele and stitched into his father’s leg? What’s the connection between these two ideas (Jesus shining into darkness/Us rising out of ashes)? Forgive me, but where’s the logic? Were these two images chosen for rhyme value, for ‘visual’ impact, or both? One is biblical; the other, well, I’m not quite clear on that–sounds more like a Phoenix than a Christian.
Though the lyrics as printed make the song appear long, it isn’t. And for all the refrains, there are no more mentions of specific aspects either of Jesus’ ministry, where we began, or of facets of God’s character, which might be expected given the song’s title. In the end, there isn’t much worth repeating. Instead, what we might call refrain 1 is the following:
Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God You are higher than any other
Our God is Healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God
So what’s wrong with it? Yes, God is mighty–the Psalms tell us this many times and in many ways. But what started with concrete images–like water becoming wine–has now settled on dull declarations of truths with no exploration or illustration of those truths. The mind is not permitted to dwell one any of the several components, as the song keeps tossing out a new (but unimaginative) adjective at every phrase, pointing at yet another thing about God. There is no means offered with which the singer can contemplate God’s greatness, His strength, His majesty, His mercy. We still don’t get much on His character–the closest is the title ‘Healer’, but again, it is not ‘camped on’, and is the only term of its kind; such uniqueness can make something stand out, but it can also make it seem out of place, as if it were an afterthought. We won’t dwell here on the awkward shift of person in the second line; Aigner already discusses this in his article. Instead, we’ll compare the above with this:
Psalm 29 (A Psalm of David.)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness
3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
I chose this psalm because, while it is not very long, it features several instances of repetition, and has a similar focus to that of ‘Our God’.
I do not specialize in Hebrew poetry, so any analysis of the language and structure of the psalm by me must be based on the English translation. Here, as in our contemporary song, we have repeated phrases, such as ‘Ascribe to the Lord,’ ‘The voice of the Lord,’ and the two closing couplets’ opening phrases, ‘The Lord sits enthroned,’ and ‘May the Lord.’
Refrain 1, again,
Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God You are higher than any other
Our God is Healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God
is sung a total of 5 times according to the online printing of the lyrics.
Instead of choosing any one of the repeated phrases to create a motif, which is then developed through a series of different images, the same set of disconnected (even disembodied) phrases is repeated as a chunk of information over and over again. This is quite different from the effect of repetition in the psalm, as seen in its varied illustrations about the voice of the Lord.
The focus on the Lord’s voice is an expounding of the first few lines about His glory, power, and splendor. As the psalm opens declaring several things about God, the motif of His voice is employed in a series of images which explore these different aspects through one manifestation of His power. His voice ‘thunders over the waters,’ v.3, which calls to mind the early verses of Genesis—God’s voice is representative of His creative power, and also represents His authorship of history. After this, the psalmist pulls back to make another general declaration about the nature of His voice in v.4.
The physical effects of His voice are then brought ‘closer to home’, as it is likened perhaps to strong winds, breaking the renowned trees of a neighboring, ‘real’ country which is mentioned by name in v.5. This grounding in geographical reality is further expanded in the next verse, where the mention of the Lord’s voice is dropped, and Lebanon are Sirion are animalized. The mode of animalization is both evocative and endearing. The nations are compared to vulnerable but evidently secure and playful young livestock. The argument of the power of God over creation, historic and present, narrows here, pointing to God’s power over all life, and particularly His sustaining of young life, His glory seen in the young animals’ exuberance and simple joy.
The next verse, v.7, again pulls back to more supernatural, indeed celestial and holiness imagery, reminding the hearer/singer of the awe-inspiring power of the voice of the Lord, a striking contrast to the homey images of the playful calves.
The shaking of the wilderness in v.8 is a twist on the ‘power over creation/nature’ argument of v.5, reminiscent of the effect of an earthquake, which is a fitting complement to v.5’s wind parallel. It is also a clear reminder of the fittingness of fear of the Lord, since both the breaking of trees and shaking of the earth signal the potentially destructive power of the Lord exercised in response to sin. ‘Shakes the wilderness’ is repeated in the second half of v.8, but that line introduces new information, specifying that it is the wilderness of Kadesh, again giving the metaphor geographical reality and relevance.
Verse 9 directly juxtaposes the fearful might of the Lord with His life-giving providence, this time asserting His sovereignty over the birth of wild animals (the calf in v.5 is domesticated, and the wild ox is still nearer to domesticated livestock than is the deer), and then His power to destroy in the image of the forests stripped bare by His voice. The proper response of His people to this power follows the image pair: ‘in his temple all cry, “Glory!”’
The psalm closes with the two couplets, each of which features its own repeated opener. Verse 10 returns to the opening of the psalm, and to the first image of His voice: ‘The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;/ the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.’ The repeated half-line is used to declare twinned aspects of the Lords’ rulership, first as creator (bringing us again to Genesis, and after the winds and earth of vv.5,8, & 9b, back to water—He created and delineated the elements), and as a personal being (a king) in relationship to humans, particularly to His covenant people.
The closing verse is a short prayer to the One who has been thus described, a proper response to the declarations of His glory, and in an appropriate place given that the last verse has shifted the focus from His general sovereignty to His position relative to people. It is right to appeal to Him, first to ask His favor and imparting of strength, in keeping with the psalm’s many iterations of the power of His voice, and for His blessing in peace. This request for peace is short and simple, but in the context of the psalm, may pack a great deal of meaning. The blessing of peace has already been imagined in the comparison of Lebanon and Sirion to the calf and young wild ox, for which God provides life and safety. Furthermore, peace contrasts with the depictions of divine destruction throughout the psalm, though one is also reminded of the instability of nature generally, whether as a means of punishment of a specific sin or as a symptom of the Fall. Peace is both protection from the elements over which God holds ultimate mastery, and implicitly, help from God to walk in His ways, and to remain in right relationship with Him as holy king.
All this in just 11 verses!
To return to ‘Our God’… Refrain 2 is:
And if Our God is for us, then who could ever stop us
And if our God is with us, then what can stand against?
This is sung 4 times, with the tag ‘Then what can stand against?’ also sung 3 or 4 times as a tag. Or something. Very little has been said about the character of this God, or His action on behalf of His people, throughout the whole of the song. Presumably His shining into the darkness has something to do with our rising from the ashes, but this is never made explicit. Romans 8:31b is likely behind this passage (ah, if only the rest of the song had such inspiration). Though of course the phrasing in the first line of refrain 2 is not original to Romans, so it begs the question: stop us from doing what? Preaching the gospel? Living according the Word of God? Singing this song?
Finally, the last line is practically lifted wholesale from the Scripture, which would be great—except that it’s poor English. Why would anyone end a line, particularly one repeated several times, with the preposition ‘against’ and without its object? I assume this is the rhythm dictating the lyrics, and the lyricist(s) didn’t know how to rephrase the thought so as to make it less awkward. I suppose, however, that since the object is ‘us’, previously stated in the first clause, we can mentally supply it, as we would in similar contexts. But (and this I admit is subjective), in common usage, I would argue that we wouldn’t end a question with ‘against,’ implied or supplied direct object notwithstanding. And—what would be the reason for skipping or cutting ‘us’? Avoiding unnecessary repetition is evidently not an interest here. Finally, in the repeated second half of the line, the persons –both ‘God’ and ‘us’—are done away with altogether: ‘Then what can stand against?’ That’s at least seven times that a line ends with a rather ‘negative’ hanging preposition. Grim.
Now, I will close this post by addressing question which may arise after one reads this post:
Am I saying that we should only sing psalms? Well, that isn’t a crazy proposal, and obviously there are churches out that there that subscribe to exclusive psalmody. I do not. My point in comparing ‘Our God’ to a psalm was to show how a short song with almost constant repetition of words or phrases can have such without being annoying or trite, can contain a lot of truth, and draw our attention to different facets of the truth, teaching us and inspiring us with awe and thanksgiving. In later posts, I will compare contemporary worship songs to traditional as well as contemporary ‘hymns,’ and even to other contemporary worship songs which perhaps have more aesthetic merit and indeed more didactic value.
Stay tuned–more to come!
Next in this series: ‘One Thing Remains’.