Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
Words Words Words
We get so caught up in what a song or hymn says through its lyrics/verses. I’ve watched debates rage on about what a text means and whether it has “good theology.” There are books written on analyzing texts, and pastors often analyze a song or hymn’s appropriateness for their congregation based on the words alone. We are fixated on words and the words are the primary and often only metric we use to determine theological content. But this overemphasis on words (or neglect of other aspects of congregational singing) misses the point. Let me give two scenarios to consider:
Imagine, if you will, a congregation standing up to sing the opening hymn for their Sunday morning service. They wait for the instrumental introduction as usual and then begin singing. Their singing could be described in the following ways: partial interest, partial participation, mezzo piano dynamic, lazy and at times indiscernible diction, slumped shoulders, heads down, no bodily movement, a few smiles but mostly neutral facial expressions.
As they sing, the instrumental accompaniment goes like this:
Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise God in his sanctuary; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him in his mighty firmament! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him for his mighty deeds; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him according to his surpassing greatness! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with trumpet sound; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with lute and harp! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with tambourine and dance; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with strings and pipe! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with clanging cymbals; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with loud clashing cymbals! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1 with added crescendo pedal and long last chord]
The theology of the words is hard to critique since they’re straight out of scripture. So I’m assuming the majority of you who are reading this would not attempt to argue the theology of the words. This song has “good theology,” right?
I recently attended a “Circle Songs” retreat at the Omega Institute in New York State. The leaders were Bobby McFerrin and his colleagues that make up the group “Give Me Five.” In what they call “circle singing,” a group standing in a circle is led in multiple improvised repetitive parts usually using an improvised (made up) language by the leader, very similar to scat in jazz singing. Here’s an example of a circle song in that style:
Now imagine a worship service emphasizing the creativeness of God and God’s creation that includes a song like this. There are no “words” per se, but rather the song contains made-up syllables that provide the mechanism for the improvised melodies to interlock with each other. The singing is embodied and joyful. The singers make eye contact with each other and everyone is engaged in the music making. The textures of the sound change constantly as new layers are being added or subtracted or as the leader improvises a melody over the top.
Using the typical conversations I’ve seen to determine whether this song has “good theology,” it would quickly become apparent that this song not only doesn’t have good theology, it has no theology.
By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.
Expanding Our Metrics
I’d argue that both scenarios help us see how the current conversations surrounding whether a song has “good theology” are woefully unsubstantial. By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.
Scenario 1 contains words that have what most of you would consider “good theology.” But if the hymn is led and sung in the way described above, I would argue that the song has terrible theology. By singing in that way, we’re telling God, “I’ll praise you a little bit…but not with ALL my being…that would be ridiculous.” We’re telling God, “I’ll praise you with 40% of my being…that’s all I can muster right now.” We’re telling each other, “I love God, but not as much as I love watching the game and eating wings.” This, my friends, is bad theology. I don’t care what the words say.
Scenario 2 most certainly contains theology, but none of it can be ascertained by listening to the words. In fact, I’d argue that scenario 2 contains better theology than scenario 1. While the words don’t contain any explicit theological content, the embodiment of the singing and the spirit with which it is sung contains strong theological content. Furthermore, by placing a joyful improvised piece of music within the context of a service centered around the idea of God’s creativeness and the creativeness of God’s creation, we are telling God, “We are thankful for and enjoy the gift you gave us that is creativity.” We are telling God, “We will praise you in every way we can think of and in constantly new ways.” We are telling each other, “You are a part of God’s creation and we are in this together. I’m listening to you and want to be in community with you.” These are theologically rich statements, all made without uttering a single word of an established language.
The challenge for many of us is to listen.
The challenge for many of us is to listen. Before determining for ourselves or especially for others whether a song has “good” or “bad” theology, there must be a process of listening.
Listen to the experience of others. How are they experiencing a song?
Listen to the experience of our elders. How have they experienced a song in the past?
Listen to the community’s voice as it sings. Is it sounding? Is it silent? Is it anemic? Is it joyful?
Listen to the context. What surrounds the song culturally? What surrounds the song liturgically?
Listen to your own voice. Does the song resonate with your own faith journey? Does the song challenge your faith journey?
Listen to the words. Yes, of course words are important! They form our minds and shape our hearts. Are the words borne from scriptural waters? Are the words pastoral or prophetic? Do the words support or challenge God’s people on their journey? Do the words speak Truth?