Faith in Focus

Musings on Music


In the world of secular music, tastes and styles change rapidly. What was the latest only a few years ago is now old hat and ignored (remember ABBA?), or now regarded as classic (such as the Beetles). This is now also true of the music that is used in the worship of God. Until the early seventies, music for worship was usually metrical, rhyming, and recognisable as more or less hymnodic. Just look in your Billy Graham crusade songbooks and you'll see this was the case. Then came the choruses, of which Scripture in Song were perhaps the best known example. But even these are now old hat for many.

Much of the music that is now doing the rounds comes from Australia, from Hills Christian Life Centre in Sydney. The music is published under the name "Hillsong". What is this organisation?

Pastor Brian Houston comments: "Hills Christian Life Centre is a church with an intense desire to resource and bless the greater church. That so many congregations world-wide are singing Hillsong music is the fulfilment of a dream and a mandate that God placed in our spirit." And Geoff Bullock, the music director writes: "All over the world, congregations are expressing their love for God with new music, new sounds, new ways. It is a contemporary sound, a music that not only reflects the passion of those called by God, but also reflects the culture of those yet to hear."

It appears that much of the music now sung by Christians is produced by Hillsong, and dates from the 1990s. And much of the music is indeed beautiful. However, we wish to make a few comments on these songs. This is hardly intended to be the final word on the topic, as it is not based on an in-depth review of their output, but on our observations, and a reading of the lyrics of a Hillsong collection entitled "God is in the House".

Style of Music

As already noted, the Hillsong personnel intend to produce new music, new sounds, new ways. In practice this means music that creates a mood ("reflects the passion of those called by God"), and that is accessible by those who have never been in a worship event before ("reflects the culture of those yet to hear"). The latter presents few problems: Luther and the writers of much church music did the same, using tunes, or at least using the styles then in vogue, for their hymn tunes. And a number of the Psalms and hymns we sing are in fact set to popular tunes, such as Finlandia, the Emperor Quartet, and Danny Boy. So long as the tune does not so lend itself to secular associations which prevent the worshipper from concentrating on the worship of the God to whom praise is being offered, we see no problem.

After all, there is a real danger in judging styles of music. Speaking personally, our love for the Genevan melodies (in their original modal forms) reflects, in part, our love for the music of the renaissance and the baroque periods, and is not based on any theological argument. Hence we will refrain from judging the music per se.

There is however a danger in using only one style of music. In part this is the flip side of what is mentioned above. Because musical tastes do differ, some, and particularly older worshippers, will have a preference for older styles. There is a tendency for the new to drive out the old, especially when the back-up music (be it organ or band) is produced by young people. Rather, the biblical body metaphor suggests that a range of music styles should be used in the worship of God.

Where contemporary music is used exclusively, one manifestation of the concept of the Holy Catholic Church extending throughout the ages and nations is lost. There is something thrilling about singing an older hymn such as "O Sacred Head", the tune of which was first sung by believers many centuries ago, and which has been used by believers ever since in the praise of God. However small, this is one demonstration of the catholicity of the church of God despite differences of culture, language and epoch.

And the tunes should suit the lyrics of the particular song. This should be obvious, but evidently it is not. A sad song should be set to music that matches it. A song that declares that we trust in God and are totally dependent upon him should not sound like a braggart's chant. We have encountered songs where we felt the tune was quite inappropriate, and have often wondered which songs would be suitable for a funeral if Hillsongs were the only source from which to choose.

Lyrics

It is well known that many a heresy has been spread by means of song. Therefore real care must be exercised in the selection of songs for worship to ensure that they are true to the teachings of Scripture. On the other hand, there is a danger of over-scrupulousness in assessing songs. Since poetry and music are expressions of the heart as well as the head, expressions may be used that at first hearing ring strange in our ears, but are in fact entirely proper. This is the more so when the words are set to unfamiliar tunes. We easily swallow the familiar camel, and yet strain at the unfamiliar gnat.

This danger comes to the fore the moment one starts critiquing any collection of songs. Many contemporary songs refer to Jesus as lover, at which we are inclined to cringe. But so does Psalter Hymnal 425. Likewise, many contemporary songs pile on descriptive phrases in a seemingly unconnected fashion. But so does the old favourite "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah". The point is that we must beware that we are applying a fair and consistent standard in any critique that we give.

As collections of songs though, there are certain weaknesses in the lyrics that should be considered when using the Hillsong songs.

a. Unlike, for example, the Psalter, the full revelation of God is not covered by the lyrics. The songs generally could be placed under the headings of trust, joy, Holy Spirit, and glory. Areas that are missing include such basics as repentance, redemption in the blood, the law of God, and sanctification. No doubt these are there in measure, but the theology strikes us as other-worldly, reflecting the praise offered by glorified saints who have left this world, rather than weak, though redeemed, sinners who are working out their salvation with fear and trembling.

b. The view of the Christian life one derives from the lyrics is thus one of victory and triumph, for we have "love, grace, peace and power and joy in the Holy Ghost". It strikes us that the Psalmists ("Hillsongers" of several millennia ago?) had a much greater depth of experience than that, and so indeed did the apostles if their writings are anything to go by. We love singing the laments of Psalm 22 and 77, because they are so true. And because they accurately reflect what it is to be human, their prescriptions for salvation and joy are believable and edifying. We would feel straight-jacketed to only have sentimental or subjective or praisy-type lyrics as our musical worship diet.

c. As one would expect, there is a charismatic focus in the theology of the lyrics. This can be seen for example in the use of the term "fire", as in "You touch my soul with holy fire", (by which we suspect not the cauterising fire of Isaiah 6, but rather the charismatic flame of Acts 2 is meant). It also appears in the tenor of whole verses: "I believe the promise about the visions and the dreams, that the Holy Spirit will be poured out, and his power will be seen. Well the time is now and the place is here, and his people have come in faith. There's a mighty sound and a touch of fire when we're gathered in one place."

d. We also detect a view of God that seems to be more tri-personal than Trinitarian. There are songs to or about the Holy Ghost, about Jesus, and about God, but the unity of the Godhead is not stressed (cf.: Holy, Holy, Holy or Come Thou Almighty King in our Psalter Hymnal).

All the above can perhaps be summarised by saying that the songs reflect an under-developed biblical and systematic theology. They also reflect an almost exclusively subjective, rather than a Christo-centric view of the work of God, and a devaluation of the primacy of the Scriptures.

The Poetry

The songwriters consciously desired to write in a contemporary style, which is commendable. We realise that there is an evangelistic focus on the part of this group, and to a large degree one must use today's language to communicate with one's contemporaries. Hence, though the (over)use of the term "awesome" or "choice" in reference to God may ring strange in our ears, we feel it may be appropriate, so long as the content of that term is fleshed out.

We do wonder though whether "contemporary" needs to mean "devoid of poetry". It is partly that the Hillsongs are lacking metre, and (usually) rhyme. We believe that these are desirable, in terms of learning the song in the first place (they aid prediction), and as easier ways to produce lyrics that at least sound poetic. But even more, the phrases are wooden, repetitive, unimaginative and lack the emotional appeal that one would expect of poetry. We have termed this the "concrete mixer" approach to writing songs: throw in a whole lot of pat phrases, mix twice, and hey presto! Where is the majesty, the pathos, the depth of feeling and the beautiful language of the hymns and psalms of days gone by? Just try this: read through the lyrics of a Hillsong without the music going through your head at the same time. We think you'll agree that the words have to be carried by the music. The music provides the "poetry" that the words should have independently.

Summary

What then? So what? Yes, these are just our thoughts, based on a cursory review of the Hillsong songs. Take them for what they're worth. But we would suggest the following when it comes to selecting music, particularly for youth camps:

a. Carefully review any song that is to be used, according to a number of criteria such as theological accuracy, appropriateness of the tune, and quality of the lyrics. Although we would question one or two of the points listed, the Statement of Principle for Music in the Church in the front of our Psalter Hymnal provides a useful summary of matters to consider.

b. Endeavour to provide a balanced diet of music from different ages, cultures, genres etc. The latest is not all there is, and is not necessarily the greatest either.

c. Recognise that any new songs sung in contexts outside the stated Sunday worship services may become favourites, and that home churches may be pressured to use them. This being so, make sure that whatever is sung is suitable praise to God. Give Him the best. Avoid the mediocre.

d. Plan those occasions where God is to be praised in song. There is a place for free choice sessions. But it is usually better to have a person preselect the songs (and plan the accompanying reading, meditation and prayer) to ensure a balance or a theme is maintained. This will also prevent theologically or contextually inappropriate songs being chosen.

e. Let us encourage those in our midst who, following in Asaph's footsteps are able to use their artistic gifts to God's glory. If anyone should, we should be subjecting this area of human activity to God's glory. Where are our poets, musicians and other artists?

Conclusion

What we have written is not intended to suggest that Hillsong songs should not be used at all. However, it does suggest restraint and balance in using these numbers. We are wary of the almost revolutionary triumphalism of the Hillsong staff: focussing only on what they perceive God to be doing through them, they appear to have no concept of what has gone before, of church history, and of a church that is more than just a contemporary and intensely personally subjective manifestation. Their contribution is perhaps that of pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants, and that only by God's grace.

May we truly bring glory to God in the songs we compose and sing.

Mr Rob & Mrs Andy Vosslamber& Andy Vosslamber

Tauranga

28 August 1997

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised October 97 / Copyright 1997