On the celebration of incoherence in P&W music
Remember East To West? At one point in time, they were thought of as the next huge group on the horizon. Just as they were hitting their stride with a critically acclaimed second CD, it’s like the faucet was totally turned off on Christian pop music. For the next ten years, “CCM” has been all about a constant supply of worship music with very little in the way of musical virtuosity, vocal harmony, or elaborate production quality. When is the last time you heard a decent guitar or keyboard solo on Christian radio?
It’s well past time to turn that faucet back on.
Just so. There are, though, very few signs that contemporary Protestantism’s appetite for lyrically undemanding, melodically derivative piffle will abate any time soon. Consider the lyrics of one of the more popular P&W choruses making the rounds these days:
How great is our God, sing with me
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God
Age to age He stands
And time is in His hands
Beginning and the end
Beginning and the end
I have a whole box full of unexplored theories about the drift (or full-tilt sprint, depending on how you view it) toward the sort of unimaginative, undemanding, unobtrusive spiritual life these songs model.
For one thing, the ascendancy of P&W music in CCM, with its creative poverty and tautological structure (both lyrically and musically), signals the near total surrender in mainstream Christian worship music of anything like an independent or private artistic vision continually reinvigorating and enlivening the familiar conventions and tropes of a musical genre. No Isaac Watts. No Fanny Crosby, no Andrae Crouch, no Bill and Gloria Gaither, or even a Steven Curtis Chapman (arguably the last celebrity writer of mainstream Christian music before P&W
obliterated took over everything and, as DBM puts it, the faucet was turned off).
Instead, we have, judging by their music, cds full of religiously self-absorbed writers who, I imagine, must approach the writing of a new P&W song something like this: “Isn’t God AWESOME, man? … I mean, I am just in so total AWE of how AWESOME Jesus is, dude. I wanna write a song about that … you know, just saying, God, man, you’re totally AWESOME to me.”
P&W music is the triumph of rhetorical trope for trope’s sake, an “awesome” chaos of bland pietistic conventions – the mindless repetitions, vapid imagery, and silly songs strummed on an acoustic guitar (and it’s always a guitar). It’s as though CCM has become overrun with writers and musicians whose musical sensibilities never developed beyond the youth rally, the church camp, and the praisejam.
The faith of a child is fine, but children’s music can never adequately accommodate the demands – psychological, metaphorical, moral – that accompany any serious effort to translate questions of belief and religious living into artistic form. And yet CCM nevertheless finds itself singing and celebrating songs that suffer badly in comparison to most Sunday School standards. “If the Devil doesn’t like he can sit on a tack” at least has a certain vividness (one might, however inadvisably, even say “sharpness”) of imagery to recommend it.
On the other hand, “How great is our God, sing with me / How great is our God, we all will see” telegraphs its own insipidity. One can forgive the unidentified, disembodied “me” of the first line, since (presumably) “I” and “we” are meant to be understood in the context of a worshiping congregation simultaneously exchanging a mutually recognizable invocation to acknowledge the Greatness of God. But then just as we’ve made our peace with the slightly off-kilter quality of that introductory lyric, the perspective of the second line jarringly shifts. Instead of declaring God’s greatness, “we” are now predicting its ultimate revelation to ourselves: “we all will see.” And just like that, barely two lines along, we’re in a different song entirely. Are we singing about God’s greatness because of its unmistakable reality in everyday life, or are we anticipating the future disclosure of that greatness to a faithful remnant? Is this a song of praise or a song about remaining faithful? If we are supposed to take this music seriously (and I assume that we are), the answer to this question – which presents two very different centers of focus for Christian life, one that emphasizes coming revelation, the other revealed truth – is rather of some importance, I would imagine. At least it ought to be.
Of course I suspect, as most reasonable readers will have by now, that the song simply wasn’t meant to bear this kind of scrutiny (”we will see” follows “sing with me,” I imagine, mainly because “me” rhymes with “see”). We discover meaning or significance in all manner of things that wasn’t necessarily “meant” to be there. So the problem is not that “How great is our God” wasn’t intended to support close reading, but that it can’t.
A good song – like all good creative writing and other artistic expression – can support any number of alternative, sometimes competing, interpretations because it possesses its own internal coherence. The P&W fad sweeping CCM not only fails to cohere artistically, but (appallingly, to my eye and ear) celebrates its own mushy-headed incoherence, rapturously incurious of the contradictory, unreconciled religious and spiritual implications flaking off the PowerPoint slides as the lyrics of one more uninspired song scroll by on the overhead each weekend at a thousand Victory Calvary Community Christ Church Chapels. That this obviously suits the mainstream of Protestant Christianity just fine amounts to the most damning critique I can think of.
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