What we really talk about when we talk about lyrics and theology

Well while I was away grading, a Praise and Worship vs sg and theology-in-lyrics debate broke out in comments. Go figure. If you’re just joining us, you’ll have to go to the comments themselves to get the full texture of the discussion. But my impression is that how theology isn’t the actual issue, despite the theological focus of the debate. Rather, the real issue underlying the back and forth seems to boil down to what musical idiom – that is, what lexicon of musical styles and sets of tonal gestures – moves you and in what way. As far as I can tell, most folks answer that question first – what style of music do I most like to hear? – and then fight out what is essentially a matter of taste through a proxy debate about lyrics and theology.

They’re not unrelated of course. People who prefer a fairly traditional set of musical sounds and styles are probably on average more likely to prefer a more orthodox theological perspective too. But looking at the kinds of lyrics that are the grist for this particular debate, I have a hard time seeing how they bear the weight that’s being placed on them.

So with that caveat – that I think what we’re really talking about when we talk about theology and lyrics is usually a much more elusive question of musical taste – a few thoughts: Praise and Worship music specifically and CCM in general is – whether consciously or not – pretty heavily predicated on the existence of an ever-increasing number of Christians who not only want but seem to need sacred music to sound more rather than less like other forms of non-sacred music these people find moving. The oversimple explanation here is that CCM secularizes musical expressions of love for the divine. This is what critics of CCM mean when they make cracks about Jesus is my boyfriend music. And I’m often among their number. Here’s me being snarky about CCM a few years ago:

But somewhere in the middle of Illinois, flipping through the dial and landing on some dime-a-dozen CCM singer/songwriter crooning away about “your majesty and grace” in high breathiness, I realized the main reason I find this style of Christian music so obnoxious and off-putting: whatever the intent of breathy singing (assuming there is one), it has the effect of sexualizing the expression of religious ideas and spiritual themes, and of not-so-vaguely eroticizing the individual’s relationship to the divine - leaving me with images such as: Justin Timberlake trying to seduce the holy spirit. Ick.

At some technical level, there is, it seems to me, inarguable truth to this critique - obviously, or I wouldn’t have made it. But rehashing this particular line of criticism against CCM isn’t my point at the moment. My point is that taking this line on CCM is not synonymous with finding theological fault with the music and/or preferring southern gospel’s more explicitly pietistic lyrics.

For me (and I suspect at least a few others), sacred music is meaningful for the its ability to generate certain states of mind, feeling, and expressions of feelings related to the spiritual dimension of existence, to give voice to and capture the ineluctable truths of some deeper part of the self that we know to be true, not by logic or cognition, but by what the old puritan divines called our religious affections. I tend to find gospel music - when it’s good - more capable in this regard (though not uniquely so) than CCM because for me the often difficult truth(s) derived from human – and specifically romantic – relationships (the realm of human experience that animates the secular musical styles that dominate much of CCM) are often what demonstrate to me the need or desire for a wider sphere of spiritual satisfaction in life, for a deeper and broader and different, other basis for knowing and being. To cast expressions of the soul’s desire for salvific transcendence or the redemption of the lower self in the same sublunary musical terms we use to discuss corporeal love – however transcendent we may often think it to be at times – undercuts the very point of sacred music. So, please … grace, come not to me garbed in the threadbare gabardine of everyday life.

In my less generous moments I’ve often wondered if the present popularity of P&W music doesn’t have something to do with a certain reductive, off-the-rack spiritual calculus built into its particular brand of derivativeness: the pseudo-sexualized rhetoric (aptly captured by the sloppy wet kiss lyric that sparked the debate in the most recent open thread), the breathy singing, the love-song style of praise music … it all forms a fairly unsubtle invitation to facilely slot “the divine” into the position typically occupied by “the beloved.” Perhaps it goes without saying that this leaves me stone cold, but just about the time I may be inclined to get self-righteous, I recall some of the lyrical abominations foisted on the world by southern gospel … “Hallelujah Square,” “We Want America Back,” “Only God Knows” (the Gold City song, not the Martins), “Don’t Let the Sandals Fool Ya” … the list goes on and on. I can’t defend this kind of appallingness very easily, and yet it doesn’t diminish my affection for gospel music.

So let’s be clear: Gospel and CCM are both forms of Christian pop music, and disappointed will be the man (or woman) who expects most pop music – secular or sacred – to make or leave its mark primarily as vehicles for depth of lyrical expression.

Another way to say this: We like what we like for reasons that usually submit at best only partially to rational scrutiny. As long as I can remember, my grandmother refused to sing “I’ll Fly Away” because she said it was theologically flawed. Nowhere in the bible does it say we’ll fly away to Jesus, she’d say. Ok, fair enough. But I always suspected she just didn’t like the song as a total musical package very much. Because she had no problem with “The Holy Hills,” and I’m sure if you put much pressure on that song from a theologically purist perspective, it would collapse pretty rapidly too. In the case of “I’ll Fly Away,” launching a theological critique of the lyrics was a lot more effective as a basis for justifying her feelings than “I just don’t like that song very much.”

This is why people are going to keep getting lost in the high weeds of parsing lyrics in terms of agape, philia and eros, or debating whether sloppy wet kisses from God is good or bad doctrine, or whatever, even though these debates miss the point. Because let’s face it: the old canard that southern gospel is somehow more lyrically pure or true or right from a theological perspective than CCM is just another way of explaining its irrelevance in mainstream Christian music culture. People didn’t stop listening to sg en masse simply because the blood of Christ fell out of favor in mainstream American evangelicalism, ennobling as that may be for a lot of sg diehards to believe. No, people stopped listening to sg because the music ceased to sound relevant for the majority of mainstream protestant Christians. Lyrics may have been a part of that, but the I-IV-V arrangements and the staggered endings and the cornball humor and all the other sonic furniture that typifies southern gospel music is just as much in play here as the words being sung.

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  1. j-mo wrote:

    Exactly. There are stupid lyrics in CCM and sogo and any other genre of music you can find. The spiritual value of the lyrics aren’t really what make the stereo-typical southern gospel fan dislike CCM. We just like to pretend that a lack of the depth in the lyrics is the problem because it sounds superior.

  2. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    There are certain genres where lyrics are more shallow, generally speaking, than others.

    Complaints about overly repetitive P&W music are fair. Of course, there are exceptions. Almost anyone who cares can find examples to the contrary.

    Complaints about CCM not having clear references to God, on the other hand, are generally unfounded. Of course, there are exceptions. Almost anyone who cares can find examples to the contrary.

    Complaints about SG being more about heaven and ideals than the realities of day-to-day life are generally valid, though I don’t personally mind. In fact, I rather enjoy that aspect of SG. Of course, there are exceptions. Almost anyone who cares can find examples to the contrary.

    My point being…
    It’s not merely a matter of all things being equal where any perceived difference in opinion is attributed to nothing more than style preferences. Some general criticisms about genres are realistic observations.

    No single type of music has a corner on true creativity and artistic merit, though. Those moments are rare in any style or setting.

    I focus most of my attention on SG. As a result, I enjoy some stuff I know realistically is only at a mid-range level for that style while I wait for those truly rare great moments that come along from time to time.

    Of course, I don’t have enough time to focus on other genres as intently as I do SG, but I do keep my ear to the ground. When there’s a rare great moments of artistry in CCM, P&W, and even outside of the Christian umbrella, I want to know about it and experience it for myself.

  3. NG wrote:

    David or anyone else looking for amazing music beit gospel or secular, give a listen to the late Charlie Rich’s demo version of Feel Like Going Home. “I tried and I failed and I Feel Like Going Home.” Once on stage he dedicated the song to Richard Nixon in the midst of the Watergate crisis and a critic wrote: “I felt a pity I never wanted to feel.”

    You can find it here:

  4. Irishlad wrote:

    3.. Ah..the old Silver Fox just marvelous; as an aside,click on to the clip next to Charlie and hear Our Thomas and Mark Knopfler on the same song. :)

  5. art wrote:

    From my superficial observations about protestant Christian beliefs, it seems like the various denominations believe mostly the same stuff, but there’s a difference in emphasis. I think that’s the difference in Christian music consumer groups as well. They want the emphasis in their music to reflect the emphasis in their beliefs.

    In my mainstream Protestant church in the Midwest, I don’t remember them talking about blood as much as the Baptist oriented radio preachers and the SG singers do. (I don’t know what they did talk about; I was busy drawing pictures in the bulletin.)

    Anyway, can the repetition in P&W be compared to “His steadfast love endures forever” that you find in the Psalms?

    Another point — possibly pertinent: A few weeks back Avery posted a fabulous clip of Adele. In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that some readers of this site plainly view music as a waste of time unless it carries a Christian message. That’s fine, but it does skew the discussion of the artistic merits of music.

  6. Videoguy wrote:

    Allow me to interject some perspective:


    This thing of lyrical theology, and praise & worship vs. hymns, is going waaaay too far.

    Sorry, but these discussions are hay, wood, and stubble.

  7. Alan wrote:

    For me, I can synthesize all of Doug’s words down pretty succinctly. Good music is always good, and good lyrics are as well. Bad music will never get better, nor will bad lyrics ever inspire. This encompasses every genre of music including Christian. It’s why some songs will forever be timeless and why some will always be fillers. Every generation produces far more of the very forgettable songs than classics; it has always been this way, and it always will be. And I’ll submit that very, very few of the CCM or P&W songs of today will endure, while a slightly higher percentage of sgm songs just may. And all of the ones that will, will do so because the theology was accurate and the tunes fit the lyrics well.

  8. Irishlad wrote:

    Tell me this folks,and i don’t want to piss any of you good people off ,but why when i listen to any groups from say Oregon -Rescue for instance-they seem to be like,well from middle England or somewhere. Is the good old US of A such a diversified place or is just my imagination?

  9. Irishlad wrote:

    6 come on man..lighten up this site is pure escapism for most of us,don’t get me wrong i know as well as anyone what’s going on out there ,but i don’t chose to get my knickers in a twist over it here.

  10. Odeliya wrote:

    Brilliant, Avery.

    “”So let’s be clear: Gospel and CCM are both forms of Christian pop music, and disappointed will be the man (or woman) who expects most pop music – secular or sacred – to make or leave its mark primarily as vehicles for depth of lyrical expression”"”

    Excellent, expressed in such a clear fashion! Indeed, white southern gospel is essentially, pop , or popular entertainment, just as any performing arts done in church settings.

    You know I come from a religious country, where most songs,modern and old, are variation of Psalms,all mention our God Almightly. In nightclub you can dance to modern high energy 120 bpm Psalm of David; about all of our football clubs team songs just as much if not more spritual content and solid theology as SG songs. Secular rap artists have a prayer and Deutoronomy quote in the middle of the song recognising Elohim’s power over all.
    (you tube clips can be provided by request, i just dont to be short)

    Does that mean every israeli is a believer? No, most of the country is secular! Secular people sing it,fold their hands and pray because its a TRADITION.

    So those sg fanatics that idolise their lyrics… chill out, friends :) Coming to belief in Yeshua (Jesus) and sactifying ones soul after that is a long,difficult process. S.gosp. song are just one small entertaining part of this process, dont think too highly of its content and influence. Its GREAT entertainment, thats basically, all.

  11. Trevor Haley wrote:

    Thanks for mentioning Charlie Rich. So much feeling and soul in his voice and style. His “Silver Linings” Gospel project was good too.

  12. Rev. Al wrote:

    Irishlad is right. People raised in the boothill of Missouri - once they are worship leaders in a P&W band - suddenly sound as though they are from England. What’s up with that? Also I noticed yesterday while listening to what I guess is a Chris Tomlin wannabee that some P&W singers seem to ad a “d” in front of some words. The band I heard yesterday sang “O Holy Night” but it came out “Doe Holy Night.” I guess they were copying some famous praise and worship singer - don’t know which one.

  13. Randy wrote:

    If lyrical depth is what catches a potential fan’s ears, The Beatles would’ve been extinct a long time ago.

  14. j-mo wrote:


    I’m guessing you haven’t listened to much Beatles music. Maybe you aren’t aware, but they made a lot of music besides just the cuts that topped charts.

  15. Hector Luna wrote:

    J- mo. you must be referring to songs like “Elanor Rigby, A Day In The Life, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, The Long and Winding Road.” Or the creativity of “I Am The Walrus” based off a Lewis Carroll book. They were greater lyricists than what they get credit for. I’ve always wandered what what SG music would sound like if more writers tripped on acid.

  16. art wrote:

    I thought they were extinct a long time ago.

  17. Randy wrote:

    J-Mo. I am an enthusiastic Beatles fan and have owned their entire repertoire for quite some time. Am I wrong to say that the majority of their music lacked lyrical depth, yet caught the ear of nearly every civilized individual at one point in time or another since they began? Lyrically, most of their compositions were very basically written love songs, or at times, pure nonsense. I acknowledge their political endeavors and whatnot, but lyrical depth did not draw the listener to the Beatles. It was the music. Music which continued to develop stylistically, album after album. A strive to jump off of the current scene edge onto another plateau of creativity. This is something SG does not strive for. It doesn’t progress. The Beatles, by SG standards, should have strived more for the “Hold Your Hand” stylings, while in the midst of creating Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road.

  18. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    The last paragraph of Doug’s offering is outstanding.

    Hector, I was really, really hoping the new Gaither Vocal Band’s last album would be southern gospel’s Sgt. Pepper’s. I wanted that album to change the way southern gospel is written, recorded, performed and viewed. Instead, it was a mere White Album–excellent, but not groundbreaking or revolutionary.

  19. cynical one wrote:

    Don’t forget the depth of these lyrics:

    “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

    Randy’s right. It was not lyrical depth that FIRST drew the attention of the listening public. That didn’t come until they were already the most popular band on the face of the earth.

  20. quartet-man wrote:

    While we are on the subject of lyrics of Beatles’ songs, would some help me finish these? I have wondered what they are for years.
    “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Speaking words of wisdom………..

    Then I get stuck. What are the remaining lyrics?

  21. Odeliya wrote:

    Google I havent been banned from yet :) so i can help


  22. quartet-man wrote:

    #21 ;)
    Here is another song (but not Beatles):
    Elvira, Elvira, my heart’s on fire for….?

    Seriously though, this reminds me of a routine that Gloria Gaither did on the Live Across America double lp. (The same that has the first mainstream recorded performance by the then unnamed Gaither Vocal Band). It has been years since I heard it, but think I will get it pretty close. Gloria was talking about where her daughter got ideas about love and she told her from Bill and Gloria and also from love songs. Gloria asked her to get her some lyrics from a few she liked.
    One song she picked was an Oak Ridge Boys tune (although they never said the artist and it could have been Glen Campbell, since that lp was 1980, I presume it is the Oaks as they had it out around 1978. It was “You’re the One”. You’re the one in a million, you’re the one, you’re the one. You’re the one in a million I see (Gloria incorrectly said “for me”, but her daughter may have written them wrong too). “You’re the one in a million, you’re the one, you’re the one. You’re the one in a million for me.” Gloria made a comment that that was really something you could build your life on. :D She then quoted “I want you I need you but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you Now don’t be sad ‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad.” Except I’m not sure the lyrics were exactly right again. She might have done one more.

    Then she talked about how to be fair, not every song that she grew up with were all that great. She quoted “You hoo hoo hoo, send me…..you hoo hoo hoo send me. You hoo hoo hoo send me, honestly you do. Hoo hoo. :D

    Then she said that before the grandparents started feeling too good about it, let them listen to this: “Well, if you run into a five-foot-two covered with pearls,
    Diamond rings, all those things,
    Bet your life it isn’t her.
    But could she love, could she coo!
    Cootchie-cootchie-cootchie coo!” :D

    So, as you see, not only are there offenders in every style, but different time periods as well.

  23. cdguy wrote:

    “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
    speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
    And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
    speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

    Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
    Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.”

    Although, when the Imperials recorded it in the early 70’s, they I think they changed the “mother Mary” to “blessed Jesus.”

  24. quartet-man wrote:

    Sorry guys, i was being silly bout needing help with the last line. I was just making fun of the repetitiveness of it.

  25. quartet-man wrote:

    P.S. Thanks for trying to help though.

  26. Irishlad wrote:

    With the passing of Sherrill(Shaun)Nielson youtube is awash with Sherrill/Voice/Elvis clips.”Bringin’ it back” with the above named is Sg goes pop..you even get to hear Elvis doing the bass,you’d swear it was a Sg quartet(which for all intent and purposes it is).

  27. Thomas wrote:

    An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.

    “Well,” said the farmer, “it was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”


    “Praise choruses?” said his wife. “What are those?”

    “Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.

    “Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

    The farmer said, “Well, it’s like this - If I were to say to you “Martha, the cows are in the corn”‘ - well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

    Martha, Martha, Martha,
    Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA,
    the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows
    the white cows,
    the black and white cows,
    the COWS, COWS, COWS
    are in the corn,
    are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,
    the CORN, CORN, CORN.

    Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a praise chorus.”

    The next weekend, his nephew, a young, new Christian from the city came to visit and attended the local church of the small town. He went home and his mother asked him how it was.

    “Well,” said the young man, “it was good. They did something different however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”

    “Hymns?” asked his mother. “What are those?”

    “Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.

    “Well, what’s the difference?” asked his mother.

    The young man said, “Well, it’s like this - If I were to say to you ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn’ - well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

    Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
    Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
    Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
    To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.

    For the way of the animals who can explain
    There in their heads is no shadow of sense
    Hearkenest they in God’s sun or His rain
    Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.

    Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight
    Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed
    Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
    They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.

    So look to the bright shining day by and by
    Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
    Where no vicious animals make my soul cry
    And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.’

    Then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.

  28. Alan wrote:

    Thomas, while semi-humorous, there really are differences between hymns and P&W or Contemporary Christian songs. A major one is lyrical depth. Just yesterday, I was diddling on a guitar, and began to sing an old hymn. I’ve been fascinated by the lyrics (again) since.

    “Could we with ink the ocean fill,
    And were the skies of parchment made.
    Were every stalk on earth a quill,
    And every man, a scribe by trade.
    To write the love of God above
    Would drain the ocean dry.
    Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
    though stretched from sky to sky.

    Oh love of God, how rich and free
    How measureless and strong.
    It shall forevermore endure -
    The saints and angels song.

    Not a thee or a thou in that, yet the lyrics are beyond timeless, and perfect. Not one word could be added or subtracted without harming the song. They contain a depth that is magical…each line should cause any believer to sit and ponder them, and foment worship and praise. They reflect no generation, no cultural nuances; they are indeed timeless. And frankly, I’ll always believe that we have a dearth of depth today, relative to a song like this. Spectacular stuff. I’d love it if anyone reading this would post modern lyrics with that kind of substance….

  29. Jake wrote:

    “All praise to Him who reigns above
    In majesty supreme,
    Who gave Himself for man to die,
    That He might man redeem!
    Blessed be the name,
    Blessed be the name,
    Blessed be the name of the Lord!
    Blessed be the name,
    Blessed be the name,
    Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    (That is the first verse & chorus; there are 4 verses altogether, with the chorus sung after each one.)

    It isn’t just contemporary or P&W music that repeats phrases over and over and over. They had plenty of “7-11″ songs back when hymns were being written too.

  30. Irishlad wrote:

    The Royal Telephone Line

    Central’s never busy,always on the line
    You may hear rom Heaven almost anytime.
    Tis a Royal line free for one and all
    When you get in trouble give the Royal line a call.


    Telephone to Glory oh what joy devine
    I can feel the current moving down the line
    Built by God the Father for his loved and own
    We may talk to Jesus through the Royal Telephone.

    That was the first verse and chorus of a sacred song written by Mr Frederick M Lehman in 1919,two years after he wrote the “Love of God”,hard to imagine it’s by the same pen.Then again Mr Gaither was responsible for “Not a hoof left behind”.

  31. John Mathis wrote:

    Interesting commentary here!

    I think that “Christian music” has followed the same formula for centuries. Some of our hymns that we consider “old” and “outdated” were probably controversial in their day as they were written to “borrowed tunes” of popular folk songs at the time.

    Charles Wesley, consider a dissenter and reformist during his day with the Methodist movement, borrowed “worldly” tunes for his lyrics. General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, saw evangelistic potential in popular melodies. In eighteenth-century Britain, the preacher Rowland Hill posed the famous question: “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?”

    It doesn’t make one genre of Christian Music today necessarily better than the other , each has its own to appeal to its respective demographic.

    All that to say it seems throughout history “pop culture” has always had an influence on “Christian music”.

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