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.Email this Post