Thursday, 20 April 2017

Why I think it’s important to think about the songs we sing in church

The response to my previous post on the lyrics to ‘In Christ Alone’ surprised me. People were moved to leave comments on my blog and the post generated a debate-lite on Facebook. My posts don’t usually receive so much attention—certainly, the one on Obadiah didn’t! But in this post (which I don’t expect to be quite so popular), I will briefly explain why I think it’s important for us to think about the lyrical content of the songs we sing in our church services—and it’s all to do with formation.

“No, Brother Clive—this is the 1342 original.
We prefer to sing the sounder 1344 revision.”
First of all, we humans are not as free from outside influences as we often suppose. This is a cliché for sure, but we all live in different contexts and cultures that motivate and condition us to behave and think in certain ways. It is obvious how some contexts shape us: the fact that I grew up in an English city rather than a village in, say, Paraguay is a very good reason for why I speak English but not Spanish or Guarani. But some contexts are not so obvious to spot: as a white man, I have not been exposed to the sort of casual racism or gender stereotyping that has affected others from the same urban background as me, and I am only now beginning to recognise how I have benefitted and continue to benefit from this cultural privilege. Other sorts of contexts need to be acknowledged, too. I am currently self-employed and work from home, but my behaviour and work patterns are largely determined by my parenting responsibilities. Similarly, when I had an employer, my behaviour and work patterns were constrained not only by my work schedule and duties, but also by those things completely out of my control, such as my needing to use the not always efficient London Underground to travel to the office.

Our thought patterns, too, are shaped by outside influences—by how others behave and what they say to us. If we are unfortunate enough to have communicated to us (either through actions or words) on a near-daily basis that we are stupid or ugly or unwanted, we will eventually begin to believe we are stupid or ugly or unwanted. If we are repeatedly informed that our opinions are insubstantial or just not welcome, then we will be reluctant to attempt to voice our opinions at all. And if we are exposed to sociopolitical ideologies that lay all of society’s ills at the feet of a particular group (the Muslims! the unemployed! the liberals! the Evangelicals!), and if we are exposed to these ideologies often enough, then we are at least likely to entertain the possibility that the ideologues are unequivocally correct. These examples aren’t particularly insightful, I’ll admit, but I hope they illustrate well enough that however much we humans are genuinely responsible agents, there will always be outside influences that form us in a variety of ways.

Secondly, the songs we sing in church are shaped by the theology of the people who write them. The leap from my first to this second point is not as abrupt as it perhaps appears. The local churches where we Christians worship also shape our lives in significant ways according to both our denomination (e.g. Church of England, Vineyard, Assemblies of God) and our tradition (e.g. ‘high’ church, charismatic, conservative evangelical). And very often, individual Christians might actually recognise the influence of more than one denomination or tradition in their lives: I, for example, regard myself (when pushed) as an open evangelical member of the Church of England with high-church leanings who came to faith in a Brethren-influenced independent evangelical church, worked for the Methodist Church of Great Britain for ten years, and studied for a research degree at a Baptist college. So my Anglicanism is almost certainly shaped in certain respects by my exposure to and interactions with non-Anglican denominations and traditions.

“Power Xtreme!”
The songs we sing in our local churches are written by people who are themselves shaped by their own particular local church contexts and the theologies that their denominations and/or traditions espouse. According to this website, Stuart Townend, who wrote the lyrics for ‘In Christ Alone’, has a Church of England/Newfrontiers background, and so, judging by what I know of the Church of England and the doctrinal commitments of the Church of Christ the King (where Townend worships), it is no surprise to me that many of his songs reflect theological positions that flourish in Reformed/Evangelical/conservative local churches—and that his songs in turn are often sung in local churches that hold these theological positions. It’s a sort of echo chamber. Also, I note that Townend has an educational background in literature, which I presume has partly shaped his ability to craft lyrics—whatever anyone thinks of his theology, I don’t think it can be denied that he knows how to pen a good turn of phrase. None of this is intended to bury Townend or to praise him; I’m just trying to show how his particular contexts have in all probability shaped his catalogue’s theology.

Thirdly, through exposure and repetition, the songs we sing in church shape our own theology. ‘In Christ Alone’ is a popular modern hymn (#8 on this list), and with good reason. The issues over satisfying God’s wrath and its Calvinism aside, ‘In Christ Alone’ superbly conveys the gospel message of God’s love in Christ through evocative imagery and phrasing, all set to a tune that can be something of an earworm. And these are reasons why, no doubt, it is sung often in our churches. The trouble is that the more often we sing a particular song or set of songs, the more likely it is that these songs will form the soundtrack to our Christian formation and deny us exposure to other songs that might be of equal or even greater benefit to us. If all we sing in our church services are songs that presume atonement is defined solely by a doctrine of penal substitution, then we are unlikely ever to be exposed to songs that might be based on a Christus Victor model of atonement or a recapitulation model. Similarly, if all we sing are songs in the vein of ‘Good, Good Father’ (the lyrics of which I personally regard as infantile), then chances are our Christian formation is going to be shaped primarily by the perceived quality of our intimacy with God. So if all the songs we sing on a regular basis presume just the one (valid) model of atonement (e.g. penal substitution) or just the one form of relationship with God (Daddy–child), then our lyrical diet is going to lead to spiritual and theological malnutrition because we will have been formed to suppose that any other position or approach is unsuitable, inferior, or just plain wrong. This isn’t to incline towards the opposite end and say that all views are equally acceptable—let’s be clear: many of those who have problems with ‘In Christ Alone’ do so because they believe the ‘wrath of God’ line is biblically wrong—but it is to say that we all need exposure to different points of view, whether they’re embedded in the songs we sing, the liturgies we use, or the books and blog posts we read, so that, with the Spirit’s help, we can hone our own God-given gifts of theological discernment and realise that the body of Christ is so much more and far more diverse than we can imagine.

And so this is why I think it’s important to think about the songs we sing in church. More can be said, of course, not least about how non-musical liturgical elements should be subject to the same scrutiny. But if we accept a song as legitimate simply because it sounds biblical, quotes Scripture, or is found on What a Really Amazing Set of Worship Songs, Vol. 83, then surely there’s cause for concern. It may be that the majority of songs and hymns that we sing will emerge unscathed from whatever analytical pressure we put on them—but that’s no reason not to evaluate them critically on the presumption that they will.

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