Self-Absorbed in Worship? (Boice)

 We’ve all heard the contemporary praise song that says “I will” more than a few times.   Phrases like “I will celebrate,” “I will sing to God,” “I will praise God,” are sung and repeated many times in the same song.   Here are James Montgomery Boice’s comments on such a song:

The chorus seems to be praising God – it claims to be praising him – but that is the one thing it does not actually do.  As [Marva] Dawn points out, ‘The verbs say ‘I will,’ but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and signing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.

What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully, the answer is clear.  With all the repeats, ‘I’ is the subject twenty-eight times.  Not God, but ‘I’ myself,  And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just ‘I’.  ‘With that kind of focus,’ says Dawn, ‘we might suppose that all the “hallelujahs” are praising how good I am…at celebrating and singing.’  What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is only a pitiful, sad characteristic of our culture?  If we are self-absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.

The praise songs of the Psalter do not fall into this trap, which is one reason why they are such good models for our worship and why they should be used in worship more often than they are.  Think of just the last five psalms, as an example.  They are a kind of praise climax to the Psalter, showing us what it means to praise God….

J. M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, p. 181.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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You Are What You Sing

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ Note: This is a slightly edited repost from September, 2010.

If you’ve been to an average American church, no doubt you know what a cheesy Christian song is all about.  From “Shine Jesus Shine” to “From The Inside Out” to “I Can Only Imagine,” solid theology is out and emotions and feelings are in.   I like what Stephen Nichols has to say about this.  Commenting on “I Can Only Imagine,” he writes that it

“…Has a rich sound and explicitly religious, even Christian, lyrics, but in the end it presents a rather vacuous theology.  These crossover artists remind me somewhat of the Osmonds.  They are wholesome, safe, and clean-cut, especially compared to their purely secular counterparts, but you can listen for a long time and not hear anything overtly Mormon.  Perhaps the same could be said of Christian crossover artists.  They too are wholesome, safe, and clean-cut, but not much Christianity crosses over with them.”

“In some ways this problem confronts more than the crossover artists.  The whole sweep of CCM may come under its purview.  CCM itself attempts to crossover, combining tastes and styles of the popular culture with the sensibilities and (a modicum of) the lyrics of church music.  How well it straddles that fence becomes a point of debate.  One problem that arises, however, is what CCM communicates in general about evangelicalism’s ambivalence to culture.  While the early days of Jesus music had an edge, arising as it did from the streets, CCM today has dulled the edge, producing music that is safe, not all that complex and artistically ranking a little below the songs on pop albums that don’t make it into radio circulation.”

“CCM has become ghettoized, the Christian suburban youth’s counter to what their unchurched friends listen to.  James Davidson Hunter refers to this dynamic as parallel institutionalism, which means that you can listen to Christian music on Christian radio stations or at Christian concerts or on CDs brought at Christian stores.  You can even download Christian ringtones for your phone bought, hopefully, from a Christian-owned-and-operated kiosk at the mall.”

“Hank Hill, the character from the animated series King of the Hill, sagaciously quipped in relation to Christian rock, ‘You aren’t making Christianity better, you’re just making rock and roll worse.’” (p. 134-5).

Since Christians learn much of their theology from the songs they sing in corporate worship (and privately), no wonder American Christianity is a mile wide but only an inch deep.  You really can’t expect Christians singing quasi-Christian pop music week after week to mature into doctrinally sound believers (cf. Heb 5.13).  The phrase “you are what you sing” might be a little cumbersome, but there is for sure some truth to it.

Get this book by Stephen Nichols: Jesus: Made In America (Downers’ Grove: IVP, 2008).

rev shane lems

A Heavenly (Dreamy?) Boyfriend

 This praise song that David Wells critiqued in the 1990’s shows how much modern Christian music 1) lacks biblical doctrine, 2) privatizes and individualizes faith, 3) thrives on sentimentality, experience, and emotion, 4) exhibits feminization and juvenilization, and 5) views God or Jesus as a heavenly boyfriend.  Here it is (and please note – songs like this are still written, produced, and sung today).:

“I need you to hold me
Like my daddy never could
And I need you to show me
How resting in your arms can be so good.”

“I need you to walk with me
Hand in hand we’ll run and play
I need you to talk to me
Tell me again you’ll stay.”

I have to be honest here.  I’m not sure how a mature Christian man can sing songs like that while thinking about the living God of heaven and earth.  And I can’t imagine that a mature Christian woman whose faith has been forged by trials and tears would appreciate that song (makes me think of the depth of Mary’s prayer/poem that she spoke as a teenager [cf Lk 1:46-55]).  Wells comments thus:

“What is so striking about the hymnody – if that is what it is – of this postmodern spirituality…is its parasitic nature.  It lives off the truth of classic spirituality but frequently leaves that truth unstated as something to be assumed, whereas in the hymnody of classical spirituality the truth itself is celebrated.  The one rejoices in what the other hides.  That seems to be the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the fact that the large majority of praise songs I analyzed, 58.9 percent, offer no doctrinal grounding or explanation for the praise; in the classical hymnody examined it was hard to find hymns that were not predicated upon and did not develop some aspect of doctrine.”

“Not only is the praise in this postmodern spirituality often shorn of theological scaffolding, but what it facilitates is deeply privatized worship.  One indication of this is that the Church, the collective people of God, features in only 1.2 percent of the songs; what dominates overwhelmingly is the private, individualized, and interior sense of God.  By contrast, 21.6 percent of the classical hymns were explicitly about the church.  The texture of the songs in the postmodern spirituality, furthermore, is more therapeutic than moral” (p. 43-44).

Wells has a lot more to say about this; I strongly recommend this section (and the whole book) of Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision.

shane lems

sunnyside wa