Christianity 201

April 20, 2013

Self-Deprecating Worship Music

The Psalms Compared to Hymnbooks

So the other night we’re reading Psalm 106. You know that one. The one where the Israelites are reminded of all the times they screwed up as a nation. The times they forgot their God. Then it suddenly occurs to me. This is a PSALM. They SANG THIS. This was one of their WORSHIP SONGS. As in, “Take your hymnbook and turn to number 106.” How do you SING stuff that is so self deprecating? Definitely a minor key.

6 We have sinned, even as our fathers did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.

7 When our fathers were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.

13 But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his counsel.

14 In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wasteland they put God to the test.

15 So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease upon them.

16 In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the LORD.

17 The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.

18 Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.

19 At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.

20 They exchanged their Glory
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.

21 They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,

22 miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

23 So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

24 Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.

25 They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the LORD.

26 So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the desert,

27 make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

28 They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;

29 they provoked the LORD to anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.

30 But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.

31 This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.

32 By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;

< 33 for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips. [c]

34 They did not destroy the peoples
as the LORD had commanded them,

35 but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.

36 They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.

37 They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to demons.

38 They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.

39 They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

40 Therefore the LORD was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.

41 He handed them over to the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.

42 Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.

43 Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.

Okay, I left out a few of the good verses. But even so…

We always want our songs to be happy.  The modern church doesn’t do lament well. What if Western Christians had a song that was the modern equivalent to this?   Twelve months ago in her review at Thinking Out Loud of The Ben Ripple my wife wrote:

All in all, it is important for us to know stories like Ben’s.  The places where God meets us face to face, and the places where he stands quietly behind us.  What the family next door might be going through and what they may deal with from one day to the next.  It’s been said that we live in a world that has forgotten how to lament — to cry out to God our pain and fear and loss.  This book is just such a thing, but like so many of the laments in Scripture, it ends on a note of “nevertheless…”  The possibility of healing, the value of trusting, the necessity of faith in one who loves us.

In a review of a new NLT edition that contains a section of laments, I quoted the authors:

“These are the questions we’re all afraid to ask God, and the complaints we might hesitate to voice to him. The truth is, God desires our honest doubts, questions and complaints. After all, the writers of the Bible regularly lament, crying out to God and questioning him about injustices, pains and problems.

A year ago at Internet Monk, Chaplain Mike looked at our propensity to edit the Psalms of Lament to suit our purposes in a piece about Sanitizing the Wilderness:

Contemporary “worship” music is especially weak when it comes to giving voice to the full spectrum of human experiences and emotions. Even when today’s songwriters make use of the Psalms they tend to transform the raw, earthy language that describes our complex, often messy relationships with God and others into easily digestible spiritual sentiments…

…It takes one image from a rich, profound, complex and realistic description of life and latches on to it because the image evokes a simple devotional sentiment that prompts an immediate emotion. We set it to music, and voila! — people get the idea we are singing “Scripture.”

Australia’s Mark Sayers wrote the following in The Art of Irrelvance:

One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity.

In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

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