Bad Christian Music (as in heresy-bad)

[From the archives.]

***

I grew up in a liturgical church that sang songs out of a hymnal. A hymnal, kids, is a book containing songs written before you were born. A book is something people would read before the internet.

I digress.

One Sunday morning the choir director – that’s someone who led music before we had worship leaders – one Sunday morning the choir director said we were going to sing a song that wasn’t in the hymnal. A Christian song. I didn’t know there were any Christian songs that weren’t in hymnals.

It sounded different. It sounded like it wasn’t written a hundred years before I was born. It sounded almost – not quite, but almost – like a song you’d hear outside of church.

The song? We Are One In The Spirit. Its chorus is all about how much love Christians have for each other and how this shows the world we are, you know, Christians. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about that message. It’s awesome, because it’s based on something Jesus told his friends in their last night together:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)

You can’t go wrong with the words of our Lord, right? Right. But why did the song writer have to take such a hopeful and joyful message and write the music in a minor key? It ends up coming across as a dirge, for crying out loud.

Bad Doctrine – bad, bad doctrine!

You know what’s worse than singing a dirge with joy-filled lyrics. Singing a happy little tune with doctrinally abysmal lyrics, yet that’s what we got when the choir director introduced a second song not found in the hymnal. Back then I didn’t know enough to question the Scriptural basis for church songs, but when I heard Lord of the Dance on the radio yesterday my doctrinal Spidey-sense started tingling*.

v. 4 – I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

v. 5 – They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

There are real problems with those lyrics.

It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back

Even allowing for poetic license it’s hard to see anywhere in the four gospels where Jesus can be said to have the devil on his back, let alone that this impeded his ministry in any way. In fact, just the opposite is shown.

  • When Satan tried to take Jesus on directly, Jesus merely spoke and Satan left in a hurry. (Matthew 4:1-11.)
  • Again, all it took was a word from Jesus and demon after demon fled. Not much of a struggle there. (Matthew 8:16.)
  • Even at his crucifixion, Jesus was the one in control. (John 19:10-11.)

I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me

Also, there’s nothing in the Bible to support the proposition that Christ’s living in us is predicated on our first living in him. Quite the opposite is true.

  • Jesus is not the True Vine because we are attached to him. Rather, we are fruitful branches because we are first attached to the True Vine. (John 15:1-4.)
  • His ability to give himself for us is not somehow made possible because we first live in him. Rather, our life in Christ is possible because he gave himself for us. (Galatians 2:20.)
  • We did not do something worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice. Rather, we were actually powerless to do anything for ourselves when Christ died for us to bring us to himself. (Romans 5:6-8.)

“Dubiously Christian”

Some may say I’m making too much out of this, that I’m misconstruing the song writer’s words and taking them out of context.

I beg to differ. So does Sydney Carter, the song writer himself, who said that while Jesus was part of the inspiration for the song so was Shiva (a Hindu god):

I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.

I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance.

“Dubiously Christian” – finally, something I can agree with.

***

Questions to ponder:

Do you scrutinize the lyrics of songs presented to you as being appropriate for worship?

What do you do when you hear unsound doctrine in a song at church?

***

*Copyright 1963 Stainer & Bell Ltd. London, England. The questionable lines show up in verses 4 and 5.

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65 Responses to Bad Christian Music (as in heresy-bad)

  1. Laura Droege says:

    Do I analyze song lyrics? Oh yeah. I can’t turn off my brain, ever, and my brain adores analyzing things. (It goes nutso crazy over the country music station. Why must every male country singer talk about his “girl” or the “girl” he wants to pick up in a bar? How old ARE these females, and are they old enough to drive a car, drink whiskey in a bar, and consent to sex? Anyway, I digress.)

    I’ve heard some questionable song lyrics in church, though only once in my current church. We were visitors at the time, so I didn’t feel comfortable telling the worship leader, someone I didn’t know, my doubts. It was something about God making everything “good” or “right” and Christians feeling happy in the middle of pain, that sort of thing; I understood where the lyricist was coming from (probably referencing the “all things work together for good” verse) but in reality, Christians still experience pain, still have to deal with the consequences of sin and evil, and just because God is working all things together FOR GOOD doesn’t make those evil things GOOD. Probably the lyricist realized this but couldn’t figure out how to put that kind of nuance in the song lyrics. I can’t remember the name of the song or tune, and I don’t think we’ve sung it since that time.

    Both Presbyterian churches I’ve attended have been hypervigilant about the theological correctness of their song lyrics. Now that I’ve been at this church for a while, I think I could approach the worship leader (or the pastor or elders) and point out any issues I have with any objectionable song lyrics. It would be hard, though.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve spoken to pastors and song leaders about lyrics before. Sometimes there has been good discussion (and once even an agreement never to sing a particular song again).

      On calling grown women girls, I remember one time reading a story where a character talked about the girls who worked at his office and one of the women asked, “Oh, do your daughters work there?”

  2. I don’t think the writer of ‘Lord of the Dance’ was even a Christian. It was a pop song originally, wasn’t it? I always used to think the lyrics were ‘I am the Lord of the Dance settee’. I wondered who was dancing on the sofa.

    My husband despairs of lyrics sometimes. Many contemporary worship songs have a happy tune and bland, interchangeable words along the lines of ‘You’re so worthy and wonderful and amazing and you died for us and we want to thank you, Jesus, Lord, holy Lord, la la laaaa.’

    I love this youtube video about writing worship songs:

  3. Aimee Byrd says:

    Yes! Critical thinking about what we are singing in church! I also like how you critique the musical accompaniment to our lyrics, Tim. You also bring up a good point about some of these contemporary “Christian” song writers. It is a business, after all, and many of the “Christian” artists that people have been looking up to and singing along to have now stated some horrible views about the/their faith. Of course, a little digging would have revealed that sooner.

    • Tim says:

      I think some publishers don’t vet whether the writer’s work is sound doctrine, whether music publishers or book publishers. Others are very careful about it, but I think the really big sellers are published by really big corporations that don’t spend as much time on content as they should. As you say, it’s a business.

  4. Travis says:

    Thoughtful post! What I see is the moment one attempts to scrutinize the lyrics or tone of song they are accused of being “petty” and divisive. I for one have not had many successful conversations regarding the accuracy of song lyrics. Also as sandyfaithking noted with her husband, I do look around during service and note the men not singing because of the emotional, intimate, soft, and repetitive words/tones. As @chrchcurmudgeon noted a few days ago: “By 2023, worship music will consist of people singing “God God God God God God God” over one strummed chord.” So I think as you stated song lyrics as well as tone should be evaluated. I also think the question of which songs are appropriate for corporate worship and which for a more private worship. Maybe that could be simply solved with the hymnal…….

    • Tim says:

      Great point about choosing songs for corporate worship and songs for private expressions of faith. I confess that in my early days of leading singing at church my choices were too often based on what I liked and not what was most appropriate for that particular service. That changed over time, but it took a while.

    • Hester says:

      By 2023, worship music will consist of people singing “God God God God God God God” over one strummed chord.

      ROFL.

  5. I love me some critical thinking. 🙂 I served on the worship planning team in a church for years, and was often referred to as the lyrics Nazi. Good times. I remember one particular disagreement about lyrics, which were defended as “being in the Bible”. I responded with there’s also a phrase somewhere in Psalms about babies head being bashed on the rocks, and we don’t sing that.

    • Tim says:

      The lyric police have a place in the Body of Christ, Denise! Glad you were there on that committee.

      As for Psalm 137, we may not sing its verses but I once preached a whole sermon on that psalm – infants, rocks and all.

  6. Melissa says:

    I have become more conscious of the content of songs sung in church, though I am hardly the most skilled at picking out troublesome doctrine. I did think immediately of one song that used to pop up in our services, “Above All.” It’s a pretty song and most of it didn’t bother me, but I started skipping the part that says, “You took the fall and thought of me / Above all.” I always thought, no, when Jesus was crucified He wasn’t doing it while placing me above, say, His obedience to the Father. I never brought it up to anyone else, and we have not sung it since the church got a new associate pastor (who leads music).

    • Tim says:

      I’ve had the same concern about that line, Melissa. Jesus didn’t think of me above all when on the cross. His sacrifice is for the Father’s glory above all. Some people I’ve mentioned it to have agreed, while others have said it’s not that important. I wonder if thinking that doctrinal issues in the songs we sing are not important indicates a sloppiness in how we understand Scripture and the words we use in prayer too.

    • Jeannie says:

      Our former pastor said exactly the same thing, Melissa. Jesus did it for His Father’s glory. I think the songwriter was using the phrase kind of as a “conceit”: in the verses of the song, “above all” refers to Jesus’ position above all kingdoms and thrones, etc. — then in the chorus, Jesus’ lowliness and sacrifice is emphasized and the “above all” refers to His love for us. But …. nope, it doesn’t really work, does it? Still, it is kind of a lovely song — and my teenage niece, who is not a Christian, absolutely fell in love with it and was telling her dad (who is not a Christian) all about it! 🙂

  7. Beth Caplin says:

    Personally I don’t like the worship portion of church, because I don’t worship by standing up and singing. Seeing other people waving their arms around makes me really uncomfortable. So do I pay attention to the lyrics? Sometimes. Many of them are appallingly bad, but I don’t focus on what they mean so much as why singing as a group is considered the only valid form of worship for a lot of people.

    • Tim says:

      I’m fairly restrained, Beth, and when coupled with my introversion that means I can get really agitated when there’s a mass of people engaging in the arm-waving and body-bobbing while singing in church. I realize this is a meaningful way for them to worship, so I pray if I find myself distracted at those moments. It doesn’t make me more comfortable, but it does keep my focus on Jesus.

      And on the flip side, I was once told by a more active person that my standing still was distracting. The Body of Christ sure is made up of a bunch of different types of people.

      • Beth Caplin says:

        Am I a terrible person for seeing a group of people raising their right arms all facing the same direction, and being reminded of Nazis?

        Seriously, I’ve been to churches where it’s JUST THE RIGHT ARM, not both.

        #StuffOnlyJewsWouldThink

        • Tim says:

          I’ve seen the same visual and wondered that too, Beth.

        • Beth Caplin says:

          I work hard not to judge (too much) but that’s one thing that makes me crazy.

        • Jeannie says:

          I promise that after this comment I will stop hijacking Tim’s post … but your comment made me think of this clip from comedian Tim Hawkins about the hand gestures people use during worship (“carrying the TV” etc.). Ah, it’s good to laugh at ourselves sometimes…

        • Tim says:

          I love that clip, Jeannie. When I sent a link to the pastor of our church he then showed it to the whole congregation on Sunday morning. Everyone laughed, hand-raisers and non-raisers.

  8. Beth Caplin says:

    Actually, here’s what really grinds my gears: seeing typos in the lyrics that are on the projector. Nothing impedes my worship so much as abuse of the English language.

  9. Pastor Bob says:

    As one who was a musician before a Christian, and later Youth Pastor, I look at music a bit differently. this was also shaped in a conservative Bible School. We talked about music as “good” -having good virtues, or obviously Christ centered. We talked about music as “bad” -not much good in the words. In class one day the teacher (an ordained minister) said that this a good start, but what about music that was just “fun?”
    We all got a lesson on tuning our discernment.

    In a youth group a few years ago, one father told me how his daughter’s music was “horrible!” She defended the music, and I found a solution, she turns the volume down and he listens to every song. If he does not approve of the words, the CD is banned. One song not approved was OK per CD, #2 and the CD was gone.

    He liked the words for most of the “horrible” songs, a few CD’s were taken. She got rid of the one song CD’s a little later.

    Lessons learned for all. The father got an understanding in more modern music saying good about Jesus, daughter understood something about volume levels, and my Pastor saw applied wisdom and some sermon ideas.

    My number one criterion for songs is and was the lyrics.

    ps…. Christian lyrics exist for Lord of The Dance…

    • Tim says:

      I was a musician long before becomgin a Christian, too. and spent years in both song eladign and youth ministry, so I can totally relate to the issue of parents and teens coming to terms over music!

  10. Jeannie says:

    Great post, Tim — I have so many opinions on this topic. Mixed metaphors (“grace like an avalanche” combined with “love burning in my heart”), tired cliches (“Nothing compares to,” “None like you,” “You are all I need”), Simon-Peter-like bragging (“I will love You and follow You forever”) — and this is from someone who LOVES contemporary worship songs! I like to take a break sometimes and listen to something rich and bracing like Josh Garrels’ “Flood Waters” although I can’t imagine singing it in my church. But anyway, great topic. I’ll restrain myself from saying more! 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Jeannie, that Josh Garrels song is outstanding, thank you so much for sharing it. I’ve now got a Josh Garrels playlist on YouTube playing in the background. How could I not have heard of this guy before?

    • Melissa says:

      The “Simon-Peter-like bragging” reminds me of another type of song lyric that I do not sing, at least when I’m being conscious of it: the kind that makes a statement that is not true of me. Sometimes I think, well, this line expresses what I *want* to be true of myself. But I don’t always feel like I live up to expressions of complete adoration or loyalty, you know? That and references to “I lift my hands” when it’s not actually the case. These are not necessarily doctrine-related issues, just something I tend to notice and think, yeah, maybe I don’t want to sing something that isn’t accurate.

    • Shannon H. says:

      Thank you, Jeannie! I never heard of him or his music before and have now listened to I don’t know how many songs of his on YouTube and told some others who I think would enjoy his music to seek him out on YouTube.

    • Persephone says:

      My favorite Christian album! He’s an elder at our church (although we started going there before I knew of his music).

      Back to lurking.

  11. zooey111 says:

    Oh, thank goodness. At last, I know I am not the only one in church on Sunday morning muttering, that “the Lord of the Dance is Shiva, for pete’s sake!” (And if the author HAD to pick a Hindu deity for his song lyrics, did it HAVE to be the one who dances among the ashes of the dead, by the river Ganges?”

    (The annoying sound is me, grinding my teeth).

    • Tim says:

      That Shiva imagery reminds me of the song about finding 10,000 charms in Jesus’ arms or something like that. Charms? I know what charms are, and I don’t think Jesus’s embrace can be compared to magical talismans.

      That song was used once at our church. I spoke to the senior pastor after the service. It was never used again.

      • Jeannie says:

        Interestingly, Tim, Karen S-P posted words from that very hymn on Twitter today and I linked the Fernando Ortega version, which is so beautiful. The song was written 200+ years ago, and I know some things get lost in translation in 200 years (charms means delights, of course, not talismans). But I guess it’s a question of whether that particular baby should be thrown out with the bath water. The words are very powerful: “Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream; all the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him.”

        • Tim says:

          I think that is different from the one I heard, Jeannie, which was very much in the style of modern praise music. I’ve heard the older one too and it doesn’t come across the same as the new one to me. I agree its got a mote orthodox message in its lyric.

  12. Hester says:

    I only go to churches that still have hymnals and actually use them, mostly due to the issues discussed in this post. CCM is basically a musical desert for classically trained people. Totally loved the commenter above who satirized CCM as “God God God” sung over and over again over a single chord. Not only are the lyrics often simplistic and theologically vapid / bad, it seems like the composers go out of their way to make the melodies hard to follow (and I’ve had pretty extensive ear training). I don’t get anything out of 99% of CCM – spiritually, musically, anything. There are a few exceptions (mostly Rich Mullins), but they’re extremely rare.

    It also doesn’t help that I’ve had TERRIBLE experiences with CCM advocates. The ones I’ve known refer to church as a “show” and are not interested in musical quality at all, and some will try very hard to force the people who still like traditional music out of churches. In fact, in 24 years (my calendar age) I’ve met exactly one CCM advocate who I would trust completely to not insult and marginalize me (and I haven’t even met him in person, we connected through TWW). I will grant that most of them haven’t been rude to me to my face – it’s more in the form of backhanded comments about, for instance, how the Spirit needs to come back to worship (implication: your traditional music doesn’t have the Spirit), how they’ve “grown past” liturgy (implication: you’re an immature Christian for liking liturgy), and how the organ is there in church for those people who still “need” it (implication: you’re using traditional music as a crutch because you’re afraid of change). Though one person actually told me to my face that I was “afraid” because I wanted to sing Thomas Tallis rather than some cheap mass-produced happy-clappy piece.

    I’m a 20-something who likes traditional music. I’m not supposed to exist, and I screw up the narrative.

    I do want to stress that this is just my experience, and not intended to say that all CCM advocates are like this. I fully admit that I have baggage about this issue. Not sure if it rises to the level of a “trigger” but it’s definitely baggage.

    • Tim says:

      When I hear that bit about how CCM is needed to return the Spirit to our corporate worship, I tend to think the person saying that has an awfully anemic doctrine of Pneumatology.

      • Hester says:

        Well yeah, that too. 🙂 Esp. ironic given that this same person would probably claim that liturgy “limits God” or “puts God in a box” (which I’ve also heard).

  13. dpersson7 says:

    Sorry, coming in late on this conversation, but I would like to say; Where have you people been all my life? I wish topics like this had been discussed in my early years as a Christian. For someone like me, who had no church background at all when I became a Christian, it was easy to just swallow anything that sounded spiritual. There were times that certain worship songs didn’t sit right with me and I just assumed that it was my problem. I never took the time to determine whether or not the doctrine was sound, or maybe that particular song was not appropriate to sing at that time. The timing and mood of certain music may work in some settings, but not others. I am thinking of the Psalms. Some express gratitude, some cry out for forgiveness, and some convey grief depending on the circumstances of the writer/singer. God has given music as a gift to help us communicate with him and it can be a great source of encouragement and comfort, but it shouldn’t be done without thought and discernment. This was really helpful. Thank you.

    • Tim says:

      I like your insights on the psalms, Denise. Some are appropriate for some circumstances and some for others. Ancient Israel certainly recognized this when labeling some of them songs of ascent, meaning they were traditionally sung as pilgrims made their way up the mountain to Jerusalem for the various annual feasts.

  14. Hi Tim, I go to a church where we sing mostly contemporary worship, but I also get to lead a monthly Hymn Sing at the seniors’ home where I volunteer. I grew up singing hymns, and have a large number of the them committed to memory, but only recently did I start really thinking about the message in the lyrics. Some now make me cringe, and frankly, when we sing them, I change the words in my head. For example, “O Jesus, I Have Promised” has the words, “O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control; O speak, and make me listen, thou Guardian of my soul.” If you listened closely you would hear me sing, “O speak, I want to listen, thou Guardian of my soul.” Of course, as some have already stated above, there are contemporary songs with questionable theology as well. Don’t get me started on “I’m Trading My Sorrows” – I’m sure that it is helpful for some people, but for me, it just invalidates my need to be able to express my honest emotions. Sigh.
    Do you know what the copyright laws say about putting new words to other peoples’ music? Our youth worship band likes to sing the song “Your love is a symphony” by Switchfoot, which has really vague and somewhat questionable lyrics (“I’m keeping my eyes wide open” – for what?) Anyway, I think they like it because it has a catchy tune, and when I get a tune stuck in my head sometimes I like to write new lyrics. But if I was to suggest they use my new lyrics, that would be an infringement of copyright, wouldn’t it? Maureen

  15. Hi Tim, interesting points! As a worship leader in church, I’m sensitive to lyrics and if something strikes a wrong chord with me, I’ll check it out. In my former church, we did a song once that hat a very happy, reggae feel, but the text was quite depressing (along of “I’m afraid to come in your presence because I’m unworthy”). I always found it odd, and then the pastor talked to me because he felt awful when singing that text (he is a very charismatic type) and he asked us not to do the song again. I was relieved myself because I felt the text not to be biblical – it was lacking the fact that Jesus made us worthy to stand in his presence. Besides, I’m going to sing the “Halleluja” from Cohen (Alexandra Burke version) at a secular concert, and when I saw that one verse contained “Maybe there’s a God above” and other things I don’t want to sing, I chose another verse. Until now, no one noticed this in the rehearsals 🙂

    • Tim says:

      That sensitivity to lyrics is something I’d like pastors to preach about from up front. It would be easy to do when speaking on passages like Colossians 3:16 – “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Our songs of faith should be full of that wisdom Paul speaks of in that passage.

      • Very true Tim, a good idea to communicate to our pastors! That’s what I love about the “old” songs and hymns – they are so full of poetry and biblical depth instead of always howling “Jesus I love you” 🙂 Nothing against simplicity, but sometimes songs can be so flat. I adore the songwriting of Mark Hall (Casting Crowns) and the songs of Third Day. Just excellent!

  16. VelvetVoice (Susan Donroe) says:

    I love this post. I’m a fan of traditional music, it evokes the early days of my faith and it connects me with believers past and present. It’s a shame when churches totally ignore it, although we need to sing it with new voices. Old songs often come out as dirges.

    I like CCM, although I dislike when people say the music is too feminine. Most of it is written by men! And they record what sells, I hate the music industry (or really the entire media industry) because it often means ignoring true talent for money.

    And I hate the hand-raising! It seems so forced and fake. I’m usually the one who sings in the middle of the supermarket, so I just can’t manufacture that feeling. I’ve been known to be too choked up to sing, I have a very hard time singing about the cross, it’s so convicting. But NO on the hand raising.

    • Tim says:

      I’m with you on feeling too choked up to sing sometimes. I had to be aware of that even when I was the one up front leading the singing.

  17. Anne Mott says:

    Hi everyone. I came looking for someone to agree with me that the lyrics in some of the CCM on the radio is not only non-Scriptural, it is downright occult at times! I am specifically thinking of the song Ocean and the song Touch the Sky that are currently all the rage. Both songs have VERY questionable lyrics, yet they are played and played and played on the local CCM station. I am frustrated that no one seems to have any discernment anymore. If one of these songs ever becomes part of worship at church, I might feel the need to leave. ALSO– I’ve noticed that many of the current songs are all ME centered, rather than JESUS centered. I fear for the people of God..

    • Tim says:

      I am not familiar enough with the lyrics of those two off the top of my head, Anne, but I know what you mean about some of the me-centric songs I’ve heard.

  18. Daniel B says:

    “You can’t go wrong with the words of our Lord, right? Right. But why did the song writer have to take such a hopeful and joyful message and write the music in a minor key? It ends up coming across as a dirge, for crying out loud.”

    Ah yes, the old major key good minor key bad argument….

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