May 22nd, 2008 | 11 Comments
The (sometimes bewilderingly) controversial theologian Brian McLaren wrote an article in a newsletter (I think) in which he enunciates his take on where we are and where we should go in modern worship music. He addresses it as “An open letter to songwriters” (direct pdf link), and presents some well-stated observations and requests in his typically humble way. Here are a couple excerpts:
Let me make this specific: too many of our lyrics are embarrassingly personalistic, about Jesus and me. Personal intimacy with God is such a wonderful step above a cold, abstract, wooden recitation of dogma. But it isn’t the whole story. In fact—this might shock you—it isn’t, in the emerging new postmodern world, necessarily the main point of the story. A popular worship song I’ve heard in many venues in the last few years (and which we sing at Cedar Ridge, where I pastor) says that worship is “all about You, Jesus,” but apart from that line, it really feels like worship, and Christianity in general, has become “all about me, me, me.”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but some of us are thinking right now, “If spiritual songwriting is not about deep, personal intimacy with God, what else is there?”
The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. Sometimes I think we’re too happy: the only way to become happier is to become sadder, by feeling the pain of the chronically ill, the desperately poor, the mentally ill, the lonely, the aged and forgotten, the oppressed minority, the widow and orphan. This pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches. The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter; without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying, and too many of our churches feel, I think, like Candyland. Is it too much to ask that we be more honest? Since doubt is part of our lives, since pain and waiting and as-yet unresolved disappointment are part of our lives, can’t these things be reflected in the songs of our communities? Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?
McLaren lists five neglected topics/themes and six “stylistic observations and requests”; of the latter, my favorite is, “Can our lyricists start reading more good poetry, good prose, so they can be sensitized to the powers of language, the grace of a well-turned phrase, the delight of a freshly discovered image, the prick or punch or caress or jolt that is possible if we wrestle a little harder and stretch a little farther for the word that really wants to be said from deep within us?”
Good stuff, hopefully altogether uncontroversial, and good to hear from someone as influential as he is among the next generation of songwriters.