Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Craving Narrative: Why we will always need hymns & psalms

Last week I finally penned some thoughts on trends I see in the modern church's singing habits.  Today I want to follow that up with a simple contrast of two songs' narrative structure (or lack therof, as we shall see.).

I was in a church service several months ago and we sung two songs back to back:  "Hosanna in the Highest" and "Jesus Paid it All."  I was so struck by their dissimilarities that I made a note in my phone!  Here they are:

Hosanna in the Highest

"I see the King of glory coming on the clouds with fire
The whole earth shakes. (x2)
(Yeah)  I see his love and mercy washing over all our sin
The people sing (x2):
  [Chorus] Hosanna Hosanna Hosanna in the highest [x2]

I see a generation rising up to take their place
With selfless faith (x2)
I see a near revival stirring as we pray and seek
We're on our knees (x2)

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like you have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom's cause
As I walk from earth into eternity

Ok... so first off, what this song DOES have going for it is a singable, catchy, distinctive melody based on an interesting chord progression (many of them minor, for those who care).  Can't say that about all Hillsong songs.  Well... that's about it.

It's a very small amount of words considering that most churches will sing this for 5 minutes at least (there will be a lot of repetition).  Beyond that, there's really no "theme" to the song, no bottom line that sums up which aspect of Truth this is trying to help us remember and understand... there isn't any story, any logical connective thread running through the song.  What's the song about?

As we were singing it, I was trying desperately to make sense of it.  First off, we start off with a serious, thought-provoking image of the Second Coming:  the King of Glory returning and the earth shaking.  Great.  Maybe the next line ("I see His love and mercy washing over all our sin") refers to how all the redeemed will marvel as He forgives us at the Final Judgment, and it makes sense for all of the people to then sing "Hosanna!" like the children in Jerusalem at His First Coming.

Well... then what?  Suddenly we're singing about a completely different vision-- a generation -- past? present? future? who knows!-- rising to take their (grammatically, it should be "its") place with selfless faith. How does that connect to the image of Christ returning?  Or even the cry of "Hosanna"?  And then we're talking about a "near revival". What does that even mean?  I know what revival is-- a rending of the Heavens and God's power descending on His people... but a near-revival?  Is that like a near-miss?  Or does it mean a revival near to us?  And then we're on our knees, I guess singing/praying "Hosanna"-- so are we the generation rising to take our place with selfless faith?

Now we're to the bridge, which seems to be 4 pleas to God, all good ones-- and we close with a line "as I walk from earth into eternity"-- is that supposed to tie together the first and second verses?  The generation rising in faith (earth) going towards the Second Coming (eternity)?  If so... why do we sing it at the end, not connected with either?  Aaaaaand now we're again singing "Hosanna."  Why?

So there you have it... a string of lines and thoughts-- each one (more or less) true, and appropriate to worship, but following no easily discernible cohesive thought.  What will I take home with me into the week?  What could the Spirit call to mind to help me fight sin and temptation?  Maybe the line "Hosanna in the highest"-- a praise to God... Maybe the image of Christ returning, maybe the plea "break my heart for what breaks Yours"?  But would I really learn anything singing this song? Would I realize anything new?  Probably not... there's just not much there to chew on.  It's a collection of individually true statements that don't mean any more together than they do separately.  Your English teacher would mark this type of "poem" with a giant red question:  "WHAT IS YOUR POINT?"


Now let's take the next song we sang:  Jesus Paid it All.  (This isn't even one of my favorites!)

"I hear the Savior say:  “Thy strength indeed is small; 
Child of weakness, watch and pray; find in Me thine all in all.” 

Refrain:  Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe; 
Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow. 

For nothing good have I whereby Thy grace to claim; 
I’ll wash my garments white in the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb. (Refrain)

And now complete in Him-- my robe His righteousness, 
Close sheltered ’neath His side, I am divinely blest. (Refrain)

Lord, now indeed I find Thy pow’r, and Thine alone, 
Can change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone. (Refrain)

When from my dying bed my ransomed soul shall rise, 
“Jesus died my soul to save!" shall rend the vaulted skies. (Refrain)

And when before the throne I stand in Him complete, 
I’ll lay my trophies down, all down at Jesus’ feet. (Refrain)

If I were to ask you "what is the bottom line of this song?" you could tell me without much thought:  that Jesus paid everything (as He declared on the Cross-- "It is PAID"), and that therefore, I owe Him everything.  This hymn carries this theme quite simply and logically through a Christian's whole life, starting with conversion-- when the Savior first whispers to him that He is weak on his own, progressing through life-- rejoicing in God's grace, His nearness, and His power to change him, culminating in the Christian's death-- even then, we will owe Jesus everything, and looking forward to his "glorification" in Heaven, when STILL it will be all about Jesus' work, not our own.

As I sing this song, my mind is putting myself into the story, wondering if I really am living as if I'm sheltered beneath Jesus' pierced side, or if I'm rejoicing in His power to change me.  I'm thinking again of all the various ways that Jesus HAS "paid it all"-- this song touches on all aspects of the Gospel-- how Jesus saves us, gives us a new identity, changes us, and one day will make us perfect (big words: regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification) and addresses each stage of a Christian's walk, whether we are in a place of stony-heartedness, or are trying to somehow work our way into God's favor; whether we're weary and longing for Rest, or are working hard in His strength and rejoice to see Him working through us.

I remember very clearly hearing Keith Getty (a modern hymn writer whose works I LOVE) explain hymn-writing in his lilting Irish voice-- "everyone loves a good story-- tell 'em a good story, and they'll keep singing for hours!" 40% of our Old Testament is pure narrative; 27 books of the Bible are largely stories, and all the poetry & wisdom literature fit into the stories told in the narrative section.  It's the most common type of writing in our Scriptures.  We love stories.  We crave them.  We tell them-- just think of how much of our conversation involves our own life story, retelling of plots of favorite movies or books, anecdotes from our day (or our children's days), or stories about other people (often known as "gossip").  Stories.  We occasionally discuss ideas or argue points of view... but most people relax around a good story.  I've never failed to calm a room full of children-- even middle school boys!-- with a well-read story.

Biblical Models
If you thumb through your Bible to the first hymnal, the Psalms, you'll see that many Psalms follow a logical story form:  the author often begins with a crisis, a grief, a desire, then progresses through remembering how God has dealt with His people (or  the speaker) in the past, looks forward to God's promises, and ends praising God, often looking forward to the Ultimate Day when all will be made Right.  There's often a specific personal story (Ps. 73, for one example), or a retelling of a moment in Israel's history (Ps 99).

Other Psalms are meditations on a theme-- for example, Psalm 104 unpacks its first line "Oh my God, You are very great!" and we all know the poetry of Psalm 23 portraying God as a shepherd.  (I've heard one theory that all the Psalms are meditations on verses from the Pentateuch, which would be Genesis- Deuteronomy... it's pretty cool to try and guess which Psalms came out of which passages.  I think Psalm 23 came from Jacob's words in Genesis 48:15... tangent, sorry!)

Yes, there are Psalms (like Psalm 136) that involve a lot of repetition, perhaps choruses or times where one group of or all the people sang in responsive style, but even those repetitions serve to reinforce a specific point, a theme around which the Psalm is built.

It seems far more beneficial to me to sing songs that logically "take" someone somewhere... or, at the very least, drive home a point.  Cohesive and logical always "sticks" better than disjointed and random, no matter what the subject.  The lines in a work of true poetry mean far more together than they would apart; they build on one another-- each word is meant to be there.  Let's sing songs whose words matter. It isn't just about "the mood" or "the feeling" or "the sound" our music evokes-- it's about the Truth it conveys.  Our world was created through words; our Scripture came to us as words; our Savior is the Final Word... words matter to us.  Let's sing like we actually know that. My guess is that in Heaven, we won't sit around proclaiming nuggets of unrelated Truth to each other-- instead, I think we will probably tell Stories.  I'd almost bet we'll sing them, too.

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