MWM: The Last Past-Blast Worship Music Review (8)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Here, I’m offering the last of my published reviews (all published during a short period in the 1990s) of worship music—music that was then being released and is still “contemporary” in broad perspective.  Here is the most recent post of this specific type, in case you want to see another.

This review treats two separate albums that attempted to focus on helping people who are hurting.

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Ministering in Times of Distress
1.  Integrity: God Will Make a Way
2.  Vineyard: WWW – Healing
(Published March 1999)

by Brian Casey

Fundamental to the notion of “ministry” is helping those in need, and these two recordings can help to fill that need—impacting souls in, or being pulled out of, spiritual holes of doubt and struggle.

“God Will Make a Way” consists entirely of previously released material.  Those who naturally are drawn to Integrity’s sensibilities and polished-glass sonorities will assuredly draw strength from this repackaged music.

The lush adult choir arrangement (Fettke et al) of “Be Strong and Take Courage” (from the musical God With Us) is effective. “You Are Eternal” is a conceptually significant inclusion: Knowing that God doesn’t change is crucial if we are to trust that He is in charge and will make a way.  As author Max Lucado has said, “In times when we can’t trace His hand, we can trust His heart.”

It’s a powerful connection indeed when someone communicates through song who thoroughly and earnestly believes that God will come, will enter one’s pain.  God chose to enter the world’s distress as a human; His messages may yet be most powerfully expressed through His human servants.  “God will make a way,” “do not lose your faith,” “no eye has seen what God has prepared,” “forget not all His benefits,” . . . when believers extend these powerful, Godly exhortations to me, I am strengthened.

Though the lyrical content is no more robust, the slightly less conventional music of Vineyard’s “Healing” is more immediately heartening, with no talk between songs.  The yearning vocals on Terry Butler’s “Simple Prayer” are genuinely beautiful, but the range/tessitura might hinder congregational participation.  “Faithful Love” and “Father, I Want You To Hold Me” are high points.  Also noteworthy are the artistic contributions of Rita Springer—besides her writing, her vocals are expressive and believable, sometimes with a finessed, breathy edge.  I found Michael Hansen’s compositions musically (not lyrically) monotonous.

It might be considered inappropriate to attempt to minister healing to individuals in dire situations (e.g., in “Mend a Broken Heart,” abused children) through congregational, publicly marketed music.  Some matters seem more aptly dealt with in private.

Each recording incorporates ample, worthwhile congregational and solo music—to be used therapeutically in ministering to real individuals with real needs.

– Brian Casey, March 1999

 

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MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (7)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Here, I’m offering another of my published reviews of worship music—music that was then being released and is still “contemporary” in broad perspective.  Here is the last post of this specific type, in case you want to see another.  There will be one more.

This review treats three separate albums that attempted to focus on young people.  At the time, I was working regularly with teenagers and enjoyed a close relationship with several of them.  I don’t know that I had a good finger on the pulse of their tastes even then, and whatever I had then is mostly lost now, but I still think it’s worthwhile to aim for “Real and Natural.”

Magazine
Magazine

Published 1998
by Brian Casey

Youth-Oriented Recordings

WorshipTogether’s Revival Generation
Matt Redman’s Intimacy
Hillsongs Australia’s The Plan

I was recently surprised when three spiritually minded teenagers, in unison, disparaged Rebecca St. James’s “God” album. “I just don’t like that kind of music,” one said, neglecting to define “type.”

What makes a young person gravitate toward a certain type of music?  The instrumentation?  The beat?  What attracts a teenager to an artist?  Popularity?  Something even less tangible?

Many are drawn to the ministry of connecting teenagers with God:

  • A shepherd becomes emotional when the topic of conversation turns to the number of teenagers that just aren’t “connecting” at church.
  • When churches consider hiring a second staff minister, they often seek someone to work closely with youth.
  • Nearly as many adults as teenagers turn out for an annual youth retreat at our church. They are impelled by the love of teenage hearts and are thrilled to be used by God in bringing high-impact worship experiences to the young.

Teens are predisposed to accept practically anything if it’s written and/or performed by someone near their age. Capitalizing on this phenomenon, Hillsongs Australia’s The Plan (Integrity) comprises songs “by young people for young people,” so its appeal is virtually guaranteed though some of the lyrical/musical material is immature.  This album is a somewhat forced amalgam of styles and represents more of an evangelistic plea than a worship thrust.  However, “Anything (for You),” “U.R.Y.” and “Fill My Heart” indeed are brimming with impassioned devotion.  While I could tap into the youngish, rap energy of “Serve the Man” and the grunge praise of “God Made the World,” some of the techno-dabble found here left me wondering if a preteen was manning the effects board without guidance.  But will this music attract teenagers?  At least on one level, yes.    But let’s go deeper….

Matt Redman, a patently gifted British worship leader in his early twenties, is a wellspring of songs that are real, well crafted, and undeniably God-focused.  His latest album, Intimacy, is a worthy successor to The Friendship and the Fear. Singular pronouns—indicating intensely personal, relational worship—abound in Redman’s lyrics; “What I Have Vowed,” “Hear the Music of My Heart,” “I Am Yours,” and others are eminently believable expressions of surrendered worship … giving it all up for God.  Stylistically, Intimacy incorporates everything from retro rock organ to unplugged, contemplative love song, but Redman does it all more convincingly.  Frankly, I would much prefer that teens spend time with anything of Redman’s than with Hillsongs’ The Plan.

WorshipTogether’s Revival Generation, featuring large-group worship content, is a compilation of works of Redman, Deliriou5?, and others whose songs play roles in the current worship revival in England.  Here is a wealth of indirect praise; leader-congregation interplay and responsorial structures are plentiful.  Redman’s “There is a Louder Shout to Come” provides an anticipatory glimpse into the praise of eternity, and the Beatle-esque “Oh Our Lord and King” centers on God because of who He is. Southern rock surfaces in Stuart Townend’s“There’s a Place.”  Revival Generation has almost as many high points as Redman’s Intimacy.  It is even more packed with church-friendly tunes and will also appeal to both teens and young adults.

Musical style does matter—perhaps more for teens than for other age groups. But more significant in connecting with the younger generation is the R&N (Real & Natural) Quotient.  If the expressions of worship are heard as “real” and are poured out in spontaneous overflow of the heart—as so many of these songs are—they are destined to connect with entire congregations as well as with youth.

– Brian Casey, November 1998

MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (6)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Other, related posts are here.  Today, I’m offering another of my past reviews of worship music.  

For the first time, I’m actually a little embarrassed at some of the writing below.  For one thing, I would now completely disavow any support of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship.  

Very recently, a group worship experience reminded me, somewhat painfully, of the disconnect I now perpetually feel in large worship gatherings.  Those who lead people in worship say (sometimes, better and more smoothly) the things I used to say, so I can recall and rehearse the wordings . . . but there is little resonance in me.  I try to sing to the God in Whom I believe, but I am distracted by amplification issues, by incoherence in the PowerPoint lyrics, and by the lack of music notation that renders me mute [unless I happen to know the song and there are no real variances in the way this church sings it]. 

Much more significant than the above:  I feel the weight of inertia in my soul—weight that keeps me from being glad or celebratory, and from singing with any gusto, although I remain convicted that God is, and that God loves.  A portion of this feeling could be resolved if group worship leaders weren’t all given to upbeat moods and positive affirmations—an affect or mode that seems to be so very natural and fluent for them, but not for me.  I don’t fault them, really, because I was one of them.  Back then, I also felt it incumbent on me to be gregarious, positive, and upbeat.  Now, I feel like the “bad” side of a disjunction that’s been written in order to point up the gaps between the temporal, ultimately lacking aspects of this life and the wonders of the next.

These days, instead of kowtowing to the blithely happy celebration breezes that prevail, I’d rather be one who identifies with the struggling, the tenuous, and the downcast.  I am not one of those all the time, but I have been, and I think that connecting with them is just as important as connecting with, and further encouraging, the upbeat ones among us.

While I often long for the way I used to be, I don’t feel that, exactly, when I read this review I wrote more than 17 years ago.  I might’ve been striving to say something I thought was cool at the time, and I’m a little embarrassed now at a few lines.


 

Catch the Fire 4
Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship
Rejoice Publishing & Productions (KLE TOI Records)

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Published Jan. 1998
by Brian Casey

This live album is full of rambunctious revelry and unrestrained expressions, so get ready to strip off your inhibitions and stretch (both literally and figuratively) for the Lord.

Even the titles “There’s Joy,” “Great Big God,” and “I Will Dance, I Will Sing” reveal  the ecstatic rejoicing found here in abundance.  We don’t hear enough of the congregation’s jubilant, responsive enthusiasm on “Who Paints the Skies,” but it is nevertheless energetic, extravagant praise.  A gritty rendition of Darrell Evans’s “New Song Arisin’” contains hints of fusion jazz-rock.

You’ll be caught up in the lyrical drive of “The Son of Man Appears.”  During an interlude, worship leader Jeremy Sinnott prophesies dramatically of the moment at which Jesus’ awestruck saints will thrill at His appearing.  It makes one want to call out, “Marana tha!”

Noel and Tricia Richards’s tender “You Are My Passion,” my favorite, will subdue even the most ecstatic worshipper into devoted desire for intimacy with God and His surpassing love:

Now will You draw me close to You?
Gather me in Your arms.
Let me hear the beating of Your heart.

I could hardly resist opening my hands to God while alone with “In the Blessing,” a sweet song of surrender.  Its gorgeous, glassy-still musical landscape complements the lyrics exquisitely — depicting a life of worshipful repose in the Redeemer.  This is singable worship.

If you’re looking for solemn reflection and rational, meditative reverence, you may not find enough, though the soft-rock “Your Ways Are Much Higher” fits that bill.  There’s a bit more of the uproarious, gleeful variety here.  The Body of Christ doesn’t always need the utmost in profundity, though; sometimes we should splurge a little—thankfully and victoriously basking in the fiery glow of God.

MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (5)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Other, related posts are here.  Today, I’m offering another of my past reviews of worship music—music that would be considered “contemporary” by most, but probably considered “passé” by the movers-shakers of 2015.

You Are I Am
Darrell Evans, Vertical Music (Integrity)

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Magazine

Published 1998
by Brian Casey

Riding the wings of Integrity’s bright new GenX-oriented Vertical Music label comes You Are I Am, a solo project by Darrell Evans.

Stylistically varied, this album features four-time Integrity veteran Evans’s intensely personal writing as well as his steel-strong vocal performance, which is best on the up-tempo, more boisterous cuts.  Ad libs over accessibly simple chord progressions, found throughout, lend themselves to unstructured, free worship.

The title cut’s artful couplets reach lyrically gifted Evans’s goal — expressiveness in “painting lyrical pictures.”  God’s self-existence is at the fore in this driving-yet-intimate song of the inextricable relationship with His adoring creatures.

In “I Want To Know You,” the bold percussion and breathy vocal production are attention-grabbers.  Studio effects bolster the utterly compelling lyrics; Evans truly wants to be “intimately entangled” with Yahweh.

“My God Reigns,” a repetitive, feel-good tune released twice previously, is sure to be a congregational favorite.  An effective responsive section and high-energy drums are added to a muscular, kick-it-in rendition of “We Will Embrace Your Move” (first heard on Integrity’s “Songs from the Message — the Way of Love”).

Though their tastes are too diverse for simplistic summaries, GenXers often need more than musical “style” in order to connect.  Even on the least substantive track, “New Song Arisin’,” the message blazes.  (And the ethnic-flair percussion isn’t too gimmicky!)  The vocals and a convincing, imploring lead guitar are the most impressive features on “Let the River Flow” (also on Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship’s Catch the Fire 4).

The absolutely captivating tonal tapestry of “I Surrender” poignantly urges resignation to the Lord, but the eminently personal “I Am Yours” is even more congregation-friendly.  “Take Me Away with You” impels the worshipper to eternal realms reserved only for God and His children.

There’s no question that Evans is in touch with GenX and what gets into their spirits.  If you’re energized by the passionate, soulful, “vertical” meditations, you’ll want this recording.

– Brian Casey

MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (4)

The worship wpid-2015-03-31_14-45-23_217.jpgmusic CD review I have posted below, published in 1998 by Worship Leader, showed a certain willingness to go against commonly held opinions.  At the time, Hillsong Music was on the rise, and it is still a force today.  I was not particularly inspired by some of the material on this album, so I was less than glowing in my comments.¹

These days, my personal inspiration level upon hearing this kind of music is far lower and is still on the decline.  For years I had advocated “contemporary worship music” in my little-but-significant corners of the world.  I was always more selective and discerning than the typical patron of a Christian bookstore, but I went to great lengths to consume what I perceived to be better-quality worship music.  I persistently championed traditional hymns with rich content, as well . . . but I was searching for the new, the fresh, the captivating.  For a while, I found sources and was regularly inspired, but it was only for a while — approximately 15 years, give or take.  These days, it is rare that “Christian music” reaches into my soul and teaches or lifts or draws me to God.

Looking back, I hope and trust that I inspired others periodically as a leader during the 1990s.  A few folks from that time period do recall and affirm what I was attempting to do, anyway.

I often found myself moving “ahead” and trying to pull others along with me.  I distinctly recall one conversation with a devoted mother of two who was worried that, if she absorbed and followed that I was putting in front of people, she would be putting her children at risk with the congregation.  In other words, they would grow up thinking and worshipping with values that were neither common nor likely to be seen as acceptable.  Ironically, this woman (and several others, similarly) have ended up moving on from the traditions about which they were concerned.  Some of me feels as though I’m left in the dust!

I cannot be other than who I am, though.  I am still the same person who found something less than fully inspirational, authentic material in the Hillsong album Touching Heaven, Changing Earth.  Every now & then, when some spiritual reality or biblical text or song penetrates, I still have a burst of worship leadership (and wouldn’t mind if He fanned that old flame a little in 2015).  The connected notions of touching heaven and changing earth do call me upward and outward.

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Touching Heaven, Changing Earth
Hillsong Music Australia (Integrity)

by Brian Casey (1998)

Hillsong Music Australia’s momentum is unquestioned — with positive press for several past releases — but the music on this recording is a notch or two down, for instance, from “Shout to the Lord” (1996:  Integrity’s Hosanna!).  It is cordial but commonplace, and the lyrics, sometimes lacking character, penetrate only sporadically.

The dichotomous image of touching heaven and changing earth enticed me, but even the title track’s lyrics disappointed me by not going deeper.

Russell Fragar’s “Church on Fire” could be said to exhibit too much congregational self-concern, yet it does capture a certain spiritual anticipation:  The Holy Spirit is here / And His power is real / Anything can happen / And it probably will.

Fragar’s expressive “My Greatest Love Is You” is my favorite, and “Holy Spirit Rain Down” is a tasteful, believable plea with an atmospheric ad lib passage that evokes images of wind rushing all around the worshippers.  Somewhat predictable, “You Are Holy” is still sweet and decidedly worshipful.

Of the five songwriters represented here, Reuben Morgan’s lyrics are the most luxuriant.  His music, though, doesn’t always match.  “Lord Your Goodness” does express a sweetly dependent desire to worship — authentic, intimate, adoringly cognizant of God’s work.

For content, this album rates a C+; such a strong concept deserves better and more substantive development throughout.  Worship leader Darlene Zschech’s stock pop vocalizations (musical and spoken) don’t quite reach the “inspired” mark, and the musical and lyrical clichés are apparent.  If you need some feverish, get-‘em-excited stuff (“Yes and Amen” will catch on congregationally), you’ll find a few, but the project gets a B- overall.

– Brian Casey


¹ Shortly after that review, I was offered no more reviewing opportunities.  I was told that my being “fired” had nothing to do with the partly negative review I gave this album, and that it had something to do with the new magazine editor.  I’m still not sure I believe that.  I’ve seen too much.

An old review of the same old album

A couple of days ago, I shared current thoughts on the 1998 album Exodus.  Below is the review I wrote for Worship Leader Magazine in 1998.  I’m pleased to discover that I had at least positively noticed the concluding “I See You” then, although I haven’t paid it as much attention in the intervening years.

Exodus

Various Artists

 The radical worshipper possesses a heart discontent in stagnation, and vision-setter Michael W. Smith is profoundly impacted by this truth.  “Moving the masses” is not unfamiliar to Smitty; through this diverse collection of new worship material he urges on a sadly captive New Israel.

Smith’s mostly instrumental title track is a dramatic introduction evocative of an awakening, traveling human spirit.  Jars of Clay, dc Talk, Sixpence, Cindy Morgan, Chris Rice, The Katinas, Third Day, and Crystal Lewis have all offered creations especially for this recording, which aims to “stretch traditional perceptions of worship.”

In dc Talk’s “My Will” we are reminded of a core worship concept:  aligning my will with God’s supreme will.  The humble “Needful Hands” from Jars of Clay then takes the baton, carrying the theme of yielding in order to find potency completely in God.

Third Day’s brawny rendering of Smith’s “Agnus Dei,” not necessarily an improvement on the original, does incorporate a couple of sparkling surprises.  The simple, repetitive “Nothin’” by Rocketown artist Chris Rice will be a favorite.

Though the musical makeup of The Katinas’ “Draw Me Close” isn’t extraordinary, these pure, adoring prayer words are destined to be sung nationwide.  Crystal Lewis’s anthem, a towering trumpet-call, is an outstanding marriage of music to the text from Revelation!

Smith salutes Rich Mullins in “I See You” — reminding us that God is visible even though bondage is still there in the rear-view mirror.  The Israelites came to see more clearly a cloud-and-fire God whose interest in loving relationship was spectacularly displayed.  Michael W. Smith, please keep soaring ahead, impelling us — believers also in transitto new views of the same amazing God.

– Brian Casey, July 1998

exodus

MWM: a new review of an old album

I am no “Christian music” junkie, and I was repelled by K-Love’s recent challenge to listen to nothing but “Christian music” for a month.  Au contraire:  I think a diet that includes a variety of musics is beneficial.  Cook me up a platter with all of these, please:

  • Some Barrueco and Beethoven and Bolling and even a bit of Boston
  • Healthy doses of Kansas, with some Khachaturian & Stan Kenton (but no musical theater kitsch, thank you very much)
  • Grieg & Glad & Grechaninov
  • Sibelius & Scandinavian wind quintets and Simon & Garfunkel
  • A pinch of ELO and selected Eagles . . . and gotta have Elgar
  • Fernando Ortega & First Call (you can keep Franck and 4Him) and some folk tunes

 

Basically, I resist the notion that our input ought to be confined to “Christian” lyrics.

First, a good deal of what’s out there in “Christian” music simply isn’t of very good quality.  I can’t stomach the tripe.  (Can you really imagine Jesus getting up at sunrise in Galilee and singing, “This feeling can’t be wrong; I’m about to get my worship on”?¹)  A couple times a week, I find myself trying to listen to something from Christian radio, thinking I need some such message, then wincing at the stylistic stupidity and turning to something else instead.

Second, Christian lyrics’ attention to scripture (or even to what makes sense) is uneven at best.  The biblical truthfulness is, I suppose, no worse than with most sermons and Bible classes, but still….

Third, a diet of only “Christian” music would appear to negate the place of purely instrumental music (sans words) beauty, which I take as an equal creation of our God.  (He could have left us with no sound, you know.  We could have existed with rice and beans and water and a mouth of some type, but no eyes or ears.)

exodusHowever (and this is a big however, because this is what I started out to write about!), the Exodus album, produced by Michael W. Smith’s Rocketown enterprise, continues to be influential for me.  Upon its release, I wrote a review for Worship Leader Magazine, and I’ll share that in a few days, for sake of comparison and interest, but I wanted to write a new quasi-review first, without looking at the old one.

Exodus is one of a handful of go-to albums whenever I want to hear a variety of meaningful, soulful Christian music.  Several of the songs have some staying power, and I find myself impacted positively by most of them.

The Exodus album featured some then-up-and-coming singers and groups, such as DC Talk, the Katinas, Sixpence None the Richer, Third Day, Jars of Clay, and Chris Rice.  Not all of the Exodus songs ended up as the biggest hits for of those recording artists, but most of the songs were well chosen.

Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics:

For those under the clouds,
Staring up in awesome wonder,
As tears come slowly down,
I’m reaching up a needful hand.
(Jars of Clay)

Draw me close to You.
Never let me go. . . .
You’re all I want.
You’re all I’ve ever needed.
(The Katinas)

Holy, holy are You, Lord God Almighty
Worthy is the Lamb.
You are holy.
(Third Day)

During my most recent get-reacquainted time with this album, I re-noticed one of Michael W. Smith’s two contributions—the song “I See You.”  On the surface, this is a simple song.  I vaguely recall not being attracted to the song back in 1998, and I have rarely paid it much mind since.  This time, though, I thought more structurally of the whole.  Notice the album’s bookends:

FIRST:  Smitty’s mostly-instrumental title track “Exodus” sets up the concepts of the album dramatico-musically, yet soberly.

MIDDLE:  Lots of worship and devotion expressed in other songs

LAST:  Smitty’s “I See You” reminds the listener, by way of images from the 2nd book of the Torah (cloud, flame, “promised land”), that God is everywhere.  ||:  “Everywhere I go, I see You.”  :||

For me, “I See You” has become part of this album’s thrust.  It speaks persuasively and simply of the impelling, persistent experience of the Lord God during the journey out from Egypt.  I’d be embarrassed to tell Smitty face to face that I didn’t “get this” for the first 15 years, but he would probably smile at me.  Like this Exodus album, Michael W. Smith himself has some staying power.   Smith also seems to have had vision and discernment with regard to Christian music and artist selection.

I appreciate so much of what MWS has contributed through the last few decades.  Isn’t it curious that he was first an unknown pianist on Amy Grant’s stage.  🙂

Listen to Exodus  YouTube recordings here

[ Next:  my 1998 review of this same album.  Who knows what the shadows know?  I might have said something that proves to be really embarrassing. ]


¹ The song to which I refer, “A Beautiful Day,” sung by Jamie Grace Harper and written by Harper, Christopher Stevens, Toby McKeehan, and Morgan Harper Nichols, strikes me as a next-gen “Cartoons” by Chris Rice, some of whose better material was featured on the Exodus album.  “Cartoons” was more clever, but as for me and my house, we refuse to mock the word “Hallelujah” and the idea of worshipping Jah by suggesting Scooby-Doo and Fred Flintstone would do it.

WL SongDISCovery then and now

Way back when, I had the pleasure and honor of reviewing some new “contemporary worship” CDs for Worship Leader Magazine. (I would have kept doing it, but then a new editor had new ideas, and presumably new friends he wanted to do the reviews. You get the picture.) About four years ago, I shared two of the WL reviews I wrote, and I’m planning to post a few more in the coming weeks as I ponder . . .

  • the progression of my personal, inward responses to congregational music
  • the progression of contemporary music overall, insofar as I’m able to assess it from my small corner.

This was my review of Maranatha! Music’s “Praise 19” album Glorious Father:

This is vintage Maranatha! . . . artful, authentic music through which the radiant, reigning Lord of All is worshipped.

The well-chosen lead song, “I Lift Up My Head,” has an irresistible melody. Geoff Bullock’s captivating “I Will Never Be the Same Again” (also on WL’s Song DISCovery, Vol. 13) will touch sincere hearts for quite a while. In “How I Long,” I feel the longing; the dynamic melodic contour evokes hunger to be in the Presence of the Glorious One and the Lamb. The title track and a few others have a little too much sheen to shine, but I appreciate the sensitive, heartfelt update of “Give Me Jesus,” which I first knew as an a cappella choral piece. Though it and “Nothing Can Separate Us” aren’t really in keeping with the album theme, I listened to them repeatedly. The hallelujahs at the end of “From Everlasting to Everlasting” are a wonderful, fitting touch.

I’m not sure a mere intellectual belief in a Glorious Father does one much good in the here and now. Ushering us from such detachment into a more thoroughgoing sense of utter worship — and containing perhaps the most intoxicating lyrics on the record — is “As You Truly Are”: And now burning within is a desire to see You as never before / I want to see You more exalted / … / I want to see You as You truly are.

Let me see the Father that way. And let me be changed. – Brian Casey

~ ~ ~

<em.Worship Leader, for those who don’t know, is a bimonthly, multi-denominational magazine published by Chuck Fromm (who, incidentally, received his doctorate from Fuller a few years after the inaugural issue). It features well-known pastor-types, a scholar or incisive author here & there, a lot of contemporary worship music, and very little worship music that has stood the test of decades or centuries. The magazine emphasizes how-to articles and is accompanied by Song DISCovery CDs that purport to publicize and/or release to the general evangelical public some of the best new worship music.

My understanding is that I was one of a handful of people who had all of the first 50+ issues of WL and Song DISCovery by subscription. Apparently my name got on all three demo/sample lists, whereas others only received one of the first three. At any rate, I was a loyal subscriber for years, then let my sub lapse, then picked it up, then let it lapse again. At some point, the magazine’s offerings weren’t speaking to me as much — owing mostly to judgments related to my deepening scripture investigations, as well as my decreasing tolerance for pop culture — and I couldn’t maintain interest.

However, the last two CD issues I received (early 2013) did have some songs worthy of attention. First, some negative attention for a really bad song:

Heaven On Earth

Oh, oh, Heaven,

Heaven on earth,

Oh, oh, Heaven on earth!

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

His anointing is empowering

The kingdom of the Lord is within me

And He’s calling me to the heavenlies

Words & music by David Binion/John Brockman/Joshua Dufrene

© 2009 Integrity Worship Music (adm by EMI Christian Music Publishing)/Covenant Worship Group (adm by EMI Christian Music Publishing)/Integrity’s Praise! Music (adm by EMI Christian Music Publishing)/Soul Jive Music (adm by Moon & Musky Music). All rights reserved. CCLI # 5779424

I can’t stomach even re-posting the rest of these words. This song strikes me as mere feel-good, ethereal effervescence with little logical or truly scriptural foundation. I daresay the writers of this song has less basis for their “heavenology” than I, and that’s not very much. What in the world is “Heaven on earth” for them? It certainly forms a musically exclamatory punctuate, but the thoughts here are vacuous. And how dare a writer or singer so carelessly re-appropriate a prophecy Jesus took for Himself, claiming a similar anointing and empowering. God may indeed be calling this worshipper to “the heavenlies,” but he ought to know what he’s singing about, and I somehow doubt he does.

Another song on this CD, Song DISCovery vol. 106, is titled “When Amidst the Storm I’m Shaken.” It’s a faith-filled song that I think I would sing in private devotional time if some of the syllabic accents weren’t misplaced. Still, these are very attrctive, worthwhile thoughts.

Here, finally, is a song I find quite worthy, sung by the hauntingly pleasing voice of one Stephanie Tipton (who nevertheless capitulates to hiccupped stylings over good phrasing). It may be no accident that one is drawn to words that are two centuries old. These words merit contemplation — and grateful, adoring prayer.

Here Is Love

Here is love vast as the ocean.

Lovingkindness as a flood,

When the Prince of Life — our Ransom —

Shed for us His precious blood

On the mount of crucifixion–

Fountains opened deep and wide —

Through the floodgates of God’s mercy

Flowed a vast and gracious tide

Grace and love like mighty rivers

Poured incessant from above

Heaven’s peace and perfect justice

Kissed a guilty world in love

Who His love will not remember?

Who can cease to sing His praise?

He will never be forgotten

Throughout Heav’n’s eternal days. . . .

Words and music by Robert S. Lowery/William Edwards/William Ree.

© 2012 HNW Music/Public Domain

Referents (hymns, etc. — pt. 2)

Friday’s post on the identification and nature of old Christian hymns drew questions from a NC Textual scholar and friend.  I’m following up here with a presumably clarifying post or two.

Topics:

  1. How did Paul, and how can we, identify the hymn, the psalm, and the spiritual song?  [And what in the world is a “gospel song”?]  What are the referents of these words?  (See here for the Pauline letter references.)
  2. Do such identifications matter?  If so, why and to what end?

Pursuant to good teaching as well as instinct, I would not assert that any words are (necessarily) static in their ranges of meaning, although some words may certainly mean roughly the same thing for centuries.  Attempts to identify, e.g., the “hymn” are problematic.

When I say, for example, that a hymn is a specific thing, and a gospel song isn’t that thing, it’s not that I care about the specific labels as much as that to which the label refers — the referent.  This distinction begs the question of which language we’re dealing in — Paul’s Greek or my English.  Should we care about what Paul’s hymnoi are, or what my hymns are, or both, or neither?  (The words in both languages have ranges of meaning.)

At this point I want to clarify what is behind all this for me:

I am concerned with Christian intentionality in worship, i.e., that believers know what they’re doing when they’re doing it — resulting in more meaning and thrust behind each activity.

Aside:  although I am a professional, academically trained musician, it is decidedly not my interest that we get too deep in the musical aspects here.  Little may be gleaned or replicated (in terms of musical style) from any era prior to the early Baroque or Renaissance, and, in any event, I’m relatively unconcerned that musical considerations enter into substantive discussions on believers’ worship.  Now, having relegated musical considerations to the sidelines, I’ll admit that, when a non-musician attempts to refer with any specificity to supposed, ancient “musical genres” (as a couple of otherwise knowledgeable theologians¹ in Worship Leader magazine have, for instance), I may react!   A musical genre, e.g., psalms, hymns, might or might not have existed.  What’s clear is that we will not be able to determine anything about such a genre’s musical praxis in this lifetime.  For example, no musical notation for a Davidic psalm, if discovered, would be musically replicable by us in this millennium.

The three iconic Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 expressions — which communicate something along the lines of “psalming, hymning, and spiritually singing” — seem to depict some degree of textual variety, although perhaps the three terms overlapped in meaning at some point.   In other words, it seems clear that Paul was describing a plurality or plenteousness in some respect, if not categories per se.

I don’t know that Paul was concerned that his “psalms” be thought of as a category limited to the Hebrew Psalms.  It could very well be that a contemporary psalm was composed in the year 44 in Antioch, and another one in 52 in Corinth, and that both of these circulated in small regions, taking their respective places among the Hebrew Psalms — and effectively blurring the lines of the “psalms” category.  Or, a spiritual ode such as Philippians 2:6-11 could have been lyrically morphed into a more God-directed, “hymnic” song — i.e., starting with “. . . Who existed in the form of God” and ending up with something along the lines of “You, O Lord Christ, have always existed as God.”  All this assumes Paul had categories in mind, to some extent.

I see no indication that Paul prioritized one over the other, and I don’t want to prioritize, either.  In using the designation “hymn” to refer to a specific type of text and a first-person, God-directed vantage point, I do not intend to downplay interest in other poetic texts that seems to have served some poetic, aesthetically charged function for/with ancient believers.  All of these poetic texts are of interest, whether God-directed or not.

The point is not that we sing “psalms” more or less than “hymns,” or that we always draw from each category, but that believers become more intentional, whether singing/speaking to oneself, to one another, or to deity.

So, should we care about what hymnoi are, or what hymns are, or both, or neither?  I’d say both, but that we should care more about the actual activity (as opposed to the word).  Coming to understand what hymnoi were, or could have been, in the first century will of course inform what our actual activities are today.

May each Christian activity — whether singing this type text or that, or encouraging, or mowing, or cleaning — be intentional and impassioned.

P.S.  And what is a “gospel song”?  That label carries quite the range of meanings, too.  Ask a mainstream media reporter, a Christian bookstore employee under the age of 30, a Baptist in the southern U.S., and a CofCer from a Stamps-Baxter-loving heritage, and you’ll get four different understandings, the last three of which will be based largely on limited experiences with musical styles.  If we asked Paul what a “gospel song” might be, he might say, “a song that speaks of the good news of the death and rising of Jesus.”  The label “gospel song” is not used in scripture, and it’s not advisable that it be equated to the “spiritual song” of Eph. 5 and Col. 3.  I daresay a lot of psalms and hymns are more “spiritual” than most of the “gospel songs” I’ve experienced.

To be continued . . . coming up:  a poll on the referents of psalm, hymn, and spiritual song, plus inquiries into rhyme and assonance

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¹ The reference I have in front of me is Ron Allen, who asserted in some connection with Psalm 68 that “Paul spoke of three genres of music in [Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16].”  Even if that statement could somehow be proven, the conclusion would be less than helpful, since no one could remotely begin to replicate or approximate said genres.  I would suggest that Dr. Allen revisit this notion and then illuminate any echoes of the Hebrew text that are not apparent to English readers when comparing Psalm 68 with Paul’s letters.

Simple, yet profound

“Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, complexity is not what Scripture reveals as God’s personal preference.”

– James McDonald, Unashamed Adoration, in Worship Leader Magazine

With all due respect to the author of this article, I’m not sure he knows completely whereof he speaks.  Certainly, the language of some  hymnody is rather obtuse for today, but that is only a slice of the pie.  Many great hymns are simple — and yet profound.

Nor does everything we gathered (or solitary) Christians sing need to be simplistic, to the point of being on a 4th-grade reading level.  The beauty of well-used words and imagery can provide an effective vehicle for the soul.

In essence:  complex word formulations are probably not advisable, but deeply meaningful, well chosen, and even profound words may be very beneficial — and simplicity is often helpful, too.  I suspect God is pleased with most words used in worship when the words are sincere and understood/heartfelt.

I like “I love You, Lord,” but I also like “Like the holy angels who behold Thy glory, may I ceaselessly adore Thee.”

I would like “Take care of me, O God,” but I like “Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath Thine own almighty wings!” even better.

I like “You’re my all.  You’re the best!” but I also like “God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious . . . Thy great name we praise.”

==> Please share examples of some of your favorite, God-oriented verbal images.  The musical style doesn’t matter.