Great post over on the First Things blog by Jeremy Pierce, in which he examines the elements of a bad worship song. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, as his point relates to how these songs are often biblically based.
For my part, I loathe just about every single praise and worship tune I hear. It’s all saccharine: sweet and tasty, but the aftertaste is there to remind you that what you’ve just consumed is fake. P&W tunes operate out of an emotional construct, which is unsustainable in both human and spiritual relationships. My argument isn’t always with the content of these songs (often being very scriptural), but rather with the method of delivery and what one hopes to incite in the worshiper.
Any art involving words — if it is to have any lasting, enduring affect — must appeal primarily to the intellect. It should give you cause to pause, to relate, to grow, to ponder. It should be actualized. All too often, the point of P&W is to get you excited, to pump you up and get you going. And then what?
I say I loathe “just about” every P&W song I hear, because occasionally I run across a good one. The music I hear when I’m with a local young adults group always seems to fit the mood of Eucharistic Adoration, and is extremely well done.
I haven’t posted this quote by Flannery O’Connor in a while, but I’m always reminded of it when I encounter terrible Christian art:
The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that, because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality…But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.
UPDATE: My buddy (the newly-minted Br. Benedict — woohoo!) brings up a good point with the “me me me” theme so prevalent in P&W.
One of the places Jeremy Pierce’s satire falls short is that he doesn’t acknowledge the larger theological sense of what the “me/I/my, etc” means in the Psalms. When I pray the psalms — and I do, five times a day, as I promised my bishop I would — the “me” isn’t Josh Miller. “Me” isn’t even the original composer of the Psalm, in the traditional narrative sense.
The “me” we refer to when we pray the Psalms through a Christian context is Jesus Christ, addressing the Father. Thus, in my prayer, I unite with Christ as he unites with the Father. It becomes relational inasmuch as I incorporate myself into the mystery of my adopted sonship, through the Son Jesus Christ.
In the end, then, the Psalm really isn’t about “me” even when it uses the term. It always points toward Jesus Christ, who points towards the Father.
In every good icon, notice where Mary’s hand leads. She’s the preeminent example of what it means to be Christian for a reason: it was never about her.
UPDATE (x2): Instead of simply providing negative examples, I thought I’d post a positive example of a song that might be considered P&W (in a gospel sense) which does precisely what these songs should do.
Unfortunately, not every songwriter is Bob Dylan, and not every songwriter is capable of crafting a work whose lyrics about God aren’t easily interchangeable with the word “baby.”
Great performance by this kid, by the way: