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If we only had a song about...

I was recently asked the question below by a group of songwriters in England. Perhaps it would be helpful for others?

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If Only We Had a Song About …

Dear Songwriters –

As a pastor, author, speaker, and stumbling, bumbling Christian, I am so grateful for people like you who write songs. Your work influences people in their relationship with God at least as much, I think, as sermons do. Probably more!

Of course, like sermons, our songs can influence people for better or worse. It seems to me we suffer from a consumerism in the “worship industry” (what a horrible term): people want us to deliver a certain feeling, and they often want certain clichés to massage them – not into alertness, but into a kind of somnolent passivity where they feel good again after a hard week. (I talk about this a bit more in a book I wrote with Tony Campolo, called “Adventures in Missing the Point.”)

Perhaps some of our problem is with the terms ‘worship songs” or “worship music” themselves. In Colossians 3, Paul talks about the value of singing to “teach and admonish one another.” Songs are there connected with letting Jesus’ own words live in our hearts. Perhaps we have become so fixated on overt worship that we’ve forgotten how to sing for other purposes – such as to teach and challenge one another with the word of Christ?

So, if only we had more songs that took the teachings of Jesus and set them to music that stayed in our hearts.

For example, we have a thousand songs about loving God, but how many songs do we have about loving our neighbors?

We have a thousand songs about God blessing us, but how many of our songs plead with God to bless the poor, the oppressed, the war-torn, the unloved? When we do have songs like this, they tend to use language like “the lost” and “the nations” which, I think, tend to create a kind of superiority in “us” versus “them” – the very opposite of what we need or (I hope) intend. Peter’s words in Acts 10:28, 34 tell us to be careful about our language. It’s easy for religious language – like racial language – to become polluted so that it is no longer gentle and respectful – as Peter also reminds us in I Peter 3:16.

Sometimes I think we’d be wise to have a moratorium on all Biblical language (enter his courts, praise his name, Zion, etc., etc.) – not so that we would become less Biblical, but so that we would be challenged to really think about what we’re saying instead of creating cliché trains of Biblical phrases that numb us like muzak or occupy us without nourishing us, like chewing gum. If we couldn’t use these shortcuts, how would we find ways to talk about God’s goodness, and especially God’s goodness in relation to people we consider “outsiders?” This whole area seems to me a subject so central to Jesus’ life and teaching that I often fear we have become a religion of the Pharisees and ceased to be followers of Jesus in deed (though we certainly say the “right” words a lot). Sorry, I’m ranting.

Anyway, songs that inspire us to see our neighbors with Christ-like eyes would be so helpful, so needed. Exerting ourselves in this direction will put us in touch with the whole prophetic thread of the Bible that is nearly always in dynamic tension with the priestly thread. While the priests exhort us to glorify the Lord (rightly, as they must), the prophets warn us that if we become so preoccupied with worship and piety that we forget about justice and compassion, God gets sick of our singing and sacrifices of praise.

I’m sure you’re already thinking about other areas – our need for songs of lament, songs of confession, songs which acknowledge how bad life feels at times, songs which acknowledge our doubt and failure as well as our faith and joy, songs which groan and moan as well as clap and dance. This may sound like “bad news” at first glance, but for strugglers (who isn’t?), it is so affirming and healing to have our “dark side” brought into the light, not left in secret.

And you’re probably already thinking about our need for songs of hope – not just for heaven after we die, but hope for human history, for the day when bombs and guns and tanks (swords and spears) are melted down and recast as playgrounds and park benches and toys for children (plowshares and pruning hooks). Singing a song like this sounds almost unpatriotic for an American, and perhaps for a Brit as well, living as we do in countries quite proud of their military power these days. Perhaps that’s exactly why songs like this aren’t being written … but should be. These kinds of songs will be at odds with the 19th-century eschatologies that still reign in so many of our churches, but sooner or later, somebody has to rock the eschatological boat, don’t you think, and get us looking farther back and farther ahead – finding hope for history, not just beyond history?

On a related note, you’re probably also thinking about our need for songs which question our reigning systematic theologies, which always run the risk of creating conceptual idols. The psalmists, like all artists (including the prophets), and like the Lord himself, frequently use dangerous language to help us see where our systematic theologies have become walls rather than windows, where they have succeeded in removing mystery rather than conveying it – with disastrous spiritual results. This deconstruction/reconstruction calls for real skill, real talent, real sensitivity to the Spirit of God … along with some old-fashioned courage, I would think.

I also write songs and inflict them on people from time to time, occasionally with some blessing I hope. So I know how hard it is to write songs that not only bless people but stretch them, challenge them, teach and admonish them. Better days will come, I believe, when we take on these harder challenges.

Grateful for the invitation to converse with you –

Brian McLaren