Saturday, May 14, 2011

Some Reflections on Contemporary Church Music

In a recent philosophy class of mine, discussion somehow turned to contemporary church music. Opinions on the subject were varied, with one student bemoaning the “me”-focused and mindlessly repetitive nature of the songs, and another student defending them as (at least sometimes) promoting heartfelt worship and devotion to God. Everyone seemed agreed on the danger that such music can cross the line from being of genuine religious value to being a matter of mere emotional self-gratification.

I understand the concern. I was raised on the great church hymns, and while some contemporary praise songs seem to me powerful, few carry the meaning of those hymns. (And some seem to have no meaning at all!) I regret that my children probably won’t learn the hymns as well as I did.

The problem, for me, is captured nicely in a song we sing at my church periodically, a spruced-up and modernized version of the hymn, “Take my Life and Let it be.” The original is beautiful, a humble prayer of one longing to be used and filled by God. Here’s the first verse:

Take my life and let it be
consecrated Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in endless praise,
let them flow in endless praise.

After a few verses, the contemporized version adds the following interlude:

I am yours, set apart for you
I am yours, hungry for your truth
Take my life, you are all I live for
I am yours.

The shift in mood seems to me subtle and profound, and it works completely against the spirit of the original hymn. Suddenly I’m “set apart” for God, and God is all I’m actually living for. While the original states much in the future tense—as the last verse says, “Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for thee” (emphasis added)—the person singing this interlude seems to have already got it made. To my mind the humility of the original has completely disappeared, and perhaps the honesty has, too.

Contemporary church music can be wonderful and spiritually uplifting; but I’d say that the danger my students highlighted is real.


Anonymous said...

I like your last sentence: "To my mind the humility of the original has completely disappeared, and perhaps the honesty has, too." I agree. Thanks for verbalizing what I've often thought.

So what do you do when you're in church and a song like this comes up, and you don't, well, totally agree with it? Or it seems silly and slightly dishonest?

I confess I just continue to sing along, even when in my head I'm wondering if I really mean the words I'm singing.

BTW, I wound up here because of a strange reason. (And I'm a former philosophy major - graduated in '01.)

Ray said...

I often just sing along, too, even if I have to ignore the words and just try to enjoy the music. (Well, I don't sing the interlude I mentioned in "Take My Life and Let it be"; that's my silent protest.) I also appreciate the hymns more than I used to, and with those I focus more on the words than I do with most contemporary songs.

Thanks for the comment, by the way. It's nice to hear from a graduate of our department. Glad you found the blog.