Friday, 4 February 2011

The CCM Praise Songs we have trouble with Meme

Sticking my neck out here. I was tagged with this little gem by Sam who cried off having a go himself.
Please try to name ONE (I know, there are so many to choose from) CCM praise song that you find unbearable and at least 2-3 reasons why, pointing to specific lyrics if you must.
I’ve gone for Isn’t He by John Wimber and I’ll explain why after you’ve read the lyrics.
Isn’t He (isn’t He)
Beautiful (beautiful) ?
Beautiful (beautiful)
Isn’t He (isn’t He) ?
Prince of peace
Son of God, isn’t He?
Isn’t He (isn’t He)
Wonderful (wonderful) ?
Wonderful (wonderful)
Isn’t He (isn’t He) ?
Counselor,
Almighty God, isn’t He?
Isn’t He? Isn’t He?
Yes You are (yes You are)
Beautiful (beautiful)!
Beautiful (beautiful)
Yes You are (yes You are)!
Prince of peace
Son of God, yes You are!
Yes You are (yes You are)
Wonderful (wonderful)
Wonderful (wonderful)
Yes You are (yes You are)!
Counselor,
Almighty God, yes You are!
Do I really need to explain?

I can’t sing it. It’s romanticised, cloyingly sentimental and cringe making; the sort of lyrics and tune you might find Lionel Richie crooning to a woman while she models a lump of clay. How can we complain about the lack of younger men in church if they are expected to sing this as an act of worship when they turn up?

Show me anywhere in the scriptures where Jesus is described as beautiful. Many descriptions are attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ from scripture, some are mentioned in the song, but beautiful isn’t one of them.  We have no account of Jesus physical appearance in the Bible. The nearest you get is if you take Isaiah 53 as a prophetic description of Jesus, as many Christians do, but then the song contradicts this:
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. Isaiah 53:1-4
I wonder whether Isn’t He is a worship song at all. Does making Jesus the subject in a lyric make it worship? If so, why couldn’t this be worship?

16 comments:

Revsimmy said...

I largely agree with your sentiments about the song and it is true that Jesus is never described as beautiful in the NT. However, you seem to be defining beauty as a physical characteristic, whereas biblically it is more often a moral and spiritual quality e.g. 1 Peter 3:3-4, 1 Samuel 16:7.

That said, I suspect that it is the former that many people have in mind if they sing or hear this song.

Philip Ritchie said...

I accept you point about beauty Simon. My main concern is that it seems to have romantic overtones in this song. It's interesting that Matt Redman mentions this as a song he has problems with because of the romantic imagery. That was why I compared it with the Jo Cocker song as I find it hard to see the distinction between the two.

Robert said...

Regardless of the word in question, the song as a whole is trite and almost meaningless. Is he beautiful because he's son of God or what?

Kathryn Rose said...

In my ignorance I'm unsure what CCM stands for, and a quick google seems to show it's attached to all sorts of hymnody.

Given the example you've provided here I think I shan't look any further, I rather like my little cave...

...but the cost of having hymns and songs that are allowed to be taken from any source and it being the incumbent's responsibility, not that of some central committee, to decide whether they're appropriate for worship, is that we will get this sort of thing from time to time. Can't grow flowers without compost.

This is good as it means I can get my choir singing West Gallery psalmody and Gregorian chant (as long as I clear it with the vicar first). I'll leave someone else to decide whether it's a good thing that I can write my own music; as I am no poet I tend to use existing texts, usually ones that are in the public domain, but there are some theological and aesthetic atrocities in older hymnody too; we've just filtered out the very worst of it by now. Age alone doesn't confer correctness or beauty.

BanksyBoy said...

Nice one Phil, such a massive topic, though? Just think, in your new post perhaps you can issue some challenges ;-)

Posted my response now too.

PB

Richard Littledale said...

I always loved the misprint in "songs of Fellowship":

-Take my yolk (sic.) upon me'

Need I say more?

Alice Smith said...

Phil - I've read your response here and one another's response to this meme and really feel like I need to respond now.
It seems to me that there is a musical snobbishness at play around CCM (an acronym I had never heard til this meme and I listen to the stuff!) and it often comes down to music which is essentially 'front led' - for want of a better expression. My observation is that some are uncomfortable with a focus on a particular musician and also uncomfortable with the expression of emotions through words, music and style. Many worship songs are sung to enable musicians of all abilities to play - simpler melodies and shorter songs, allowing those with those skills to develop them in a worship context. In relation to youth ministry, trying to encourage young people to be involved in music in church is often only successful through more modern worship styles because, frankly, not many young people play the organ or want to play hymns or the more folky/Celtic worship offerings.
I could name a vast number of hymn type songs (Hymns Ancient and Modern as well as Mission Praise contents) that are joyless, dirgey, incoherent, old fashioned and performed in a way which is anything but worship - but I should imagine that if a meme went round on that topic, there would be an outcry at the disrespect shown to such genres.
Perhaps I'm being sniffy too, but I do think it's unhelpful to brandish the 'banal, awful, terrible' label at songs which, while not exactly world shaking in their beauty, do stick around in the musical catalogue in the same way as some of the more appalling 18 and 19th Century offerings I am subjected to week in week out at Anglican Churches across this Diocese.

Kathryn Rose said...

Alice,

The thing is, what we think of as "traditional" hymnody developed out of a movement to make sung worship more accessible to ordinary people with little musical training, and were meant to be sung at home and at informal gatherings, not just at church. West Gallery music, largely metrical psalms and metrical hymns, was much easier than chanting, and the presence of a gallery band with different instruments playing each part made it easier for choir and congregation to sing along. This was the music of parish churches in the Georgian period, nothing like the cathedral music of the time but an entirely different genre; it used musical patterns of the popular music of the time. It was also often quite lively in tempo compared to many "modern" renditions, not being limited (as cathedral music often is) by ridiculously long echoes.

The difficulty with it was that the choirs and bands eventually (as with some worship bands) became somewhat "professionalised", the music more and more technically complex and harder to sing along with, and in some cases more oriented to performance than worship. The Victorians were having none of that! The advantage of the organ was that you only needed to have one semi-competent musician and it was easy to fire them if they disagreed with the vicar; this reduced the power of the choir and put the liturgy back into the control of the clergy.

"Traditional" hymnody can be played and sung in such a way that it is not joyless, dirgey or incoherent; my biggest peeve is that it is almost always too slow. Take most hymns and speed them up enough that an amateur singer can sing through each line without having to take a breath, and suddenly it isn't quite so dire!

I think a great challenge to liturgical music now is that we live in an era where music is much less participatory than it once was; we can all listen to it immediately, without having to learn an instrument or how to sing, and recording technology means that most of what we listen to is impeccably performed. This "passive consumption" of music, alongside the rhythmic complexity of a lot of modern music which makes it unsuited to singing by very large groups, and the huge breadth of styles available for listening, makes it very hard to write something that everyone can participate in and that people will feel is "their" sort of music. A lot of trained church musicians (myself included) are simply out of their depth when it comes to pop, and in some cases it really just doesn't fit the liturgy (we're fairly "high church") -- in such situations I think it might be better to stick to what we can do well than try to innovate and do it very very badly.

It isn't an impossible situation, though. The availability of a wide range of styles can be an advantage, too. I find that the choir I work with likes good music -- regardless of when it was written -- and if I am enthusiastic about it they will do the best they can. We don't have the resources to have even a small band (though I have hopes of something as some of the junior choristers get a little more capable), so I steer clear of anything that I can't play on the organ, but even there there is scope for a lot of variation and we can sing folk-based music, gospel, West Gallery psalmody, plainchant.

I think all of this is context-sensitive. While I do want anything used in liturgy to have strong theological content, I also recognise that it has to be accessible. For my part I try to do that by being aware of what the congregation I serve is used to, pushing comfort zones only gently, and helping the choir to sing as well as they can.

stripes said...

I had to look up CCM as google kept giving me motorcycle references...

My clean suggestion is "Above all powers" for the chorus:
Crucified, laid behind a stone,
You lived to die, Rejected and alone,
Like a rose, trampled on the ground,
You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.

I'm no theologian, but I'm surprised by the notion that Jesus lived to die. I can't bear the "me me me" nature of the lyrics, and the imagery is just.......bleurgh. Gold against the soul-era Manics do trampled roses so much better.

Herein lies my primary problem (yes, I'm a snob, I admit it) with roughly 95% of CCM. The secondary problem is the Jesus is My Boyfriend nature of the lyrics, some of which seem so innuendo laden I can't believe I'm the only one in the congregation giggling like a schoolgirl. It's not just the young men who struggle to sing this sort of stuff...

Musically, it's just not what I like. My theory is that whoever writes many of the songs has to appeal to what most people like, and perhaps that's why so much of it sounds like sub-Westlife dirgey yuckness. It doesn't stir my soul. If most ccm had an ounce of the vitality of the rest of the non-church music I like (Muse, Green Day, Supergrass, and raucous sea shanties with smutty lyrics - who said folk music was dull?) maybe I'd want to sing it.

Coupled with that (apologies for the rant...) is that so much of what we "inherit" to sing in church comes from singer-songwriters - complicated rhythms etc, impossible to notate onto music properly, never mind play from a score. And very, very hard to sing as a congregation. It doesn't make us sing together, we're too busy trying to follow whatever it was Mr Redman committed to disc. It probably is supposed to be simpler, but I find it a lot harder to sing than some older hymns with simple melodies.

I quite agree that a lot of old hymnody was theologically and aesthetically awful, and old doesn't necessary equal good, just as new doesn't automatically equal bad. I'd just like to ditch some of what we sing at the moment. Hey ho...

Philip Ritchie said...

Alice, thanks for the comments. I'm not sure how many of them actually relate to my original post but I'll try and address them.

I'm more than happy to say that there is a wealth of contemporary worship material that I am very comfortable with and there are some tremendous resources for the church from some very gifted songwriters.

My concern in this post is with a trend in some songs that draw on romantic imagery in a way that I find unhelpful and unhealthy. 'Isn't he' is an early example of this trend.

Our worship plays an important part in shaping our theology and discipleship. Put bluntly, if you sing rubbish you can end up believing it. All of us who have a responsibility in leading worship are called to be discerning. The danger is in being drawn to a song/hymn because of the tune even if the words are inappropriate or don't make sense. This applies to any songs or hymns no matter when they were written.

I don't have a problem with 'front led' worship, I've done enough of it myself in the past. I do have a problem with those leading worship who get in the way rather than assisting the worship. That is a danger for the gifted choir as much as the contemporary worship leader. I do have a problem with those who will only use their material and chose the same songs night after night. Performance is not the same as leading worship and some worship leaders seem unclear as to the distinction.

I don't think the complexity of a tune is an issue. Some of the best songs/hymns have the simplest melody. One problem with some of the new material is that it is rather complex, with difficult changes in rhythm. The other issue is that material written to be led by a guitar based worship band can sound dire on an organ and many places don't have music bands. Our family loves learning new material as Spring Harvest but we are also aware that much of it just wouldn't be appropriate in our local parish church, frustrating though that is.

Like you, I have had no end of ancient and more ancient dirges inflicted on me in parishes around the diocese. I remember one particular ordination service with hymns that were was so poor I though it bordered on dishonouring God. On this point you are singing to the choir.

You mentioned youth ministry and my question is this; do teenage males feel comfortable singing about Jesus as if he is a boyfriend or lover? I certainly did not and still don't as a middle aged man. That is not about refusing to engage with emotions, worship should impact on every part of us, and I am not ashamed to say there are songs/hymns that have moved me to tears.

As to your question about a Meme on hymns ancient and modern etc. I think one has already started. I like Kathryn's suggestion of a Meme about favourite pieces of worship music http://bit.ly/ii40Nc and will have a go when I've had some time to reflect on it.

By the way, CCM has become a recognised term for a particular music genre in the United States and they even have their own category in various music awards. There is a huge worship music industry with it's own subculture, record labels etc. and that does raise lots of questions for me.

Kathryn Rose said...

Phil,

Our worship plays an important part in shaping our theology and discipleship. Put bluntly, if you sing rubbish you can end up believing it. All of us who have a responsibility in leading worship are called to be discerning. The danger is in being drawn to a song/hymn because of the tune even if the words are inappropriate or don't make sense. This applies to any songs or hymns no matter when they were written.

Agreed... but then there are songs without words which can, in their way, illuminate the divine. And theologically sound words set to an awkward or naff tune won't do the theology any favours, either.

I do have a problem with those leading worship who get in the way rather than assisting the worship. That is a danger for the gifted choir as much as the contemporary worship leader. I do have a problem with those who will only use their material and chose the same songs night after night. Performance is not the same as leading worship and some worship leaders seem unclear as to the distinction.

The debate about whether a musically sublime performance adds to or detracts from worship has been going on since, oh, Augustine I think.

I have musical problems with people who only use their own narrow range of material, not just theological ones. (But how many times have I heard "Ooh, I didn't like that new hymn we had last week, you should only choose music we all know already!"? Sometimes those leading the music aren't sticking to the same repertoire because they want to...)

I don't think the complexity of a tune is an issue. Some of the best songs/hymns have the simplest melody. One problem with some of the new material is that it is rather complex, with difficult changes in rhythm.

I think that for ease of congregational singing, music should be strophic, metrical, not have a range greater than about a major tenth in the melody, not be too slow or too fast and not contain excessive syncopation or non-obvious modulations. Follow all those rules and you get, er, metrical hymnody as we know it -- except that in most places it is played and sung far too slowly.

Kathryn Rose said...

The other issue is that material written to be led by a guitar based worship band can sound dire on an organ and many places don't have music bands. Our family loves learning new material as Spring Harvest but we are also aware that much of it just wouldn't be appropriate in our local parish church, frustrating though that is.

Context is, of course, very important. You wouldn't try to sing the Bach B minor Mass sitting around a campfire, whether as an act of worship or an act of entertainment.

One of the things that I like about metrical hymnody is that a good hymnal is a bit like a jazz fake book; with a little creativity there are all sorts of adaptations possible, from a very simple unison + keyboard treatment to elaborate descants, extra instruments and so on. Yes, it takes a bit of work on the part of the organist/music director/whoever is putting things together, if you want anything other than unison or 4-part harmony with accompaniment, but it is eminently possible. So just as I think that one failing of metrical hymnody is not the music itself but the tempo at which it usually sung, another problem is that in many situations people don't appreciate the variety possible because they only ever hear it performed a certain way. That isn't the fault of the music. Of course, having said all of that, some of it is still theologically or musically trite.

Some of us have small choirs, instruments that are falling apart and are only just learning all this stuff as we go along, so lest anyone think I am too harsh, bear in mind that most of the time I do keep things very simple, as the resources I have are simple. But we shouldn't lose sight of the possibility of doing more sometimes, or, on the other hand, of the need to keep the congregation engaged (whether congregational singing is valued or not).

I'll look forward to your response to my "favourite music" post.

Richard Brown said...

Phil, you've mined a rich seam of potential material here from all those of us who are stuck with whatever the compilers of Songs of Fellowship chose to include in their vast tome. I have a particular aversion to "I'm forgiven", which in our family comes out as "I'm a gibbon" -try singing that when raising your arms as demanded by the lyrics.

And what about that dreadful song by Matt Redman in which he appears to be 'sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it' - an epitaph for his entire musical career to date. I don't wish to be included in Matt Redman's failings, many as they may be, thank you.

Like Alice, I am not impressed by some of the Victorian schmaltz that has come back to haunt us all over again. And what about those strange Sydney Carter songs - non-religious and never intended to be so, which have found their way into our worship?

Phil, this will run and run.

Philip Ritchie said...

Richard,
Regarding Sydney Carter, check out http://cyber-coenobites.blogspot.com/2011/01/lord-of-dance-nein-danke.html

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The best modern songs will survive. Some of Graham Kendrick's stuff is already up there with Charles Wesley, but then again, a lot of it - isn't. But then, previous generations had an awful lot of dross, too - the best has survived, the rest has been mercifully forgotten!

More people play the guitar than play the organ - there's room for both, but if you belong, as I do, to a church where the hymns are accompanied by music from a CD or an iPod, you value ANY live music!

Richard Brown said...

I agree with the Beaker Folk - no more Sydney Carter. But I have to convince the formidable folk who choose our music Sunday by Sunday, when their children and their children's children have had this stuff rammed into their heads from birth.
Perhaps it was the theological committee's tea break, the day Lord of the Dance found its way into Songs of Fellowship. That's the only rational explanation for it.