The Seedbed Blog by Chase Franklin International Ministries – Stuck in No-Man’s Land: The New Sound of Contemporary Worship
Michael Hawn, a professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, uses two basic categories when speaking about music in the church: cyclical and sequential. Cyclical music is typically made up of short texts supported by a simple melody that is easy to pick up by ear, and lends itself to both repetition and innovation. A good example might be the song “Isn’t He?” Sequential music is inherently literary in its form, is teleological in its structure (the “payoff” is at the end), and is often more musically complex. An example is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” While the songs of the church don’t always fall neatly into these two categories, they are a helpful way to think about what we sing in worship. More specifically, I find it interesting to use these two categories to consider how contemporary worship music has changed over the last several decades.
“I Love You, Lord” was number three on CCLI’s (Christian Copyright Licensing International) “Top 25” list of the most popular contemporary worship songs in 1997. It is another great example of a cyclical song. The lyrics and the melody are clearly very simple, making it very easy to pick up. The song is seldom sung only once through, but is repeated several times, often with subtle innovations. Unlike a hymn, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the few lines are complete in themselves. While some might be tempted to immediately label a song like “I Love You, Lord” as shallow, it’s important to appreciate that, in many congregations, the singing of cyclical songs is undergirded by a strong theology of the Spirit. For many, the repetition is a spiritual enactment of an encounter with God.
The song at the number twenty spot in the most recent “Top 25” list sounds quite a bit different from “I Love You, Lord.” Joel Houston’s (of Hillsong United) composition, “The Stand” is a much more complex song—musically and lyrically. The verses have a quality similar to sequential music. They build off of each other as they push the singer toward the end of the song. With the addition of the pre-chorus, “So what could I say, etc.,” the song becomes much more musically complex. At the same time, the ending is very similar to a cyclical song—in many ways functioning just like “I Love You, Lord.” The simple lines are sustained by a tune whose melody line hovers around the same note. This “tag” is repeated several times and is the climactic ending to the song.
This quick comparison should highlight what is intuitive to many of us—namely, that contemporary worship music sounds different (lyrically and musically) than it did just fifteen years ago. While the comparison between “I Love You, Lord” and “The Stand” might be an extreme example, it does highlight the fact that modern worship music has morphed into a form somewhere between cyclical and sequential. Without suggesting that there is any clear benefit or deficiency in this development, let me offer a few concluding thoughts about this trend.
“I Love You, Lord” is easier to pick up than “The Stand.” This is not to say that a song like “The Stand” isn’t catchy—its popularity is clearly indicated by its position in the “Top 25” list. If someone had never heard either of the two songs and was asked to sing them in congregational worship, though, it would be much easier to join in on “I Love You, Lord.” This should be an important consideration when introducing a song like “The Stand” to a congregation. You run a greater risk of inhibiting congregational participation, at least the first time you sing “The Stand.”
For those of us ministering in multi-generational contexts, we should also consider that a song like “The Stand” is more difficult for older generations to learn. My eighty-year-old grandmother, who initially loved contemporary worship, frequently laments how many of the new worship songs are difficult to learn.
2. Greater Sophistication
On the other hand, as new songs begin to adopt many of the characteristics of sequential music, they are benefiting from a greater musical and lyrical sophistication. For example, there is an advantage of having to wait for a “pay off” in a song. It not only provides the potential for greater depth in the lyrics, but it communicates something essential to our faith—that the story of God’s salvation in Christ is moving toward an ending itself.
3. Musical Challenge
It’s difficult to pull off a song like “The Stand” with two acoustic guitars and a djembe. On the other hand, you don’t have to have any instruments for “I Love You, Lord,” to go over well. While I appreciate many of the changes that groups like Hillsong United have ushered into the contemporary worship music scene, one of the unintended consequences has been that many worship teams seek to mimic the sound of these popular bands without careful consideration of their own context. Many fail to understand that it requires a good drummer, bassist, keyboard player, and a couple guitarists to reproduce the musical sound of “The Stand.” As songs move away from the cyclical format they often depend upon a greater musical complexity that is not always within the reach of your average church worship band.
While the changing sound of contemporary worship may be obvious to many, the conversation about the pros and cons of this shift is just getting started. What other observations might be made?
The Seedbed Blog by Chase Franklin International Ministries – In the Company of the Fathers: An Introduction
In the first class I took in seminary, the professor made an almost casual suggestion that remains perhaps the single most important piece of advice I received in my theological education. For every semester of seminary, he said, we should read the works of one Church Father to become grounded in the great tradition. At the time, I was a 23-year-old kid with a calling to ministry, but little else. I assumed the only text I needed in seminary was the Bible and, to that point, my theological reading had consisted of the writings of a couple of guys named Joshua. I had no idea who these Fathers were.
Now a professor of theology myself, I have come to see that my experience as a young seminarian is anything but unique. Most Protestants I meet, whether in the classroom or in the local church, are unacquainted with the writings of the Church Fathers. Piously, we might say this ignorance stems from a sola scriptura methodological principle that remains a part of the Protestant DNA. However, the Protestants I know who are intentional about discipleship read voraciously from the best seller list of their local Christian bookstore and rarely interpret Scripture without reference to their Bible’s footnotes. It seems we read plenty of things to help us understand the meaning of Scripture. Unfortunately, however, most Protestants do not look behind the twenty-first century, much less the sixteenth, for their interpretive guides. Thankfully, I had a professor who led me elsewhere, and, taking his advice, I began to explore this foreign and exotic world. Ironically, the name to which I first turned, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 C.E. – 200 C.E.i), is best known precisely for his insight that Scripture demands an interpretive guide.
A late second century bishop of modern day Lyons in France, Irenaeus was faced with the considerable challenge posed to the infant Church by the various theological traditions known to history as “Gnostics.” These groups claimed to possess a secret, salvific knowledge taught to a select few by Jesus Christ which entailed the distinction between the good God whom Jesus revealed and the evil creator known to Israel, the dismissal of material creation as evil, and the rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative revelation. While this secret knowledge was contained in the Scriptures, the Gnostics claimed that a special, allegorical lens was needed to unlock it.
As a bishop, familiar with the teachings and traditions of churches in several different geographical locations, Irenaeus was able to discern the vacuity of the Gnostics’ theological claims. Surprisingly, however, he agreed with their methodological assumption that the Scriptures required a lens—the ancient word is regula (rule)—through which to be understood. Without such a regula, or, in the case of the Gnostics, with the wrong regula, Scripture would inevitably be misunderstood and misappropriated. Put another way, we need to read things to understand Scripture, but we need to read the right things.
Unfortunately, such a hermeneutical principle risks obscuring Scripture by making the interpretive regula, as opposed to Scripture, the true authority. Nevertheless, in Irenaeus’ work, the opposite occurs. Indeed, to read Irenaeus is to read nothing more than a masterful retelling of Scripture. In his able hands, we see the blossoming of Scripture as a coherent narrative revealing the one God who works in all things, both in creation and redemption, both in Israel and the Church, both in the Old and New Covenants, both in the Son and the Spirit. We thus find God’s original creation not destroyed, but restored in the work of Jesus Christ who reveals not a previously unknown God, but the physical face of a previously unseen God. As Irenaeus puts it, “Thus [Christ] showed that the God who made the earth and commanded it to bear fruit, and who established the waters and produced the springs, this same [God] bestows upon the human race the blessing of food and the favor of drink through His Son in these last times—the incomprehensible through the comprehensible, and the invisible through the visible, since He does not exist outside of the Father, but in His bosom” (Adv. Haer. 3.11.5).
Thus, Irenaeus shows us that the Church’s regula, unlike the Gnostics’ secretive, allegorical key, is not foreign to Scripture but arises from it, in concert with it, revealing its inner logic and beauty. Indeed, the nature of the Church’s regula is precisely to point beyond itself, to place the focus on Scripture.
Twenty-first century Christians are in no less need of a regula than were second century Christians. But like those persuaded by the Gnostics, we often reach for the wrong things. In reality, the best regula we have are the writings that many have never heard of, the writings of the Church Fathers. To read their writings is to witness Scripture shining forth its brilliance. To know their lives is to see Scripture performed in the manner intended, a manner that produces holiness.
Of course, for the Fathers to serve as our regula, we need first to spend time in their company. Therefore, in a series of forthcoming blogposts at Seedbed, I will introduce readers to these early figures. My hope is that these posts will merely serve as a primer, leading to a greater engagement and reading of their works, where the true wisdom can be gained. What I suspect is that in being led to the Fathers, we will always be led to Scripture.
What I Learned About the Book of Ruth from Biblical Hebrew
During my time in seminary, I had the joy (or pain, depending on who you ask) of taking several semesters of Biblical Hebrew. As a student, I encountered many who were either genuinely scared of learning the language or didn’t see a point to it. These feelings are completely understandable. Learning a modern language (much less one that is a few thousand years old) can be a daunting task. Additionally, most pastors will dig into the Word and preach in their native language, not the original biblical languages. But, should these reasons keep someone from learning the biblical languages? Absolutely not!
After completing my Hebrew courses, I came away with a stronger passion not just for Biblical Hebrew itself but also for what it reveals about the Old Testament, especially the book of Ruth. Ruth is both one of the easiest books to read in Hebrew and yet the most professionally written. While only four chapters long, there is so much meaning in the Hebrew that is lost in the various translations out today. Here are just a few of the smaller things I learned about Ruth from knowing Biblical Hebrew:
1) Elimelech and Naomi’s “sojourning” in 1:1 was more than just fleeing a famine.
The word used for “sojourn” indicates a more permanent move with an intent to assimilate into the Moabite culture.
2.) The names of Elimelech and Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, likely meant “Sickly” and “Weakling.”
As names were very indicative of the people named in the Old Testament, it’s no wonder these two sons died young!
3.) The scene between Boaz and the foreman of his workers in Chapter 2 is actually very comical.
Most translations try to make proper sense of the foreman’s response to Boaz’s asking about Ruth, but the Hebrew indicates the foreman is actually stammering and struggling to respond. Put yourself in the foreman’s position—how would you respond if your boss came and asked about a female worker nobody had seen before?
4.) In Boaz and Ruth’s first conversation in 2:8-13, Ruth describes herself as a “foreigner.”
This is actually a very gentle translation of this word which actually means at best “outsider” or at the worst “scum of the earth.” Boaz goes on to describe the exact opposite of Ruth’s own description. The Hebrew gives Boaz’s actions towards Ruth much more meaning and casts Boaz’s character in an even greater light.
5.) When Boaz encounters the kinsman redeemer in 4:1, Boaz calls him “friend.”
The Hebrew would actually be better translated “So-and-so.” This is quite possibly a slight by the writer against the kinsman redeemer. The kinsman redeemer passes on his obligation and would bring cultural shame against himself. As the writer was very careful to include names of the important characters in the book, the fact that the writer leaves this name out could be an indicator of that shame.