My last blog talked about the importance of a good pulpit in church. Let me return to music one more time and look at it from a different perspective. There are some biblical answers. I want to use one example, the formation of the Old Testament canon, to illustrate how the process of its formation informs modern worship.
First, do we notice that God did not leave us with musical scores to sing to the Psalms? Both sides of the debate get caught up with musical genre when we choose whether to go with contemporary or traditional service. Both sides miss the point. If God thought that musical genre was important, He would’ve left us the scores. Genre is not the problem. Whether we have choir or worship team is not the issue at all.
Second, not many of us know that many of the Psalms were possibly borrowed from Canaanite poetry. There’re too many to name. All the storm imageries in the Psalms sound curiously like a lot of Canaanite poetry. What this says is that even non-Christian poetry or words can help communicate, provided the author knows how to use it. For that knowledge to take place, the early Israelites were probably memorizing many passages of the Torah. How many of our worship leaders have had the same training? I know of none (but maybe there are). So, before we figure out how to use secular language, we probably would do well to do a lot of theological and biblical training, and I’m not talking about some soft-core touchy feely group Bible study. I’m talking about tough training. When we don’t do that, we’re really saying that what we communicate about God is really not very important. In addition, when the Psalmist used the Canaanite poetry, he was showing how such words were meant to glorify Israel’s God against the pagan society. The borrowing was definitely mocking and polemical against the other gods whose power had been stripped away by removal of their praises. I’m unsure that our churches have even though through the implication of how this process would impact our view of worship.
Third, not many of us know that the Hebrew language evolved very late and the formation of the Psalms as a canon probably came after exile. What this means is that the words and all the editing of Israel’s songbook went through many revisions. Many praise songs were probably thrown out to form the five parts of the Psalm canon. None of it was done haphazardly. Most likely, the Levites who were steeped in God’s law were doing a lot of the editing, since they led worship. This brings us back to the beginning. Words matter. If words are meant to praise God, then they need special care. Some songs are honestly senseless. I’ve heard songs describing God’s love as flood. Come on! Floods destroy. It takes the most basic common sense to know that the metaphor does not work. Biblically speaking, flooding water (e.g. Noah’s story) represents a curse rather than the love of God. When people go crazy with flood metaphors, no one appeared to have checked on these words. The faulty imageries were just put out there for our consumption.
Based on the above observations, what matters? Words matter. In general, we tend to apply more stringent criteria on modern songs but create a wide berth for hymns, but I propose that we judge both equally stringent because words themselves do two things. First, words basically communicate a message about God using the medium of music. Second, words need to be theologically correct so that they actually do communicate the right message about the right God. Words need to show the uniqueness of God against the other idols in OUR society that threaten to usurp God’s place. My suggestion here is not exactly seeker friendly, but i believe it is very biblical. Theological correctness should not be limited to music only; this also applies to worship leaders themselves. I’ve seen worship leaders thanking the Father for dying on the cross for the church. This is a most elementary mistake of basic Christian doctrine 101. If the worship leader hasn’t even gotten the most basic information of the Trinity right, what exactly are the words communicating to us about God?
If we want to discuss worship, we need to discuss God. We need to have many in-depth theological and biblical conversations about God. Otherwise, we’re just imposing our grid on God. That would be the very opposite of worship; that would be, at best, self-worship and at worst, idolatry.