Friday, December 16, 2011

Watch what you sing...

As a worship leader, I'm often contemplating over what songs to choose often because I am often mulling over the lyrics of each song. It's a long, but relatively straightforward, process that I won't labor you with. That being said, it's given me a perspective in regards to how we treat music in our everyday lives. Frankly, in this generation, with our iPods and Pandora and even just our car radio, it's pretty rare to go a couple of steps without hearing some kind of music. Sometimes we're inclined to sing along, sometimes we hum, sometimes we memorize all the lyrics (maybe because we like karaoke), but that being said, do we really pay attention to what we're singing? Some might say that music is an "expression of the soul" and therefore the lyrics don't really matter, it's all about the melody or sound that is conveyed. Now, I grant that a catchy tune makes the song that much better (or in some cases worse), but does that really justify ignoring the lyrics? If music truly is "an expression of the soul" as some are wont to put it, don't the lyrics matter that much more?

Around this time of year (December) radio stations start playing a lot of Christmas songs, and frankly I don't really know that a lot of them know what they're playing, or, I would go as far as to say a lot of singers don't know what they're singing when they choose a song to sing. When a group of carolers go door-to-door and sing Joy to the World, are they really joyful in celebration of the coming of Christ our Lord? or is it just another song so tied to Christmas that it is as big a necessity on the song list as Jingle Bells or We Wish You a Merry Christmas? I'm not saying I don't like Christmas songs or old Christmas carols but do we really understand what we're singing? More aptly put, are we paying attention? Now I'm not saying these are bad carols, but would it shock you to learn that popular carols like The First NoelAway in a Manger, and We Three Kings of Orient Are aren't Biblically accurate? The First Noel holds this line in its first verse:

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, on a cold winter's night that was so deep.

We don't really have a significant inclination that Christ was necessarily born in winter, and we're not really told when it really is, but as we are accustomed to celebrating Christmas (the term was actually dubbed in the 14th century) in December (winter) we think it's okay. Sure, we commemorate the birth of Christ in December, but to me it's going a little far to say what exactly happened back then. It's like those nativity scenes in a snow globe, I'm pretty sure it doesn't snow in Israel.

Away in a Manger holds this line:

The cattle are lowing the Baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes

Okay, I understand we want to think that Jesus is a special baby (he is), it's kind of the same concept from The First Noel, and I say it now, and I'll probably say it again, I personally don't find it to be a huge deal, but it is something I believe worth noting. Do we know if Jesus cried or not as a baby? No, not really, in fact, if we consider what we have in the Bible, we really don't know a whole lot about Jesus other than his three years of ministry. That being said, do most babies cry? I think so. Was Jesus one of those few that don't? Maybe. Maybe not.

Now if we just look at the title of We Three Kings of Orient Are we kind of run into a problem. We know there were three gifts, but were the wise men (magi, kings) only three in their coming? Matthew 2:1 reads thus:

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem"
I see the phrase wise men but no specification of number, so we have no Biblical confirmation as to whether there were three or only two or more, all we know for sure is, more than one.

Now again, I'm only using this (I think somewhat silly) example as an illustration in regards to how little thought we sometimes give to what we sing. When a popular contemporary artist does a compelling rendition of O Holy Night does he/she really believe that this evening is indeed divine because it is the night of Christ's birth? Or, is it that they consider it to be a song that sounds good and would get a lot of people to listen to them?

To borrow a line from comedian Jim Gaffigan, some of you might be thinking, he's anti-Christmas. I'm really not, it's just easy to pick on Christmas songs this time of year simply because, well, everyone sings them without really putting too much thought into what they're singing. Another comedian, Rob Paravonian has an entire segment on the topic of lyrics, which, while being satirical and funny, sadly hits very close to home. I'm not going out there to say that all music is bad or horrible, and we ought not listen to it, but frankly, I think it's something we really ought to pay significantly greater attention to.

I myself will admit that Christian radio has jaded me. The fairly limited playlist of Kutless, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, and Laura Story really can only go so far. I'm fairly certain, that there are a good number of songs on today's Christian playlist that have been playing since I was a freshman in college (it is a while ago, let's leave it at that). Yet ought we, as Christians support Christian radio? Christian music? The succinct answer is "yes", but I'd like for us to contemplate further. The general purpose of this is not only are we to consider the music we sing during worship, the lyrics and the meaning behind the lyrics, but also in what we listen to, but while that is the case, as good as the lyrics are, it really doesn't help if the music isn't to our liking. There is a difference in worship in song and enjoyment of music. Should there be? That's not really a question I'm ready to discuss at the moment.

If you asked me to describe contemporary Christian music in a single sentence, I'd probably say, "Dave Matthews Band singing about Jesus". Really. That's my single sentence description. Now it's easy to see how that's not for everyone, well, if it's not, trust me in that it isn't. So given that, what are we ought we do about it? I can't say I have a good answer. It's easy to say that I'll just give up on the Christian-music genre and just listen to "good" music. Well, whatever your taste of music trends towards, the ideal would be for Christian musicians to excel not only in the message they bring through their music but through their music themselves. That being said, not all of us are musicians, so we can't really go do that, but can we find wholesome music that sounds good?

Like many things I post here, I unfortunately do not have a ready answer for these questions. However, I believe that it is something that we really need to consider. Not only what we sing, but also what we listen to. As much as the music is what touches us, as much as that is what we listen for, the lyrics themselves are, I would argue almost as equally important. While it's not something we listen to actively a lot of the time, I believe it's something that we ought to pay more attention to.

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