I live in a worship culture. Part of it is the North American context. Part of it has to do with my living between two worlds – my family and friends are Evangelical-Charismatic and I work at a Mainline church with a serious music program … including a gargantuan Pipe Organ.
I love music. I love singing in church. I sing while I drive. Sometimes I even go out of my way to find music from other cultures to appreciate (thank you NPR).
As a pastor, I have always evaluated the songs that we sing in the service and have even vetoed certain songs for theological reasons, and others for musical reasons. And that was before I spread my wings as a progressive-emergent type or even got my theology degree.
Being a theologian who loves music can be tricky in the current worship culture. I find myself thinking “can I sing this song with integrity?”
I take worship pretty seriously so I just don’t have the luxury to ‘turn my brain off’ or ‘turn a blind eye’ to the content of the songs that we sing as a congregation. I can’t do what some of my peers do and say with a shrug “these are simply the songs that we sing and that is just the way it is – don’t get too worked up about it or put too much thought into it.” It’s just not possible with my personality and passions.
Examples of the challenge would be:
- the antiquated masculine only metaphorical language about God. I know they are just pronouns. I know they are just metaphors. I know that its just personification and anthropomorphic projection… but it really gets to me.
- Remnants of the pre-modern conception of a three-tiered universe. Heaven is ‘up’ and hell is ‘down’. etc. I know what it is, I’m just not cool with continuing to sing it.
- God as only transcendent. Yes – God is beyond us. But God is also within us and all around us. This spacial language problem really gets old. I’m tired of intiving/begging God to come ‘down’, break ‘in’, and show up.
One of the things that has helped me greatly is the discovery of theo-poetics. I was introduced to the idea a while ago but it didn’t come into it’s fullness until I read The Weakness of God by John Caputo. I realized that the way we talk about God is exactly that: a way. I also love Nancy Murphey’s take on expressive vs. representative language in Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism.
I have to remind myself: Look, we use expressive language in worship. It’s poetics. Now, take a breath.
This came to a head that other day in a different way. We are starting a new gathering at our church and I went looking for some new songs. I was not finding much so I went back to a reliable resource from my past. This large church in a different country is famous for its worship choruses. The newest album had some things on there that made me cringe a little bit. So I started looking into their theology – which I had never looked at before because previously I didn’t really look at such things.
I was troubled by three things I found. The first was an odd prosperity gospel framework. I know its always dangerous to put too much stock in quick summaries by critics… but anytime the phrase ‘greed is good‘ shows up, I’m concerned. The second was a formula to be rich/blessed and a blame on those who weren’t. The third was that the whole thing (including the songs) were wrapped in ‘Spiritual Warfare’ as the main place that reality plays out.
I asked one of my trusted friends (who is way more liberal than I am) if we could sing songs that come from that church at our new gathering with integrity. I was shocked when she said yes. Her reasoning was that we take things and redeem them for our purposes regardless of where they come from.
I am not comfortable with that. I know its ‘just‘ theo-poetics… but I’m not sure I could worship while singing that song.