Perhaps the basic problem in Christian music today is that leadership has passed from the poets to the singers and instrumentalists. Formerly, music was the lowly handmaiden of the text, which was the overmastering carrier of spiritual praise and exhortation. Now, the text may fade in and out of prominence, and where it can be distinctly heard, it may do little more than augment the emotional effect of the music. Even in most message-oriented songs, the words are colloquial rather than poetic.
Simple English has its place, of course, but the words of a contemporary song may be simple in the extreme. Take this Kurt Kaiser song, for instance:
That's for me, yes, that's for me!
I'm all done with my running away
Since I came to Him and gave in to Him
'Twas a very happy day.
Once life had no meaning,
Once life gave no rest;
But now ev'rything's diff'rent—
This new life certainly is best!
The truth in these words deserves to be shouted from the housetops. The Lord may therefore use a song of this type to accomplish a good purpose. But the words are too unpoetic and conversational. Apart from two rhymes and the pseudopoetic word 'twas, the language is absolutely indistinguishable from plain speaking, and plain speaking in a musical setting sounds trite and harsh.
Compare the Kaiser song with the following old gospel favorite:
In shady green pastures, so rich and so sweet,
God leads His dear children along;
Where the water's cool flow bathes the weary one's feet,
God leads His dear children along.
Some thro' the waters, some thro' the flood,
Some thro' the fire, but all thro' the blood;
Some thro' great sorrow, but God gives a song;
In the night season and all the day long.
The words are understandable to everyone in the congregation. Yet they are not trite by any unsupercilious standard. They differ from the language of a typical contemporary song in two respects.
- They are packed with meaning. Each line aids the song's message by expressing a distinct thought. The four stanzas and the chorus give the struggling, embattled children of God many separate examples of His graciousness. He leads them to pasture when they are hungry for His Word. He gives them rest when they are weary of life's difficulties. He puts rejoicing in their mouths when they undergo times of sorrow. And He bears them through every trial, whether it is a flood or a fire, the vengeance of men or the raging of Satan.
- The words of the song are not plain speaking. They combine to make an artful and arresting idiom. They soothe the ear with rhyme, euphony, and meter. And they create vivid pictures. We see the green pasture bordered by a cool stream. We see the believer's passage through various trials. In brief, the words are poetry, which has always been the form of sacred texts meant for singing. The Psalms are poetry. So also is every other song of worship recorded in the Old Testament (Ex. 15:1-18; Deut. 32:1-43; Judges 5:2-31). So also is the entire hymnody of the church from New Testament times until the present.
A song uniting music and poetry communicates God's truth effectively because it triggers a thoughtful response. Unless a mind is lazy or hopelessly dull, it likes to savor a melody and to ponder a poetic turn of phrase. Notice how children catch hold of a simple rhyme and work it to death. Thus, a song may engage the mind when plain speech would pass through without effect.
A song with poetic words is also easily remembered. The words stick in the mind because each is linked to a note of melody, because they are combined in an uncommon way, and because they are cast into poetic form, which greatly limits the possibilities for each succeeding word. Every teacher knows that a rule is more easily retained if it is formulated in verse. Since Jesus was the greatest teacher of all, He often used poetry as a teaching device. An Aramaic poetic form underlies many of His sayings in the Synoptic gospels (1).
Yet despite the didactic value of poetry, it is rapidly being displaced from Christian music by dry prose. Why? Because people today do not appreciate poetry. Teachers and textbooks in the schools have almost completely abandoned instruction in the mechanics of meter and rhyme, and children are growing up with no exposure to anything remotely poetic except the doggerel in greeting cards and advertisements. Hence, many in the younger generation see poetry as silly or sissy, and the few who yearn to write it have no clear idea what it is. For three years I was a judge of the creative writing submitted to state-level Christian school competition in Michigan, and out of dozens of entries in the category of poetry, I saw only one or two that came close to the real thing. The rest betrayed deep ignorance of proper mechanics and diction.
If the most literary of our young people are so poorly educated in the art of poetry, what must be the plight of average churchgoers? No wonder they are so unmoved by the grand old hymns of the faith. A rebirth of good Christian music would require efforts in our congregations and Christian schools to teach people the nature and value of authentic poetry. As a side benefit, they would acquire greater understanding of Scripture, which is filled with imagery, allusion, symbolism, parallelism, and other poetic devices.
Even more conducive to reintroduction of appropriate music for worship would be revival. All the evil currents in Christian music today are merely signs of a swelling tide of rebellion against divine truth and holiness. The music is carnal because Christians are carnal. Texts are unsound and inaccurate because professing believers frankly do not feel bound by the exact words of Scripture. The church is filled with commercial enterprise because churchgoers see nothing wrong with serving the god of worldly success. So long as the church lingers complacently in worldly living, an assault on bad music probably cannot do more than secure a few lonely outposts of good standards. But should revival come, and should it stir up a campaign to cleanse the church of defiling intrusions, the first objective must be to replace the polluted music now filling the church with a pure and holy art fit for the worship of God.