A cold and broken hallelujah?

Posted on September 23, 2009


I was down at Evangelical Alliance Council last week, and added several other meetings in London with it. I had a conversation over a glass of wine with someone who I like, and indeed respect greatly, which, at one point, was depressingly familiar. My friend had been at a big Christian gathering; some recently-written choruses had been sung; the theological content (or lack thereof) of the choruses was deplored and/or ridiculed.

I hear so much criticism like this that sometimes I feel that I ought to join a 12-step programme – ‘My name is Steve, and I am a charismatic…’ The fact remains, I enjoy, appreciate, benefit from, this style of worship. Several times a year, I find myself in ‘big tent’ worship gatherings, and for me they are amongst my spiritual highlights (along with solitary silent retreats, prayer with certain friends, and being at worship with my own local church). I’ve had a go (or two or three) at defending modern worship music before on this blog, but a new thought struck me that seemed worth recording.

Some of the common criticisms are of course merely irrelevant. The poetic quality of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want poetry, I’ll read Eliot or Dante or (current favourite discovery) Whitman – if I want devotional poetry, I’ll read Donne or Milton or Herbert (or R.S. Thomas, actually). Hymns are not poems; this is just a confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were not great poets; they were great hymnwriters. (And Cowper was a very good poet, but a lesser hymnwriter.) The theological content of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want theology, I’ll read Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, … This is another confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were very, very far from great theologians (Watts tied himself in knots over basic Trinitarian grammar later in his life).

More interestingly, perhaps, and repeatedly, in the criticism I hear or read, the song is taken as an object (‘text’) complete in itself, and then criticised as incomplete in some way: it does not address this or that idea, held to be so central that it may not be omitted; or it is one-sided in its appreciation of a complex truth; or it does not adequately identify the One who is addressed in worship.

This, however, is to mistake the nature of these songs. It is akin to criticising an arm because it is not the whole body (to borrow an illustration). No song intended for public worship is written to be a whole, complete in itself; rather it is a component that may be correlated with other components to build a complete and adequate liturgy. An act of worship may be incomplete, less than adequately theological, or whatever; an individual song, prayer, or other liturgical component cannot be, considered of itself.

Now, there are no doubt songs – and indeed readings, written prayers, and other liturgical actions (elbow bumps of peace, anybody?) – that are so confused, lacking in content, or just plain wrong as to be unusable in any liturgical context. And, sure, there are plenty such in recent charismatic hymnody. (I had a friend who edited one of the early songbooks. He said that every other song arrived with a note saying, ‘the Holy Spirit just gave me this…’ to which his standard reply was, ‘well, I can see why He wanted to be rid of it.’) But more often, when you explore the criticism, the song is in itself perfectly serviceable; it was just used badly, placed in a context where it didn’t fit, or asked to support a weight it could not, of itself, bear. That doesn’t make it a bad song. It might be a great song, distorted horribly by an awful liturgy.

(It happens to the great hymns as well, of course. How often, at the wedding of a non-Christian friend, have you been asked to sing ‘breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm, let sense be dumb, let flesh retire…’ because ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is the only hymn the couple know? This is a far, far worse liturgical placement than any example from my recent experience of charismatic liturgies, but no-one blames the hymn for it.)

Recent Christian worship songs can be used to construct meaningful and beautiful Christian worship that is theologically profound and liturgically satisfying. Routinely, in my experience, they are. If they are mis-used, it is not the fault of the songs, but of the liturgist. Of course, all of us who have led worship have made egregious errors often in our time – but this goes for the construction of formal liturgical worship as much as for spontaneous charismatic expression. It may be that the liturgist in the one context sins more in omission – not considering the ways in which the set prayers for this Sunday might be deeply and painfully inappropriate for her congregation – but the failure is just as complete, and either way it remains the failure of the liturgist, not the failure of Thomas Cranmer, or of Matt Redman.

I was down at Evangelical Alliance Council last week. The worship was led by two young people (25?) with a keyboard and a couple of microphones. Blending sensitive use of Biblical readings, recent songs, extempore prayers, and even a time of open singing in tongues, they led worship in ways that I could not fault theologically, and that I appreciated enormously. Some of the songs were perhaps shallow in themselves; they were given context and depth by what else was around them. I was moved, inspired even.

I don’t need a 12-step programme, I’ll say it loud and proud:

‘My name is Steve, and I am a charismatic.’

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