How Not to Evaluate a Song

Oh how we love the “worship wars.” Now of course, I have my opinions on all that hoopla (who doesn’t?), but I want to make it clear I’m not delving into that here. These are complicated questions with lots of pieces and perspectives. Thus, I want to reflect on one particular piece of that question here.

In my own experience with what is often called “contemporary” worship, the most frustrating issue is often song choice. Now, I understand that evaluating and choosing songs is a difficult task. Whoever has to do that necessarily has to balance a lot of competing interests. I don’t envy their task. But that being said, I think we tend to have some rather insufficient ways for evaluating worship songs, some of which are more common among proponents of “contemporary” worship and some of which are more common among those who are more critical of it.

False Doctrine?

Asking if there’s any false doctrine is a natural place to go among Lutherans who are often wary of anything that comes from Baptists, Methodists or honestly anybody else who isn’t Lutheran. For better of for worse our theological tradition is very cognitive and doctrinal, so this makes sense as the first place to go. After all, if there is clear false doctrine, that would be a real good reason not to sing a song. Therefore, it would seem that if there’s no false doctrine, then we’re good to go.

Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Many, myself included, will be quick to point out that many praise songs don’t have a whole lot of doctrine to begin with. Sometimes asking if a praise song has false doctrine can be like asking if the instruction manual for your lawnmower has false doctrine. The answer is going to be no, but that doesn’t mean it has any true doctrine either.

This kind of thinking leads many to critique praise songs on the basis of what they fail to teach. The assumption is that older hymns are often better because they teach more doctrine, an area in which the average praise song often falls flat.

However, this way of evaluating songs assumes that the main point of a song is to communicate information about God. It assumes that the point of singing songs in worship is to teach doctrine.

Yet, we don’t primarily sing songs to learn or teach things. Yes, of coursesongs can do this. They can even do a really good job of it. Many of Luther’s hymns are great catechetical hymns that teach things like the Ten Commandments (“These Are the Holy Ten Commands” LSB 581), the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” LSB 766), or even the significance of the Christmas and the incarnation of Christ (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” LSB 358).

But this doesn’t mean that the main purpose of songs is educational. On the contrary, if we take our cue from the Psalms, we see that the purpose of songs in worship is much more multifaceted and diverse. Songs in worship can and do instruct, but more often they are a means of reminding ourselves of what God has done for his people or a means of praying and calling out to God in the midst of distress, thanksgiving, or joy. When we pray we aren’t worried about reminding ourselves (or God) about all of the doctrines of the faith, instead our doctrine informs the shape and focus of our prayers.

Subjective vs. Objective

Often the complaint is made that praise songs are too subjective, whereas older hymns are more objective. In other words, people will say that the older hymns are more focused on the action of God that has been done for his people, whereas praise songs often focus on the internal emotional experience of the believer. The fear is that on a steady diet of these sorts of songs the basis or focus of one’s faith would become the internal emotional experience rather than the action of God in Christ. While this is a legitimate concern, this is often taken to an extreme to suggest that subjective and even emotional songs are bad or have no place in the life of the church.

Again, if we take our cue from the Psalms, we see that the Psalms are full of the Psalmists’ own subjective emotional experiences:

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”….
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
And why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God….

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
And at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

—Psalm 42 (selected portions)

In my own experience, a lot of Lutherans will admit that there’s nothing wrong with subjective emotional experience. They’ll then add the caveat that emotions are a response to the objective work of God, but emotions don’t become the main thing themselves. There’s a lot of valuable insight from this perspective, but often it effectively ends up meaning something like, “It’s okay to have a feeling every once in a while, it’s not like that’s a sin or anything.” And while I’m glad that stoic Lutherans can admit that emotions aren’t sinful, this ends up being a denial of what we believe it means to be a created being. Human creatures are created with emotions and we experience the world through our own limited subjective experience. God’s human creatures were created “very good,” thus emotions and even subjectivity are good things in and of themselves.

Therefore, it is a denial of what it means to be a human creature when emotional experience and even emotional expression are discouraged and unnecessarily sidelined.

Of course, the opposite error of this is an overemphasis on emotional experience. This is apparent in many evangelical churches, but in general this is not the problem that Lutherans tend to have.

In any case, my point is that it’s unhelpful to criticize a particular song for being too emotional or too subjective, since there’s nothing wrong with emotions and subjectivity per se. Now, it is fair to say that it would be bad if every song were overtly emotional and subjective, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad to have individual songs that are more emotional or subjective. Put another way, if it’s Christmas, it’s okay to sing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night,” but you may also want to have some “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” alongside them.

A Different Way 

The approaches to evaluating praise songs discussed above ask some helpful questions. It’s helpful to ask whether a song teaches false doctrine as well as whether it teaches much doctrine at all. It’s also helpful to ask about the balance between songs that are more emotional or more objective. But ultimately, I don’t think these approaches are the most helpful. Instead, I think it’s more helpful to think about how the song fits into the larger biblical story of God and his redemption of his people. Or put another way, what is the picture that the song paints of God, us, and our relationship to him? What is the song pointing us to or focusing on? It’s also helpful to identify which biblical texts or themes the song is drawing from and ask if it’s presenting those texts or themes faithfully and in a way that’s consistent with the scriptures.

For example, here’s most of the lyrics for “Revelation Song,” written by Jennie Lee Riddle:

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
Holy, holy is He
Sing a new song to Him who sits on
Heaven’s mercy seat

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come
With all creation I sing praise to the King of kings
You are my everything and I will adore You

Clothed in rainbows of living color
Flashes of lighting rolls of thunder
Blessing and honor strength and glory and power be
To You the only one who’s King

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come
With all creation I sing praise to the King of kings
You are my everything and I will adore You

Filled with wonder awestruck wonder
At the mention of Your name
Jesus Your name is power, breath and living water
Such a marvelous mystery

Clearly this song is echoing Revelation 4–5. Much of this song is merely direct paraphrase, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8), “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev 4:11), and “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12). The song echoes the praise of Revelation to God and the lamb. Note also that this song follows the pattern of Revelation 5 by identifying the lamb as the lamb who was slain making it clear that the lamb is worthy because “you were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God” (Rev 5:11). The picture of God painted here is essentially the same as that painted by Revelation. The song points us to God, the creator of all things and the lamb who was slain, and their worthiness to be praised by us, God’s creatures and redeemed people.

Now, I’ll admit, the line “You are my everything and I will adore you” is a bit odd to me. It seems oddly individualistic and a bit overly sentimental in this context, but this foible doesn’t necessarily change the overall picture being painted or what the song is pointing us to in general. Thus, while I think it would be fair to criticize this song for this line, it’s by no means a fatal flaw in an otherwise very scriptural song.

As I suggested a bit earlier, it’s also helpful to take a step back and think about the overall picture of one’s song choices. Is every song painting the same picture or dealing with the same themes? Are things being left out?

For example, “Revelation Song” is very much a praise song in that its primary function is to praise God, which is fine, after all, a lot of the psalms and canticles of the liturgy do this as well. It would however be a problem if every single song in a given context did this. You’d want some songs that are going to do some different things and deal with some different themes, for example a song that’s focused on justification like “Nothing But the Blood.”

In contrast to “Revelation Song” which gets it right, while having some forgivable foibles, I believe that “From the Inside Out” by Hillsong does the exact opposite.

Here’s the text of the song with the repetition simplified:

A thousand times I’ve failed
Still Your mercy remains
And should I stumble again
I’m caught in Your grace

Everlasting
Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending
Your glory goes beyond all fame

Your will above all else
My purpose remains
The art of losing myself
In bringing You praise

Everlasting
Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending
Your glory goes beyond all fame

In my heart and my soul
Lord I give You control
Consume me from the inside out,
Lord, let justice and praise
Become my embrace
To love you from the inside out

Your will above all else
My purpose remains
The art of losing myself
In bringing You praise

[…]

And the cry of my heart
Is to bring You praise
From the inside out
Lord my soul cries out

I have to say at the outset that I’m a huge fan of the lines, “Everlasting / Your light will shine when all else fades / Never ending / Your glory goes beyond all fame.” It reflects on the eternality and transcendence of God really well. Yet, in the rest of the song the focus is on the individual worshipper and the individual worshipper’s experience of praising God and yielding to the consuming presence of God. In the context of the song the justification for praising God and for this “surrender” to God seems to be God’s eternality and transcendence as discussed in the chorus, “Everlasting…” Of course, the chorus is true and it is right to praise God for who he is in his being (a la Anselm), this is rather different than “Revelation Song” and the tradition of the Psalms which grounds the praise of God in his work: creation and re-creation (i.e. deliverance/salvation).

That’s all to say that “From the Inside Out” paints a picture of God that focuses merely on his being while not dealing with what God does and has done. This stands in contrast to the way that the scriptures tend to talk about God and praise him.

Additionally, the song does a lot of pointing to the individual and their experience of the presence of God outside of the Word and Sacraments. Now, as I discussed above, there’s nothing wrong with talking about and even focusing on from time to time a person’s subjective experience of God, but it’s important that subjective experience remain a reaction to God’s work, or at least that the focus of subjective reflection would be on God himself rather than on the individual’s experience. One can see both of these at play in Psalm 42, quoted above.

This doesn’t mean that “From the Inside Out” is a bad song or that it can’t or shouldn’t necessarily ever be sung, but that the some of deficiencies noted here might give one pause and make one think critically about the song and the needs of one’s context.

Conclusion

My hope in all this is that we can begin to reject some of the false and unhelpful narratives we have about evaluating songs in the church as well as be fairly and sufficiently critical of the songs that we choose to sing. It’s too easy to let these questions be driven by unquestioned assumptions and personal preferences.

See also:

Beware of Orthodoxy Signaling

How Not to Have a Theological Argument

Image: From jh146 CC 0

One thought on “How Not to Evaluate a Song

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