Thursday, 6 October 2011

TWISTing Our Plastic Halos

It's always good to step outside your normal environment and be exposed to something new.  That's how you learn.  So I let myself be persuaded to go to last night's TWIST (The Word in Song Together) conference.  This is part of a series of events organised by Emu Music, an Australian organisation best known for recording and publishing new worship music but which also runs frequent training events for church music leaders.  That's me, so off I went.

The event went for about two hours, split pretty evenly between singing and listening to the featured speaker, Bob Kauflin, a songwriter and worship leader from Sovereign Grace Ministries in the USA.  As you'd expect from a room full of 500 musicians the singing was good, led by a polished (and loud!) pop-rock ensemble.  The songs, and the talk, certainly made me think, but I probably wasn't thinking what the organisers wanted me to think.  I rarely do.

The talk was pretty simple, although I may have lost the point because there were no visuals, and I'm a visual learner.  Best practice communication, people!  Kauflin was basically saying that worship is our response to God - reverence, obedience, service, trust, love, and so on.  In a worship service, then, we should be worshipping God with our minds, souls (the seat of emotion) and bodies.  I got the minds and souls bit - we should clearly understand what and who we are worshipping, and it should be more than cold logic, it should engage us.  The bodies bit was a little confusing and a lot overlong, and he seemed to think we should be waving our hands more.  He waved his a lot, anyway.

What interested me more was the songs, and the context they provided for the message.  I lost count, but we probably sang about eight songs in all, some of them twice.  The tunes were straightforward and easy to sing although I thought they were sometimes pitched a little too high.  I'm 50, and men's voices drop as they get older. 

However, I was struck by their words and their content.  There were some gems, especially In Christ Alone, the Townend and Getty song which is already widely sung in protestant churches.

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

It's not exactly brilliant poetry - the metaphors are a bit strained - but it paints an evocative scene, and the folk-tinged tune gives it a certain grandeur which I find stirring.

Sadly, most of the lyrics were a long way short of this standard.  Like this, from the Emu-published song This Life I Live by Michael Morrow.

This life I live is not my own
For my Redeemer paid the price
He took it to be his alone
To be his treasure and his prize
The things of earth I leave behind
To live in worship of my King
His is the right to rule my life
Mine is the joy to live for him

Or this one from the speaker himself.

You are worthy to be praised
with my every thought and deed
O great God of highest heav'n
Glorify your name through me.

No doubt the sentiments are worthy but the poetry is lacking. It's flat. It could just be a sermon.  There was worse, but fortunately I have forgotten the titles and so can't look them up.  These are not terrible songs but neither are they particularly good.  Played by a rocking band like last nights, they could engage your emotions, but they could be so much better.

What made me think the hardest, though, was the extremely limited spiritual and emotional range that was on show.  This may not be typical of Emu, but if not, an interesting choice for a night meant to encourage the development of "contemporary, Biblical, Christ focused music in the church".  The songs were indeed Christ focused, but in a particular way.  They focused almost exclusively on one moment in Christ's life - his death - and one "moment" (at least figuratively) in ours - the moment of conversion.  Michael Morrow again.

I died to sin upon the cross.
I'm bound to Jesus in his death.
The old is gone, and now I must
Rely on him for every breath.

Substitutionary atonement is front and centre, and everything else - Christ's life, his teaching, his acts of compassion, his social and political message - fades into the background.  It brought to mind very vividly Richard Leonard's observation that Christ didn't come to die, he came to live.  In these songs Jesus is always bleeding.  It even made me think of Robert Funk (bizarrely, given where I was) and his focus on the "missing bit" of the creeds - the bit between Jesus' birth and his death.

Along with this, the speaker and the singers appeared to want us to feel a particular emotion - a passionate zeal for Christ based on his death for us.  This passion was vertically directed - we are focused on God, and we are longing for heaven.  In the process, our relations with each other become invisible, as does our life in this world.  Kauflin acknowledged, as a kind of concession, that we may not always feel this passion, and that our remorse at not feeling it and even our emptiness of it may also be acceptable worship.  But what of our other emotions - our sorrow, our grief, our joy at mundane matters, our passion for justice, our sense of community, our fear of looming death, our excitement at our work?  Surely all of these things are part of our worship as we come together and try to make sense of our lives in the light of God's love.  The tendency of Kauflin's approach, reinforced by the songs, is to repress all this and try our hardest to generate the emotions the songs ask of us.  We risk ending up where Mark Heard did.

These plastic halos, they seem so out of place
Behind the mask lurks a scarred and fragile face
We lie so spiritually, familiar smiles displayed
This fleeting masquerade.
We hide our pain, we try to laugh
Fools to think our tears would provoke holy wrath.

I wonder if this is why the songs often seemed so flat.  Maybe the writers were trying to fit their words to what they believed they should be feeling, but their masks got in the way.  Perhaps that's doing them an injustice, and they felt deeply what they wrote but just struggled to communicate it.  Yet surely all of who we are, and all of who Jesus was and is, is an acceptable part of our Sunday gatherings and should find its way into our songs and prayers.  We need not enter our atonement bubble.  Our sorrows and struggles, the troubles of the world, our joy in the universe and the tiniest atom, our children and friends, are all important to God.  Jesus entered our world because it's his world too.  We don't need plastic halos, we need to remind ourselves that God loves us as we are, all that we are and all of the time.


Nathan said...

Hi Jon,

Enjoyed this post - I like the challenge to think past the cross to the incarnation - and I wonder if we also should sing about what "resurrected" lives look like.

I've been convinced that what we sing shapes our ethics lately, so it would be nice to sing some stuff that's ethically focused.

Jon said...

Thanks Nathan. I agree on the eithics thing. Even though they come from the 70s I often still use Robin Manne's songs - "Pentecost Prayer" is a favourite. But similar to what Simone said in one of the comments on your site, I spent so much time being depressed at the music in my song-books that I started writing my own. Not that I'm as skilled as she is but I often find its the only way to get a song that says what I think needs to be said.