The Good, The Bad, and the Swell: Thoughts on Modern WorshipMusic, Religion — By Mackenzie Mulligan on February 28, 2013 at 7:00 am
I think that certain strains of modern worship do some things really well, and some things really poorly. I’ll be using my own church as my primary example, since this is (obviously) where I experience the most “corporate worship.”
First, the good.
Freaking awesome guitar solo as the bridge.
This is often one of the first things people attack in modern worship. But I think a very strong case can be made for the electric guitar’s rightful place in worship music. In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton notes that “in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox, there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.” Satan is the (temporary) prince of this world, and to Chesterton, to be a Christian is to be defiant, to be an ultimately triumphal revolutionary. And to my ears, nothing (except for maybe some trumpets) captures this sense of defiance triumphant as well as the electric guitar solo.
It is exuberant and loud and even disruptive (C.S. Lewis may well have called it “masculine,” in his lovably complementarian fashion). Even better, it’s a demonstration of extreme technical skill on the part of the player, harnessed and displayed not for his own glory, but for the glory of the one who gracefully created the player and (we assume) who also rejoices in the joyful noise.
Is it ideal for quiet meditation? Of course not. But all worship need not be quiet meditation, and for those times when you want to meditate loudly, then the electric guitar solo will help you do that. When you want to meditate on our calling to resist the devil, to be a light in a dark place, to cast off sin that’s been weighing you down, then the electric guitar is just what the Great Physician ordered (or, and I cannot stress this enough, some ska).
Now, the bad.
I’m So Meta Even This Acronym*
Certain modern worship songs are absurdly self-referential. We’re singing about singing. We’re singing about raising our hands (but only, as my friend James pointed out, in a purely metaphorical sense, because we look silly when our hands are raised). We’re singing, in extreme cases, about dancing. In some songs (the good ones), this is only a side-bar, almost an aside: “By the way, a proper response to the deep theological truths we are contemplating would, indeed, be praising, raising your hands, and dancing.” I have no beef with these songs, because they do actually focus on the theological truths contained within them.
But in many other songs, the reason for this singing and (metaphorical) dancing and raising of hands is tucked away somewhere in there, but the main thing really is to be singing about singing. And in the case of When The Spirit of the Lord, it reads more like a spiritual bucket list than anything else.
When the entirety of the song is talking about worshiping, it’s easy to wonder whether the song still, in fact, qualifies as “worship” at all. After all, if I were to spend five minutes talking about “When I get that hamburger, I’m gonna eat it!”, that’s clearly not the same as actually eating…
And when taken too far, we can easily slip into…
Two Sundays ago, I spent five full minutes singing Swell. And, by the way, the title is not a reference to our state of being in Christ. It is, rather a reference to the motion of “the river,” which is, evidently:
- Bringing joy, joy, joy, to my horizon
- Deep deep inside me
In response to this, I am, apparently, to let it swell. Repeatedly.
Read the lyrics. What is the river? Why is it important that this river, which is inside of me, is bringing joy to my horizon? Why is it swelling? Again, what is the river? Why should I let it “swell real deep”? Why should I let it “show in [my] feet”? And for the final time, what is the river? Can anyone tell me? Anyone?
I don’t even know what I’m praising here. The Holy Spirit? I guess? But no, can’t be the Holy Spirit, because the river is an “it.” So just the generic power of God? Maybe? And I’m praising it for “bringing joy to my horizon”?
My beef with this song isn’t that it says untrue things. It isn’t that it contains incorrect theology. It’s that this song comes incredibly, incredibly close to saying nothing at all. The concept of agreeing or disagreeing with its theology doesn’t even make sense, because it contains no theology at all.
“But you’re missing the point!” someone might say. “Just praise God, don’t worry about the specific words! Just… just let it flow, you know?” And this is, in fact, a semi-valid argument. It’s been around a long time: after all, this reasoning was even present in the early church (although then it applied to speaking in tongues). Paul’s response to this phenomenon speaks for itself:
“If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive. What should I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind.”
1 Corinthians 14:14-15
It’s possible to sing Swell and praise God with your spirit. But I challenge you to try to worship God with your mind while singing it.
Go ahead. I’ll wait. While singing that song, try to praise with your mind as well as your spirit. Is it more difficult than worshiping while silent? Of course it is, because doing so requires you to disconnect what you’re thinking from what you’re saying!
That’s the real problem I have with some of the songs I’ve mentioned in this post. The entire purpose of corporate worship is to assist the believer in worshiping with both the spirit and the mind. But when the songs are so absurdly simplistic, even borderline meaningless, that worshiping with your mind requires you to actually block out the song itself, that’s a huge, huge problem.
Like I said, modern worship does some things well. But it also does some things really, really terribly. To be fair, personal preference (great post by Nathan Bennett here) does play a role. But we have a problem. And the solution isn’t more cowbell.
*Credit to xkcd.