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Let's Sing that Phrase Again . . . and Again . . .

One complaint many raise against contemporary praise music is that it is so repetitious.  The same phrase is sung over and over.  Melodies and lyrics.  Over and over.  It is hard to argue with that observation.  What is less clear, however, is whether it is a fair criticism.

Typically, people compare contemporary praise songs with the printed hymns and gospel songs that made up Sunday worship in the 1960s and 70s.  In these songs, four or five or six separate verses are sung.  While the melody line and, in some cases, the chorus or refrain repeats, the bulk of the song does not.  Verse after verse.  Each with new lyrics.  Oh, how we long to hear those sweet words, "And now let's sing verses seven and eight . . ."

In reality, there are several problems with the criticism.

If it is the shallow words, unsingable melodic lines, and wholly predictable chord progressions that are being criticized, then there is often some truth in that.  Even here, though, a fair thumbing through the hymnal reveals many examples of syrupy, shallow, and biblically suspect lyrics.  Now, thumb through a hymnal printed in 1940 or 1910 and you discover many of the songs have thankfully disappeared from modern hymnals.  A hymnal is a collection of only the hymns churches actually wanted to keep singing year after year after year.  The melodies, particularly for hymns in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, often have entirely independent histories.  Amazing Grace in Britain is traditionally sung to an entirely different melody than the southern common meter melody used in American churches.

But, if you step back even further, back beyond the world of printed hymnals of any kind (which was the reality for three-fourths of the church's history) you find highly repetitious music.  Music the church was to learn and sing by simply listening to it.  This will always be repetitious and fairly simple.  Plain chant or, as it is popularly known, Gregorian chant, is so repetitious modern praise songs seem complex in comparison.

Lord, have mercy.  Sung slowly twice to exactly the same melody.
Lord, have mercy.  Sung twice more to a slightly different melody.
Christ, have mercy.  Sung twice to exactly the same melody used for the first "Lord, have mercy."
Christ, have mercy.  Sung twice to the same melody used for the second "Lord, have mercy."
And now, back to "Lord, have mercy" and we go through the whole thing again.

And this is just one small example.  And much of the music would be the same from one Sunday to the next.

The key difference is no printed hymnals and music for ordinary people who were not trained musicians.  The music was not intended to communicate complex doctrines.  If it did become musically complex, as happened in the Late Middle Ages, ordinary Christians were no longer expected or even able to sing it.  Simplicity and repetition is what drew believers into the musical prayers and praises of the dialogue that was worship.

If Isaiah 6 and the visions of John on Patmos are any clue, God is apparently okay with repeating phrases over and over and over (ad infinitum)

If you grew up in the church, chances are the music that resonates most deeply with your soul is the music, or at least the style of music, that dominated worship when you were 15 to 25 years old.  That was just as true of people born in 1880, many of whom complained about the "mindless ditties" of gospel songs like "Beulah Land" or "I'll Fly Away" pushing out the grand hymns they had grown up with in Sunday worship.  By the way, neither of those songs is going to win a "Best-of-Theology" award any time soon.

Sure, there's some merit to the criticism many level against contemporary praise music.  Just as there was merit in the criticisms other generations leveled against shallow twentieth century gospel music or nineteenth century hymns with lyrics that were Calvinistic, or Arminian, or Catholic, or Unitarian.  The church somehow still survived, complaints and all.

Seth Wilson, long time Dean of Ozark Christian College, would come twice a week to the college chapel services as long as he was alive.  Well into his eighties, and just after a particularly over-the-top contemporary chapel, I asked him if he really liked the music (he always stood and sung along with every one else).

"No, I really don't," he confessed.  Then he looked up at the students hurrying by him on their way to classes and smiled.  "But I love them."


Dane said...

Thank you, Tom, for some quality criticism of some very common criticism in the church.

Dane Tyner

Eli Skinner said...

Always good...

You probably don't remember me, the guy that you graciously passed in your class (I still would not do well at studying but could nail a quiz on a lecture from 8 years ago... us auditory learners ya know).

Anyway, you really helped to shape many positive things in me at OCC. Hence, I still pop in to listen and learn...

Eli Skinner

twotentom said...

My feelings are as follows: when they write and sing praise songs or hymns (or whatever they are to be called)to me personally then I will be ok with critiquing them. But seeing how they are written and sung to the Creator of all things, who among us feels qualified to speak on His behalf? After all, as you stated, how often do the 24 elders bow down and cry Holy, Holy, Holy? Does He tire of this?
My advice on this issue would be to follow the lead of Seth Wilson and just concentrate on "Love One Another."

Kirra said...

Your post is in my favorite links this week!