|Words don't just mean things, they do things!|
Gut reaction - which do you choose?
To help you decide, I want to suggest here that the propositional content of songs (what the words mean when you add them all together) is not the be-all-and-end-all of a song (because it is not the be-all-and-end-all of Scripture, or indeed any act of communication).
Of course, my title is deliberately provocative. (Made you look!) I’m not for a moment suggesting that the lyrical content is unimportant. I’m not asking for heretical songs, I’m not asking for vacuous songs. This is my tenth year of training and blogging and trying to get people to pay more attention to music ministry as a Word ministry.
But in doing so I also want us to avoid a reductive approach to words, and avoid divorcing words from music in a song. Here are my two points:
- Words don’t just mean things, they also do things. They can do lots of different things. And I’m disturbed when I hear people assume that song lyrics can be reduced merely to true statements with a melody attached.
- A song is not just words put to music, it is a new creation which is more than the sum of its parts.
Words do stuffA youth group leader complains about a line which says ‘I will say blessed be the name of the Lord’ because she’s not sure whether that is a true statement about a future action he will in fact undertake.
A songleader changes the words of a popular song because it says ‘I’m dancing on this mountain top’ and he’s not sure that everyone in the church is, actually, dancing and even if they were the church is in a valley so mountain top dancing is probably inaccurate.
The problem with these examples is they treat words as if they can do only one thing. They either report a true fact, or a false one. But words can do other things, like encourage people to a future act, or bring a picture to mind which inspires a certain response.
This is a theological observation, not just something that applies to songs. It applies to the Bible. Kevin Vanhoozer is a brilliant evangelical writing on the issue of how to interpret the bible. His best observation is that communication is an action. God is speaking. He does thing with words. And he does different things with different words.
‘Because God does many things with words, our responses too will be varied: we must affirm the doctrine, obey the law, hold fast in hope to the promises, rejoice in the gospel.’ (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scriptures and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2002), 39)‘Do not steal’ is not true or false, it’s a command to be obeyed or disobeyed. ‘Do not take your Holy Spirit from me’ is not a comment on the perseverance of the Saints, it’s a prayer to be prayed. ‘Sing unto the Lord a New Song’ is not a command, it’s an invitation to sing with our eyes set on him.
Songs are more than the sum of their partsA songwriter feels that there are not enough songs on the seriousness of judgment (which is true), so puts the phrase “everyone one of us deserves to die” (which is also true) to a boppy tune with large major chords and exciting off beat rhythm.
A youth minister rewrites the words to a well known song about sexual healing to make it teach profound truths about ‘spiritual healing’
The problem is with both examples that what the words might mean in a different context is totally being undermined by a mismatch with what the music means.
The lyricist of the classic song ‘Over the Rainbow’ (picture Judy Garland singing in the opening scenes of Wizard of Oz!)‘ puts it like this:
“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.” (E. Yip Harburg)
Here I go... out on a limbOur songs are meant to do something. They are not simply meant to be true words.
So what was my gut reaction to our big decision - simple truths joyfully sung, or theological firepower which nobody can standing singing?
Of course if songwriters are doing their jobs then you'll never have to choose between great lyrics and a great song. But hypothetically, I’d go for (I think I’m happy to say this … I know it’s going to irritate some people!) a song which joyfully inspires a congregation to sing a few simple truths about God together (‘Jesus loves me this I know...’) than a song which puts four volumes of the Church Dogmatics to to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’. There, I said it. Am I wrong? (Or am I just trying to make you think).