Monday, 21 April 2008

Sinning while singing... - A critique of modern hymnody part 1

Isaac, in a Facebook note has shared a poem entitled "an Essay on Modern Hymnody" by someone critique modern sung worship. I hope to give that poem some biblical backing, looking at the different complaints and providing a Biblical basis to them.

This first section of the critique should be fairly obvious what's wrong with the songs, yet so many people pick these songs for worship services.
I. On hymns in the indicative

It's difficult to know where to begin
Our catalogue of folly, crime and sin.
I think it's best if we start with the worst,
So let us start with sin, with the accursed,
Those wicked hymns in the indicative
That make us sing of how we ought to live
As though we do—that is, they make us lie
When they should teach us truths for which to die!
Or make us sing of feelings we don't feel
Thus make the ones we do feel seem unreal;
—They make the false seem true and real seem fake,
And just as bad as these are those that make
Our mouths make promises we cannot keep.
—Such “hymns” make devils smile—and angels weep.
These pretty, pious perjuries we chant
Do nought but school us in religious cant.
What should we do when asked to sing such dross?
Stand silently? Or sing with fingers crossed?
Stand silently, I say, with folded arms
And to yourself recite your fav'rite psalm.
(for those, like me, who aren't grammar experts, the indicative is the grammatical mood used for objective truths).

So we have several things here
  1. singing about how we ought to, but don't, live as if we do live like that
  2. singing about feelings we don't have
  3. singing about promises that we can't keep
All of which is lying. I shouldn't need to tell you that lying is wrong, is sinful. We were called to worship in spirit and truth (John 4), not spirit and lies. However I feel that there is more to these songs that is bad, than just that we're lying while singing them (as if that wasn't bad enough!). I feel that these songs lead to wrong theology and are idolatrous in nature.

Singing about how great we're living (even if it's true) is not something that we should do, nor is going on about how much we love Jesus, or making grand promises. It's showing off our righteousness, going 'look at me, everyone, aren't I great'. If it's true, it's fine for the private domain to go on about how we love God, and how we're going to do something for him, however it could lead to accusations of showing off if done publicly.

A quick look at some people who try to use their righteous acts to petition Jesus:
Jesus says:
"On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’"(Matt 7:22-23, ESV)
These people's salvation seems to rest on what they have done for Jesus, not what he has done for them. This is perhaps the greatest problem of 'songs in the indicative' - they give people false theology - the false theology mentioned in these verses. And heresy is catchy in song: Arius, whose heresy caused the council of Nicea to have to be held to stop it, spread his false teaching about the Trinity by making up little songs and ditties; the indulgences business, that caused Luther to write his 95 Theses to rebel against the whole church going against the gospel, had the refrain "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs". Catchy no? Deadly too!

We're also talking to God, effectively praying, when we sing these songs - what does Jesus say:
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matt 6:7, ESV)
Don't heap up empty phrases - like "I'll do this if you do that", or even just "I'm going to do this" if you won't actually do it.

Don't think that you'll be heard for your many words - don't try and get God's attention - you're his child, he listens to you - you don't need to heap up all sorts of phrases about how we love him and so on to get his attention. If I had a child and he/she asked me for a sweet by saying something like "Daddy, you know I love you - can I have a sweet?" then that's pretty much emotional blackmail into getting a sweet off me and (I hope) the child will be told 'no' (they may then get given it, not because he/she loves me, but because I love him/her - and that would be made explicit). I'm not saying that we shouldn't tell God we love him, but you really haven't got the gospel at all if you think that it matters that we love God when we petition him, or that it matters when we tell others about why he's great.
"Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1John 4:10, HCSB)
We don't need to make promises - it's not a we do and God responds, it's God does and we respond. There are so many songs out there that ignore the God does bit of this, and focus solely on our response. They may even give a nod to the fact that it's a response - that God deserves it, that he is worthy, however they don't have the why of his worthiness.

We are, in these songs, focussing on ourself, not God - we will do this for God, that for God, etc. Isn't that basically idolatry?

In summation
  • These songs cause us to sin through lying about what we have done, feel and will do.
  • They give us a false and heretical view of salvation - based on our actions, not God's.
  • They cause people to feel that those singing them are showing off because it's all 'look at how great I am', which is ignoring Jesus' teaching. It gives the impression of self-righteousness.
  • They are basically self-centred songs, praising yourself, or asking others to praise you for what you've done.
These songs are among the best tools of the Devil, turning us into emotional legalists (must feel the right thing) who worship ourselves, our works, feelings and promises, as an idol; think that God's blessing is dependant on our opinion of him, not his of us; and lie - all while we think we're doing good things, worshipping God.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

New Word Alive

I was part of a group from SUCU who went to NWA this past week. I thought I'd post a summary of the week.
  1. Pwllheli meant that we got to drive through some of the most beautiful places in Britain. The snow topped Snowdon was the pick of the crop. It was good that the snow from Sunday had been washed away by Monday's rain. Being on the west side of the mountains meant that it wasn't as wet as the rest of Wales as well, which was nice.
  2. It was great seeing people I hadn't seen for a while again and catching up with them.
  3. I was surprised at how the song choices by the Soul Survivor crew, while mostly Soul Survivor and not my favourites, were rather good. There was also a good passivity by all the sung worship leaders - Townend was better than he was at the London Men's - he didn't keep repeating bits and so on - he just did it. I was really worried that Soul Survivor would really irritate me, with lots of spiritually shallow or our feelings/actions centred songs, done in a style that I really dislike, but they weren't.
  4. Complaint - during the singing, the two side screens (which were superfluous - you could see the big middle screen from anywhere, unless it was blocked by the side screens) showing the camera men showing off and distracting us with video of the band playing (made worse for some people by them finding the female singers stunning and then stumbling by thinking that they are ugly (the females), or how to get her number (the males)). The words would have been good, especially as those screens did block off the middle screen from some areas, though saving on electricity and having just one screen would have worked.
  5. Another complaint - what was with the 'adult'/student division - fine on the evening things and having a 'recommendation' type thing, that some seminars, etc were going to be aimed at younger people and students, though banning people from seminars for space reasons just because they were/weren't students was annoying (eg the marriage/children one was 'adults' only, which is really harsh on students who are married (not that many, so hardly a problem in the space issue) who don't get much chance outside of things like this to get teaching on being married). Even more irritating was the fact that non-students were called 'adults', as if students weren't mature or were still children.
  6. A final complaint - why was Terry Virgo a headline preacher if he only did one of the main talks? Hugh Palmer and Richie Cunningham did one (OK, they only did one session each, not both). People like Vaughan Roberts, Mike Reeves, Mike Ovey, Roger Carswell, etc each did three talks (more than Piper), though these were seminars, rather than Grand Marquee events. I guess it was a political move to show that it wasn't just a conservative event (though Piper is rather charismatic). His talk was excellent, though not really on the passage, but more the theme that he got given. It seems odd that his name was in white letters on hills on the literature, when he did only one talk and we didn't have to fly him over the Atlantic. I just feel it's odd that he had title billing, nothing wrong with him or his talk.
  7. Back to great things - the level of teaching was excellent - Mike Ovey was brilliant on the Doctrine of Humanity, Don Carson was the Don on 1John and John Piper was outstanding.
  8. The organisation of the teaching was awesome - the morning sermons linked into the evening ones and vice versa. The theme for the week started off as what it means to be saved, and ended up being assurance having gone through applying it - ping ponging through the days, getting added to, clarified, sorted out, etc. Don in the morning would be picking up and passing stuff on to the evening speaker.
  9. My Impact group was amazing, though we did have Dave Anthony leading - he helped bring it all together, and also reminding us of the message. His brief look at the thread of head injuries in the OT was great - linking it all back to Gen3:17 - the promise of the head crusher.
Here are some highlights of my time that aren't mentioned above.
  • Welsh Cream Tea (with bara brith and welsh cakes on top of a normal cream tea) right near Snowdon - excellent
  • The community among the SUCU people, especially our caravan and the boys in general. Thursday night's serious, but light hearted chat, was a brilliant example.
  • Being called mysterious by Ritchie Cunningham (mostly as he couldn't guess what my fancy dress costume was meant to be - either he hasn't read Isaiah 6 recently, or like many others wanted a full, every-mention-of-them-in-the-Bible Seraph - seems like 6 wings wasn't enough - there needed to be many eyes, several faces and wheels within wheels beneath me. It can't be that my costume wasn't very good and was even worse when squashed in my bag.)
  • Michael Briggs (aged 5) from ABC, calling me Simon rather than Harry Potter at Burger King, Oswestry. I've only had to tell him that my name was Simon, not Harry Potter, 8 or 9 times before.
  • Piper's clarification and expansion of the last point of his first talk, in his second (taking up most of the second). Both a massive encouragement and a massive challenge.
  • Getting my money's worth on the impact group's crazy golf trip- 102 shots to do nine holes (though not as good as Q's 122, with 51 of those on the last hole). Finished with my best shot - a twelve foot putt into the hole for a 23.
  • Meeting Don Carson, though I didn't like him name-dropping everyone's favourite posh Kenyan, Syano, into our conversation.
  • Don Carson saying that it's not our love for God, but God's love for us that's worth singing about. How true is that! Sadly, we've neglected that in English speaking countries over recent years and are thankfully on the cusp of turning back.
  • The keeping of the central things central - the whole conference was there because we believe that Jesus' death turned aside God's wrath from us, making him propitious to us and that great truth flowed through every day.
All in all, it was an excellent conference, and it was great to see so many people who care about the fact that we deserve a penalty for our sin, but Christ has taken that penalty in our place. It was great to see the diversity of people there, from all different denominations. It was great to see that

PS - here's a post from the 'offical NWA blogger' Adrian Warnock, who has detailed posts on the conference, as well as links to Piper's talks (hopefully the others will end up online for free as well - I know the conference needed the money, but £3.50 for one talk is rather pricy!)