Wednesday, July 23, 2008

oblique angles

"Somehow it is the balladeer, the artist, the poet, the song-writer, the filmmaker who ends up wrestling with life’s conundrums, capturing or being captured by an idea and then packaging, presenting and unwittingly popularizing that idea across whole strata of societies. Unlike the preacher, professor, scientist and car-mechanic, the artist seems to have a sacred responsibility to come at truth from an oblique angle, through story and shades of light, to cause whole nations to reconsider, take a second look, think again or just receive." Stefan Eicher

Stefan Eicher is an artist who runs a gallery in New Delhi, India. The king of random acquaintances, Case Maranvile, connected us to him. Stefan has some great thoughts and beautiful thought provoking paintings. The concept of art penetrating defenses because it can come at truth from an oblique angle has been sticking with me these days. I keep thinking about it. I know that I have been consistently shaken and moved by concepts that seemed to sneak up on me, tumbling through my brain on the melody line of a beautiful song. So why can't "worship music" be that way. This is my thought tonight. (forgive me) Why must we fall back on the line "Holy is the Lord" or "Fall on my knees"? Because it rhymes with the last line? Because the syllables are easy to match with a melody? Because we haven't interacted with the God of the Bible deeply enough to come away with metaphor or comparison that hints at honest, ground sanctifying awe? I sound critical. I am. I am also deeply suspicious of my own creative crutches, and as the music director at my church I keep asking these questions because the last thing I want to be a part of is a trite, easy, worship service that pumps recycled spiritual air through the same dusty vents. Not that using words like "holy" or "falling" are bad. But what if the command to worship with a new song is a challenge to craft word and melody with the kind of artistry that could awaken longing, surprise with wonder, or shake with fear? Maybe it could come to us at oblique angles.

What do you think? Can we worship that way? I'd love to know what you think.


Gina said...

I have no doubt that we can worship that way... I'd like to think that I have... alone and behind closed doors. I'm talking off the cuff here, so I'm not saying my statements are flawless or anything... but doesn't the nature of corporate worship through music (at least the way many churches in this country do it) lend itself to metaphors and phrases becoming trite, familiar? At one time long ago maybe the phrase "falling on my knees" was a new way of describing contriteness and awe before God. But by no means am I suggesting we stop creating those phrases...

crystal said...

I think I get what you are saying. So maybe we have just sung those songs so many times that they have lost their "umph?" I think I get frustrated more when I listen to the music coming out right now, the "new stuff" on the radio or newly released cds. You know, maybe there is a bridge (because we have to have a bridge) and its just one cliche after another. And I'm speaking to myself here as well because I haven't come up with the answer or a creative example. I would love to be introduced to songs that handle truth the way Stefan alludes to.

Gina said...

I don't listen to a whole lot of what is coming out right now in the way of new worship music... but I haven't been all that excited about what little I have heard. I keep thinking "Well, I need to write some myself then." However, there currently is not a river of fresh metaphors gushing forth from this heart. In the meantime, let's come up with a new song part... instead of a bridge, let's have a... a tower... or a fence.

bret welstead said...

I love this topic. I just don't know where I fall on it, which is a hard thing to admit since I am an artist and a worship leader. It's one of those things that I feel like I should have figured out by now, you know?

Having put that out in the open, I have a couple of thoughts. First, I think I agree with what Gina is saying. In the corporate setting, familiar phrases allow people to focus more of themselves on God. And that should be the point, right?

As a worship leader, I want to do everything I can to facilitate worship, to point people to the living holy God. I imagine if I were singing new songs to God every Sunday, the rest of my church family would get frustrated. But if we’re singing “oh no, You never let go through the calm and through the storm” then I know most of our congregation can focus less on the melody, or the rhythm, and focus more on Who we’re singing to, on what the words say. I preach a version of this to my worship teams, too: learn the songs well so you don’t have to be thinking, “A… F#m… E… D” but you can instead be thinking (or singing), “I will worship You for who You are.”

Another thought is that I (we) need to continually sing a new song to God. Each of us has a unique journey with Christ, and so from each of us should come unique “songs.” I might be drawing more out of the text than I should, but I think “songs” could mean an endless variety of forms of worship: song, dance, poetry, drama, prose, painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, design, d├ęcor, relationships with others, teaching, charity, service… the list could go on forever. The trick is to know when something is appropriate for the corporate setting, and when it’s not. It gets into that “orderly worship” part of 1 Corinthians 14, I think.

This sounds too constrictive, I’m realizing as I look back on what I’ve written. I don’t mean to suggest that we squelch creativity, just channel it, use it to glorify God. I also think there are churches (Midtown in Nashville might be one of them) where new songs are a weekly occurrence, and the artists that make up the congregation can go with it. But I don’t know that for sure.

I’m open to rebuttals. Like I said, I don’t have this all figured out yet.

Brook said...

I think the semantics of Christian speak have caused more than just worship music to lose it's meaning. I used to say "Praise God" after way too many sentences, to the point that I didn't even think about God when I said it. I think that fresh phases will only last for awhile, until they also become overused and dull. For me, something old can hit me in that place where the truth of it brings me to tears, to worship, to that contrite place, where God it God and I am not. It takes intentionality, listening, engaging, responding.
What really does it for me is story. That's why I like Andy Osenga's music so much. Perhaps the phrases can become story, a different sort of picture. Stories help us to remember. Stories connect us. I very good topic. My brain is full.

crystal said...

Gina. I'm all for writing a song with a "fence." Lets do it! :)
Bret. Those are great thoughts. I think you are right that sometimes a well known phrase can draw hearts to the right place (versus maybe being distracted by a particularly metaphorical phrase perhaps). And brook, I agree that someday the new things will be old things. I guess everything has the potential to be trite if repeated enough.

So maybe to clarify, I think the "old songs" can be the straightest arrow to my heart sometimes. I find my spirit lifted and ministered to by the hymns all the time. But I think the reason that they have lasted so long is because they are layered and "hearty" if you will. (don't get me wrong, there are certainly horrid hymns) I think that songs have permanence for multiple reasons, MAYBE because they speak truth in a way that not only connects with our brains but also engages our sense of beauty. I struggle with new and old music that in the name of "worship" makes shortcuts lyrically, lazily communicates, or strings together phrases that aren't connected thoughtfully. Does this make sense?

bret welstead said...

Yeah, that totally makes sense. The cool think about the Christian music industry is that millions of people now have access to music that can help them worship God. The terrible thing about the Christian music industry is that music that can help people worship God can be purchased by millions of people.

There are some artists who craft and create incredible songs, weaving a rich tapestry of new phrases and beautiful music. There are others who could do that, but instead take the shortcut in order to manufacture a product to be sold.

There are still others who are... how should I put this... inept at the whole songwriting process. I would put myself in this category. :-) Occasionally I find a gem in my writing, but most of the time I look at what I've written and think, "That sounded better when Crowder/Shive/AP/EP/Osenga/Caedmon's sang it."

Ah, well. That's the process, I suppose.

One other note. I've started marking in my Bible whenever I come across verses that have made their way into contemporary worship music. It's been encouraging, at least a little, to see where some songwriters get their hooks. Though I love the hymns and the richness of them, I'm glad that these newer songs are also grounded in Scripture.

crystal said...

that's a great idea, Bret. I've been listening to the new jon foreman eps and have sometimes been surprised to "come across" his lyrics in the minor prophets. . . pretty great.

Indiagirl said...

Do you remember meeting Ray & Christa in Hyderabad when you were last over in India - well Stefan is their son - did you know that??

Ben said...

Megan-yes, we did know that...we've been in contact with him about getting a piece of his art! :)

As I wade into this, I recognize that Crystal and I are word-lovers. We love well-wrought words, whether in books, songs or speech. We regularly revel in a particular turn of a phrase, pithy statement or profound notion brought to life with well-employed words.

I think this love of words affects how we see this. It doesn't make us better. I think there are a lot of people that aren't word people and struggle to see the importance of a discussion like this, as I struggle with discussion about car engines and agro-business...they just don't come up that often in the context of church liturgy.

It seems anyone who seeks to make something that would qualify as art or a creative endeavor would that their work endure and be more than is ingested once and discarded. This is likely the desire for their work, that it really contribute and benefit. Not many are John Newton, Dickens or Shakira...I mean, really. To really wrestle with the creative process. I think this can easily digress into what doesn't qualify as good art/music. I'm sure there's been a superabundance of great art/music that never receives the light of day or blesses anyone but God and its creator, but I also think most of what endures should endure.

Would that God's people lead the way in endeavors that endure.

Dr. and Mrs. Thomas said...

WOW! I LOVE that this comment section is a conversation! =)

Thank you Ben for saying that not all people are 'word' people...and I would like to offer myself as the perfect example. There once was a time when I wasn't ok with that underdeveloped quality, but now I will shout it from the rooftops! It's who I am!....or I'm not, really. haha!

Love the topic though...I'm in need of some great music....let me know when the next Davy cd can be ordered. =)

Stefan, Sarah and Lukka said...

Hey Crystal, your post was very interesting. I usually find more redemptive lyrics in songs/bands that are not Christian, but that is besides the point. My favorite days of worship are when we sing the older hymns and one day when you did some Allison K/Gillian Welch songs. Maybe I'm biased because I like those two ladies in real life, but I feel that their lyrics are a little bit more thought out than many Christian worship artists. "One bright morning on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away" is one of the lyric that I feel captures what we as Christians hope for! Since I grew up Catholic, we had more conservative worship (organ/voices/hymns) but I have always felt the "protestant" (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean!) worship was very cheesy, almost put on.
I hope I'm not being a music snob, but as an English major (my main focus was poetry!) I can't see past that, I look at everything as to how well the lyric/dialogue/whathaveyou is, and when those things aren't in cliche form, they truly come alive. I hope that was clear.

Stefan, Sarah and Lukka said...

Ok, I should have read Ben's comment first, but I agree whole-heartedly, I am a word person!

I am also a drum and harmonica person--my favorite days, too, are when they're rockin' the drums and the harmonica! :0)

crystal said...

Ok. I'm loving this. And I thought of an example. One of my favorite hymns right now has this line: "Love cannot from its post withdraw." The imagery behind the lyric is beautiful - like a soldier that refuses to leave the post regardless of how fierce the battle becomes, even willing to die to defend it. Love, the kind of love that only God can give, is fiercely loyal to us and unable to desert us. I think I keep mulling over that line and consequently the song is one that speaks powerfully to me. The song uses imagery and connections to something that I relate to emotionally. This makes me step back and say, "Oh, God loves like that. God loves me like that." I think even non-word people (thanks for the identification Martha! I love you!)are moved by word pictures whether or not they recognize the word crafting. Am i wrong here? I long for the new music coming out (and for the songs we sing at Grace) to draw people into that kind of new realization.

Kenny said...

As another "word" person, I know that a 'fresh' lyric is incredibly helpful to me. Somewhat ironically, this is why I love old hymns that aren't often sung, because the language feels new and by-passes my luke-warm response to cliche.

But finding the right words isn't about being clever. It's about hitting truth in its sweet spot. I'd guess that whether you're a writer, painter, golfer, welder or whatever, you know that feeling when working in your craft where just from the feel of it you know you got it just right. And you also know the feeling of when you don't get it right, even if you can't exactly explain why.

And words in worship songs are this way, too. When we speak, we're trying to create a correspondence between us and reality.

Unfortunately, Evangelicalism has given into a reductionist impulse to make things easy and somewhat two-dimensional. And, it's like Crystal said, it's for failing to want to grapple hard enough with the Truth, and a loss of a taste for Truth.

So, I don't really agree with the idea that the corporate nature of worship lending itself to trite cliche. Congregations are only inclined toward this by choice, sort of like the way some people might prefer fast food to fine cuisine. But give them a diet of the good stuff, and I'm sure they'll never want to go back to McDonald's.

Scott said...

I know this thread is kind of cold by now, but it just came to my attention and I feel a need to add my two cents. Those of you who know me will know that I am one with a certain appreciation for fine, gourmet, home-cooked food. My mom was a great cook, I'm a great cook, Gina's a great cook, and I can't count the number of great meals I've had at friends' houses in Lincoln. But I'm still a sucker for a double quarter pounder with cheese, fries, and a Diet Coke (no offense intended, Kenny).

Similarly, many of you know that I am a "word person," and I do definitely appreciate a carefully crafted lyric that can convey a whole concept in a few small words - kind of analogous to how, of all the senses, a smell can sometimes be such a powerful trigger of memory or feeling. However, I do believe it is intellectual snobbery to say that hymns, with their complex thoughtful verses are somehow better than worship songs that have simple repetitive lines. I don't think anyone has come right out and said it here, but it is a sentiment that I have heard often at the GC. Yes, I agree that there is much drivel in Christian music, as in any musical genre, but I think there is more to quality than having complicated or archaic language. Try actually reading through all the hymns in a hymnal sometime. There was a lot of drivel written in the 1700's too. Luckily for us, most of it has faded away with time.

The point of this long ramble is to say this: I am an intellectual. I do have a strong appreciation for sophisticated use of language. However, sometimes I worship better through repetition of a single simple phrase accompanied by music that stirs my emotion than by reading a finely crafted hymn. (Crystal, please don't take this as criticism of your leadership... I think you do a great job!) Sometimes it is good to worship through a profound lyric touching my mind and stimulating a concept of God's place in the universe and my place relative to Him. But sometimes it is also good to worship by putting the intellect aside for a minute and letting the emotions revel in the pure sense of worshipping the one who made us and who loves us so much by repeating a simple line and letting the music wash over me. I know many reformed people think the intellect is a far superior tool for engaging God, but trust me, it is no less subject to the fallen nature than the emotions. God gave us both, and I think both can be valid tools for worship. It doesn't have to be an "either/or" situation.

crystal said...

four years later!!!! Scott, I don't think I ever read your comment but its golden and precisely where I find myself pondering anew today. thank you for your thoughts. amen.