A Case for Reading Good Books and Singing Good Songs

Library.Stairs

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.

Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.

May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.

In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.

In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.

I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.

Art and Beauty: Folk Music Fridays

Folk Music FridaysHey guys,

In complicity with my last post, on metaphors and what-not, this may be my favorite John Mark McMillan song. Gloriously heavy on metaphor, this song, as far as my experience goes, does the very best job I’ve heard of understanding what’s meant when God speaks of the Church as the “bride of Christ.” How does the redeemed family of God relate, somehow, to Christ as a bride does to her husband? Give this tune a few listens and you might get a sense of it. The themes in McMillan’s poetry here of redemption, longing, and resurrection, are powerful.

An added note (inspired by my “Oceans” post) on the poetic nature of these lyrics – we HAVE taken the chorus of this song and tagged it in corporate worship at our church, because it lends itself so well to that type of a setting. The verses, however, I wouldn’t use for corporate singing. I think the misunderstanding that happens in church music sometimes, is that because a songwriter produces some songs that are written more for corporate church worship than others, we superimpose one song’s nature over onto others that aren’t as well-suited for the same things, and think we can do them all in church. But some songs may just always be more well-suited than others, for certain contexts. Worship leaders, choose wisely. Gray areas abound here, so that’s all the self-conscious, self-explaining I’ll do for now.

All that to say, I think this song may be the under-appreciated masterpiece from McMillan thus far.

A Book Worship Leaders Should Read

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013. *

Please forgive the long review, but I’d been looking forward to getting ahold of a copy The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts since I heard about the book about a month ago; I jumped in right away, and devoured it pretty quickly. It turned out to really be a 50/50 mix between a book that’s very necessary for our times, and a book that could’ve been, and (maybe) should’ve been more. But what I kept coming back to was this: Bond sets out to do something very specific with this volume, which is part of the larger “Long Line of Godly Men Profiles” (Steve Lawson, editor). It’s a book that has to be appreciated on its own terms, and for the purposes for which it was written. Ultimately, it’s a very good introduction to Isaac Watts’s life and work, and even more significantly, has much to say to both worshipers and worship leaders in the Western church.

The Drawbacks and Blessings of Brevity

Bond’s volume on Watts serves up equal parts biography, theological analysis, and overview of Watts’s major works and their significance. Bond does a decent job combining these three elements, which is no easy task in a fairly short, 163 page book (about the usual length of books in the “Long Line of Godly Men” series). But in spite of being brief, this book does a good job of giving us a good bit of everything. We learn the story of Watts’ early life and spiritual formation, how he came to develop his poetic gifts, and how God grew Watts’ convictions for church music and congregational song. I would’ve loved for the book to dive even more into Watts’ pastoral care of his congregation, and more of how we see that care employed in his songwriting. But again, that kind of detail might fit better in a longer book.

So, Why Isaac Watts?

In spite of the brevity, here’s why this book is important. In a culture where entertainment and the tyranny of the newest fad really fight to drive our preferences, Bond calls us to reexamine the influence Watts’ influence on congregational church music. Because our entertainment culture has affected the music churches choose to sing, and often not for the better, remembering a hymn writer like Watts and the good he has done for the English-speaking church is very valuable. Bond says,

“Our world clambers for the latest thing ,and as we wear ourselves out in the process, great poets such as Watts often get put in a box on the curb for the thrift store pickup. How could a gawky, male poet, living and writing three hundred years ago, be relevant today? Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what was called poetry in Watts’ day. Few deny it: ours is a post-poetry culture” (xix).

In one of the most rich and valuable parts of the book, Bond goes on in the preface to compare Watts, who held to poetic form and structure, to Walt Whitman, the father of “vers libre” or free-verse poetry. The contrast is compelling because Bond points out that Whitman abandoned form, which was part and parcel of making himself his life’s object of worship; whereas Watts, writing poetry and hymns in rhythm and meter, sought to exalt Jesus Christ and make him look glorious. Underlying either the use of form, or the abandonment of it, is often a question of worship.

And yet, Watts avoided “‘excess baggage of intricate form as well as of poetic adornment.’ His was a gospel objective first and last” (xxiii). The pastoral purpose that often constrained Watts’ overuse of “poetic adornment” is what makes his hymns so good for church song leaders and song writers to learn from today. He faithfully employed his creative gifting and skill for his people, taking Scripture and a robust biblical theology and writing a hymn a week for his church, as a vehicle for them to connect heart and imagination to their theology.

Contemporary church culture has often valued hit records and radio play as the marks of worship music success, and we should remember men like Watts who wrote his hymns week-in and week-out with a pastoral purpose. He did this faithfully, without hope of reaching beyond the congregation he pastored. But his hymns did reach beyond that context, and we bless God for it.

The Hymns Themselves

One more benefit of the book for a worship leader in particular, is for the exposure to Watts’ poetry. Bond spends the last chapter giving an overview and explication of several of Watts’ best hymns, including a mix of both popular, and seldom sung choices. For instance, Bond takes us stanza-by-stanza through both “Joy to the World” which most readers know already, and “Jesus Shall Reign” which might be a little more obscure to many, depending. The poetry analysis is very helpful, but it does fall a little short in places. It errs on the side of very light analysis at times, risking summary of the poem rather than analysis of what makes it so great, which is more what I think Bond is going for in this section. But, in the best sections, the analysis is good and detailed, and does effectively present the quality of Watts’ imaginative expression, precision of structure, and richness of biblical content.

Douglas Bond has clearly done his research to get to know Watts’ life and work. He loves the poetry of this great hymn writer, and draws us into his own enjoyment of it. The book is a very good smaller biography and a hub of resources on Watts, especially good to put in the hands of church musicians, music leaders, and songwriters. I hope church music and worship folk do get their hands on it and that it edifies and inspires.

To close, here’s one more quote from Bond on Watts’ value for the church today:

“As we flounder about in the ‘liturgical fidget’ of the contemporary church, Watts can provide both the theological and liturgical ballast Christian worship so desperately needs. And he can give us an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered. Without such a rudder, worship is shipwrecked on the shoals of cheap-trick emotionalism generated in much the same way it is at a concert or a football game. Tragically, in place of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16-17), raw feelings of  having done so may be supplanting the real thing” (134).

Let’s not just return to singing the hymns of Watts or any other songwriters from church history. Let’s study and sing the best of their work, and also look to freshly do what they did, writing and choosing songs with pastoral care for our churches.

* Many thanks to Reformation Trust Publishing for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.

“When the brightness ignites, can the shadow push back?”

Thanks to Tony Reinke for sharing this. Visit the link below.

Halloween: Trick or Treat? from 10ofthose.com on Vimeo.

“The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
For this is the nature of shadow and gloom;
In the gleaming of glory there can be no room.
What force is resourced by the echoing black?
When the brightness ignites can the shadow push back?
These ‘powers’ of darkness, if such can be called,
Are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled.”

The Inestimable Value Of Hymns

“Modern songs will be called upon at times of crisis (sickness, death, tragedy) when they have something to say. Exceptions prove the rule.”

Mike Cosper

The great hymns are a blessing to the Church. Though not inspired like Scripture, God gifted (and still gifts) many songwriters and poets in His Church over the centuries, to put the great truths of Scripture to lyric and music in ways that get in, and embed in the heart and mind. Some are new, many are old, and I am so thankful for hymns and for the way music often takes a comfort or joyful exultation from the Bible and gets it under your skin, so to speak. I think that often, the truth communicated with precision in a particular hymn comes back to me in a time of crisis or grief. It’s not the hymn itself, but what it helps my heart express that is so valuable, I think.

So I thought I would share some examples of my favorite lines that help reset the compass of my heart to its True North in God, and in the Gospel. There’s a lot of others, but these are some key couplets and stanzas that have and continue to be a comfort and a joy to know, to quote, and to sing. These lines are so valuable to me.

By Charitie L. Bancroft

“Before the throne of God above/I have a strong and perfect plea/A great High Priest Whose name is Love/Who ever lives and pleads for me.”

And from the same hymn,

“When Satan tempts me to despair/And tells me of the guilt within/Upward I look and see Him there/Who made an end of all my sin.”

By Charles Wesley

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay/Fast-bound in sin and nature’s night/Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray/I woke, the dungeon flam’d with light/My chains fell off, my heart was free!/I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

By Stuart Townend

“It was my sin that held Him there/Until it was accomplished/His dying breath has brought me life/I know that it is finished!”

By Augustus M. Toplady

“Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to Thy cross I cling/Naked come to Thee for dress/Helpless look to Thee for grace.”

And,

“Rock of Ages, Cleft for me/Let me hide myself in Thee.”

By Edward Mote

“His oath, His covenant, His blood/Support me in the whelming flood/When all around my soul gives way/He then is all my hope and stay.”

And,

“On Christ the Solid Rock I stand/All other ground is sinking sand/All other ground is sinking sand!”

On Poetry: George Herbert

If you want to understand poetry, a great place to start, or continue, is by listening to this John Piper biography on George Herbert. The talk is aimed at an audience of pastors, but it’s a wonderful explanation of poetry in general. Some of the treasure here is Piper’s emphasis on how finding ways to say or express something, is often also the path to delight and joy in the thing expressed.

This talk has a great conclusion – listen to John Piper read Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” at the end of the talk. It’s a great read-aloud. Here’s what Piper says about the sonnet before he reads it:

“This is a sonnet. It’s called “Prayer.” [It] has no verb in it, that is, no main verb. It’s not a sentence, it’s a collection of about twenty phrases describing prayer. Most of which you will have never heard in your life. I would imagine this took him days to write – these fourteen lines. They are very strange. And here’s what he was doing: it hit him as a glimpse, ‘I talk to God! I pray. Human beings are called aloud to talk to the Creator of the universe.’ So that’s a glimpse…of something stunning… [Herbert] circles around this thing for who knows how long, asking, ‘God, show me the wonder of what prayer is!'”

And here’s the poem “Prayer” by George Herbert, where Herbert expresses some of this wonder:

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

“‘Tis Mystery All: Th’Immortal Dies”

“’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

“He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!”

Charles Wesley, from “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”