A few months ago I finally realized that I didn’t like 30-40% of the 6000 some songs on my iPod. So I’ve been slowly going through and deleting things. Part of what that’s done is to force me to think more analytically about my music.
A lot of my stuff is contemporary style worship music, with B+ music and C lyrics. Not bad, unless you play 1000 of them in a row. Then you start to pick out certain trends. So many songs that declare how great God is, because he’s “holy” or “mighty” or “amazing.” Really? How about some details.
But the one that’s really starting to get to me are all the ones that aren’t about God at all. They’re really songs about me, or at least about the person singing. “You make me feel…” “I love you so much!” “I desire you!” “I’m filled with all this passion…” Again, no details, just vague descriptions of passing emotions. Sentiments like that are not even worthy of a decent stalker love song. Why would I want to sing a worship song like that?
One of the things that has led to a major change in my taste in music is a kind of a change in my understanding of the meaning of life, or as the theologians would say, “the chief end of man.”
I still remember a conversation I had once with a girl I was trying to evangelize. I was trying to explain to her that the highest expression of human life was found in relationship. Hell is being separated from God, and Heaven is the crowning expression of ultimate intimacy with God. Man was created primarily to be in relationship with Him,and we couldn’t be happy unless we were in relationship with Him and with each other.
“But,” she said, “I remember lots of times when I played alone as a kid, and I was perfectly happy then.” I was stumped. What was I to say, no you weren’t happy? It was a fake happy? Come to think of it, I’m usually happy to be alone too. Hell isn’t loneliness. There must be something more to it. But I couldn’t think of where it was.
Some years later, I was exposed to the reformation idea of the glory of God. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and thoroughly enjoy Him forever.” And while I think there’s some error, for instance in the unbiblical idea that Jesus died primarily with the glory of God in mind (“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”), I think it’s closer to the truth to say that God made the world for his glory, rather than for relationship. It even becomes clearer when you define “glory” as “the full expression of God’s character,” instead of as simply “fame.”
One of the reasons why I think glory makes for a better definition of our purpose than relationship is that you can see that relationship fits in as a part of the character of God (He is three-in-one), but you can’t really make glory a subset of relationship. So also in human relations: character trumps intimacy.
This has to affect the songs we sing in church. If the chief purpose of a man is to be in a relationship, then the closeness of that relationship will be more important than the concrete attributes of the God you are in relationship with. To put it in pejorative terms, if Jesus died because he couldn’t stand to be separated from me, then my songs are going to be about my experience of how close we are now. I’m going to focus on those sensations that are the most trustworthy proof that I am fulfilling my ultimate purpose. Of course, when those sensations aren’t there, there is quite literally hell to pay in the vacancy.
On the other hand, If my chief purpose is to demonstrate in minute detail the complex and awe-inspiring character of the living God, then how “close” I am to God becomes almost irrelevant. How do you measure “close”, feelings? Feelings are a weak, splintered staff. You can’t lean on them without being wounded. More important will be the nature of that God. The cross splits the universe down the middle, braiding holy judgment and compassionate grace with a sovereignty that is so awesome as to be terrifying. Who has understood the mind of the Lord?
I do still think there’s a place for “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. David says, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” And again, “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” But the focus even there is on the God for whom he is panting, not on the glory of panting in itself, as though desire itself conferred righteousness. Those feelings come as a gift, and sometimes in His sovereignty He doesn’t give them, or gives holy emotions that we’d just as soon not experience. In those times, my hope needs to be in the good news of the cross, the sure knowledge of who He is, and what He has done for me.
The texture of worship comes from the God who is being worshiped. Generic songs imply a generic god, and songs painted only in broad emotional brush-strokes imply a god who is primarily interested in my feelings. Not only is a god like that unsatisfying, it’s profoundly disappointing when it doesn’t stand up to reality.