Teaching Sound Theology


A few weeks ago I bookmarked an article to read, and finally got to it this afternoon. In “Sound Theology: Teaching Your People Through Music”, Bob Smietana interviews Keith Getty about the importance of congregational singing. I hope you’ll take the time to read through the entire article, but I’d like to highlight just a few things here as well.

First of all, there are few men living whom I admire as much as Keith Getty. His insistence on pairing beautiful, singable melodies with doctrinally rich lyrics has made his music an invaluable resource for today’s churches. And his emphasis on the value of teaching our congregations through music is one I share—which is why I had originally launched my other writing project (which I hope to also resurrect soon!), Systematic Hymnology. I deeply value the work of the Gettys, and commend to you all of their albums, particularly the latest: Facing a Task Unfinished.

It starts with the Bible

In Smietana’s interview, note Getty’s observation that the mandate for instructional singing is biblical. He mentions the song of Moses from Exodus 15, also a particular favorite of mine (one of the song studies on my other blog is based on Aaron Keyes’ modern musical adaptation of this biblical text, which we’ve recently begun singing at FBC Powell). Scripture is full of examples of music being used educationally, and of exhortations to sing songs like this.

We have a long way to go

Getty shares an anecdote about Irish hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, who composed a book of Hymns for Children in the mid-19th century, to help children learn the doctrines of the faith. He laments the extent to which modern evangelical churches have lost our patience with songs which eschew musical novelty in exchange for lyrical depth:

You take these hymns, shortened down to five or six verses, and they’d still be considered “unsingable” in many large, modern evangelical churches, because there are too many words. Yet these songs were written for 8-year-olds.

If we’re going to build a generation of people who think deep thoughts about God, who have rich prayer lives, and who are the culture makers of the next generation, we need to be teaching them songs with theological depth.

Isn’t that sad? I’m grateful to serve in a church which celebrates these type of songs, but am simultaneously convicted that I don’t sing enough songs like this, either in church or at home with my own children.

Sing great songs

This can’t be said too often! The Internet is full of articles lamenting the lack of congregational participation in singing in our churches. Everyone seems to have advice on how to correct the problem: Turn the lights down, turn the lights up, find a more dynamic worship leader, grow your choir larger, etc. Yet it seems to me that Keith Getty’s solution—by far the simplest, cheapest suggested remedy, and one which can be immediately implemented in churches of any size and budget—makes the most sense.

When we evaluate our worship services, we must always ask the question, how did our congregation sing? If the answer is, as it seems so often to be, that they did not sing much or at all, we must then ask ourselves whether the songs we sang were great. There are plenty of good songs out there, but as T. David Gordon writes in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (my review), there is no reason to settle for merely good songs when there are so many great songs available to us. And so Getty is right: “Great songs sing well. Bad songs do not. So sing great songs.”

Again, please hop over to Lifeway’s “Facts & Trends” blog to read the full interview here. It’s so good! Just makes me that much more exciting for the upcoming release of Getty’s first book, Sing!: Why and How We Should Worship, which you can pre-order here. (I’ve written asking for an advanced reading copy for review… so hopefully you’ll see a review here ahead of its September release!)

Combing the Net – 6/1/2012

Dubious Medical Syndrome of the Day: Smartphone Face — Are you afflicted?

Mommy Wars — Now that all five articles have been posted in this excellent series about the drive for mothers to compete and the guilt which often results, here is a brief summary of each, with links to all the articles. Mommies, check it out!

10 Things Nobody Tells You About Being a Dad — I can affirm most of this list, but I refuse (so far) to give in to #3.

In Defense of Video Games — A lot has been written recently (including this post by me) about the dangers of pornography and video games, but this article by Stephen Altrogge provides good balance to the discussion.

We need to give our young men a compelling, glorious vision of Jesus and his kingdom. We need to help them channel their youthful energy into the things that really matter. If we do these things, video games will fall into their rightful place. Video games can be a helpful diversion for the mind – a way to unwind and relax at the end of a long day. To flat out condemn video games doesn’t really solve the problem and verges on unhelpful legalism. After all, if you take away video games then the young men will simply turn to something else.

Unveiling the Official Bush Portraits — A fun day at the White House, featuring classy performances by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. You can skip the first ten minutes or so to get to the actual unveiling.

Ken Burns On What Makes a Great Story — I enjoyed this from one of my favorite story-tellers. (HT: Bensonian) If you’ve never seen one of his shows, you can find them here. My favorites are “The Civil War”, “Baseball”, and “Jazz”, but I’ve never seen one I didn’t like. Here’s the video portion of the interview linked above:

Combing the Net – 5/27/2012

The Surprisingly Interesting History of Margarine — Yep, this was interesting. Surprisingly.

The Real Reason KONY 2012 Fizzled — And Why It Matters — Something that wasn’t surprising? The fact that the most viral video of all time completely failed to move beyond online activism to real world action. But I think this article by a fundraiser gets a lot of things right about why nobody really cared.

A Cure for Lame Table Prayers — Glad to know I’m not the only one whose mealtime prayers lean toward “vague gratefulness”. Glad also to have read this article that reminds me how and why we really should thank God for his blessings as we gather around the table! This has also heightened my anticipation of reading the newest book by one of my favorite authors: Douglas Wilson’s Father Hunger.

Hymns for the Ascension — Though Ascension Sunday was last week, this album (available for free download or online streaming) contains many great songs for the Church. Enjoy!

Brass players are weird; I know, I’m one of them! So the non-brass players out there may not find this as funny as I do… but kudos to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s brass section for shooting this!

The Genesis of Pop

Today I want to share with you a short passage from T. David Gordon’s new book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal”. Gordon, a media ecologist, is not re-hashing the tired “worship war” debates between traditional hymns and praise choruses, but is rather making a case for more serious reflection on why and how we choose the songs that we use in our corporate worship services.

In the chapter dealing with meta-messages (“nonverbal messages that go along with our actual words”), Gordon makes a convincing argument that when churches borrow the musical idioms of pop culture for our hymns and praise choruses, we communicate a nonverbal message that the content of our worship songs is insignificant. Of particular interest to me was the following section (found on pages 66-68) on the origin and purpose of pop music (all italics and parentheses are his):

Commercial interests joined forces with mass media (originally radio, but later television also) to create pop music; it did not exist before. Pop music is a form of music designed to appeal, in some way, to the masses. If there were no mass media, pop music would not and could not really exist. Once it exists, however, it serves commercial purposes. Businesses purchase airtime to advertise their products, and they want to sell many products. Therefore, the fee structure for commercial advertisement is based on the size of the audience; stations with large audiences can command higher prices than those with small audiences. But no one tunes in to a radio or television station for the commercials; we tune in for the programming.

So there’s this very basic tension in all commercial broadcasting. The broadcasters and their advertisers are interested in the commercials; the audience is interested in the programming. As long as both parties are content to put up with the interests of the others, everyone is happy. But because the advertisers want a large audience, the producers of the programs must make them easily accessible to the population at large. They cannot produce programming that is profoundly offensive, and they cannot produce programming that is difficult to follow, programming that requires a steep learning curve. So what do they produce? Programming that is fairly insignificant. In the case of music, they produce music that does not require concentrated effort to appreciate, preferring instead music that is fairly simply and straightforward. In short, they produce music that is fairly insignificant, trivial, or banal. It cannot, ordinarily, last an hour (as a symphony with four movements might), and it cannot be musically demanding. For commercial reasons, therefore, pop culture and pop music cannot be either beautiful or ugly; pop music must be easy, and therefore it must be fairly inconsequential. Demanding pieces of music, such as the string quartets of Béla Bartók, would be commercial disasters.

But now, is worship inconsequential, trivial, or insignificant? Is meeting with God a casual, inconsequential activity, or a significant one? Is religious faith itself insignificant? If the music or lyrics of our hymns are insignificant or inconsequential, do they not send the wrong meta-message? Does not their very commonness, their mundaneness, their everydayness, their inconsequentiality suggest precisely the wrong thing? The lyrics of a hymn might say, “Holy, holy, holy,” but the music might say, “Ho-hum, ho-hum, ho-hum.” In such a case, the meta-message competes with and contradicts the message. Neil Postman rightly said*: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” So what is at stake is the kind of religion presented in music that is easy, trivial, light, inconsequential, mundane, or everyday. The very existence of the expression sacred music once conveyed the notion that some music was different from other music, intentionally different, differently precisely because it was devoted to a sacred (not a common) cause.

* The Neil Postman quote is from his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”, page 121.