December 04, 2006

Hymns and CCM I listened to a number of CCM artists recently for an article I was writing for The Hymn, and what surprised me was how often they quoted the words of well-known hymns. Jars of Clay, Kirk Franklin, Selah, DC Talk, Newsboys, all slip easily from pop vernacular into the heightened language taken directly from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley or Fanny Crosby. At first, I found it odd, even though I knew the work of some of them. Where does this come from? Isn't the idea of “contemporary” music to be, well, contemporary? Aren't contemporary artists supposed to be exploring a contemporary language of worship along with the contemporary musical idiom they are exploring? There's a cynical take on this. CCM artists are putting out hymn “product” In the same way that any commercial act will produce a Christmas album. Let's face it: Christmas piety sells. A Christian audience responds, at least in part, to the familiar cadences of traditional hymnody. But the cynical take will only take us so far. For one thing, there is a huge segment of the Christian church for whom hymns have no nostalgic connection. They were raised on contemporary pop music on their car radio, CCM on their CD players, with praise and worship music forming a large part of their worship. It could be partly the depth and resonance that history brings. The words of historic hymn writers have survived the test of time. If you want a quick lesson on what that test means, look at an old hymnal at the hundreds of hymns. They are full of words that you could never sing today without wincing, groaning or laughing out loud. The hymns that have survived this test offer more than re-assurance and stability. In fact they are as full of the recognition of uncertainty, struggle and pain as they are of steadfast assurance. What they do is to give us perspective on our own agonies, and let us know that others have faced them before us. The cloud of witnesses still bears witness. But I think there remains a hunger that, successful as it is, contemporary music has not been able to satisfy. That is the hunger for common song - for lack of a better word, congregational song. At the time I was listening to CCM artists, I watched the documentary “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.” I was amazed to watch everyone singing. And not doing live karaoke during a concert, when the lead singer pointed the mike at the audience, but sitting around actually singing a song from beginning to end. It felt very much like a worship service, secular perhaps, but still able to inspire, encourage and offer vision for that generation. And how strange it seemed, how anachronistic. I have little nostalgia for the supposed good-old days of the sixties, but I found it interesting that the generation noted for its activism on the public front was also active in its group singing. Could it be that...
A Question of Accessibility Back in Nov., I got an insightful email from a congregant about a phrase we sang in a song during our weekend church services. The song was "Give Us Clean Hands" by Charlie Hall. See if you can find the phrase in question. Here are the lyrics: Give Us Clean Hands Charlie Hall Verse We bow our hearts we bend our knees Oh Spirit come make us humble We turn our eyes from evil things Oh Lord we cast down our idols Chorus Give us clean hands give us pure hearts Let us not lift our souls to another Give us clean hands give us pure hearts Let us not lift our souls to another And oh God let us be a generation that seeks That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob And oh God let us be a generation that seeks That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob ©2000 songs (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing); sixsteps Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) What was the phrase in question? The answer is "God of Jacob." My friend wanted to know what that meant. Here is what I said to him: Great question! Quick history lesson: Jacob was the third Biblical patriarch. His father was Isaac, and his grandfather was Abraham. Jacob, together with Esau, was born to Isaac and Rebeccah after 20 years of marriage, at which time his father was 60 (Genesis 25:26), and Abraham was 160 years old. During Rebeccah’s pregnancy, "the children struggled together within her" (Genesis 25:22). Rebeccah questioned God about it and learned that she was going to give birth to two children. They would become the founders of two very different nations. Jacob would be the father of the nation that God would bless, Israel. The phrase “God of Jacob” is a type of technical phrase used as a general designation of the God of the patriarchs [as mentioned before: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob]. Some references speak of the “God of my [your, thy, his, their] father” without mention of a particular father, while other references include the name of a particular patriarch [i.e. God of Jacob]. So the Bible uses the formula to emphasize continuity between the God who is revealed to Moses and the God who guided the patriarchs. It is important to note that under the new covenant, in the New Testament, this formula is transformed to mark the continuity between historic Israel and Christianity [that’s us]. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the same as the God revealed to the patriarchs. The promises made to Abraham established the concept of a people descended through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who would be in a special historical and spiritual relationship with God. So in the song, when we sing “God of Jacob” we are recognizing that we are from a long line of descendants that have a special historical and spiritual relationship with God. It’s pretty powerful! I hope that makes sense. Thanks for probing... Upon reflecting...

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