Problematic worship music.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 July

The stuff I listen to. And don’t.

We sang a song in my church last Sunday, “Set a Fire” by Will Reagan & United Pursuit. It’s hardly the first time; we’ve worshiped with it dozens of times before. It was a popular song on the radio for a while, ’cause it’s catchy. We like the “I want more of you God” bit, and how there’s no place we’d rather be than in God’s love and presence.

But, to paraphrase Jesus, Rv 2.4 I have this against it. Here’s the relevant portion:

(So) set a fire down in my soul
That I can’t contain and I can’t control
I want more of you God
I want more of you God

What’s wrong with it? Well, that fire we can’t contain and can’t control.

The idea runs contrary to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of self-control. There should be nothing in our lives which we can’t take hold of. Yes, even things of the Spirit. For

1 Corinthians 14.32-33 KWL
32 Prophets’ spirits are in submission to the prophets,
33A for God doesn’t do disorder, but peace.

The prayer, “God, would you please just take me over and make me do [thing we lack the self-control to do],” is a really popular one. But it’s not one God wants to say yes to. He’s trying to develop self-control in us; he shouldn’t have to take such matters into his hands. (And y’might notice whenever he does, people really don’t like it as much as we imagined we would.)

So Christians might like the idea of more zeal. More “fire down in my soul” which we claim is beyond our ability to contain. Problem is, zealous Christians have consistently used that zeal as an excuse for unkind, unchristian, fruitless, godless behavior. An out-of-control Christian is always a harmful Christian. When have you ever seen someone who loves others (following the proper definition of love, of course) out of control? Well you don’t, ’cause love behaves itself.

Problem is, in many a church Christians are more familiar with the worship song than the bible. True of most worship songs. We quote them. We follow them. Less so Jesus.

I guarantee you this song’s fans, as soon as they hear this critique, will immediately swoop in to defend the song. “Oh that’s not what the songwriter meant to say.” Fair enough; it may not be what he meant. But it is what he said, and is how Christians are gonna interpret it. Good intentions don’t redeem a song. Better lyrics, better aligned with the scriptures, do.

But people don’t determine our favorite songs by the lyrics. We like the music.

Do you listen to the words?

From time to time, just for fun, I tell people what their favorite songs mean. It frequently surprises them. They know the song, and can even sing along to it, but somehow comprehension never managed to kick in, and they had no idea that’s what the song means. If they don’t approve of the meaning, it’ll even horrify them. It’s kinda like finding out there was a dead cockroach in your coffee.

Sometimes I get some pushback: “No, it doesn’t mean that. You’re exaggerating.” Yeah, sometimes I overemphasize the bits that’ll outrage ’em most. Or my interpretation of the song is a bit more cynical than theirs. But for the most part people realize I’m not kidding: That’s exactly what the song means. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” is about strangers hooking up in a bar; Van Halen’s “Jump” encourages a suicidal jumper to go for it; John Lennon’s “Imagine” glorifies Marxism. (Seriously; he admitted as much.)

When I’m talking about secular music, Christians might be surprised at the song meanings, but ultimately not that surprised. We’re already a bit suspicious about secular music. But when it comes to the Christian stuff we get a lot more naïve. We assume it’s Christian, so it’s safe.

We forget: Your average Christian musician is not a trained theologian. Trained musician, most of the time. Knows their way around a piano and guitar; knows how to read music; might even know some music theory. But as far as Christianity is concerned, they tend to know just as much as any other Christian. Which, sad to say, ain’t enough.

I know Christian musicians who write worship songs. I also know darned few of them ever bother to ask their pastors and elder Christians, “Hey, what do you think about this line?” The musicians who are brand-new Christians (and are admittedly too new to really be tackling Christian music) realize they don’t know as much as they ought, so they’re quick to turn to knowledgeable Christians for confirmation. But the musicians who’ve been Christian for 10 years or more, who presume they have a pretty good handle on this God stuff, don’t think they need any such confirmation. Iron needn’t sharpen iron; they’re quite sharp enough.

So when they slip some pop-culture spirituality into a Christian song, it might sound profound, but it won’t stand up to scrutiny. However it will make it onto Christian radio, because it’s never scrutinized. After all, who in the music business even knows how to scrutinize it? Seldom is it the musician, or the producers, the record label, the station managers, the deejays. Or even the audience.

Those of us who do scrutinize it are treated as if we’re the bad guys: How dare we nitpick these earnest Christian artists? They mean well.

Okay fine; they mean well. But let’s be honest: They mean to sell albums. They’re trying to write a catchy song. Lyrics are important, but not all that important; they’re not writing hymns. (And, which I’ll get to in a moment, sometimes the hymn-writers don’t have the best theology.) Knowing artists, few of ’em even want any criticism of their work, even when it’s constructive: They just wanna express themselves with as few restrictions and limitations as possible.

As a result we get popular Christian songs which convey problematic theology. Like these better-known examples.

  • Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love,” in which he sings of the “overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.” It’s a catchy song, but it’s undone by that word reckless, which describes an action where no thought is made of the consequences. And God always reckons the consequences; indeed, thoughtless love isn’t love at all. God’s the opposite of reckless. So’s his love. It’s fierce, but far from reckless.
  • Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” in which he sings “You give and take away…” an idea borrowed from Job’s “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Jb 1.21 But people don’t always realize Job was wrong: The chapter had just clearly stated Satan had taken away, not the LORD. Jb 1.12-19 Since Job was unaware of the goings-on behind the scenes, he wrongly credited the Almighty with the devil’s usual acts of killing, stealing, and devouring. It might be good Calvinism, but it’s bad theology.
  • John Gibson’s “Jesus, We Celebrate Your Victory” has in verse 2, “And in his presence our problems disappear.” There are a lot of songs which express the same idea: Come to Jesus and he’ll fix everything. I really wish it were so, but y’all should know by now Jesus never promised us a problem-free existence. The world has suffering in it. Jesus conquered the world, Jn 16.33 but he made it quite clear there’s still gonna be suffering for his name. Ac 9.16
  • Stuart Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” sings about how, when Jesus was dying on the cross, “the Father turned his face away.” Kari Jobe’s “Forever” includes the same idea, in the line “As heaven looked away.” It’s this old idea that Jesus, in taking the sins of the world upon himself, caused the Father to forsake the Son. It’s heresy, of course: The trinity is indivisible. It may be a popular heresy, but it’s still heresy.
  • Townend and Keith Getty’s “In Christ Alone” pushes a particular theory of how atonement works in the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied.” It’s called the penal substitutionary theory, a popular view among dark Christians, which holds that God wanted to kill us for our sin, and in taking on our sins Jesus sated God’s bloodlust. Since Jesus is God, the theory can’t hold up without splitting the trinity. But y’notice, in the other Townend song I mentioned, he doesn’t have any qualms about that.
  • Jesus Culture’s “Your Love Never Fails” includes the line, “You make all things work together for my good,” quoting Romans 8.28 out of context—as, to be fair, loads of Christians do.
  • Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know,” his bit of mansplaining to Jesus’s mother, has become a Christmas staple. But to look at the lyrics, it sounds like Lowry has never read the Magnificat, Mary’s poem indicating she understood very well who her Son is, and knew far more than Lowry does.

Likely you can think of others… if you think.

As for hymns: Plenty of ’em are written to reflect the beliefs of the author. Hence there are a number of hymns with Calvinist ideas in ’em about how Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world. Or postmillennial hymns which sing about how we Christians have to establish God’s kingdom here on earth before Jesus can return. Or hymns written by theological liberals who wanna emphasize happy feelings and general revelation; or by civic idolaters who wanna emphasize our nation above any and all others. Don’t just assume because it’s in a hymnal, it’s safe. Hymnals are put together by publishing companies, not necessarily theologians.

Led by the shallow theology of Christian radio.

I ranted previously about K-LOVE. The rare occasions I listen to it is when a fellow Christian has the radio on. And my usual reaction is, “Ah, so that’s why we’ve been singing that song so often in church lately.” Because it’s all over the radio, it worms its way into many a church’s set list.

It’s a little disturbing to realize the folks who program popular Christian radio are heavily influencing what Americans sing to God. Because same as musicians, program directors aren’t necessarily trained theologians. They presume someone else in the music business made sure this stuff was theologically safe. And of course there is no such person.

How does Christian radio get programmed? Pretty much the same as every other radio station. Unless it’s owned by a pastor or church who wants to be extra-careful about the content, it’s typically programmed by an earnest Christian who just wants to put Christian content on the air. They’ll have enough sense to not play anything overtly antichrist. Nothing obviously heretic. Nothing which’ll cause Christians to call the station en masse and complain, “Why are you guys playing a song which says God’s not a trinity?” Christian radio executives tend to be familiar enough with basic Christian orthodoxy to catch the more egregious problems.

If it’s a Top 40 type station, it’s programmed the very same way any Top 40 station is done. The program directors look at the Billboard charts for the top 40 songs in their particular format: “Christian” (i.e. pop and rock) or “Gospel” (i.e. R&B and hip-hop; basically the division between “Christian” and “Gospel” is race). They play the top 20 songs heavily, and the next 20 songs frequently. The rest of the airtime is filled with new songs which’ve been heavily promoted by the record labels, or old songs which’ve been heavily requested by the listeners.

Ultimately radio stations are trying to get listeners. The way you do that is to give the people what they want. Top 40 is what people want, right? They picked the top 40, after all.

Thing is, we’re dealing with Christians. Of all stripes: Longtime followers of Jesus and newbies. People with a great deal of Christian maturity and people with no maturity at all. Fruitful and fruitless, wise and foolish, sincere and hypocritical. The mature Christians are gonna discern what’s good and what’s garbage. The immature Christians… not so much. Since the garbage tends to pander to them, as bad theology typically does, they kinda like the garbage.

And God help your church if your music pastor also kinda likes the garbage.