Theology and Music

I remember at 13 years old walking through a Christian bookstore on a trip to Melbourne with my family. It was a big deal; we didn’t really have anything like it back at home. It was kind of surreal, now that I think about it, with so many products and things being sold, branding the name of Christ. As an emerging teenager, I was aware that I needed some new music, not just to satisfy my ego and prove that I was growing up, but also because I really had no music to listen to and I thought that Christian music would be a fairly solid place to start. I walked over and stared at the rack of CDs and flipped through a few before I laid eyes on this:

forget-and-not-slow-down-album-cover

I had never heard of Relient K, nor had I any idea of what genre of music they played. I just picked it up and thought ‘$12… I am sure I could manage that’. Relient K quickly became my favourite band, mainly out of necessity, but also because their genre and lyrical depth appealed to my 13-year-old self. For one of the first times I had access to a group of guys who sung about girls, which is rather typical, but who also sung about faith, and their struggles to come to grips with trials that they had faced. It was really timely for me; the questions I had were not necessarily answered by these guys, but I knew that I wasn’t alone in what I experienced, even if I had never met them.

Not long after I arrived here in Canada, Relient K announced that they were joining Switchfoot on tour, and playing in Vancouver! I was jumping out of my skin with excitement! A wonderful friend from our community, Nathan, was even so gracious as to buy me a ticket! Of course, I knew all the words and sang along like a crazy person, because that is how it goes when everything is so loud you can’t hear yourself, and I had an absolute ball. Relient K are one of those artists (for me anyway) who can play just as well, if not better when live as opposed to in a studio, and their character and stage presence was engaging the whole time. It was one of those ‘dream come true’ kind of days, so Nathan, I owe you a world of gratitude. They played a whole bunch of fun stuff, but also a whole lot of faith based songs; it really is remarkable how you can come to understand someone’s theology through their music and the way they write.

Some of my favourite snippets from that first album I bought give some incredible insight into how the guys from Relient K understand their own faith:

Sahara //

   Lying on my side, knowing of thirst is how I’ve died; Choke on my tongue.

    Lying on the night beneath the dunes is where I lie block the sun.

   So I’ll ask one thing, just one thing of you, don’t turn me loose even when I turn my back.

   I’ve found this brutally evocative of the plight of Israel, especially during Lamentations,      where their throats are parched, desperate for God not to forget them in their turning          away. At the same time, it’s a vivid image of just how desperate we can become in                 clinging to our own stuff, especially when we turn our backs.

Forget and Not Slow Down //

    I’d rather forget and not slow down, than gather regret for the things I can’t change now,
If I become what I can’t accept, resurrect the saint from within the wretch,
Pour over me and wash my hands of it

    Cause I could spend my life just trying to sift through,
What I could’ve done better but what good do what ifs do?

    Amassing guilt and shame can tend to be a Christian’s spiritual version of hoarding, and     this song was a huge encouragement for me to let my anxiety be given to God and to             trust him to wash me clean.

Whilst it is true that the guys in Relient K are not pastors, or anything of the sort, really, it is also true that they sing out of their experience and testimony, sharing their unique understanding of God. The way we listen to ‘Christian music’ tends to get a little tricky here, because the experience of praising God through music is so very circumstantial. What I may gain or learn about God through someone else’s testimony is entirely different from you. We all hear these different messages relating to different areas of our lives. The ball game changes seemingly so subtly, but ever so significantly, however, when we adopt those songs and sing them as our own. All of a sudden it is not a question of simply understanding or interpreting how God has spoken to someone else, it becomes the taking of a portion of their story and trying to experience it for ourselves. It’s become a hallmark of our music industry to not just understand, but identify with artists and their message. But how can we possibly jam a moment in someone’s life experience into our own theology in exactly the same way it affected them? There is just so much of their story that we just don’t know.

Worship music, albeit in a slightly different context, tends to follow the same pattern of experientialism. Except in this genre of music the stakes are so much higher. No longer are we simply talking about misappropriating someone’s personal understanding of God, but about misunderstanding God himself, his character and work. I was at church recently and the worship leader confidently declared that ‘here at our church we really pride ourselves on the fact that we sing our theology’. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that; However, when you follow that statement up with songs that are a mash of misappropriated Bible verses, mixed metaphors from scripture that don’t convey the truth they are intended to hold, or even statements contradictory to scripture, then I think we have lost ourselves somewhere along the way. And when you let such manipulated words fill out your theology it is no longer the Bible that your theology is based on. The very real danger is that we often choose our worship songs according to how we feel, thus creating an image or an idea of God that we want to praise; we begin to steer more and more into making God who we want him to be, rather than worshipping him for who he is.

At this point there really has to be an honest questioning as to whether the songs we sing actually have Biblical merit to them, or whether they just appease our consciences and pander to emotional experientialism. Unfortunately, we don’t often today search for truth in worship as intently as we search for catchy tunes and the ‘warm fuzzies’. The greatest worship songs are impossibly difficult to sing, because they cut to the core of who Christ is and how we ought to respond to him, Biblically. They make you contemplate the gravity of Christ, not contemplate how emotionally charged and ‘spiritually high’ you are. One of my favourites goes like this:

//

Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to Thee, Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King, Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from Thee. 

Take my will and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine, Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store, Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

//

How impossible to sing with all sincerity! And yet what an incredible expression of just what it is to consecrate oneself completely to God, to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow [Jesus].  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake will find it” – Matthew 16:24-25. At the end of it all God is worthy of all praise, and every word must lift him up without compromise and glorify his name in all truth, as we sing with hearts all for him.

Grace and Peace

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