My faith was younger than my boots and the leather in my boots still squeaked. But my friend Joel knew Christ from childhood. As we snaked up a Colorado canyon in Joel’s Chevy, Rich Mullins blared from the speakers: “Jacob, he loved Rachel and Rachel, she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect.” Joel blurted out, “That’s terrible theology.”
It had never dawned on me to evaluate Mullins’ words, especially when I was thinking about fly-fishing, but Joel planted a seed. I began to listen with discernment, not only to Christian radio but also to the songs I sang in church.
No lack of critics chasten contemporary praise music. Often repetitious, shallow, and of sophomoric quality, the proverbial “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre provides ready-made fodder for denunciation. Traditionalists tout the theological richness of hymnody while others praise the devotional warmth of contemporary songs. The so-called worship wars remain, but most evangelicals reside in a demilitarized zone of tolerance. Some embrace the lyrical equivalent of Gerber baby food while others glory in steak and potatoes. Just don’t foist your preference on my church and we can still be friends.
Few critics have tackled a more foundational truth: Hymnody is not poetry and poetry is not hymnody.
Poetry invites personal interpretation. A poet suggests rather than declares, encouraging readers to participate in forming meaning. Poets weave ambiguity into their work, causing readers to strive for understanding. Poet and academic Joseph DeRoche suggests that a poem unfolds “without directly telling the reader what conclusions to draw.” Rather, “The poet selects images and places them together, and . . . the poem, like a small explosion, really occurs in the reader’s brain.”
Hymnody, on the other hand, must articulate truth rather than encourage mental detonations. In Colossians 3:16, Paul commands the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In other words, singing in worship represents an extension of the teaching ministry of the church. A skillful hymn writer therefore crafts an orthodox message rather than inviting personal interpretation.
All worship songs reside on a spectrum. At one end stand theological songs—proclaiming truth, doctrine, and duty. At the other end stand devotional songs—capturing Christian experience, trials, and joys. Most songs boast both elements. But if rhyme after rhyme suggest biblical themes while establishing no clear meaning, the writer has blundered. The church should no more sing ambiguous lyrics than pastors should preach ambiguous sermons.
New songs often fail this ambiguity test, but so do old hymns. In “Blessed Assurance” Fanny Crosby penned, “Angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Tell me, “What is an echo of mercy?” I’ve asked many Christians that question, and no two ever offered the same answer. The ambiguity of Crosby’s lyrics forces each worshipper to ascribe his or her own meaning.
But congregational worship requires unity. Believers pray, confess, and listen to the Word together. When a congregation sings of angels bringing “echoes of mercy,” one man may recall the angel who promised Jesus to Mary, foretelling God’s mercy to a sinful world. Another might conjure images of the angel of the Lord decimating Sennacherib’s army, granting last-minute mercy to Jerusalem. The woman one pew over might envision the angel who touched Isaiah’s lips with a live coal, granting mercy to the guilty prophet.
Scripture describes many angels and many acts of mercy. But no echoes.
Such lyrics do not teach. They invite private interpretation, for they establish no clear meaning.
Does your church sing words that extend its teaching ministry? Whether old or new are your worship songs clear and orthodox? Or does the sanctuary resound with muted mental explosions?
Rich Mullins may have been wrong but at least I knew what he meant.