Worship Music: Something Tells Me It Shouldn’t Be the Worst Music

Martin Stillion’s blog — What You Will — features this entry relating to Steve Bell’s piercing words on contemporary worship music. Bell did an interview with CT’s Mark Moring. (I talk with Mark every day… how did I miss this interview?!) It gave him the opportunity to share some blunt, but insightful, thoughts on what’s gone wrong with Christian music.

My blood boils reading this, not because it bothers me, but because I agree so wholeheartedly.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet departed the Patheos network in order to escape click-bait advertisements that were offending him and his readers. He will re-launch Looking Closer at lookingcloser.org soon. He is the author of The Auralia Thread, a four-volume fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors, and a memoir of "dangerous moviegoing" called Through a Screen Darkly. He teaches creative writing and film studies; speaks internationally about art and faith; served as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College; and is employed by Seattle Pacific University as a project manager, copyeditor, and writer.

  • Noneofyourbusiness

    Pullman doesn’t say in his books that loves leads inexorably to misery, but he’s quite incorrect in saying there’s no love in Narnia. There is filios, agape, eros and all that. I read and enjoyed both series. I don’t know how it can be said His Dark Materials is misogynistic.
    Cornelius is not a human-looking dwarf, he is half-human half-dwarf. Jadis is said by the Beavers to be inherently bad because she’s a nonhuman that looks human, but Lewis retcons that in The Magician’s Nephew, where it turns out that Jadis’ ancestors started out good and gradually grew bad over the centuries, like the people of Atlantis or Numenor, culminating in her.
    As for anti-vegetarian and pro-smoking, it’s not as though they had the same scientific knowledge as we do today or that the environment was in as bad a shape. The fact that Eustace’s parents “wore a special kind of underclothes” is really funny.

  • jasdye

    he’s going to hell for that!

  • Peter T Chattaway

    race, in the sense of how we contemporarily define it and certainly how Pullman means for it to be deciphered, is a construct.

    It is true that race, on one level, is an intersubjective social construction. But it is also true that race, on another level, is an objective genetic fact.

    The same could be said of “family”. On one level, parents sometimes “adopt” people with whom they have no direct genetic link, or they “disown” people with whom they do have such a link. But on another level, the genetic links between close relatives are very, very real, and can imply significant things; hence, when my wife went for an ultrasound a month or two ago, we discovered that she was carrying twins when the nurse said, “Tell me about your family histories.”

    Since Pullman is a big believer in science and evolution and all the genetic ramifications of that, I would not necessarily assume that he understands the term “race” on a purely social-construct level.

    if i remember my teenaged reading well, the white witch was a human being, a descendent of adam and eve like the rest of us, right?

    No, not quite like the rest of us. As I wrote above, the White Witch is a mixed-race descendant of the Jinn and the Giants (who, themselves, were mixed-race descendants of humans and gods).

    but, my favorite accusation was the anti-vegetarianism one. lewis, you devil anti-vegetarian!

    Not just anti-vegetarian, but pro-smoking! :)

  • jasdye

    race, in the sense of how we contemporarily define it and certainly how Pullman means for it to be deciphered, is a construct. it is not a reality that there are ‘blacks’ and there are ‘whites’ and their are ‘browns’ or whatever we call ‘non-whites’ these days. it’s all insulting because it’s all fake.

    if i remember my teenaged reading well, the white witch was a human being, a descendent of adam and eve like the rest of us, right? would that be her race, the human race. so, i think pullman could be considered correct. lewis trips on the human race, much like tolkien does in the Lord of the Rings.

    but, my favorite accusation was the anti-vegetarianism one. lewis, you devil anti-vegetarian!

  • John

    OK…maybe I should go back and read the books. You say it has something to do with the giants in Genesis 6, who are confusing critters as is. All I was saying (trying to say…guess I did a bad job of it) was it is in keeping with original sin, assuming she was a descendant of Adam and Eve (which I guess she’s not). I don’t know, maybe it’s just old-fashioned beaver versus giant prejudice…you know how that can be.;)

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Well, I don’t think what the Beavers say is necessarily racist, at least not in the sense of skin color.

    Well, there is a lot more to race than mere skin colour! Race is a basically genetic thing; hence, for example, some diseases are more prevalent among some racial groups than others. Skin colour is just one of the many ways in which these genetics express themselves.

    The question here is whether the state of being evil is a genetically inherited thing. And the Beavers seem to think that it is.

    What I’m saying is, Lewis may have been referring to her ancestry as being Adam & Eve, and then this statement would be most definitely true.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean to say here.

    For one thing, the Beavers say that Jadis is descended, on one side, from Adam’s first wife Lilith (this is the wife Adam supposedly had in Genesis 1, before Eve was created in Genesis 2), and, on the other side, from the giants (perhaps the same giants who are called “heroes” in Genesis 6, and who were destroyed by the Flood). Since the giants were half-human and half-divine, they would certainly be descendants of Adam and Eve on their human side; and thus Jadis would be, too.

    The key question here is, Does being descended from these people make Jadis a bad person? The Beavers certainly seem to think so (“That’s why she’s bad all through”), but I’m not so sure, myself.

  • The Cubicle Reverend

    I have not read His Dark Materials, but from what I’ve read about the guy he seems like an extremely negative person.

  • John

    Well, I don’t think what the Beavers say is necessarily racist, at least not in the sense of skin color. What I’m saying is, Lewis may have been referring to her ancestry as being Adam & Eve, and then this statement would be most definitely true. It’s an interesting question, but that’s what pops into my head when I consider it.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    I know I keep saying I’m on the verge of posting something about LWW at my own blog, but I really do intend to post something soon …

    Anyway, I have to say that, having re-read LWW a week or two ago, I was a bit bothered by the way the Beavers assert that the White Witch is bad because of who her ancestors were. I know the Beavers are hardly infallible — they make similarly dismissive comments about dwarfs, especially dwarfs that look a lot like humans, which would seem to be contradicted by the Narnia sequels (Cornelius, anyone?) — but I do think Lewis intends us to accept this particular statement of theirs.

    And suffice to say, this statement of theirs did tinkle the “racism” alarm bells in my own mind. But maybe that’s just because I am so used to recent science-fiction shows which assume that seemingly monstrous alien species are ultimately human deep down, with their good sides and their bad sides, just like the rest of us — you just have to get to know them first.

    Or maybe it’s because Shrek (co-directed by the man who is now directing Narnia) proved that ogres and dragons are people, too. :)

  • Neb

    Pullman amazes me yet again with his abundance of sour grapes. I’ve read the Narnia chronicles, and I’ve read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. If the Narnia stuff is love-less and misogynistic, then Pullman’s trilogy is positively nihilistic and even more misogynistic. Love, real love, abounds throuhout the Narnia series. There are evil women AND men.

    What is Pullman’s problem? He is a gifted (if neurotic) writer who’s prose is a delight to read. On the other hand, I found his trilogy to be, on the whole, depressing, especially the final chapter. Does he feel superior because he is darker and edgier? Are we supposed to see his world view as superior because he makes God out to be a third-rate hack angel on His last legs? Is the world he created a better one because the Church is founded on lies, there is no good or evil (only relative utilitarian objectives), and love only leads to misery? I’ll take Lewis or Tolkien any day.

  • Rick R

    As additional support of the new Jars of Clay “worship” cd, I should state I’m not really a Jars fan. I loved their first cd, didn’t care for their second, haven’t really bothered with them since. So I guess I can see why both of you, Shar and Martin, would be skeptical about a Jars worship cd. In fact, had it not been a gift, maybe I’d be skeptical, too, and wouldn’t have bothered picking it up.

    So while I understand why one might think they’re being lazy, or lost the creative energy, by putting out a worship cd of hymns and praise songs, it unfortunately means you’re missing out on a really strong set of music. They’ve crafted a set of really good alt rock/pop music to the lyrics of hymns and praise songs.

    (And no…I don’t work for Jars management. Just trying to point out that there is some really strong straightforward Christian music out there, if one is willing to look for it. The Jars “Redemption Songs” cd is one such album.)

    Someone try it…tell me if I’m nuts!

  • Shar

    I agree with what Martin said about Jars of Clay. Great observation. I agree their first album was incredible, but now they’ve become lazy or something. Releasing an album of old standby hymns definately sounds like it. Don’t know what happened there. I guess I’m cynical, too.

    I’m going to check out Kate Miner.

    I will say the late Mark Heard was one of the best.

    As far as worship music goes, perhaps I’m not spiritual enough, but I just don’t get it most of the time. It almost seems to have it’s own cult following.

  • Rick R

    Wow. Quite a cynical statement to say “Releasing a collection of hymns is a good thing to do when your own creativity hits a wall.” I guess that means gospel albums by anyone – Ray Charles, Blind Boys of Alabama, whoever – must be lacking creatively, since it’s just people singing songs we’ve all heard before and what-not. I think that’s just not true, since good performers/groups can make quality music even doing tried and true songs we’ve heard many times before.

    That’s what I’d say in defense of the new Jars cd. It’s inspired music played by good musicians, and the fact that it is worship music makes it all the more great. The cd is full of good arrangements combined with great alt rock music…it stacks up well musically to most secular stuff I like, and the fact that it is worship music makes it a big plus.

    In defense of Delirious, I haven’t seen them live, so I can’t comment on the 14 years old statement, but I wasn’t talking about their live performances, I was talking about “King of Fools” and “World Service.” And I can say that I’d stack either of those cds up against most secular rock albums. These two cds are full of high quality rock that have the added bonus of being worshipful in nature.

    I’ll try Kate Miner sometime. Thanks for the tip. (This blurb from Amazon sounds intriguing: “Kate Miner is not your typical worship leader. She’s a woman on a mission-a mission to bring worshop music to a level of art that often times seems to be lacking in the genre today. Kate writes straight from the heart, no-nonsense songs of worship.”)

  • Shar

    Whoa……quite the discussion happening here. I can see that the music issue will always be considered one for much heated discussion in the christian community.

    Just the fact that there has to be some sort of formula to make a “successful worship song” as Martin was describing tells me that the whole genre has lost spontaneity and become more of an industry.

    By the way, as much as I will take a stand and say that most christian music is over-produced and sanitized, I have followed U2 since their start back in the early 80′s and would not describe it as so called christian music. They are simply honest individuals singing about their faith and not afraid to cry out to their God in discouragement from time to time like King David did in the psalms. Bruce Cockburn is not afraid to be real, either. I never considered him to be christian music, I have lots of non-christian friends who listen to him, same with U2.

    We have a local musician here who is a singer/songwriter and worship leader and he cries out to God in despair many a time with his music. Someone had confronted him after a service and asked him if he really believed in God. Huh? I guess he didn’t use the “successful worship song” formula.

    What is the definition of christian music anyway? Forgive me, but I just listen to inspired music, and actually am more inspired by that sincere 19 year old than the most polished, successful worship song. It’s all in the spirit of how it is presented.

  • Martin

    Yeah, I have a suggestion: Kate Miner, a tigress among housecats. There are a couple of cuts on her live disc I could live without, but otherwise I’d stack up her catalog against that of any “worship” band going.

    And sorry to rain on anyone’s parade, but Deliriou5? is a big part of the problem. I saw them live and thought, “No one over 14 has any business being here.” The first Jars of Clay CD was lightning in a bottle. They haven’t come close again. I think Jars of Clay have been gazing at their navels of clay so long they haven’t noticed their feet of clay. Releasing a collection of hymns is a good thing to do when your own creativity hits a wall.

    Just two cents from your favorite curmudgeon.

  • Rick R

    I agree with what everyone is saying. For the most part, I can’t stand straightforward “Christian” music.

    That said, instead of slamming horrible music, we should be recommending to each other stuff that we think is quality “Christian” music, because there’s some great Christian music out there that’s straightforward praise/worship music, but also really good.

    In addition to U2, Over the Rhine, Sixpence None the Richer, here’s some stuff I’d highly recommend.

    Delirious – “King of Fools” and “World Service”. Excellent music, some great praise and worship songs.

    Tree63 – their first album, self-titled Tree63, is an awesome collection of guitar-driven praise and worship songs. That cd was in my rotation for a LONG time.

    Third Day – Offerings. One of the first outright Chritian albums I bought and played over and over. I love the Southern rock feel to the songs.

    Jars of Clay – “Redemption Songs.” This is a new album. I got it for Father’s Day. It’s a mix of hymns, praise songs, psalms…with the Jars of Clay stamp on them. Their version of “It is Well With my Soul” is phenomenal.

    So there you have five cds by four groups that are loaded with wonderful praise and worship songs, very rich musically, raising them far above the bland Christian stuff that drives us all nuts.

    Anyone have any other recommendations?

  • sg

    I think the body can sing “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” or whatever, if done in the right “spirit” and for the right reasons are beautiful to God.

    He requires a broken and contrite heart, not necessarily a good, bad, or ugly song. I think all three can be used in the worship setting. I know as a musician I’d rather create good/beautiful/artistic worship as opposed to whatever the opposite is…but I still think it is a matter of the heart and not the artistic goodness of the piece of music, in regards to worship.

    …I still have little patience or time for crappy songs. :) That’s why I like Over the Rhine and U2 and Bruce Cockburn.

  • Martin

    Quoth Steven: Worship needs to happen in community. I think WHAT the community says is important, but do all meetings of the saints have to be artistically beautiful as well? Can’t they be ugly, uncoordinated, uplanned, not-so-perfect songs by 19 year olds who love God?

    Well, yes — and I wouldn’t construe Bell’s comments as saying otherwise. I think the “worship music” industry is just as uninterested in “ugly, uncoordinated, uplanned, not-so-perfect songs” as it is in artistic beauty.

    I just read a column in a worship music magazine by one of the hot current worship songwriters, ticking off the components of a successful worship song as he saw them. (Not, mind you, a good worship song, or a worship song that properly honors God. A successful worship song.)

    According to this writer, you have to plan your song around certain elements: major key; “accessible” (i.e., dumbed-down, lowest common denominator) melody/chord progression; long high sustained note somewhere in the melody line; etc. Seems to me that trying to write along such lines will kill spontaneity dead. That rules out your 19-year-olds.

    These guidelines also have nothing to do with beauty or artistic/aesthetic quality, and seem likely to work against them in most cases. So, the result might be “successful,” but it is not likely to be either beautiful or genuine.

  • Shar

    Yay Steve Bell! Finally, someone with a voice who has courage to stand up to what has become a very sanitized form of music (with a few exceptions). This has been a peeve of mine for years. If we read the psalms, we will find much more honesty.

    An aquaintance of mine who had never gone to church before decided to go to one of our big box churches here and walked out of there like she had just been to the Twilight Zone. She said “this is church nowadays? It felt like I was at a telethon.”

    And just a little comment in praise of Mr. Bell. A number of years ago I went to a very intimate concert of his at a small local church here in Kelowna, BC, not knowing who he was. I was so impressed with his honest spirit and what impressed me even more was that he didn’t have a cover charge and relied on the good will offering to cover his travel costs. I’m sure he can’t do that anymore, because he has definately come a long way, but this man has no ego, and when he takes a stand against what christian music has become, I’m sure it comes from a pure, aching and sincere heart.

  • sg

    I don’t want to give the impression that I despise Christian artists or don’t listen to any music labeled “Christian”, it’s simply not a world I’ve been apart of in a long while.

  • jasdye

    yeah, yeah, wait until Coldplay releases a worship album. o, sorry, they’ve released several of ‘em. with U2. they were released under the moniker deliriou5.

    read that interview last week. yep. the classics are classics because they wore the best of time. the modern worship music scene is a flooding of the market with a new type of hymnology, some of the songs being great (seriously, deliriou5? has some really good stuff, as well as fred hammond and israel & new breed), some mediocre and much of it (much like much of any era’s music) bad (i just qualified three types of music instead of ellington’s honored two). the good ones will survive. but i’m guessing the market will slow, and we’ll be allowed to breath again.

    and then maybe somewhere, someone will start reading and listening to the classics and be inspired.

  • sg

    I’m not a big fan of any Christian music…well, that gets us into another topic of discussion that could go on for months. (Over the Rhine, Bruce Cockburn, U2, blah, blah, blah, etc., whatever, amen).

    Worship needs to happen in community. I think WHAT the community says is important, but do all meetings of the saints have to be artistically beautiful as well? Can’t they be ugly, uncoordinated, uplanned, not-so-perfect songs by 19 year olds who love God? I’m all for wisdom and experience and maturity, but I’m also uncomfortable exalting the old simply because we’ve been doing it longer and it’s stuck. There are many traditions in the church that have “stuck” that shouldn’t stick. Jesus talked with a few guys about that issue…

    Anyway…all that said, I much prefer older church music to most modern worship. The devil’s advocate in me had to speak.