From All That Dwell Below the Skies, Sacred Harp, and SSS

I have a condition. It’s not an officially diagnosable, documented, or serious condition, but I have one just the same. I like to call it Song Stickiness Syndrome, or SSS for short (just wait for the DSM-VI, there are dozens of us!). The symptoms include perpetually singing a song in my head (most of the time in full or partial harmony), waking up with a song in my head (which is why it is particularly important to have a good alarm in the morning – currently Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”), learning melodies (and often harmonies) of songs with just one or two listens, and a penchant for whistling and humming.

SSS is both a blessing and a curse. Mostly blessing. It enriches my life since chances are strong that a given song in my head is a hymn or psalm, given the nature of my ongoing hymn- and psalm-related service for my church and denomination. The mere mention of a song or hymn title lodges that song in my head for at least an hour. The curse nature of SSS comes when my wife plays cruel tricks on me. Once in a while, she’ll sing a bar or two of a terrible Methodist or Baptist “hymn,” knowing that I will carry that burden far longer than one person should bear. For example, we were at a concert at an area megachurch recently, paging through their hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal, a popular Baptist hymnal) pointing out particularly egregious songs. She playfully decided to sing a few bars of “There’s Something About That Name” on the way home. The schmaltzy-ness – oh, the humanity. I also have difficulty shopping, since most of the background these days drives me to the brink of madness. Fortunately our local supermarket plays mostly alternative and classic rock, making it an SSS safe zone (or SSSSZ for short).

All this to say, I’ve had a song stuck in my head for days that falls under the “blessing” category, and I thought I’d share. Thus the long, me-focused introduction. Isaac Watts wrote a loose paraphrase of Psalm 117 titled “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” in 1719. This text has been paired with various tunes throughout the years, including DUKE STREET and LASST UNS ERFREUEN. Each of these are sturdy, appropriate, singable tunes for this text, but neither compare with its Sacred Harp match, called SCHENECTADY. I learned this tune thanks to the fantastic collection of early American sacred music called Goostly Psalmes or Early American Choral Music, volume 2 by His Majestie’s Clerkes, conducted by Paul Hillier.

To learn more about Sacred Harp singing, I’ll point you to a post on Sacred Harp singing I wrote last year. Hillier’s version of “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” is professional and polished, though one of the mesmerizing characteristics of Sacred Harp gatherings is that they are neither professional nor polished. I’ll leave you with two videos of this song, one from an Irish Sacred Harp sing, and another more raucous version from a Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention. And please don’t take advantage of my now-public SSS vulnerability by playing cruel tricks on me.




Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Martin LutherYou may have heard it said, or said it yourself, that Martin Luther used a drinking song for his iconic hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” Or maybe you’ve heard (or said) Luther’s apparent quip, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Either of these pithy truisms have been employed by those hoping to justify the inclusion of popular music in the church’s worship, just as long as the words are at least somewhat spiritual. Rick Warren, for one, is a celebrity pastor that takes this position.

In light of Reformation Day today, I hope to put to rest these false notions that shame Luther’s good name, while leaning on Paul S. Jones’ book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006). Luther never used bar songs for hymns and never said anything about the devil’s good music. First, to dispel the silly quotation: this has never been found in any of Luther’s writings or verified by any Luther scholars. That paragon of all that is good about Christian music, Larry Norman (a pioneer of the CCM-precursor Jesus Movement), popularized the statement in his song with the same title, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The statement has roots older than this 1970s Jesus Movement song, though, with something similar being attributed to William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as well as misattributed in some form or fashion to the likes of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and D.L. Moody.

On to EIN FESTE BURG, the tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” This tune is one of Luther’s own compositions that he wrote specifically for this hymn as well as for a versification of Psalm 46. He also wrote several other very good tunes, including tunes for Psalm 130, an Advent hymn, and a Resurrection Sunday hymn. He, along with many other composers (including Bach) would borrow from other forms, including Gregorian chants and folk music.

The closest Luther got to stealing a drinking song was the tune VON HIMMEL HOCH for his Advent hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This was associated with an old German folk melody, but when Luther heard the tune sung in inns and dance halls, he was embarrassed and the tune was stricken from his hymn collections. Folk songs were traditionally sung in such places, but that does not make them tavern songs. Lastly, a standard Middle Age German musical form is the “bar form.” Perhaps when CCMers were playing the telephone game, “bar form” was misheard as “bar song.”

More important than merely debunking urban myths is the principle inherent when such statements are uttered. Pop music or heavy metal, for example, are not automatically sterilized and sanctified by merely pairing them with religious texts. As Ken Myers argues in his classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989) and T. David Gordon more recently hammers home in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010), popular music has inherent characteristics that are ill-suited for corporate worship. Music is not ideologically or theologically neutral and thus not all musical genres should be used in worship. Since music is not neutral, personal taste does not trump objective standards. For more on this topic, I commend Jones’ chapter to you (on which this post heavily leaned): “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth Please!” in Singing and Making Music. The aforementioned All God’s Children and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are also well worth your time.

So on this Reformation Day, please do not take Luther’s name in vain by attributing to him what he never said, intended, or desired. And in the spirit of All Saints’ Day tomorrow (November 1), here’s a bonus video of the magisterial British hymn “For All the Saints.”

Love Ditties and Wanton Songs

“I wish that the young men might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might instead of these learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good; also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them.”

 -Martin Luther, from the preface to the Wittenberg Gesangbuch hymnal; quoted in Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?  The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Crossway, 2005 ed.), p. 90

Capitulation to the Gospel of Consumption

A friend I well respect recommended James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation as a thought-provoking book on worship, our most basic motivators, and cultural liturgies. Smith’s thesis is that we are not fundamentally thinking creatures, but desiring creatures. That is, our primary motivation does not come from a top-down model (head informing heart, knowledge preceding desire), but from a bottom-up model, with the heart or gut informing and motivating the mind. Thus, to Smith, emphasizing worldview and doctrinal training rather than focusing on worship and practice is backwards and hopelessly rational. Smith argues that our doctrine and belief should flow from our worship and practice, and not vice versa. One ironic example of this is that amid Reformed circles’ criticism of neo-Gnosticism, we often employ a “bobble-head Christianity” whose focus is all on the head at the expense of fully realizing our embodied existence while neglecting the importance of the body’s role in forming belief and practice.

I’m not sure I’m convinced of his premise just yet, for one reason or another. One reason is that the premise was fully founded on philosophy and anthropology (weighing heavily on existentialists) rather than also using Scripture. There are false dichotomies present and I have had a nagging feeling that I have been reading a veiled postmodern anti-intellectualist book (though he claims he is not advocating for such). I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise, I was just hoping for a little more to convince me. When it comes down to it, I don’t think the relationship between head/heart is an either/or but a synergistic both/and relationship. That said, I’m enjoying the book as a thought provoking and engaging read. His analysis of cultural/secular liturgies like the mall, sporting events, and the university is excellent, as is his discussion of the importance of having thoughtful, well-rounded corporate worship practices.

At the risk of posting something out of context and without the dozens of pages leading up to this point, here’s a passage I enjoyed on the evangelical church’s inadequate response to the “liturgies” of consumerism:

“Unfortunately, the Christian response to the liturgies of consumerism is often woefully inadequate, even a sort of parody of the mall. Rather than properly countering the liturgy of consumption, the church ends up mimicking it, merely substituting Christian commodities – “Jesufied” versions of worldly products, which are acquired, accumulated, and disposed of to make room for the new and the novel. This happens, I think, mainly because we fail to see the practices of consumption as liturgies. Typical Christian analysis of the situation, including the critique of materialism (where that still happens), tends to focus on what is being purchased, rather than calling into question the gospel of consumption – the sense that acquisition brings happiness and fulfillment. So instead, the evangelical community simply replays the gospel of consumption but with “Jesus” stuff (a quick visit to any local Christian bookstore – more likely now described as a “gift shop” – will confirm this point). We even end up reconfiguring “church” by this strange “other” gospel where God can be reduced to a commodity. The wisdom of historical liturgy offers a very different sort of response.”

-James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), p. 103

An application of this capitulation to consumerism in the church is music. Pop music is the soundtrack of consumerism with its transience; emphasis on charts, sales, and celebrity; domination of the new and novel at the expense of quality and depth; manipulation of emotions but with shallow lyrics and music, and radical individualism. It’s no different with Christian pop music, which has infiltrated the church by way of celebrities and radio. In the church, the adoption of church-pop music that is essentially sub-par mimicry of secular pop music further adds to the commodification of Christianity and consumerism in the church. After hearing some of this church-pop after being removed from it for several years, it is jarring how much of it is poorly mimicked pop music that employs formulaic manipulation with rising choruses and catchy riffs that mask shallow lyrics and poor musicianship. Because of the nature of pop music (and popular culture in general), churches that have adopted this music style are left with trying to keep up with the latest trends and catchy hooks of church-pop under the guise of being “relevant,” or find themselves unable to keep up and stuck in 1994. But as Gordon notes (or maybe it was Myers?), church-pop is actually not relevant because if the unchurched or young were looking for good pop music (oxymoron?), they would do better to look outside church-pop.

Desire Like Dynamite

As I get older, the more cognizant I am becoming of my shortcomings. Keeping up with the blog, for one. Writing music reviews, for two. I’ve tried my hand over the years at writing album reviews, but I find they are more difficult to write than book reviews. That said, this post isn’t so much a review as it is a recommendation for Sandra McCracken’s new album Desire Like Dynamite.

We saw McCracken live a couple weeks ago at a small venue in downtown Lancaster. It was just her and her acoustic guitar, playing a flexible setlist and taking requests. She introduced each song with a story about its meaning or background. There was even a receiving line after the show, where she chatted with fans as they left. We found her to be warm, humble, and likeable; we went home feeling like we had known her for a long time. She played several songs from her new album while mixing in old favorites. Overall, a very enjoyable evening out.

This simple acoustic show was different than the sound of her new album, which features a fuller sound than her previous records. But even though there are more layered sounds on this album, McCracken’s voice features prominently, with its stripped down, unflashy, folk sound. It’s a stellar album that has been garnering rave reviews.

At the concert, we learned a lot of the album’s back story. McCracken explained how she is the daughter of a biology teacher, which gave her a deep-rooted appreciation for nature. She also related how she has come to view much of the environmental rhetoric as cliched and shallow. So she wrote a deeper, more complex album that conveys her sadness for the lack of care for creation, as well as ultimate trust in God. One of her goals was to provide a more robust vocabulary of sadness (inspired by McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies), which is reflected in the overall tone of the album being that of lament.

Lament themes are evident, but not in an overpowering or preachy way. Instead, they are thoughtful, passionate, and artful, much like two of her main influences for this album: Wendell Berry and the Psalms. Berry’s influence is hard to miss, especially on the songs Redbird, Gridlock, In the Garden, and the title track. The title track was inspired by the closing of Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:

I dreamed I heard the sound of the last great god bird singing
Lying in the trees I could hear the ax machines that were ringing
This is like a fable to be told, but I’d rather put it down
Will we choose the noise of our desire or the hope that makes no sound?

That said, this album is not just about the environment, nor is it a protest album. There are also prevalent notes of forgiveness, parenting and children, and longing. You may recognize McCracken’s name from her work on the Indelible Grace projects over the years, so it should not be surprising that there are biblical themes present. Biblical, but not in a way that these songs would ever be played on K-Love. In fact, several of the songs have psalm-like qualities: themes of waiting, light, lament, hope, and restoration. Glimmers of hope undergird the lament on the album, giving the lament a reason and a direction. My favorite song on the album is probably Hourglass, which is a subtle example of this hope underneath lament:

We’re tangled in the cords
Of every new invention we are begging to ignore
And I saw our home
For the first one was gone, every good thing was restored
And the sea was no more.

The album fittingly closes with In the Garden, not to be confused with the awful “hymn” of the same name. Imagery of gardens and the seasons is juxtaposed with longing for the consummation of all things and hope in the resurrection:

The winter branches, gray the landscape
Like snow, in silence we are found
Disconnected bones, dust and ashes
We will be raised, one body from the ground

Red the rose, the years like vapor
The king, the table, and the feast
We are waiting for the consummation
Until the sword is thrown into the sea.

I highly recommend this album; it is (buzzword alert!) thoughtful, honest, sincere, poetic, and *gasp* authentic. Some closing ramblings: her songwriting shows artistry and maturity, comparisons to Sara Groves on a couple songs are not far-fetched, Matthew Perryman Jones and Derek Webb make cameo appearances, and the song Sweet Amelia was written for her friends’ adoption. You can get a sampler of the album below via Noise Trade, or purchase the album here. Tour dates can be found here.

Proper Worship Takes Work, Thought, Preparation, and Action

“Thought is missing more and more in worship today. Apparently we are more concerned about our emotional connection and what we are ‘getting’ out of the worship experience than in being cognitively engaged or spiritually awakened. This mindset is one of the primary reasons that hymns have fallen out of popularity and use in many churches. It is because they require thought; and as a people, we do not want to think. Not many years ago I read a short article by a seminary professor in a prominent Christian periodical. He wrote something along the lines of, ‘Let’s stop being enslaved to the present rationalistic, intellect-centered approach to church that characterizes much of evangelicalism.’ Well, he got his wish. Today most evangelicals come to church to be refreshed, not to work or to think. 

“Yet proper worship does take work. It also takes thought, preparation, and action. If we understood that our singing is not for ourselves or directed principally to each other, but to and for God, that understanding would make a difference in how we engage in it. If we were more conscious of the fact that when we sing we are praising God and praying to him, that we are in the presence of the King of Glory, we would realize how important it is to know what we are singing.”

-Paul S. Jones in Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006), p. 43

Who Will at Last His Israel Free

Indelible Grace released their sixth roman-numeraled studio album (and eighth overall) yesterday, Joy Beyond the Sorrow. It features many regular artists, including my favorites Andrew Osenga,  Sandra McCracken, Jeremy Casella, Matthew Smith, and the return of Derek Webb. Unfortunately, this is the first Indelible Grace album that Matthew Perryman Jones is not on.

My point is not to review the album, but to point you in the direction of the first track, “From the Depths of Woe.” I’ve written previously about my affinity for Psalm 130, and linked to a very early demo recording of this song in that old post. With lyrics by Martin Luther (based on Psalm 130), and vocals by Andrew Osenga and Emily Deloach, this new recording is arguably the best Indelible Grace song ever. I’m not exaggerating; it’s incredible.

You can listen to all of it in its seven minute glory here, (along with the rest of the album) and follow along with Luther’s words below. Then go buy the album, a steal at only $9.99!

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee, a voice of lamentation.
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me, and hear my supplication.
If thou iniquities dost mark, our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain, grace, grace alone availeth.

Our works, alas! are all in vain; in much the best life faileth.
No man can glory in Thy sight, all must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord, and not in mine own merit.
On Him my soul shall rest, His word upholds my fainting spirit.
His promised mercy is my fort, my comfort, and my sweet support.
I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the live-long night, and ’til the dawn appeareth,

My heart still trusteth in His might, it doubteth not nor feareth.
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed, ye of the Spirit born indeed,
And wait ’til God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes, His grace much more aboundeth.
His helping love no limit knows, our upmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He, who will at last His Israel free,
From all their sin and sorrow.