Instead of a Show

I have a complicated relationship with “Praise and Worship” music. In the first place, it bothers me that when we say the word ‘worship,’ we have come more and more to mean ‘sing songs,’ though there is no question that such a definition is almost comically limiting. In the second place, I am wary of the use of such music during services when it seems to aim more at the elevation of the congregants to an emotional fervor than as an act of glorification and edification. Perhaps those are not as oppositional as I suspect, and perhaps this is just a flaw in the eye of this particular beholder, but I nevertheless have my doubts.

C.S. Lewis noted some similar wariness (and weariness):

To make a communal, familiar noise is certainly a pleasure to human beings. And I would not be thought to despise this pleasure. It is good for the lungs, it promotes good fellowship, it is humble and unaffected, it is in every way a wholesome, innocent thing—as wholesome and innocent as a pint of beer, a game of darts, or a dip in the sea. But is it, any more than these, a means of edification? No doubt it can be done—all these things can be done—eating can be done—to the glory of God. We have an Apostle’s word for it. The perfected Christian can turn all his humblest, most secular, most economic, actions in that direction. But if this is accepted as an argument for popular hymns it will also be an argument for a good many other things. What we want to know is whether untrained communal singing is in itself any more edifying than other popular pleasures. And of this I, for one, am still wholly unconvinced. I have often heard this noise; I have sometimes contributed to it. I do not yet seem to have found any evidence that the physical and emotional exhilaration which it produces is necessarily, or often, of any religious relevance. What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better, and shorter hymns; especially fewer.

As for the music itself (as opposed to its omnipresence in church services), I have little doubt that almost all of it springs from an honest desire for artists to express their adoration and submission to the Lord. It is, in its creation, quite literally an act of praise and worship.

A friend of mine (a minister, it should be noted), once questioned contemporary P & W music as well, sharing with me his doubts about how much thought a given member of the congregation might actually give to the lyrics (and very often the vows and confessions contained within). This was a fault he was ascribing to the people (himself included) more than to the music, and I remember wondering at the time if the real culprit was our (meaning the Church’s) lack of intellectual accountability. After all, without any intrinsic desire to examine closely the rituals of our worship to ensure they serve the function we hope them to, should we be surprised if we see an increase in passivity where they’re concerned?

The reason I bring all this up is because just the other day, as I set my iPod to shuffle and set about my daily hour of writing, the Jon Foreman (he of Switchfoot fame) song “Instead of a Show” popped on. Here is a sample of the song’s lyrics:

I hate all your show and pretense/
The hypocrisy of your praise/
The hypocrisy of your festivals/
I hate all your show.
Away with your noisy worship/
Away with your noisy hymns/
I stop up my ears when you’re singing ’em/
I hate all your show.

If it isn’t clear, the “I” in this song isn’t Jon Foreman, it’s God. If you think this is presumptive and possibly inappropriate, get a load of the next verse:

Your eyes are closed when you’re praying/
You sing right along with the band/
You shine up your shoes for services/
There’s blood on your hands.
You turned your back on the homeless/
And the ones that don’t fit in your plan/
Quit playing religion games/
There’s blood on your hands.

Blood on your hands! What balls! But then, don’t we love to say that God wants faith, not religion; depth, not shallowness; a desire to serve others, not ourselves? What makes us bristle isn’t the ideas behind the lyrics, but that we, rather than the nameless, faceless “other” we love to conjure when someone says the word “you” in church, is actually Foreman’s (and, if he’s got it right, God’s) target.

Or maybe you – like I did the first several times I heard the song – feel a sort of self-righteous surge: Yeah! Take that all you hypocrites, all you superficial church clock-punchers you! If this is the case, I’ll direct you to another of Foreman’s tunes, “A Mirror is Harder to Hold”:

I could try and point the finger/
But the glass points in my direction/
Sure you’ve got your sharp edges/
But my wounds are from my own reflection.

You’ve got nothing I could ever hold against you/
I got fatal flaws to call my own.

Please don’t go, please don’t leave me alone/
A mirror is so much harder to hold.

Both the songs I’ve mentioned come from a set of four six-song EPs (each is titled after a season) Foreman released as a solo project. The twenty-four tracks are much more introspective and personal than anything I’ve heard from his work with Switchfoot, and frankly, they’re a whole lot better, too.

Foreman sprinkles the twenty-four tracks with familiar P & W tropes while inventively exploring what, in other hands, might have come across as tired motifs: poverty, family strife, despair, self-doubt, etc. He effectively bridges the gap between the work of somebody like Chris Tomlin (who has, along with a few other writers and performers, all but co-opted contemporary worship music) and somebody like Pedro the Lion or even Sufjan Stevens. The former is like a Christian version of classic rock radio, mainlining straightforward P & W, giving the people what they want. The latter are more abrasive and rough around the edges, but find (or found, in Pedro’s case) ways to express their faith and doubt and insight and fear (I would argue) more artistically.

So why am I writing about a five year-0ld collection of music from a guy whose most popular stuff I largely don’t care about and who’s shone no real interest in repeating the effort? I guess it’s because for as long as I’ve been considering my relationship with Christian music of all stripes – which basically means for as long as I’ve called myself a Christian – I’ve been looking for something that expresses faith in and asks questions about God and our relationship with him as fluently, artistically, and beautifully as Jon Foreman’s solo EPs and I haven’t found it. It’s thoughtful and challenging and explores the complex emotional spectrum of Christian existence in a way that contemporary P & W music rarely manages. Mostly the stuff I hear in church is bursting at the seems with an assertiveness and confidence that I can hardly identify with. The people singing it seem to know so much and feel so self-assured, which is great, even if I(and, I presume, at least a few others) don’t feel a tremendous amount of kinship with them.

Listen, I know that people make mountains out of the molehill that is church music, and I suppose this essay adds me to the pile, although I promise I’ll never send an angry email over song selection or drum volume. I’m not advocating for music-less services, nor am I petitioning for appointment as the Chief Music Coordinator of Christian Churches. But I would like to be represented. I already feel like a significant amount of the attitudes and dialogue within the Church focus on an entirely emotional, anti-intellectual version of faith and worship, and being made to feel even more extraneous by the music being sung is more than a little frustrating.

What I want seems clear to me, but how exactly to get it is not. I don’t want to diminish the experiences of those who find themselves edified by the Chris Tomlins and Hillsongs of the world. God is, I would wager, glorified by the singing as much if not more than by the song, but I don’t think that means we should be ready to give up on the search for music that might offer edification in tandem with its glorification, with just a touch of artistic complexity leftover. Surely there’s room enough for the lot of it.

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6 Comments on “Instead of a Show”

  1. February 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    I’ve not heard those particular Jon Forman songs (and I’m at work, where Youtube is blocked, so I’ll have to listen later). And, as a currently inactive “worship leader,” I find myself in wholehearted agreement with you. I’m currently playing keys at the church we are attending, and I’m slightly disturbed by our recent trend of emotionally manipulative songs in our services. The most recent is “Set A Fire,” by “Jesus Culture.” Same words over and over again. A few weeks ago, we started singing “Break Every Chain,” which has four chords over and over and over again, for about eight minutes! I’m grateful that we don’t play it for that long. But you are correct…worship is so much more than just singing.

    • joshacorman
      February 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      Hey Jeff, thanks for the comment. Hopefully you get a chance to hear Foreman’s stuff (and hopefully you like it). I do think we could offer music that offered a more comprehensive, diverse look at Christian experience, including, of course, the opportunity to offer praise in the manner of a lot of what is already being played. I also feel like we might let people (especially those new to the Church) that if they find themselves struggling to identify with/get into the music, then they are (A) not alone and (B) not “wrong,” and that worship is a huge, complex, and multi-faceted thing.

  2. Keith Williamson
    February 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    Hey Josh,

    Very thought-provoking post. I appreciate the tact and honesty of your comments. A few responses:

    1) Worship is not really “for” us. We were made to worship and so when we engage in worship, we are fulfilling that part of our nature, but we are not the end all and be all of worship. I have been in a lot of different kids/styles/flavors of church services and have been met by God and engaged with him in a lot of them. I think it is important to enter into any worship setting with the expectation that God will show up.

    2) I agree that there is a tension between the emotion and the intellect in our modern Christianity. It saddens me a great deal when I think about it. God is in the process of making “all things new,” so that means that he his redeeming not just my mind, but my emotions as well. I have to keep reminding myself of that truth.

    3) If you are looking for “something that expresses faith in and asks questions about God and our relationship with him as fluently, artistically,” as Jon’s stuff, try the Psalms. I don’t know your musical background (I have none, which is why I am glad God said “make a joyful noise…” Psalm 95). Try singing out the verses. Try reading them as poetry. That’s the standard that we have for what “worship” should be like – all 150 of them.

    I hope that these don’t come off as confrontational. I have thought a lot about what worship is, what is appropriate in worship and how to convey that to others. Most of that thought has been in the realm of dance (I am trained dancer…so its where my mind goes when I think of art and faith), but have thought a little about the musical side of things as well. I think it is important to remember the entirety of our church services constitute “worship,” indeed the entirety of our lives do so as well. Its just so hard to pin down…

    Anyway – I digress. Thanks again for the post, love reading the site.

    • joshacorman
      February 15, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      Keith: Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. Your points are humbling to consider in a lot of ways and reveal to me how easy it is to build fences where God would have none. In my desire to, as you say, “pin down” the answers to the many questions I have, I often conveniently ignore the limitations of my own intellect and experience. It is, on the one hand, a selfish desire to attempt to mold worship to fit my image (my vanity seems at times comically immense), and I fear that I’ve come across as critical of those who – like my wife, for example – who feel very differently about their worship experiences than I do. On the other hand, I feel like there have to be others who find themselves responding to God, the search for Him, and His presence in ways that are not facilitated by the Church as well or often as they might be. This obviously goes well beyond music and even services as a whole, and will take minds far wiser than mine to address effectively.

      I can’t tell you how great it is to get to engage in dialogue like this. Thanks for reading!

  3. Keith Williamson
    March 2, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Hey Josh,

    Not sure where these folks would fall on your artistic scale (just found them yesterday so the jury is still out for me), but they are offering their catalog of hymns for free. Might be worth a listen – the “traditional” hymns are full of the kind of struggle to express who God is that we are talking about. Give it a listen and let me know what you think (http://www.pagecxvi.com/jubilee, if the link doesn’t know also let me know and I might be able to get it to you another way.)

    Thanks man.
    Keith

  4. jojody
    April 6, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    i like the way this article is written. It is presented so perfectly that I asked my wife to read this too. – Rich Von

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