Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Praise for the Praise Song Cruncher

A few years ago, Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller (Hope Lutheran Church—LCMS, Aurora, Colo.) proposed several criteria for evaluating 'praise songs.' As co-host of a humble radio show, “Table Talk Radio,” Rev. Wolfmueller uses the “Praise Song Cruncher” segments to draw attention to the error of Mysticism which imbues that genre. While steering us clear from our feelings about insipid 'praise songs,' he identifies here in this podcast the Scriptures against which so many chart-topping CCLI praise songs are crunched.

It’s a simple discernment tool — just one page (linked here) exploring five basic topics. It seems incredible that it must be stated, but the first criteria is whether or not Jesus is actually mentioned in the song. If a nuddist Buddhist could sing your 'praise song,' isn’t that a cause for concern? The fourth criterion is thoroughly Lutheran: Is Law & Gospel properly presented? Is Law & Gospel rightly divided? Is the Gospel presented as conditional? The fifth criterion is simply to identify obviously false teaching in the song while remaining cognizant that some songs are so blandly repetitive that they don't teach anything at all (an error itself.)

The Mystical content of the genre is the millstone which typically pulls these songs underwater, and points two and three of the Cruncher address this concern. Interestingly, Wolfmueller identifies that many of these songs don’t even use complete sentences. At first it may seem a minor point against musical art for art’s sake. However, Paul gave the Corinthians a going-over in Chapter 14 (the first time around) about the harm that comes when people (particularly unbelievers) don’t know what you’re talking about in church. The Church’s acceptance of Post-Modern laxity in language is working against us here as well, but that topic will be handled in a different post by a more gifted pen.

I’m told our seminary teaches pastors to preach in manner in which they will be understood but also in such a way that they won’t be misunderstood. This is also sound advice for deciding when to drift from the half-millennia of Lutheran hymns prepared for us.

(By the way, speaking of language, is it too much to ask for our churches and publications to consistently capitalize the pronouns referring to God? Back in the day, my government grade school teacher would correct essays in bright red ink if our “written language diminished the superior authority of God.” That’s a quote.)

The final challenge of the Cruncher is to make the user thoroughly aware of the Mystical content. Reflecting the fallen self-absorbed culture, understandably a common error is that these songs are not about God and what He has done but instead about me and my feelings. (As if my feelings have anything to do with Christ’s Gospel, but carrying over sectarian worship songs introduces their false doctrines as well.) Does the song use language better suited for a Top-40 love ballad? Can you substitute your sweetheart’s name in the song and still sing it? Does the song encourage abandoning oneself, being lost or absorbed into God? Does the song seek to find God inside of you? Does God come to me/speak to me internally or externally? Is this a Lectio Divina warm-up act?

It’s no mistake that so many 'praise songs' make the focus of the songs not about Jesus, but about us. Because of the thorough flogging dozens of CCLI-topping ‘praise songs’ receive in the Cruncher, and the harm they introduce into our congregations, once again we’re left with only one justification for continuing these sectarian practices: “But We Want To.” Stop me if you've read this sentiment in the Old Testament over and over and know where this cycle leads.

6 comments:

LutherRocks said...

"The final challenge of the Cruncher is to make the user thoroughly aware of the Mystical content."

Does this mean WELS might look at the CW Supplement and strike "Cosmic Christ" from one of the songs?

Anonymous said...

(By the way, speaking of language, is it too much to ask for our churches and publications to consistently capitalize the pronouns referring to God? Back in the day, my government grade school teacher would correct essays in bright red ink if our “written language diminished the superior authority of God.” That’s a quote.)

The Sanctus as printed in CW's version of the Common Service does not capitalize the divine pronouns. This caused me to believe that I was blessed because I was doing something in God's name. When I entered college, I realized that "Blessed is He..." is a reference to Christ coming to us through humble means, as He did when riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. This realization came, in part, because of the capitalization of the divine pronoun in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary.

Jerod Butt

Daniel Baker said...

To be fair, the Biblical text doesn't (to my knowledge) capitalize the Divine pronouns either. But I personally think it is good practice to do so. Jerod illustrates why.

To that end, at least the CW "Common" Service actually retains the Benedictus, among other parts of the Divine Liturgy, unlike certain other "liturgies" in our hymnal.

In any case, thanks for this post, Mr. Heyer.

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the capitalization of the divine pronouns in English is a recent practice.

Jerod Butt

Brian G. Heyer said...

"Thank you" to all for taking the time to read and comment.

The "Praise Song Cruncher" is a useful exercise and opportunity to think about (and really consider) what it is that comes from our mouths. Reading Scriptures in church, we would accept them as utterly reliable and without harm. If someone gets their feelings hurt by having heard the Scriptures, well, that's a problem they'll have to resolve with the Lord.

However what we sing as hymns are almost always constructed by Man and not reliably Inspired. Therefore more discretion is advised.

[ Pr. Wolfmueller also - only semi-jokingly - refers to a hymn as "Modern" if it was written after 1750 AD, coinciding with the Romantic Era. ]

Anonymous said...

Try this one. Go to www.wordle.net and type/paste in the text of a "praise song" to see which words are most prominent. From wordle:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

Pastors, you might try this with your sermons, too.

- Rev. James Schulz

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