regarding the well-intentioned emptiness of lying through church music

You’ll seldom find better liars than during the song portion of your local Sunday morning church service.

Note that I abstain from referring to it as ‘worship’, because the act of musicianship and singing is not inherently ascribing worth to any noun. There are no ‘worship leaders’, there are only musicians, and whether or not they lead people into worship is entirely outside of their control. They sing and/or play and the congregation responds in kind (hopefully.) The most earnest stage musician may be engaging in worship while the congregants aren’t, conversely, the musician may be up there in full sanctified rock star vanity while the gathered truly worship (also hopefully.) Further, what constitutes worship is not and was never intended to be encapsulated within a musical idiom in the first place. Ultimately, it’s not up to them: if they seek to, as Jason Lee’s character Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous put it, find the one person who isn’t getting off and make them get off–as many of them, wittingly or otherwise, tend to–they are in the wrong line of work and should wait for [insert horrible reality pop star competition here] to host an audition in a metropolitan area relatively near them.

All that aside, when we sing the songs on Sunday, we join not only in the attempt to ascribe worth to God, but we necessarily assent to the words being sung. And, as a result, we lie, if for no other reason that we sing. More often than not, there are ideas within some of these choruses (and, to be even-handed, in some hymns as well) which are theologically problematic–and I refrain from singing them–or are just not honest reflections of where people are in their faith life. While it’s easy to sing about how Jesus is everything and we are nothing and all we ever want to do is love God and sacrifice everything to serve God, let’s have a moment of honesty: none of us really feel that way, and certainly not all of the time. For instance, that was me Monday afternoon and evening, in the existential death spiral of application rejections and building anxieties. I’m human enough to admit that, for about 16 hours there, Jesus was not my all in all…and beyond that, seldom is he. The deficit there is not a reflection of my unholiness, but the ready and available surplus of divine grace. It is truly amazing.

For most of us, it isn’t that we intend to lie in song, but because the music-as-worship paradigm is so entrenched in the West, we don’t think about what it is we are singing. As a result, we miss out on personal theological development, an opportunity to define an ecclesiology where, for most of us, it is utterly formless, and we by default show that we’re more interested in the sound of the song than the content therein.

We also miss out on the opportunity to make impossibly attainable lyrics a confessional prayer.

Today, because I didn’t want to go digging through boxes of CDs, I found David Bazan’s recording of an old Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision. (The irony of Bazan being at least agnostic now is not lost on me. It is also proof positive that one may sing and play theologically profound material and yet struggle with belief and faith, or not have it at all.) It’s been done and redone a million times, after being buried in forgotten hymnals for decades, in the past fifteen years or so, and many of these new renditions of it are still done within a church music-based paradigm, meaning that the content is suited to be ignored or forgotten. This version, the one in the YT clip above, is arranged for guitar and loses the traditional ecclesiastical trappings until the end. While the song is sung, the music virtually disappears: one has nothing to fall back on, save to focus on the words.

Be thou my vision, o Lord of my heart;

Naught be else to me save that thou art;

Thou my best thought, by day or by night;

Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;

Thou my inheritance, now and always;

Thou and thou only first in my heart;

High king of Heaven, my treasure thou art.

I need to be clear: this is not where I am. At all. To assent to these words is to lie. That said, I do not sing them because I pretend to be someone I’m not, but I use them as prayer, to move me–from the uncertainties of my present state of affairs, the anxieties that are now plaguing me daily and the despair that hangs high overhead–toward an impossible ideal. It is a confession of my deficit of holiness–sanctity I never had and could never attain in the first place–and a collapsing into the surplus of divine grace. Resignation, not rejoicing.

Would that we would be more forthright in our gatherings. Sunday theatrics and stage antics tend not to lend themselves well to such vulnerability and opportunity for growth, which makes me wonder how our songs are little more than a vestigial part of a liturgy, formal or otherwise, devoid of the very purpose to gather in the first place: to grow. What is it we do on Sundays? We gather, we sing, we endure somebody talking, we smile and shake hands and we leave to go about the business of a day of rest.

You’ll seldom find a better liar than me.

Be thou my vision.


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