Saturday, November 19, 2011

Upcoming Posts & A Critique of "Your Love Is Strong"

There are a handful of things I’d like to write about in the next week or so. I’m going to try and push out a few blog posts in the next few days. Thanks to those who read and keep me thinking of better ways to communicate ideas that matter greatly to me, and many thanks to my students for keeping me on my toes too.

Here are the topics I want to get at:

1.     I’d like to follow up on the comment I made in my last post about making too much of art but that rather we should instead focus on being better humans (which implies engagement of the arts). There is much to discuss here. I’m glad to get emails from people who appreciate this concern. Because it seems to others to be a poignant nuance of my way of prioritizing the arts, I’d like to flesh the idea out some more.
2.     Another friend asked me to recall for her some teaching I offered in the past on the distinction between capital “A” Artists and the rest of us who are all created as artists. The idea is that we are all artistic. To be human is to be creative. The question is which of us are called to practice a discipline of art making at more advanced levels with years of training for the sake of vocational, bi-vocational or a-vocational art making. Further thoughts on this will connect to what I want to write about for topic 1 above. Perhaps I can answer both of those in the same post. We’ll see.

*Topics 1 and 2 will need to wait a bit because I want to cover a few topics for my students. These are thoughts that have been growing in response to their questions and our discussions.  This is teaching at its best: when I feel stumped in class and need to step back and rediscover how to communicate what is most important.

3.     I need to more explicitly and unapologetically explain my concerns about some contemporary worship texts. Two songs came up in class this week, “Your Love is Strong” by Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman and “How He Loves Us,” by John Mark McMillan.
4.     Then in another post I need to do a better job of connecting the overarching creedal portions of our class to specific cultural examples—to demonstrate why an inquiry into the ontological framework of the sacrament and Trinity matter to regular worship leading.
First, let me emphatically encourage readers to see this not so much of a bashing of Jon Foreman and more of a case study. I don’t own any Switchfoot records, but I’m a fan. I like “Your Love Is Strong.” I believe that Foreman’s four seasonal EP recordings are fantastic examples of good, thoughtful creativity. However, there is just so much worship music out there, so many great songs that I can afford to be picky.
Second, I don’t expect most readers to initially appreciate the kind of discernment I am modeling here. That is why I teach this class. We generally don’t critique our songs very well if at all. What I’m offering here could make me seem like a crotchety old man, harrumphing around with arms folded and a frown. I’d like to disagree, that loving worship, loving the church and even loving Jon Foreman requires us to be discerning. I wouldn’t go to such great lengths to think through this song if I didn’t like it.
Third, I’ll point out that this is only the second lyric that I have adjusted for pastoral concerns in the almost six years of my ministry at Hope College. I’d never messed with the lyrics in the roughly ten years of worship ministry previous either. The point is that I don’t have a heavy hand. Actually, I do in terms of picking songs in the first place, but that is a whole other discussion.
So, I did a poor job in class of explaining why we have decided to ditch the second verse of this song:
I look out the window.
The birds are composing.
Not a note is out of tune
Or out of place.
I look at the meadow
And stare at the flowers.
Better dressed than any girl
On her wedding day. 
First of all a confession: I can personally appreciate and worship with these words. I can navigate around the strengths and weaknesses of this verse and find meaning. I especially like the first half of the verse and am sad to say goodbye to it. However, the question is not what I personally can worship to. The question is what best serves the spiritual formation of the 1000 give or take a few hundred who join us for worship four times per week.
I think I overemphasized that our decision to nix the verse is squarely because of a response to some women who are frustrated with it. The initial concern begins with whether or not we would like to think that feminine beauty should be reduced to a woman on her wedding day. Is a woman in a wedding dress the definitive aesthetic achievement of a woman?
Arguments for keeping the Foreman lyric:
Argument one: we should not ditch worship songs or portions of a worship text because of a person’s personal quandaries. The worship text isn’t about an individual.  A worship text is about God and so we should all work to focus on the best in a song and not get hung up on a particular word choice, phrase or even a whole worship text.
Argument two: Further, there is no such thing as a perfect worship song, perfect worship service or worship leader. Coming to worship requires us to readily forgive each other when our worship words, leadership, expression and participation do not live up to our personal expectations.
In class I overemphasized that the concern was how this worship passage might elicit personal confusion from young women who join us in fellowship. Yes, it is true; each of us bring our own personal baggage into worship. Our own experience can skew our ability to interpret and appreciate various worship expressions. Yes we must be charitable and forgiving when we run into worship passages that confuse or distract us.
However, in choosing to nix this part of Foreman’s song I am acknowledging that there are certain lines for the sake of a corporate a worship service that I need to guard and watch with discernment.
Arguments for not using the Foreman lyric:
Argument one: I don’t believe that a woman on her wedding day is the proper defining moment of feminine beauty that can properly ‘contextualize’ or contemporize the original Biblical passage the Foreman worship verse is responding to:
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
The trouble is that we don’t have royal splendor in North America and so Foreman turns to a wedding to attempt to evoke the same kind of meaning. Wedding day takes the place of King Solomon’s glory. This might seem acceptable especially when we consider that the New Testament uses marriage substantially to illustrate God’s relationship with the church, the bride of Christ.  However, the focus here is not on how the bride of Christ is beautiful now, but more about how the church is being made beautiful. The bride of Christ is making herself ready (Rev 19:7). So it turns out that using the concept of the bride of Christ to defend this lyric is somewhat of a hermeneutical leap.
The trouble is that we have nothing in our culture that can properly help us understand Jesus’ reference to Solomon’s glory. I would personally prefer that worship songwriters had the courage to make specific Biblical references instead of always trying to contemporize. Let’s dare to become biblically literate.
Argument two: Even if we can appreciate the artistic license of Foreman’s lyric and can understand the spirit of what he is trying to convey, consider the lyrics artistic integrity. Here is where subjective enters the discussion. So this is admittedly my weakest point. This lyric is largely sentimental. Read these words together: window, birds, composing, note, tune, meadow, dressed, girl, wedding day. These are the words of a hallmark card. Now this is my subjective reading of the lyrics, and I even think that the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” is prone to such sentimentalism as well. However, I am more willing to sing the hymn because of the gravity of the years and generations who have sung it.
Remember the definition of sentimentalism: emotion for emotions sake. Personally, when I have sung the line I find that images of brides in wedding gowns take greater space in my head than the initial point of the lyric which is the splendor of God’s creation.
Argument three: This argument is contextual to our campus ministry and is my most important. The lyric can idealize marriage and wedding dresses. I am pulling the lyric not so much because of the girls who already are frustrated with it, but for those young ladies who aren’t frustrated with it. I’m pulling the lyric for the many young men who might also have romantic idealizations about a wedding day. I’m pulling the lyric because I know how powerful worship words are to form a persons imagination. I don’t want to pedestalize marriage or brides. As a pastor I don’t want to reinforce the notion that girls are mostly highly valued, most beautiful when they get married. No, a woman in a wedding dress is not the definitive aesthetic achievement of a woman.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be picky about this if I weren’t serving a campus ministry where there is so much pressure on relationships, the temptation to obsess in the search of the one, true love. I spend considerable amount of time and energy trying to help college students learn how to see the opposite sex as a human being first and a potential spouse much, much later.  We have so many layers of confusion that push and pull on our sexuality, it seems easier to avoid language in worship that might perpetuate that confusion. If the rest of this particular lyric had enough weight/value and wasn’t prone to sentimentalism, then perhaps I’d fight for it.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Banner. Look forward to reading more of these topics Sherry Sage

Courtney Kay said...

I really like these posts!

Anonymous said...

I am struggling with this post. Two things:
1- The song to me never says that the woman on her wedding day is the greatest form of beauty on earth. It is saying that anything beautiful, in particular beauty of the world which is tainted by sin, does not even compare to that of God's beauty. I feel like this song is being way over annualized.
2- Why even sing this song if we are not going to sing the whole thing? Seems like it loses the essence of worship.

I used to really like this song but I won't ever be able to sing it again without thinking of this. Now, the worship has truly been removed.

Joshua Banner said...

Hey anonymous, thanks for offering your thoughts. I know there are others out there who disagree too. There is a long tradition of hymn writers and pastors changing, rewording, adding and subtracting certain portions of a hymns for the sake of pastoral care and clarity. These are worship songs written by humans. This isn't a Psalm. Analyzing a text is a part of my call as a pastor, to protect our "flock" and think in ways that perhaps others might not want to or be called to. Preachers are trained to be very careful and discerning with their analyze them, or to revise their sermons. Worship leaders need to wield some similar kind of care too. But we are the pastors. So, you don't have to agree with me or think about these things in the same way I do. However, I would like to challenge you to believe that cutting one verse does not need to ruin your whole worship experience. That seems unfair. There is so much value in the rest of the song.

Don Paul Shreffler music said...

Sadly the church can emphasize the value of marriage over the God’s call for some to remain single. It can make dating an adventure in paranoia as everyone watches your every move. It seems like everyone is preoccupied with who is getting married next. I experienced this first hand beyond my college years and into my early 30’s. Under these circumstances I understand how some young adults could be offended by this lyric.
I wish that Foreman had stayed a little closer to the original somehow because I believe this little stumbling block is causing us to miss something of value.
As I read the original passage it seems that the main theme is God’s provision. It’s not about God making us beautiful or glorifying us in any way. It communicates that God takes better care of us than even rich old King Solomon could take care of himself. After all, God’s most important gift to Solomon was wisdom, not riches or physical beauty. As opposed to the passage lifting up Solomon as an example of beauty, I read it as a little jab at Solomon’s self sufficiency in contrast to a humble faith in God(or maybe I’m just reading it through my sarcastic lenses). If Foreman is modernizing the passage then it might be argued that the lyric is a slight jab at man’s idea of beauty in contrast to God’s. That might be too much of a stretch but I maintain that the main idea of the passage is God’s provision and not to communicate what is beautiful or of value. I’m not sure Solomon is ultimately being used as an example of beauty but as an example of someone who has no discernible need and therefore the opposite of most of us. The context of the surrounding verses contrasts need vs. want; materialistic striving vs. faith in God.
As for this analysis process, I don’t have a problem with you editing a couple of songs for worship or the choosiness with which you select the songs you use in the first place. Every worship leader is held accountable by God for how they lead those placed under their charge. Thanks for letting me join in!

Don Shreffler

Joshua Banner said...

Nice Don. These are great reflections. The trick is whether we write/lead/sing lyrics that have more or less interpretative space? When is it good to leave open several possible readings and when is this sloppy and even dangerous. More of that to come.