Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hymnody Review: Music for a Road Trip

Fireflight. For Those Who Wait. Franklin, TN: Provident Label Group, 2010. Audio CD. $13.98. (Discounts and mp3 download also available.) (H)

Casting Crowns. Until the Whole World Hears. Franklin, TN: Provident Label Group, 2009. Audio CD. $11.98. (Discounts may apply at online retailers and for mp3 download version.)  (H)

Lutheran Songs Today: Songs for Worship (Vol. 1) by Lutheran Singer-Songwriters & Bands plus Worship Leader Resource. Westwood, MA: Songsformysoul, inc, 2008/2009. 107 Pages. Spiral. $24.95. (Set with CD for $39.95.) (H)

Lutheran Songs Today: Songs for Worship (Vol. 1) by Lutheran Singer-Songwriters & Bands. Westwood, MA: Songsformysoul, inc, 2008. 16 Tracks. Audio CD. $19.95. (Set with Songbook for $39.95.) (H)
Since the Jesus Movement decades ago, the last couple generations of Christians have experimented with music, especially music intended for Christian worship. Today, music stores and online mp3 vendors offer "Christian" music of nearly every style and description. Not all of it would be appropriate for Sunday morning services at the congregation I serve.

I was taught that we should "save the polkas for Saturday night." I still think this is good advice. Context communicates. The organ music for a hockey game or a baseball game would not be appropriate for a prelude, offertory or postlude during Divine Service. Similarly, Gregorian chant would seem out of place at a rock concert.

The need for more reverent worship, as taught by Hebrews 12:28, is probably the greatest weakness I see among pastors and other "worship leaders" today. Our God is holy and is a consuming fire. We dare not play around with fire!

The following three collections were written from a Christian worldview. Some songs were intended for Christian worship, while others were intended more as songs of encouragement, what some call "spiritual songs."

I was unaware of the band Fireflight until this review copy of their latest album arrived. Short story: think Evanescence (the band) with more specifically religious lyrics. Lead singer Dawn Michele and company actually do a better job at this kind of rock than the similar secular band.

Strings greet the listener on the title track, "For Those Who Wait," an electric guitar-infused "lullaby to the lonely hearts tonight." One gets the impression from the start that this band intends to care for hurting people through their songs.

"Desperate," track 2, is the first single released from the album. It cranks up the volume and intensity of the guitar licks. Harder riffs lead off track 3. "Harder rock than I usually listen to," was my wife's response. This CD came on in the car at the 8 hour mark (and as the sun was setting) on a 10 hour drive to Nebraska.

Instrumentation varies from electric to acoustic and heavy to soft. Instruments often obscure the sung lyrics. After reading them, I noted that they were rather creative in using terms like "addiction," "recovery," and "desparate" in non-traditional ways that may get a listener to think about spiritual things. Those looking for specific answers and the source of our comfort may well be disappointed. Later songs covered more emotional topics, but were less memorable to me than the intial tracks.

Theologically, the language on the album could be characterized as vague, and understandable as Christian by Christian listeners, yet unclear and not specific for potential unbelieving listeners. Songs fit into the "Jesus or my boyfriend" genre. (In other words, some could refer to either person depending upon context.)

"You" is the most common intended reference to God, with the word "God" as number two. The names "Jesus" and "Christ" are missing from the lyrics, and that realization was troubling to this reviewer. Thanking our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ just in the liner notes is good to see, but not enough.

"The Gospel assumed is a denial of the Gospel." Good communicators, especially Christian witnesses are clear in defining their terms. Speaking of God apart from Christ is an incomplete picture of the Bible. "No one comes to the Father but by me," Jesus says.

If the words are the only difference between songs or albums by bands with similar styles, that's a lot of pressure (and motiviation) toward the clearest possible Christian confession of who Christ is and what He uniquely has done and still does for us.

I enjoyed the talented musicanship and soaring vocals that fuze together into the powerful, vigorous sound of Fireflight, yet wished for a more clear confession of Christian faith, Bible teaching, and comfort.

The Baptist band Casting Crowns has a notable following in The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod among those who support or use so-called "contemporary worship." I can also understand their appeal. Compared to Fireflight, the sound is considerably softer and more "adult contemporary" in radio-speak. The drum set and electric guitars are front-and-center.

The CD liner notes give numerous Bible references for each song. This is a good start. "Lord" is the dominant title for God on the album. Theology tends to be richer and more intentionally Christian than many bands of the genre.

The title track, "Until the Whole World Hears" shows a heart for missions and evangelism.

"I fWe've Ever Needed You" and "Always Enough" deal with the uncomfortable times in the Christian life, subjects often avoided in CCM song.

"Joyful, Joyful" trades the Beethoven melody of Lutheran Service Book 803 for a new melody and musical treatment of the Henry Van Dyke text. I appreciate this kind of creativity, singing a new song out of what the Church has inherited.

The songwriter surrenders "At Your Feet," with Jesus being the explicit referent. Submission is not yet faith, yet is intended to be in this case. There is a hint of decision theology. For comparision, read John 15:16 with an open mind. He chose us!

The strongest text is likely "Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me)." It reads like the Apostles' Creed applied to the life of an individual Christian. One hears of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and return. "Buried, He carried my sins far away. Rising, He justified freely forever." The melody of the stanzas is rather limited, but expands and is more imaginitive on the refrain.

"Holy One" is a hymn of praise that leads into a song with a common theme for Casting Crowns from their previous albums, exposing hypocrisy and the gap between Christian confession and life, between externals and internals, calling for more than a whitewashed tomb lifestyle. "You" is the way God is addressed in "To Know You."

"Mercy" is a corporate or individual confession seeking absolution. "Jesus, Hold Me Now" is a Kyrie entreating the Lord for mercy in a time of trouble.

"Blessed Redeemer" again focuses explicity on Christ. The melody and setting is gentler than "Glorious Day," particularly because of the lead female voice.

The album closes with "Shadow of Your Wings," written for the lead singer's youth group years ago.

A couple of songs from Until the World Hears could be possible considerations for Sunday services in my context. Acoustic versions may be the best arrangements for my members from a pastoral care perspective.

I had high expectations for Lutheran Songs Today, just as I do for the upcoming LCMS Songwriters' Conference. With this release, I must admit some disappointment, yet see many avenues for improvement.

Playing through the spiral songbook gave me some strong first impressions. There were some singer-songwriters I was familiar with. Others were new to me. Most seem to have a background in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In a liturgical church like the Lutheran Church, there is  the need for a Lectionary Key (5), Scripture Key (6), and guide for each song recommending appropriate themes, Scripture references, places in the service and Sundays to use each song.

The binding appears to be durable, and the plastic over the cardboard cover was a great idea, too.

Some songs were overly repetitive, giving in the appearance of the 7/11 sterotype, "seven words sung eleven times." This would be taking the weakness of CCM into the Lutheran context. "Abba, I Belong to You" is a good message, but needs more theological development over the course of the song.

"All Are Welcome" is an appropriate message of welcome, of Gospel. One may (perhaps) be given the false impression that the Gospel means there is no need for the law. "Gospel reductionism" has been a challenge to traditional Lutheran theology for some 40+ years. With ! Corinthians 11 in mind, repentance, faith, and recongition of the real presence of Jesus' Body in the sacrament is more than a recommendation. Open Communion practice departs from the Biblical, apostolic, and historic Lutheran and Christian norm. We can be welcoming to all while providing good, responsible pastoral care.

"Bones," like the later track "Lions," makes a great youth group campfire song, but I couldn't take them seriously on Sunday morning. I wondered about the reaction of Lost And Found to such a recommended use and setting. Yet, they had to give permission for the inclusion of their work in this collection.

"Glory in the Highest" struck me as the best initial prospect for a song usable in my congregation and context. Unfortunately, "Loving father," as an address to God is followed immediately by "caring mother." This is problematic at best. Jesus' "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem" plaintive desire to gather His own people to Himself ends with "but you would not." This text is an overused and overreaching "feminine" reference to God. We have Jesus command and invitation to pray "Our Father," but not "Our Mother who art in heaven."

"God's Love Endures Forever" brings to mind the repeated refrain of the psalter. The copyright is held by a part of the UCC.

"Hey Hey Samuel" seems more childish than childlike after continued consideration.

"I Thank You Jesus" was one of the strongest texts, melodies, and recordings. Even though it was repetitive, it had the clearest proclamation of who Jesus is and what He has done.

"Lifted Up" does a pretty good job of connecting the snake on the pole and the almost-sacrifice of Issac to Jesus and His cross.

"Messiah" was used at the campus ministry I attened in my university days. It is a call for help, with not much said about the Helper or His unique-in-this-world help.

"Now Faith" goes beyond mere paraphrase of Scripture and gets into more mature life application in the stanzas. Language is more informal than I prefer, but nonetheless true.

"Once Again" was probably stronger on paper than as a recording. This track was a bit pitchy. God's word does embrace us. Some further work on this text could extol specific commands and promises the Word gives about itself.

"Seize My Heart" is a bit unclear on what the human will (after the fall) is capable of. Perhaps that conflict, that uncertainty in a time of trial and searching is part of the journey from "fallen from faith" or "weak faith" back to "Word-filled renewed faith in Christ." I think this song has some potential, but would recommend additional work on the text.

"Servants Prayer" reminds me of the "Footsteps in the Sand" poem. The simple melody and text communicates well and would be easily learned.

"There Is a River" is a modern adaptation of Psalm 46. Beyond three repetitions and a bridge, added stanzas that would sing the bulk of Psalm 46 or another Scripture text would be a good way to expand the song.

"You Sing in My Soul" concludes the book and CD in this collection. The composer has a memorable "hook" melodically and textually. I'm not sure this is the best arrangement or recording of the song, though.

Compiler Eric Wefald is still searching for original songs by Lutherans of every description with mp3 recordings and scores in pdf format. Entries will be judged by
  • consistency of lyrics rooted in Lutheran theology and practice
  • sing-ability of melody
  • play-ability of music by instrumentalists (107)
I look forward to other collections, projects, and arragements by this complier, author, and composer. Hymnwriting (both tunes and texts) is a humbling exercise to find what will stand the test of time, use, and measure up to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

These three CDs have texts and melodies of different strengths, were often heavy on Law, light (or unclear) on the Gospel, and typically more appropriate for individual or small group singing than for use by a congregation.

The search is still beneficial. We are given to sing to the Lord a new song. Not everything we sing has to be used forever, but it should be faithful, true, and clear.

My wife and I had opporunity to listen to these recordings in the context of a 10-hour road trip. Rather than Sunday services, roadtrips may be the best context for Christian songs and recordings like these.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.