Back to the 1970s
I've long maintained that contemporary worship music is essentially an extension of 1970s-era "middle of the road," (MOR) AM radio styles. MOR programming was targeted toward a specific demographic consisting of folks were too "hip," for the slushy orchestral Muzak one the one hand, but were too "mellow," for hard and edgy rock, on the other.
As I've discussed elswhere (http://www.kerygmusic.com/lets-surrender.html) there is a literary pattern (or archetype) wherein the protagonist gives up--surrenders--to an external temptation or force. This "decision to surrender," is highly valued in certain Christian sects, wherein your salvation depends on you "making a decision for Christ."
Today I'm going to compare the lyrics from two tracks that employ the "surrender pattern." One is a 1970s MOR hit, and the other is a modern piece of "worship music." We'll see that when the concept of "surrender" is transplanted in a different context, some unusual things take place.
The first is a 1970s-era love song, the second, from the contemporary worship field. Although they are similar in terms of music/production techniques (mid-tempo, musical pads, sweet production style), we'll consider only the lyric content here.
First, David Gates' take: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDZuPK63HKI
David Gates is the "musical godfather," of this type of music. Nobody does it better.
Baby I'm through / runnin' it's true / I'd be a fool to try to escape you
Maybe I'm beat / but oh what a sweet surrender
You keep your rights, I'll take your nights / no one can lose when we turn the lights out Tastin' defeat, lovin' that sweet surrender
I'm givin' up myself to you / but I didn't really lose at all / I gave the only love I've known / and it never hurt me to fall
Now that it's done, so glad you won / I know our lives have only begun now / No more retreat, only my sweet surrender
- This is an amorous love song ("no one can lose when we turn the lights out," etc.)
- The subject/singer is "through runnin'" (ready to surrender!) and now he's giving into the inevitable. "You win," he's admitting, "I'm powerless to escape!"
- A possible subjucation of the feminist movement is suggested by "you keep your rights/I'll take your nights,"
- I found it interesting and possibly incongruous that the song ends with what might be understood as a lifelong promise (marriage?).
Next, contemporary worship artist (in the Pentecostal vein) Kim Walker's take on "Surrender:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSgn-nmBpNY
There is no love, sweeter than the love you pour on me / there is no song, sweeter than the song you sing to me / there is no place, that I would rather be, / than here at your feet, laying down everything.
All to you, I surrender, / everything, every part of me / all to you, I surrender, / all of my dreams, all of me
If worship's like perfume, I'll pour mine out on you / for there is none as deserving of my love like you. / so take my hand and draw me into you, / I want to be swept away, lost in love for you.
No turning back, I've made up my mind / I'm giving all of my life this time.
Your love makes it worth it / your love makes it worth it all, / your love makes it worth it all.
- There is no mention of any God, which means we rely on context cues to determine the nature of the "you."
- The singer is surrendering "here at your [God's?] feet, laying down everything," as a result of "love," and "song."
- The surrender is (mostly) total, as we hear in "All to you I surrender, everything., etc."
- In exchange, the singer needs to be interlocked with ("drawn into you") God (?) and swept away
While there are some differences in the type of surrender involved, the two pieces are very similar. Both are essentially secular pieces. The word "God," does not appear in either example. With the exception of the word 'worship,' (and the context), it would be extremely difficult to identify it as a song intended for worship.
It's reasonable to regard some of the topics in the second song in light of other popular musics.
For example, consider these images and phrases as they are used in the context of American culture as a whole:
- "no love sweeter than the love you pour on me," (c.f. Def Leppard's "pour some sugar on me.")
- "if worship's like perfume, I'll pour mine out on You," ("if love/sex is like perfume?" Perfume also has obvious sexual/romantic connotations, despite its appearance at various points in Scripture)
- "I want to be swept away, lost in love for you" (let's surrender--"being swept away" emphasizes the passiveness, and fragility of the singer. "Lost in love," by the way, is a famous 1970s soft-rock/surrender love song by "Air Supply.")
- "take my hand and draw me into You," (draw me into you? really?)
- "I've made up my mind/I'm giving all of my life this time" (I've decided to give in, "this time," -- I really mean it! At least David Gates said "it was over," without a "this time" clause)
Of course, in the right context, and with explanation, all of these instances may be explained away. Putting the best construction possible, we might arrive at the following conclusions:
- "pouring" could mean "annointing," which is a motif from Scripture (and apparently a common theme in certain denominations), and
- "perfume" is mentioned in the Bible many times so in context it may be valid here.
Ultimately, however, we're left to our own devices and interpretation as a result of the deliberately vague manner of expostion.
The Breakdown of Meaning
Traditional hymnody normally expresses complete thoughts and teachings that stand without an over-reliance on context. Whether you agree with the concepts being expressed or not, their meaning is unambiguous. Here is but one example, a Lutheran counter to decision theology: http://www.kerygmusic.com/lord-tis-not.html
Conversely, pop music typically relies on indirect allegories, allusions, and "in-jokes." This is part and parcel of the genre, which to some degree results from the conflict between public censorship on the one hand, but a curious and sexually charged youth culture on the other. As "freedom of speech" restrictions have loosened over the past several decades, more explicit music has been created, but the use of imagery, suggestion, ambiguity, and allusion remains a standard approach.
Such ambiguity however, is a net liability in this case.
In the context of popular music, is the second piece a good love song? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Books have been written about the superficial nature of romantic "love," in our culture, and we can safely assume that most pop lyrics aren't going to be able to subtly explore the nuances of agape and eros. The singer of this song isn't necessarily in a "loving" state as much as they are in an "infatuated" state. Therefore, as a secular love song, it may even be creepy.
Is it a good song for church use? I would say "no," as it has several elements that would make it inappropriate. Here are two:
- Decision theology. Even if you are a Pentecostal and believe in decision theology, you must admit that its exposition in this piece is paper-thin; they're not even trying (compare the lyrical content to Amy Grant's "I have decided," an equally dubious yet more detailed treatment of the subject)
- Human love (eros). The only concession to God here is a singular reference to "worship," if the artist substitutes "love" and re-records the track, it's entirely indistinguishable from a secular love ballad. If I watch a sex scene in an R-rated movie with a cross above the bed, does that make it "Christian?"
- Absence of spiritual truths. Because of its ambiguous and doctrinally "empty" text, any worship experience that asks for the edification/instruction of the singer (as opposed to establishing a mental state) will find this an empty vessel.
Musicians and Pastors who wish to provide congregations with truly valuable and edifying Music can--and should--do better.
Summary And Conclusions
Lightweight, "Middle of the Road," American popular music provides a wealth of source material for musical stylings and lyric themes used in contemporary worship music.
Today I did not cover any of the "musical vocabulary," (e.g. notes and rhythm) but concentrated on the texts used in two examples. Both pieces ask us, the listeners, to vicariously place ourselves in the role of the powerless, passive singer. Tossed about by the whims of some remote love object, we can only "surrender," to the overpowering forces that assail our weak and feeble spirit!
When brought into worship, however, this type of vehicle carries along the theological fault of decision theology, via the notion of "surrender." It also borrows the idiomatic verbal cliches common to its lineage, which at best, make for uncomforatble and inappropriate imagery in its new context.
The secular/sacred boundary then, asks us to carefully consider what lyrics (and therefore, what ideas) we're borrowing.
In denominations that expressly reject errors like decision theology, the danger is double--in addition to importing secular sex/love themes, we also incorporate doctrinal errors that weaken the message far beyond acceptable levels.