Monday, December 21, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I know as I write this that I am heading for some controversy as what I am about to suggest has already garnered some significant push-back from my own wife and mother in law. However, I also know there are some theologically-minded thinkers out there, and I wanted to get some opinions or counter-arguments for my current position.

I am the worship pastor for Redeemer Church in Omaha, Nebraska and this past Sunday was the last Sunday before Christmas. Now, much to the disappointment of my wife and the surprise of others, I only included one Christmas carol in our Sunday worship set list ("Angels From the Realms of Glory"), though I did include a couple songs that we sing during the rest of the year that focus on the incarnation ("Here I Am To Worship", "Love Came Down"). My dilemma is as follows:

There seems to be a shortage of Christmas carols that are theologically accurate, deep and significant and lyrically well-written as worship is considered. While most of the Christmas carols carry a lot of sentimental religious significance for most of us because we sing them every year around Christmas, I find at least some of them wanting when compared with the songs (both hymns and modern worship) that I choose for services the rest of the year.

My criteria for such songs is as follows:
  1. Theological accuracy
  2. Theological depth and significance (In other words, even if it's true, is it weighty?)
  3. Theological breadth (In other words, do we have to wade through a bunch of sentimental lines to get to one nugget of truth?)
  4. Lyrical beauty (In this I often focus on the refrain. Are we repeating a line that bears repeating and encourages worship?)
If you don't believe me, go back and read the lyrics for "Away In a Manger", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem", "We Three Kings" or "Silent Night". Even considering the second-tier songs that some may not consider Christmas carols we have songs such as "Do You Hear What I Hear?", "I Saw Three Ships", "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and "Little Drummer Boy". I feel like most of these songs fail on at least point #3, where we must muddle through a lot of poetic imagery to get to the significant theology of the songs.

Of course, anyone inclined to disagree with me will simply say I am picking songs that prove my point, and they may have an argument. However, I find carols such as "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing", "Angels In The Realms of Glory" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" to be the exception rather than the rule.

Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas carols. I still remember distinctly my frustration and surprise the first year I tried to find good Christmas carols to incorporate into a worship set. Most Christmas carols seem to be a genre to themselves, even when compared with the hymns from the same time period. There is, in general, more poetic imagery simply there to set a tone than to communicate something theologically significant. Much of it is a retelling of a historical event, but again, not in the theologically deep ways that we find in the hymns regarding the crucifixion and resurrection.

Feel free to respond but please be nice in the conversation, I am being intentionally incite-ful as much as insightful in this post. After all, I'd love to be proven wrong and have more songs to use in church next Christmas.


Yoshimi said...

Great post, great topic. I look forward to reading all the responses. I'll start with my two cents--

I think your criteria are excellent:

1) Theological accuracy
2) Theological depth and significance (In other words, even if it's true, is it weighty?)
3) Theological breadth (In other words, do we have to wade through a bunch of sentimental lines to get to one nugget of truth?)
4) Lyrical beauty (In this I often focus on the refrain. Are we repeating a line that bears repeating and encourages worship?)

I would suggest, though, that most difficult thing here is that most of these are at least partly subjective--in particular "sentimental" and "beauty" don't have objective definitions--never have and never will. I highly doubt that anyone in your church would push you to include more cheap sentimentality and ugly/banal/mundane/ lyrics, so
if you are the one making the decisions on the music in your church, you are the one who gets to decide on what's sentimental and what isn't, what's beautiful and what isn't. Hopefully you have others in your church--members or administration--with whom you can consult and whose opinions you trust.

How about "weighty"? I think that's the same thing, actually--that is, it would be hard to have a true debate on whether or not something (especially something like a song/hymn lyric) has the proper amount of "weight" since there is bound to be a wide range of opinion on that, although probably on the two ends of the spectrum there would be mostly agreement: THIS is shallow for sure, and THAT is profound for sure...I think the argument you'll run into here is that, especially at Christmas, the advantages (pleasures? do we care about that?) of singing traditional songs trumps the need for weight. That's an argument I could probably agree with, so long as the song in question met your other criteria.

As for the first, well, here there might also be a bit of subjectivity, but for the most part surely no one would want to be singing songs that were theologically inaccurate. I mean, if the only objection is that "king" isn't really the most accurate term for the Magi, or that the night probably wasn't all that "silent" we might give it a pass, but here I think you're on solid ground with everyone.

In short, I say: avoid sentimentality and non-beauty but recognize that your mileage may vary when it comes to deciding those things, avoid glaring or bothersome inaccuracies; and maybe let a few songs in that aren't as weighty because it can be a good thing to be connected to traditions of the past.

Andrew Faris said...


Funny, because I actually think Christmas is the one time of year where almost every church sings good songs. When else are people just begging for more hymns?

Not only are there the 3 songs you mentioned, but I'd add "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus", "Joy to the World", "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence", "What Child Is This?" and in some measure, "O Holy Night".

I'd also take "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "We Three Kings" from your negative category and put them in the positive. "We Three Kings", despite that they were astrologers and we don't know how many of them there were, has some great verses that use the gifts as pointers to Jesus' full ministry. I also love the "Guide us to thy perfect light" line. I also happen to love the last verse of "O Little Town". While parts of that songs aren't the greatest, neither are they particularly objectionable, and the last verse is worth it.

Also, is "Here I Am To Worship" (which only sort of focuses on the incarnation, but you must admit not with near the explicitness of many of the songs listed above) really better than most of the songs in that list?

Finally, all that said, I see your point. I'm tired of playing sentimental Christmas songs just because people want to hear them (I lead worship too). I'd much rather use the time to actually focus on the incarnation and the mission of Jesus. So we could gladly eliminate some of the songs that we sing every year.

But I for one wish we sang more Christmas songs year round!


Bob said...

I would choose "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", "O Holy Night", and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"

MDubya said...

Hmm...I guess my first question is, what's wrong with wading through poetic imagery?

It seems to me that often modern worship music is so busy trying to be theologically accurate and deep and so on that it becomes more academic than artistic. I think there's room for a healthy measure of both in worship.

Christmas is the one time of year when I feel I can go to church and sing a song I like, that means something to me, and enhances my worship experience on the level of my personal relationship with God. Almost all other times, I'm hesitant to get into worship because it seems like some self-serving overthought pop culture fad.

I'm Black American, and believe me when I say that my culture does bad theology in worship better than everybody else does. :) Even so, some of our Christmas songs bring home the personal nature of Jesus' birth, really bring home the idea of incarnation by personalizing it. "What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby" and "Mary's Boy Child" immediately come to mind. Also the Huron Indian Carol comes to mind as an example of cultural relevance in worship, with plenty of poetic imagery too...:)

Anonymous said...

I guess that it is what is in your heart when you listen to the songs that determines what you hear. I never thought about rather it was accurate or not. As far as depth and significance it touches me to the depth of my soul when I hear them and think about the wonderful gift that God sent to us and he did ths for no other reason than that he loved us.