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Sound Theology: Truth and a Kick-in-the-Teeth
By Jon Nicol - 09/21/2002 - 01:43 PM EDT

2002 Jon Nicol

In last month's article, we skimmed the surface of the three "unbreakable" rules of songwriting for worship ( "Groovin' in the Bag with Sound Theology" ). In the way of review (for those of you who don't want to
wait for your slow dial-up connection to take you back there), I adapted these rules from something a former music teacher vehemently preached. His rules (phrased as questions for self-critiquing) were:
1) "Is it sonically-correct?"
2) "Does it fit the bag?"
3) "Does it groove?"

As I mentioned in the last article, I changed rule/question #1 completely, but not because I deemed it unnecessary. It's of the utmost importance, but most lyricists who cannot craft "sonically-correct" music (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) have found at least one writing partner who can. By the way, if you're not sure that you can discern musical-correctness, grab your guitar and head to a local coffeehouse for the next open mic. Ah...live performance--very few things in life will kick you in the teeth like this can. We may have to explore more completely the fine art of getting kicked in the proverbial "songwriting teeth" in a future article. But I digress. So on to the modified first rule/question regarding songwriting for worship:

"Is it theologically sound?"

Caution: By answering this question affirmatively, we risk having more passion in our songwriting, more truth in our message, and a clearer focus on our purpose as worship songwriters. Care to take that risk with me?

During a songwriting seminar in Minneapolis, Pat Pattison told me something that I'll never forget. (OK, for all of you who just skimmed past the name "Pat Pattison" with little or no regard for who he might be, stop. Leave this article. Find Pat's book Writing Better Lyrics. Buy it. Read it. Put it to practice. I'll wait. OK, got it? Good! Have you read it? Great! We can go on now.) Pat's words of Berklee wisdom came in response to a song of mine he was critiquing. (Remember what I said earlier about getting kicked in the teeth--yeah, this was one of those times, but Pat did it so kindly that I hardly realized I had swallowed my bicuspids.) Long story short, it was a slightly comical song that I wrote about my "early adolescent years." You know, that time of life most people refer to as "hell." Although the song was about me, I wrote it in the third person. Pat told me I should change the character's name to make the song more interesting. "Umm...but that's MY name and the song's about ME." And to that he succinctly replied, "Don't let reality get in the way of the truth."

Pat was trying to tell me that the "truth" of a song isn't necessarily found in the veracity of the story or characters. How many of the great "story" songs in country music (e.g. "Friends in Low Places," "Don't Take the Girl," etc.) are "true" down to the last detail? I'd venture to say few. Even if the song is based on an actual event or person, the songwriter has probably taken some "artistic license." But the "truth" of the song remains. Were the truths of Christ's parables lessened because they were made-up stories? By now you might be thinking, what does this have to do with theological soundness in writing worship music? Thanks for asking. Every songwriter, whether writing about patriotism, jaded love, or junior high romance, is guided by the "truth" of the song. The truth comes from the subject of the song and what the writer knows about the subject, feels about the subject, has experienced about subject, etc. When I ask myself, "Is this song theologically sound?" I'm really trying to assess whether it is "True" or not.

Vertical songwriters writing for corporate worship need Truth (or "theological-soundness") in three different areas:
1. Creed
2. Content
3. Context

By the way, when I refer to "corporate" worship, I'm not referring to business (as in the "corporate" world-you know, where people actually make money, unlike most of us songwriters...). It's corporate as in "together," or "more than one." I hope I didn't insult your intelligence, but I felt that I needed to make that distinction. Back to the 3 C's:

Creed. No, not that Creed (but I think all of us guitarists need to thank them for bringing guitar solos back to Top 40 music). Among other definitions, a creed is "a guiding principle." Every person lives by a creed of some sort, a "personal theology," if you will. Priest or pagan, atheist or Anabaptist, mystic or math teacher, we all live by a creed. As Christians, our creed is wrapped around our faith in the One for whom we're named: Christ.

The single most dispensed piece of advice when it comes to writing, whether prose or poetry, is, "Write what you know." If we're writing for Christian worship, it only makes sense that our beliefs jive with what we're writing. I'm not nave enough to think that no one out there is "cashing in" on the praise and worship movement. But if our "heart, soul, mind, and strength" are dedicated to the Creator, we have a tremendous advantage over those who are simply writing for profit. In one word: passion. The more passionate you are about your creed, or beliefs, the more fuel you will have to propel your songwriting.

The second area that Truth needs to saturate is Content. Did anyone catch my Old Testament trivia blunder in my first article? Yeah, there were TEN plagues that hit Egypt, not seven. (I'll save you the trouble of looking; it's been corrected already.) Honest mistake; almost everything is "seven" in the Bible: seven days, seven years, the seventh seal, seventy times seven, seven brides for seven brothers--ok that wasn't in there, but you see what I mean. As innocent of a mistake as it was to misquote the number of plagues, it goes to show how easily we can pass off faulty information to the worshippers who are using our songs as a tool of worship.

A couple of suggestions to help ensure sound theological content:
1. Research. If you have a song focusing on "grace," get a concordance and find all the passages in scripture that contain the word "grace." Find out what the Bible has to say about it. Too many times we write what we think it says in lieu what it really says.

2. Review. Solicit the help of a pastor/theologian who can check your songs for theological errors. This may sound weird, but find someone non-musical for whom rhyme or music won't easily persuade. We've all been tempted to go for the easy rhyme, that catchy line, so many-a-time (sorry...) even though it isn't quite communicating what we know it should. Our objective counsel will say, "That needs to be changed to this...." We then need to figure out a way to fix it. Here is where the muscle of our creativity is truly tested: the re-write.

This whole process of research and review will help us become more conscientious writers whose lyrical content is theologically sound.

And finally, Context. Webster defines context as "the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs." If we are writing songs of worship that are going to be sung by voices other than our own, we need to understand the interrelated conditions that make Christian worship what it is. We need a "theology of worship"--a working knowledge of what worship is and what its purpose is.

One of the great leaders on the forefront of the worship renewal movement is Robert Webber. He is to worship theology what Pat Pattison is to lyric writing. His book, Worship is a Verb, is a great place to start to understand this thing called "worship" for which we are writing songs. I wish I could go into more detail about Webber's book and developing a theology of worship. Another time, maybe. But don't wait for me, check out Worship is a Verb. Robert Webber's Institute for Worship Studies also has other resources that can help us develop a theology of worship.

I think we're done wrestling with the first rule of songwriting for worship. "Is it theologically sound?" is an invaluable self-critiquing question for our writing and for our lives. A theologically sound creed gives passion by way of intimate knowledge and experience. Theologically solid content enables us to clearly communicate Truth. And a sound theological understanding of worship can give more focus and purpose to our songs, because we will understand the context for which we're writing.

Further up and further in!
--Jon


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