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Lost In Translation, Part 2
By Jon Nicol - 03/30/2004 - 12:47 PM EST

A few days after posting my last article (Lost in Translation, Part 1), I received the latest copy of Worship Leader magazine. Guess what it was all about. Yep—songwriting. It’s the March/April issue, so you might be able to find it on stands (at the time of this writing & posting) if you don’t already subscribe to it. On the whole, this magazine is a superb asset if you lead music and worship in your local church and/or write worship music for congregational settings. This issue in particular, has some great articles pertaining to songwriting—even giving Muse’s Muse a brief plug as an online resource. The best article (in my opinion) is from Robert Webber, neither a songwriter nor a musician, but a man for whom the study and practice of corporate worship has become a lifelong endeavor. His article alone will make it worth your while to beg, borrow or buy this issue.

Webber asked in his article’s title, “Where Will All the Songs Go?” and then pointed back to the sixties and early seventies. The contemporary worship songs that came out of the Jesus movement were predominately “biblical verses or phrases put to music.” He then mapped the journey of the worship song from the narcissistic, “What’s in it for me?” attitude of the eighties to the present day “narcissism with a twist—romantic spirituality.” Webber’s answer to today’s narcissism and spiritual relativism lies in a return to the “scripture song.”

Having just written the first of two articles on translating scripture into lyrics, I was enamored by what Webber had to say on the subject. He bottom-lined it for us songwriters with this:

So, how should you think about songwriting? Let me leave you with two guidelines. First, if you can sing it to your spouse or girl/boy friend, forget it! Second, if it is drawn directly from the Bible or from Biblical images, you are on the right track.

Going on to discuss a particular song with biblical images and metaphors, Webber explained that the scripture-infused lyrics “have to do with God and me. They express God’s truth and elicit my passion. Truth and passion. Put them together and you have a good song. One that will last the test of time.”

I made the promise last month to tear into two of my songs to illustrate this “translation” of scripture to lyrics. But I now find myself apprehensive about dangling my songs out there in light of Robert Webber’s wise advice and prophetic counsel. I’m always preaching honest critiquing and rewriting, so I’ll just have to suck it up. I’m not putting these songs out there as pinnacle pictures of what should be achieved, but simply as examples of songs written from scripture. You can judge the quality for yourself.

(To hear a snippet of either of these songs, go to my website, jonnicol.com.)

The first song is based on 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (NIV) Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

My Confession
© 2002 Jon Nicol

My confession is that I have sinned
I believe that you will cleanse
this sinner’s heart
Because you are faithful and you are just
And you will forgive all my unrighteousness
that I lay before you, Jesus,
in my confession

Verse 1
You bore upon the cross my guilt and my shame
And took my sin upon you, as you entered the grave
But you rose on the 3rd day with a pardon and claim of my life
As your treasured possession, this is my confession…

Verse 2
In this sinner’s heart is my guilt and my shame
But I’m forgiven and healed as I stand in your grace
And I’m humbled by your mercy with your pardon and claim of my life
As your treasured possession, this is my confession

My impetus for writing this song was the lack of “confession” music among evangelical churches. While there are other scriptures, especially in the Psalms, that deal with confession of sin (Ps. 32, 51 among others), I chose to keep the chorus centered on the language of 1 John 1:9.

The first notable rewordings in the chorus are with the pronouns. I used “You” instead of “He” & “Him” when addressing God. This brings a more intimate feel to the song. I also changed the pronouns “We, Us & Our” to “I, Me & My.” In more than one draft, I played with leaving the language corporate. Doing so would allow the congregation to confess as a body of believers. On the other hand, moving it to the individual pronoun lends itself to the worshiper internalizing it on a more personal level. To be honest, in the end I chose the latter, because it presented less awkward phrases than the other. Should a worship leader desire the corporate language, he/she could re-insert the plural pronouns into the chorus without too much difficulty.

Another difference between the passage of scripture and the lyrics is the word “cleanse” instead of “purify.” Both these words are used in different translations of scripture. I chose “cleanse” because of the imperfect rhyme with “sinned.”

Taking the idea from a “confession of sin” to a “confession of faith” gave me the basis for the verses. Where verse 2 is a subjective and personal look at the forgiveness we receive through confession, verse 1 is a more objective look at the cross and resurrection, which brought about the forgiveness that we may receive. Neither is written from one scriptural passage in particular, but use phrases and ideas that come from various places in the Bible.

The second song I want to look at is “How Great.” This song was borne out of an early morning meditation on Psalm 103. For space and time, I’m not going to write out the entire psalm. Take time look it up for yourself if you want to get a better picture of how I “translated” this psalm into song. I’ve put the scripture verse numbers to the right of the line so you can see where each line came from.

How Great
© 2002 Jon Nicol

How great…is your love for us
How great, how great is your love
As high as the heavens are above the earth
So great is your love for us (v. 11)
How great, how great is your love

We bless you, O Lord, (v. 1, 2, etc--see KJV or the Message for the word “bless“)
O desire of our hearts
You satisfy the longings of our souls (v. 5)
You are compassionate (v. 8, 13)
With grace enough (v. 8)
To be slow to anger
And abounding in love (v. 8)

How great, how great are you, Lord
How great, how great are you, Lord

How great…is your mercy (v. 10)
How great, how great is your grace
As far as the east is from the west you have
removed our transgressions (v. 12)
How great is your mercy
How great, how great is your grace

As I wrote, I tried to keep the language of the text fairly intact and even used word-for-word phrases here and there. This caused two issues that I had to deal with: rhyming and verse symmetry.

This song is not strong on rhymes. What gives it lyrical strength is the repetition of the hook “how great” and other key phrases. Though the rhymes aren’t a dominant force in this song, there are still a few to help bring it all together. “Love” and “us” in verse 1 form an imperfect rhyme that hold lines 1 & 2 and 4 & 5 together. In verse two, the rhyme scheme changes to an internal rhyme in lines 2 & 5 with “great” & “grace.” But this creates an issue of “incongruent” verses. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The only apparent rhyme scheme in the chorus is between line 5 & 7-- “enough” and “love.” This is decent example of morphing the language of the scripture into modern phrasing to produce a rhyme. “With grace enough” is a colloquial expression akin to describing a wealthy person’s ability to purchase anything he or she wants: “She’s got money enough to….” If your goal is to stay as true to the language of the text as possible, that’s great. But don’t be so rigid that you can’t allow for alternatives that create a stronger lyric and still maintain the veracity of the text. On to verse structure and symmetry.

Verse Structure and Symmetry
What I mean by verse symmetry is the parallel aspects of two different verses. Let‘s pretend we just wrote the following as a first verse to a future hit song:

x Mary had a little lamb
a Its fleece was white as snow
x Every where that Mary went
a The lamb was sure to go

To write a 2nd verse that is symmetrical to this one, you’d have to consider a few things:

1. Number of lines

That’s easy--four. So all subsequent verses should each be four lines long.

2. Rhyme scheme

There’s no rhyme between 1 & 3 (hence, the x), but there is between lines 2 & 4. By the way, the “a” notates the rhyme. Should the verse have two different rhyming lines, b, c, d, etc. would notate each unique rhyme. For example:
a Mary had a little lamb
b It’s fleece was white as snow
a When Mary fed the sheep some ham
b The lamb was good to go

This is some pretty basic songwriting stuff. But if you don’t analyze your own songs like this, your verses won’t be parallel.

3. Meter

Meter is a fancy way of saying the “rhythmic feel” of a line. I’ll admit it--I’m a total ignoramus when it comes to the technical stuff of poetry. You know, the iambic tetra-blah, blah, blah stuff. Someday, I’ll study it. I promise. But for now, just go with my uneducated explanations. Thanks.

To determine the meter of a line, as you read the line aloud, tap your foot (or nod your head or clap your hands or whatever) to the natural rhythm the line and count the strong beats (that’s when your foot goes down). The natural beats for the first line of our nursery rhyme fall on these bolded words or syllables:

Mar-y had a lit-tle lamb

In all there are 4. Counting out the rest of the lines we’d see this breakdown:

Line 1: 4 beats
Line 2: 3 beats
Line 3: 4 beats
Line 4: 3 beats

As we write a second verse for this, we’ll want to maintain the same meter for each line. Give it a try…and go with the ham theme. :)

So now that I’ve digressed into a Songwriting 101 clinic, let’s get back to what we were originally looking at: the symmetry of verses 1 & 2 of “How Great.”

Let’s test the song in terms of the number of lines, the rhyme scheme, and meter.

1. Number of lines: 5 each. OK, I passed that one. (I know line 3 of verse 2 is much longer, but we’ll deal with that when we talk about meter.)

2. Rhyme scheme: We already know I failed this one:
Verse 1 is

Verse 2 is
No symmetry here. Let’s go on to the next one.

3. Meter
Reading these verses without any knowledge of the music, you can still hear a similar meter between most of the lines of both verses except for the third lines:
(verse 1, line 3) as high as the heavens are above the earth
(verse 2, line 3) as far as the east is from west, you have removed our transgressions

Yep. Failed that one, too. I wrestled like an Iowa farm boy with this as I was rewriting it. It was one of those times where I decided to stick to the wording of scripture and not get hung up on the meter. What the longer line communicates is more important than congruency between the verses. And in the end, after writing the music, both verses are the same number of measures with identical chord progressions. There are 12 bars from the beginning of line 3 to the downbeat of the chorus. So in that sense, the verses are symmetrical.

The writing of “How Great” is an example of knowing the rules, but knowing when to break them. The average person in the congregation isn’t going to be analyzing it in order to determine meter and rhyme scheme as they sing it on Sunday morning. But use caution: stray too far from the conventional rules of song crafting and your listener/singer will notice. They might not be able to articulate the issues, but they’ll know something isn’t right.

The Exciting Conclusion
(Why is it exciting? Because we’re concluding…)

As I was editing and proofing this article, I was tempted to cut out the “songwriting 101” tangent because of length. Knowing that Muse’s Muse attracts writers from all over the skill spectrum, I decided to leave it in. If some of this stuff is new to you, track down some songwriting resources that teach the basics. You’ll be glad you did.

As you’re translating scripture to song lyrics, consider how you can keep the text as close to the original as possible. But remember, truth is truth, whether it’s word-for-word or not. So be open to saying it in a fresh and different way--especially if the biblical phrase has been overused in other worship songs.

Finally, take to heart what Robert Webber wrote: “Truth and passion. Put them together and you have a good song. One that will last the test of time.” Isn’t that what we all want to do?

(All quotes from Robert Webber are from the article “Where Will All the Songs Go?” from March/April 2004 Worship Leader Magazine. © 2003 by Worship Leader, Inc.)

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