To Sing or Not to Sing: A Theological Conundrum

My son Nick is graduating high school and looking toward college and career. While he is not likely to go into music as a vocation, he is considering taking music classes and using his musical talent in church music. He’s already active in our local church’s music ministry and is musically gifted…. plus he practices, which is vital. But, that’s a conversation for another day.  Anyway, we have been having discussions about appropriateness of music, lyrics, etc., for different worship settings. Those conversations with my son have me reflecting on an event in a church service from a few years back.

When working on my master’s degree in music at Samford University, I took a course in its Beeson Divinity School. I was required to take two courses outside of the school of music. I chose an education course, a mistake, and a religion class with the head of the school and a fantastic instructor, Dr. Timothy George. In one of the classes, he recounted how in seminary as a student he noted that in chapel professors would not sing on certain verses of hymns because they disagreed theologically with the content of the verse. As an aside, this says something about hymns. Hymns, true hymns, are traditionally storehouses chocked full of theological “stuff,” which is one reason among many that I bemoan that my church tradition actually sang few historic hymns of the church and why I fret that even those churches that once included them have begun to drop their hymns by the wayside. But this is not about my regret at the dearth of hymns. It is, however, about bad theology set to catchy tunes.

A few years back I found myself in a church service where Dr. George’s anecdote came home to me in a visceral way. As I was participating in the congregational singing, the worship leader led a song that troubled me. Two things stood out. For one, it used the first person pronoun I ten times in the chorus. (Now, to be fair, it was a contemporary praise chorus, so it’s not like it had that many different words in it anyway). Still, as the song progressed I found myself unable to join in singing, not unlike those seminary professors who found themselves faced with a theological impasse. I could not go forward. I would not sing the lyrics.

Two things about the lyrics troubled me. First, the emphasis on I seemed at odds with the idea that we were engaged in corporate worship. Of course, I understand that individually we must have a relationship with Christ. But the emphasis was not about an individual relationship with Christ but sounded more about me… my… mine. This was reinforced, not only by the profusion of first person pronouns, but by the remainder of the lyrics.

My son, fifteen years old at the time, was in the same service. After church, he said something about how the song bothered him because of the emphasis on being so blessed and blessed every day and everyway sounded to him too much like Joel Osteen (his words, not mine). It was very much a sentiment that “I’m a winner. No worries. It’s all going to be rainbows and sunshine.” I cannot help but wonder why no one has set Romans 8:36 to music for a contemporary praise chorus: “For your sake we are killed every day, and we are accounted as sheep for slaughter.” (For the record, Romans 8:36 quotes Psalm 44:22, so it has been set to music at least once by our ancient Jewish forebears.)

I have to wonder, where is our sense of sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the gospel? How would our brothers and sisters facing persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East or at the hands of a communist government in China respond to the I-I-I-am-blessed-and-blessed-the-best songs that we glibly sing? Or what of Hus, Polycarp, or the Apostle Paul? What would they who willingly laid down their lives say about our we-are-all-winners-everyday theology?

I wonder if they would sing along or remain mute.

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Stephen Rizzo

I am a Christian who is flawed but forgiven. I am a father who is blessed beyond measure with two amazing children. I am an educator who is fortunate to get paid for doing what he loves. I am a musician who really needs to practice more.

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