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Wednesday
Apr042012

Review of White Flag, by Passion

Passion, White Flag (sixsteps/Sparrow)
Released: March 13, 2012

Passion's latest project continues in their strong legacy of fervent live worship albums.  One can never question on these records that this movement continues to be deeply committed to the core of what Christian worship is all about--encountering the presence of God with the people of God.  At the same time, White Flag continues to reveal the theological growth and maturation of Passion's main songwriters and artists--Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Kristian Stanfill, Christy Nockels, Charlie Hall, etc.  There are even some surprising new ventures, as far as content goes. "White Flag" (the title track) appears to be a metaphor for surrender to God, which characterizes some, though not all, of the album.

SUMMARY

It is simply not possible that every album produced by a band or music-community can be landmark and earth-shattering, and while White Flag is a great listen and a solid offering of fresh anthems for the English-speaking Church, it is not extraordinary.  The production continues to be crisp, energetic, creative, and forward-looking within the pop-rock genre.  The theological content is solidly evangelical and orthodox, with charismatic leanings being dialed down a bit as compared to previous albums.  If we were to compare the breadth of content with that of the biblical Psalms, it has not gone much further than Here for You (2011) and Awakening (2010) in exploring the spectral realities in between poles like joyful praise and sorrowful lament, with one notable exception surprisingly opening the door toward worship's connection with the Lord's Supper.  

The songs I would most likely incorporate into worship in my local context would be:

With honorable mention to:

  • "Lay Me Down"
  • "One Thing Remains"
  • "Yahweh"

MUSICALITY

White Flag is marked by the usual "arena worship" instrumentation--big drums, heavy low-end, high tenor vocals, backing "congregational" choir, epic guitars, and seeping keys.  No new or experimental/risky sounds will be found on this record, but there are a few slight new touches, such as the (most likely synthesized) dulcimer/harpsichord arpeggiations on "The Only One" and the electronica-plus-Death-Cabby-indie-guitars from Crowder on (the congregationally unfriendly) "All This Glory."  Songs like "White Flag" and "One Thing Remains" exhibit the typical arena-style soft-low-to-epic-high contour, all glued together by tom-beating, snare-banging, kick-pounding crescendos.  "Yahweh" has a nicely arranged skipping pedaled piano part in its opening and some fresh ways of coloring a triple meter.  The early 80s metal-style holds and fuzzy electrics fit well the grandeur of the song.  Some songs seem much more appropriate for special music because of their difficult rhythms, which congregations would find hard to follow, such as (ironically named) "Sing Along."  "10,000 Reasons," save a few minor variations is the same version in key, arrangement, and style, as Redman's earlier recorded version.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

Modern worship has always excelled at magnifying the prominent attributes of God--His greatness, His holiness, His majesty, His power, His perfection.  You hear it exemplified in songs like "Yahweh," whose first verse and chorus sing:

You have no rival to Your throne
In majesty, You stand alone
There is no limit to Your reign
Now all Your works shall praise Your name
As far as this, from east to west
There's no other, there's no other

Yahweh,
Your name alone be exalted
Yahweh,
Our hearts are Yours forever 

Debra and Ron Rienstra, in their book Worship Words (see my review), have challenged worship to incorporate more of the names of God.  "Yahweh," the chief name for God and perhaps the most obvious one scripturally, is still a step forward for modern worship which has for the most part failed to meet such a challenge.  Though, to be honest, much like Tomlin's "Jesus Messiah," there's not much exploration into the meaning and significance of the Name ("I am that I am").

"One Thing Remains" (previously recorded by Jesus Culture and a few others) is a testament to the power of God's love.  And this is no generic love, it is the type of love exemplified in the Hebrew word, hesed, often translated "steadfast love" or "covenant love."  Some might criticize the repetitive chorus, "Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me" as typical "mindless 7-11" worship music, but we need to remember that it is God's love which is celebrated in such a repetetive fashion in Psalm 136 ("His love endures forever").  The problem with this song is that it lacks a context for the most part.  It is faintly rooted in the gospel ("the debt is paid") but no mention of any member of the Trinity is made.  It is a direct-address song.  If it were to be incorporated in worship, it would need strong contextualization and grounding in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  But with this context, it is quite moving and compelling.

"Jesus, Son of God," even by virtue of its title, is a step forward (albeit a small one) in more Trinitarian explicitness, and it is a beautiful, singable, gospel-centered song, praising the incarnation and cross of Christ.  Verses 1 & 2, with the chorus:

You came down from heaven's throne
This earth You formed was not Your home
A love like this the world had never known 

A crown of thorns to mock Your name
Forgiveness fell upon Your face
A love like this the world had never known

On the altar of our praise, let there be no higher name
Jesus, Son of God
You laid down Your perfect life, You are the sacrifice
Jesus, Son of God
You are Jesus, Son of God 

The second line of verse 2 is a beautiful, rich poetic metaphor.  As the crown of thorns came upon His head, "forgiveness fell" upon His face.  Blood fell.  It is a powerful statment that the instrument of torture, in a providential twist, opened up the "precious flow" of blood, which would be the world's great forgiving balm.  

The most surprising song of all, from a theological perspective, is Charlie Hall's "Mystery."  Someone's been studying their eucharistic historical theology!  Check out these lyrics:

Sweet Jesus Christ, my certainty
Sweet Jesus Christ, my clarity
Bread of Heaven, broken for me
Cup of salvation, held up to drink
Jesus, mystery

Christ has died and Christ is risen
And Christ will come again.

Why is this surprising?  First, Passion is a parachurch worship entity, and the Lord's Supper is not something they have typically focused on in their worship music.  Second, the language is reflective of some "high church" exposure.  "Mystery" is a term that more "sacramental" churches more often use.  And the phrase "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" is straight-up high church liturgical eucharistic language.  I'm very curious about the origin of this song...it is simply not typical evangelical megachurch content.  What makes this song more exceptional is that, for a Communion song, it's quite uplifting and eschatologically-oriented.  The bridge (which is the song's high point) sings:

Celebrate His death and rising
Lift your eyes, proclaim His coming
Celebrate His death and rising
Lift your eyes, lift your eyes

It's a moving, victorious, back-looking, forward-reaching Communion song.  Praise God!  Imbedded in this simple text is a very reflective, rich, full-orbed eucharistic theology.  This is remarkable.

One can only hope that what is barely hinted at on this album--a greater ecclesiastical awareness--is indicative of things to come.  One of the great issues facing the Passion movement along with a fair amount of the modern worship "industry" is that they are in many ways one-off from the Church.  They are "church enrichment" programs, to be sure, but they are NOT the Church, and as such, there will always be missing from their songs the very vital component of contextual music-making.  One wonders whether this missing piece is what is driving the Passion folks (Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin) to begin the move toward "settling down" into their Atlanta-based plant, Passion City Church.  In the meantime, I'll applaud any effort at building bridges between the largely "churchless" industry and the one true Bride of Christ.

CHECK OUT OTHER ALBUM REVIEWS 

Sunday
Jul242011

Review of 10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman

It's not an exaggeration to say that 10,000 Reasons is Matt Redman’s best album to date.  Despite how popularity polls would re-arrange the pecking order, Redman stands at the top of the heap among the well-known modern worship songwriters (Tomlin, Hughes, Fee, Hall, Maher, etc.). 

Click to read more ...

Saturday
Mar122011

Review of Here For You, by Passion

Passion, Here For You (sixsteps/Sparrow)
Released: March 8, 2011

I remember when I heard my first Passion record—Passion 98—in high school.  It was fresh and different.  Little did I know at the time that I was listening to a mile-marker in the short history of contemporary worship.  Passion and Delirious are the pivot-point on which “contemporary worship” swung to “modern worship.”  Thirteen years later, much has changed, and much has stayed the same.  Many of the same faces and voices that were emerging in 1998 (Tomlin, Crowder, Hall, Redman) are now household names in contemporary Christian music.  Those twenty-somethings who were more raw emotion and energy have matured into thirty-somethings who have added a bit more depth to their passion.  Here For You clearly shows that Passion still dominates the modern worship scene.

SUMMARY

Passion always produces great albums.  To my ear and heart, this is not a hallmark album, however.  Musically, it is a typical modern worship album (this is not a criticism).  Textually, there are a few small surprises, but nothing jumps out that has not been previously recorded.  Awakening (2010) had a few outstanding songs (e.g. “You Alone Can Rescue”).  This album doesn’t seem to carry the same kind of stardom.  The songs I would most likely incorporate into worship are: “All to Us” (see my review of Tomlin’s album for comments on this song) and “Spirit Fall.”

Repeats from other albums and projects include: Crowder Band’s “Shadows,” from their Church Music, Stanfill’s “Forever Reign” from Hillsong’s A Beautiful Exchange, and “All to Us,” from Tomlin’s And if Our God is For Us.

MUSICALITY

The production, as always, is great.  The album is filled, with few exceptions, with the typical instrumentation: flowy keys, electric guitars, light acoustics, big drums, and crowd noise.  “All My Fountains” is a nice sonic departure from the standard tones and sounds of modern worship.  It is more earthy and vigorously acoustic rhythm reminiscent of late 90s Dave Matthews.  Christy Nockels (“Carry Your Name”) really does have a golden voice…the finest in Passion’s arsenal.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of Here For You is the introduction of rap into Passion’s recordings.  Lecrae appears on “Shadows,” with David Crowder, and on the bonus track of “Our God,” with Chris Tomlin.  With others, I’m appreciative of the incorporation of other genres, and especially from brothers and sisters who have an equal claim to the history of American church music—the African American tradition.  Some may disagree, but I believe rap is very much rooted in a combination of blues and the sing-song/shouting style of traditional black gospel preaching.  However, as many have noted, rap is a hard medium for congregational music.  It is effective as a preaching medium, and in a responsorial format (e.g. a verse plus a congregational refrain), but it is certainly something for congregations to listen to, not participate in.  Still, it’s a welcome addition to Passion’s albums specifically and worship generally.  Perhaps it is another small sign that racial bridges can be and are being broken down in and around worship.  Praise God for that!

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

With this album, we see yet more cross-pollination between Hillsong worship and Passion worship.  “Set Free” is co-written by Redman, Tomlin, Ingram, and Ben Fielding.  Stanfill leads Hillsong’s “Forever Reign.”  There is also a little nod toward the hymn tradition on this record.  The chorus of “Lord, I Need You” very briefly touches on the text and melodic line of the 1872 hymn by Annie Hawks, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”  I’m also excited to see the maturation of the songwriters with texts which “sound” like the expression of the biblical Psalms.  Kristian Stanfill’s “Always” is a weaving of several psalms (like 121 and 130) which give voice to lament in worship.

Some songs on the album, such as “Lord, I Need You,” “Carry Your Name,” and “Constant,” are deeply gospel-centered and Christ-saturated.  The text of  “Lord, I Need You” is doubly praiseworthy because it highlights Christ’s righteousness, not our own triumph, the latter being a nagging theme sometimes found in modern worship:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
And where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

Likewise, I appreciate the opening line of Crowder’s “Sometimes”:

Sometimes every one of us feels
Like we’ll never be healed
Sometimes

Modern worship needs to rest in these moments of lamentation more often, like the Psalms do.  The song carries quite a progression that one often doesn’t see in one hymn:

It begins in individual lamentation:

Sometimes every one of us aches
Like we’ll never be saved
Sometimes

It progresses to hope:

When we’ve given up
Let Your healing come
When there’s nothing left
Let Your healing come
Til we’re rising up
Let Your healing come

It moves to adoration:

It’s Your love that we adore
It’s like a sea without a shore
We’re lost in You
We’re lost in You

It moves to consecration and mission:

Where You go, we will follow
Oh, God send me

“All My Fountains” is an interesting expansion on that phrase taken from an under-appreciated psalm (Psalm 87), an eschatological song about the children of Zion and the joy of being in the protection and presence of God.  Knowing the psalm gives great context for the joy of “All My Fountains”:

He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The LORD loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are said of you, city of God...
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
 and the Most High himself will establish her.”

The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”

As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.”   (Psalm 87 [NIV])

The first three songs are calls to worship, songs of exaltation.  “Symphony” lifts the eyes similar to the opening lines of “How Great is Our God,” with its Psalm 19-like first verse:

Shining wonders, fields of splendor
How they sing Your symphony
The deepest oceans, rising mountains
How they sing Your symphony

There is a strong emphasis throughout the album (which is typical of modern worship) of finding God’s special manifestation in the moment of musical worship.  “Waiting Here for You” sings,

And we’re desperate for Your presence
All we need is You

“All My Fountains” cries,

Come on, rain down on us,
Rain down on us, Lord

It has always been a part of the modern worship ethos to seek God’s special manifestation in the moment of singing.  Many worship songs ask for that very thing, saying something like, “as we sing, come meet us here.”  I wonder, with such a heavy emphasis on the presence of God in music, whether modern worship has steered us away from seeing how the presence of God is also (and perhaps better) manifested in other elements of worship like the Lord’s Table.  A gentle reminder to those of us who love and appreciate the vitality of modern worship is that the Scriptures testify and the history of the Church’s worship corroborates the reality that God chooses to manifest Himself most acutely in the Lord’s Supper, not in singing.  But, unfortunately, modern worship movements like Passion have been at least a small step removed from corporate worship of the local church, acting more like parachurch worship movements than core expressions of Christ’s church (interesting sidenote: Passion City Church has launched as a Passion-offshoot in Atlanta). While I’m all for encouraging generations to gather, be inspired, and rise up for ministry (Passion is a movement targeting the specific demographic of college and young adults), I wonder whether Passion’s influence on the Church has at least in a small way led evangelicalism more toward missing what uniquely happens in worship when we celebrate the sacrament together.

It is encouraging to see the theological jab in “Spirit Fall.”  Often times, simple songs of the Spirit are nebulous and do not highlight the roles that the Spirit plays.  Here, we have a very specific call for the Holy Spirit to act:

Oh, come
Magnify the Son
Savior of the world
The hope for everyone

The Spirit’s job isn’t just to give us goosebumps and overlay an emotional blanket on our hearts during worship.  The Spirit has come to bear witness to the Son, to herald the gospel, and to illumine Christ to us.  To my mind, this is what gives this simple song some uniqueness in the modern worship expression.  Personally, I am not usually drawn to more experiential songs, but this one attracts me because of its theological angle.

“Set Free” is an exciting song intended to get bodies moving:

And we’ll dance, dance
Dance in Your freedom
Oh, Your glorious freedom
Forevermore, forevermore

Perhaps because it’s more of a “dance” number than a “sing” number, the text-writing is a bit more loose.  I often encourage worship leaders to hold up as a criterion for song-selection the idea of logical cohesion (see my article “How I Choose Songs for Corporate Worship”).  Where is the point at which words and phrases move from being “impressionistic” to random?  I wonder whether “Set Free” teeters on this tipping point:

Joy, joy, unspeakable joy
Hope like never before
You came for us
You are our freedom

Love, love, unshakeable love
We shall over come, we will never give up
We lift a shout, we lift a shout
Everyone singing

Come on, come on now, we’ve got a new song
Come on, come on now, a song of liberty
Let the world hear heaven’s melody
This is the shout of the hearts You’ve set free

There is a conceptual glue which holds these statements together, certainly, but the text is awfully loose.  I’m not totally against it, but I want to continually raise the question that many do not: Should we not pause to ponder the fact that, while standing in the rich history of hundreds of years of Christian worship, we are the first to express words in this way, so loosely hung together?

I’m also interested in discussing the phrase, “dance in your freedom.”  For as popular a phrase as this is in modern worship, there aren’t many Scriptural parallels to it.  In the Bible, certainly there is dancing.  And a major theme of the gospel certainly is freedom.  And yet if you do a Bible Gateway search of the words and phrases, “dance freedom,” “dancing freedom,” and “dance free,” at least in the NIV, no matches are found.  Where did this phrase and idea get so popular for modern worship?  Does it have its roots in David’s naked, “undignified” worship?  Is it an attempt to encourage that attitude of heart?  It is not at all bad to strive for bodily freedom in worship; God deserves our all.  Dancing is an expression of worship, of course.  But where did we come up with this phrase, and what is its meaning and purpose?  I simply want to question its prevalence in our modern hymnody. 

Because of Passion's incredible influence over evangelical worship (in many ways, they are trend-setters) they must be open to scrutiny and questions like those above.  Still, Here For You contains nothing off-course theologically, and will no doubt leave a positive mark on the landscape of modern worship.

Monday
Dec132010

Review of And If Our God Is For Us, by Chris Tomlin

Chris Tomlin, And if Our God is For Us (Sparrow)
Released: November 16, 2010 

The Passion movement has its stars.  Chris Tomlin is its superstar.  He has seen the most commercial success, and he is very much the front-runner of mainstream American modern worship.  In some respects, it’s very hard for Tomlin to top himself.  The enduring success of many songs from Arriving (2004) manifests itself continually on the CCLI top ten list.  “How Great is Our God,” “Holy is the Lord,” and (Laura Story’s) “Indescribable” are now mainstay go-to anthems for mainstream contemporary/modern worship.  See the Morning (2006) and Hello Love (2008) were great albums but did not yield for the church the same caliber of lasting tunes for the church.  And if Our God is For Us is probably also destined to a similar fate, though the album, as a whole, seems to notch back toward greater congregational accessibility as compared to the previous two (See the Morning and Hello Love had its share of more performance-oriented, radio-friendly material).  The album’s title gets its name from the moving and raucous bridge of the first track, “Our God,” which made its first recorded appearance earlier this year on Passion’s Awakening.

REVIEW SUMMARY

And if Our God is For Us should not be considered a worship album in the proper sense, but many of its songs are congregationally-friendly and appropriate for corporate singing.  The musical production is exquisite, making typical pop songs and arrangements fresh to the ears through interesting and creative choices of color.  Theologically, the album is God-centered.  As is the case with the other mainstream worship leaders who have come of age (e.g. Redman, Hughes), there is a maturity and biblical overlay to the textual content that was not as present in Tomlin’s earlier songwriting ventures.  “All to Us” is a fresh, moving, and powerful song with hints at a new theological focus for Tomlin (ecclesiology).  I do hold a mild concern that the Gospel of Christ’s atonement is extremely understated in this album (one could note the same thing about many previous albums).  Tomlin is a master of writing broad, sweeping songs of exultation to God, but I wish for more explicitness as to the fuel of what makes that possible for us—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The songs I would incorporate for corporate worship at my church would be, in order: “All to Us,” “Our God,” and “Awakening.”

MUSICALITY

Because this is more of an “artist album” than a worship album, one should expect that not every song will have singable melodies fit for congregations.  The songs that seem more performance-oriented and less congregationally-friendly are “I Lift My Hands,” “No Chains on Me,” and “The Name of Jesus” (though some might view them as fine for congregations).  Stylistically, some songs, in melody and arrangement, sound conventional (e.g. “Jesus My Redeemer”), and others are arranged with more forward-looking choices (e.g. “All to Us” [see drum notes below]).

Seven of the eleven tracks were produced by Ed Cash, whose sonic choices I’ve come to admire greatly (the other four were produced by Dan Muckala).  The album, as a whole, takes a modern spin on the 80’s production sound: programmed pulses, drum loops, and very airy synths (e.g. the techno-club sound of “No Chains on Me”).  I love some of the rhythm choices made by the producers, especially the more unconventional sparse beat-compositions (e.g. “I Will Follow” and “Majesty of Heaven”).  In “All to Us,” the snare-kick work, combined with pregnant pause every other measure, is an appealing departure from the typical slow 4/4 ballad drum rhythm. 

“Our God” is a beautiful second arrangement of the now popular song which first appeared on Passion’s Awakening (see my review of that album and song) in a more typical arena-band style.  The string parts arranged in that song (though obviously programmed) are stirring and creative in their simplicity.  Likewise, “Awakening” is a second arrangement from the same album…perhaps a bit less interesting this time around.  In short, there is a simple diversity within the wide boundaries of pop music that makes this album a delight to listen to without tiring the ear with a lot of the same.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

Great on songs which exalt God.  Tomlin seems to specialize in songs of exaltation.  “Our God,” “Majesty of Heaven,” “Lovely,” “All to Us,” and “Faithful” are bent toward the transcendent. “All to Us,” in particular, stands out as a worship-gem.  The pre-chorus, in particular, is powerful:

Let the glory of Your name be the passion of the Church
Let the righteousness of God be a holy flame that burns
Let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives
We believe you’re all to us

Did you hear that first line?  Don’t miss it.  Yes, mainstream worship is finally breaking the ecclesiological barrier in their worship-writing.  Modern worship, at times, has seemed almost like a parachurch entity that had little understanding of and advocacy for the Church.  The “me and God” tenor of their songs lent itself to encouraging church-less Christianity.  When modern worship writers are recognizing God's special place for the Church in the world, I believe it is a mark of maturity.  I believe in the statement, which, though it has various forms, probably originates in Cyprian of Carthage: "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus" (Outside of the church, there is no salvation).  This statement can and has been taken to extremes by my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, but I understand it to simply mean that when God saves (by grace through faith alone, of course), He saves you into a community of believers--the Church.  To believe that "it's just me and God" (often called "Lone Ranger Christianity") is not Christianity at all.  So, I'm excited to see that the Church, even for a brief moment, is highlighted.

For Tomlin, the Gospel often equals freedomI also notice that Tomlin consistently writes from a certain angle of the gospel—freedom—and this seems typical of other mainstream charismatic worship forerunners like Hillsong.  For instance, here’s how “The Name of Jesus” progresses:

The name of Jesus is a refuge
A shelter from the storm
A help to those who call

The name of Jesus is a fortress
A saving place to run
A hope unshakeable

When we fall you are the Savior
When we call you are the answer
There is power in your name

So from this, I’m expecting to drive toward the root of that power—the atoning work of Christ.  But, instead, it moves here in the chorus:

In the name of Jesus
There is life and healing
Chains are broken in Your name
Every knee will bow down and our hearts will cry out
Songs of freedom in Your name

More Gospel, please.  So my question, in a song like this, is, Where does this power and freedom come from?  I don’t necessarily think that every song needs to highlight the atoning work of Christ, but I am using this song as an illustration for what I have found under-highlighted in Tomlin’s songwriting—the meritorious life and death of Christ, His active and passive obedience.  I would encourage Tomlin to make these more explicit.  In doing so, the Gospel will be more explicit, and the result will be that the meaning of all these songs will become that much more powerful.  There do exist “cross”-references:

  • “up on the cross with open arms” in “Lovely”
  • “you paid my ransom / you chose to suffer” in “Jesus My Redeemer”
  • “let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives” and "hope and mercy at the cross" in “All to Us”

But I believe there should be so much more.  If we are going to truly sing about “Jesus My Redeemer,” we should be singing about blood, sin, death, and imputed righteousness.  If we are going to be singing about how “Faithful” God is, we must sing about where that faithfulness was most proven—at the cross.  Christian worship is most overtly Christian when it begins, ends, and is saturated by the Gospel. 

Nevertheless, the theology in And If Our God is For Us is solid, and I’m probably nit-picking Tomlin simply because he’s, well, Chris Tomlin…perhaps the most influential American worship leader in this current generation.  A great album...very edifying...and a gift to the church!

Friday
Sep172010

Evidently the Devil Hates "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

I'm relaying this story from my colleague, Douglas, who is the organist and choirmaster at our church.  I'm not necessarily sure what precipitated the conversation, but I found it fascinating.  I'm interested in the thoughts of others...speculations as to "why."  My up-front disclosure: I believe that the spiritual realm is real and quite active (Ephesians 6:12), and I believe that demon possession still happens today (though perhaps, as my friend Sharon Beekman reminds me, not always the way that we think).

Douglas told me that, on one occasion years ago, it was believed that a woman associated with their church was demon-possessed.  Douglas and his wife were asked to go over to her place and minister to her through music.  Unsure of what would or could be accomplished by this, they still went over, and they sat down at a piano and began to play and sing.  The woman sat and listened, and for a long time she remained basically passive.  She did not react much.  Douglas and his wife worked through, especially, a lot of praise choruses that were considered by many at the time to be "moving" and "spiritually powerful."  No change in the woman's countenance.  They went on like this for a long time.  No effect.

Douglas and his wife switched gears.  They opened up a hymnal and began to play and sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  Almost immediately, the woman became visibly agitated, and as the song progressed she began writhing all the more.  The demon in her was obviously not happy.  Douglas said that as they sang, the woman's behavior frightened them, but they kept on...and she kept on.  (Douglas did not share what eventually became of the woman.)

To me, what most obviously would elicit a negative reaction from the prince of darkness is the fact that the hymn thumbs its nose at him.  Here are the offending lyrics (though, really, the whole hymn is offensive to him):

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate...

And though this world, with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.

What is surprising about Douglas's encounter was that the praise choruses they sang did not elicit the negative protest of "the devils."  Critics of praise choruses would be quick to point out that this is confirmation of the spiritual impotency of modern worship music...and perhaps this is true, especially as a generalization and especially of early "praise and worship" music.  (I do want to remind readers that times have changed and that we're seeing a positive shift in modern worship toward more substance, rich theology, and historical connectedness, such that the broad-brush generalizations of yesteryear are fading in their applicability.) 

This all does raise an eyebrow to the lack of overt spiritual warfare themes in modern worship music.  Perhaps Redman's "We Shall Not Be Shaken" and the bridge of Tomlin's "Our God" are movements toward awakening about the need to "do" warfare in our worship music, but I don't know that I've ever seen anything as overt as "A Mighty Fortress" in a worship song.  For that matter, I don't know of many old hymns that come close to rivaling Luther's battle-hymn, either (perhaps some of you do). 

For some reason, the theme of "worship as warfare" just keeps coming up.  It's a fascinating and under-appreciated aspect of worship-thought.  One thing's for certain.  Whenever I sing "A Mighty Fortress," this story is at the forefront of my mind, and I end up singing a lot more forcefully in hopes that some of the shrapnel from my praise-bombs fly far enough to reach enemy camp.

Monday
Mar152010

Review of Passion's New Worship Album, Awakening

Passion, Awakening (2010, Various Artists)

In my opinion, the Passion folks have drawn the clearest line of demarcation between the stylistic eras of “contemporary worship” (80s and 90s) and “modern worship” (late 90s to the present).  I remember when Passion ’98 hit the scene.  The songs felt fresh, youthful, and different from its predecessors, and from that time forward, we watched the blossoming of the solo careers of these Passion artists (Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, David Crowder, Charlie Hall, etc.) as well as the arrival of even newer waves of modern worship (e.g. Hillsong United).  This most recent album of Passion’s shows stylistic and textual progression from their 1998 starting point.

OVERALL SUMMARY

Worth getting it?  If you’re buying this album for personal edification, get it.  You will be encouraged.  If you’re a worship leader looking for congregational material, save money and just buy the few songs worth evaluating (see the song-by-song analysis below).

Songs I would most likely end up using in worship: “You Alone Can Rescue” (Redman), “Our God” (Tomlin).

Accessibility: As usual, their sung keys favor tenors and altos (singing in nearly the same vocal range), alienating the bass and soprano vocal range.  But good worship leaders should have the musical ability to re-set these songs in accessible keys (and if they don’t, they should think about getting some musical training or else choosing a different vocation…because they’re not serving the church well when they lead these songs in the recorded keys).  Once the songs are set in congregation-friendly keys, the majority of them are accessible and singable for most congregations.

Theological depth: Passion still cannot stand up to the great hymns of the faith, but the longer they’re around the more their songs progress to being God-centered rather than human-centered, with a stronger gospel focus.  There is still a lack of substantive reflection on one major part of the Christian experience—suffering.  Where one of my friends had described the texts and styles coming from Hillsong United as “adolescent,” I would comparatively describe this latest collection from Passion a bit more mature (20s, early 30s?) with some deeper songs that push the average upward.  Whether they know it or not, the Passion folks still reflect a charismatic/Pentecostal theological perspective in the way they choose to express, experience, and request God’s presence. 

Musicality: As always, superb.  I would characterize the style as modern, yet conservative, with a slight edge.  They are not as experimental with rhythm, electric guitar work, synth sounds, and song structure as, say, Hillsong United, but they aren’t remaining stuck in the same stylistic forms that they were using on the previous albums (I keep comparing them to Hillsong United, so it’s worth pointing out that United actually made it on this album).  Musically, Tomlin’s “Our God” is enjoyable to me, especially for its bridge and musical interlude (see below).  The album is well-produced and polished, as always, and they’ve included more of the congregational “sound” (background voices) than in previous albums.  Probably because of the influence of Hillsong United, there are more congregational “whoa’s” (I don’t know what else to call them); they appear on several tracks.  I personally like this (to me they serve the biblical function of “shout of praise”) but I know that it seems to many in the church like pointless, rock-concert frivolity.  Still, could congregational “whoa’s” be the new version of call-and-response antiphonal singing?  Ancient-future, baby!

SONG-BY-SONG ANALYSIS

Awakening
It’s great to see two heavy-hitting worship songwriters (Chris Tomlin and Reuben Morgan) team up!  Here are the first two verses and chorus:

(V1) In our hearts Lord in this nation awakening
Holy Spirit we desire awakening

(V2) In Your presence in Your power awakening
For this moment in this hour awakening

(C) For You and You alone awake my soul
Awake my soul and sing
For the world You love Your will be done
Let Your will be done in me

This is a nice, simple call to worship song, with a gradual build into a surprisingly powerful second half.  Its theme comes from psalms like Psalm 57: “Awake, my soul!”, and it’s therefore a wonderful reminder that, left to ourselves, we are spiritually lethargic (dead, even) and need our soul awakened by an outside Force (in the non Starwarsian sense).  Later, there are hints of the gospel and expressions of the desire for not just subjective, individual “awakening,” but world-awakening:

Like the rising sun that shines…
From the darkness comes a light…
Like the rising sun that shines…
Only You can raise a life…

In our hearts, Lord
In the nations, awakening

While I don’t have anything against this song, it personally doesn’t “do” anything for me.  It might for others.  I’m open to using it, but it’s not top on my list.

Say, Say
This is one of those pump-you-up songs.  To me, it seems filled with loosely connected Christian-ese clichés. The chorus:

Say, say
Say you believe it
Sing for the whole world to hear it
We know, and we declare it

Jesus is King
Sing loud, sing like you mean it
We know, and we declare it
Jesus is King

(yelled) “Say, say!”

For me, there’s too much hype and not enough substance to offer it to my congregation.  If songs are going to pump you up, their rockin’ musical backdrop needs to be accompanied by some pretty strong gospel-reflection—God’s true Pump.  Without it, we’re just a deflated spiritual corpse, rotting “from the inside out” ;).  “Jesus is King” serves as a gospel-reflection, but it’s just too nebulous…not enough meat on the bones.

Our God
Here’s a mid-tempo song that really has a rockin’, Coldplay-influenced bridge section.  I dig it!  It focuses on God’s power in both performing miracles and saving sinners.  Its chorus is general, but exalting:

Our God is greater
Our God is stronger
God, You are higher than any other
Our God is Healer
Awesome in power
Our God, our God

The bridge is empowering to the believer:

And if our God is for us
Then who could ever stop us?
And if our God is with us
Then who could stand against?

In a Hillsong-style eighth-note banging build, it climaxes in a beautiful, powerful instrumental section that would be fun for bands to play and musically fits the triumph of the text.  Though this song is rather loose and generic in its reflection, it is transcendent enough, and it musically floats my boat.  It’s on my radar, but I’m not chomping at the bit to introduce this one.  It is my second favorite song on the album.

How He Loves
Though I’ve used this song before, I don’t personally feel it’s good for corporate worship.  I’ll explain why in a future post.  It’s a great personal worship song, and this particular version is a bit more stripped down and raw than some other recorded renditions…which I appreciate.

Healing is in Your Hands
Christy Nockels has an incredible voice.  I wish I had half her ability.  It is versatile and very expressive.  It’s difficult to teach women to sing like this.  This song focuses on the wideness of God’s love for us and the healing the gospel brings.  It verges on performance-song because of its upper range and held notes in the chorus.  The song doesn’t jump out at me, though, for congregational use.

King of Heaven (Isaiah 61)
This is an interesting, up-beat, eschatologically-oriented song.  I’m appreciative that this song, like Brooke Fraser’s “Hosanna,” is bringing attention in corporate worship to the second advent of Christ and the implications for the church’s present mission.  We need more songs along these lines: 

(C1) We’ll sing the gospel to the poor
We’ll go to comfort those who mourn
You’ll put together what’s been torn
King of Heaven

For the simple reason that other songs with a view toward justice and the eschaton do a better job of being cohesive in message and implications (e.g. “Hosanna,” our “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” or Tim Hughes’ “God of Justice”), I’m inclined not to add this to my regular rotation of worship songs.

You Alone Can Rescue
THIS IS THE BEST SONG ON THE ALBUM.  This is from Matt Redman’s We Shall Not Be Shaken, which I reviewed over half a year ago.  When I wrote that review, this song was on the top of my favorites for corporate worship, but I ended up shelving it.  Its re-appearance on Awakening has renewed my zeal to use it.  It is God-centered, Christocentric, and soaked in the gospel.  The bridge moves me to tears.  I love this song.  It has “soli Deo gloria” written all over it.  Here it is, in its entirety:

(V1) Who O Lord could save themselves
Their own soul could heal?
Our shame was deeper than the sea
Your grace is deeper still

(V2) You O Lord have made a way
The great divide You healed
For when our hearts were far away
Your love went further still
Yes Your love goes further still

(C) And You alone can rescue
You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise

(B) We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
You're the giver of life

Where the Spirit of the Lord Is
Here’s the chorus:

We know where the Spirit of the Lord is
(Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty)
We know living in Your freedom
(Living in Your freedom we see Your glory)
We know where the Spirit of the Lord is
(Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty)
We're Yours and Yours is the kingdom (We are Yours)
Yours is the kingdom (Yours is the kingdom)

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m personally growing weary of modern worship songs that speak in nebulous terms about “freedom.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for true, Christ-bought, biblical freedom, but I get the sense more often than not in modern worship that when freedom-language is used, it gets truncated into an I’m-free-to-express-myself-however-I-want kind of vibe.  It seems to me that Paul’s phrase in 2 Corinthians 3:17 (from which the chorus of this song comes) gets abused in the context of worship.  Paul’s discussion of “freedom” in the larger context of that book and chapter involves a freedom to directly approach God the Father…but it’s not really addressing the context of corporate worship.  It’s speaking more personally, and even missionally.  Paul’s point seems to be that because God has so deeply reconciled us to Himself (He allows us full access to His presence!), we have a resulting ministry of reconciliation to deliver to the broken world.  The concept of being “free” in a corporate worship seems quite ancillary to the thrust of the passage.  Of course it is true that approaching the Father directly through Christ very much speaks to what is involved in the corporate worship experience for Christians, but this is NOT what Paul is addressing.  In summary, then, I don’t believe that this song is in theological error, but it is perpetuating an application, which, because of its frequency of “air time” in modern worship, might lead people to believe that the central thrust of the passage is worship.  This happens sometimes when short phrases from the Bible are quoted and re-quoted in worship songs…they take a life of their own and can confuse the Bible-reader about what that quote is truly talking about in its Scriptural context.

Where I see the concept of freedom abused in modern worship is in giving license to “express yourself how you want to.”  I’m not against this outright, but it does cater to American individualism, and, when encouraged in the corporate worship setting, lessens the corporate idea of worship and heightens individual experience.  Instead of corporate worship, “freedom” often produces a bunch of isolated worshipers, having a one-on-one experience with God…those worshipers just happen to be standing by several others who are also having a similar God-encounter. 

So despite the fact that this song rocks my face off, and despite the fact that it has a very cool antiphonal call-and-response between men and women in the chorus, I probably wouldn’t use this song in corporate worship.  Though perhaps I’ll change on that if someone convinces me I’m out to lunch (or buys me lunch).

Rise and Sing
Another pump-up song.  Fee really rocks this one out, complete with the aforementioned responsorial congregational “whoa’s.”  Stylistically, it’s punk-ish.  See the above thoughts on “Say, Say,” because they apply here, too.

Like a Lion
I like the musical themes in this song.  It’s beginning is reflective and helpfully preparatory (and it reminds me of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight”…a plus).  Its text is unique.  It reflects on the explosive love of our God, residing in our hearts like a lion. 

(V1) Let love explode and bring the dead to life
A love so bold to see a revolution somehow

(C) My God's not dead, He's surely alive
And He's living on the inside roaring like a lion

(V2) Let hope arise and make the darkness hide
My faith is dead I need a resurrection somehow

(Pre-C) Now I'm lost in Your freedom
Oh this world I'll overcome

(B) Let heaven roar and fire fall
Come shake the ground with the sound of revival
Let heaven roar and fire fall
Come shake the ground with the sound of revival

My problem with this song is that I’m not sure what it means.  It seems quite internal and subjective.  Biblically, God’s Lion-like qualities are for external purposes—dominating, ruling, conquering.  Of course all those things happen inside of us, but it seems that other biblical metaphors take over in those discussions.  Furthermore, “My God’s not dead, He’s surely alive, and He’s living on the inside” sounds a lot like the very subjective hymn line that does absolutely nothing for defending the faith:

You ask me how I know He lives
He lives within my heart!

(And just when you thought I had nothing bad to say about hymns!)  When you make a claim, “My God’s not dead,” you are entering the world of apologetics.  It is a response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous atheistic quip.  Unfortunately, like the line from “He Lives,” this song’s answer is subjective.  Of course my personal experience of God’s indwelling presence is enough to convince me of His existence, but it would not be how I would choose to respond to someone defending atheism.  It would most likely fit in a cumulative case of other more rational arguments.  I know I’m rabbit-trailing here, but I’m convinced that worship leaders are like dieticians, and whatever they feed their flock will shape the health of the people’s souls.  This song just doesn’t have enough to commend it for me to overlook the odd non-apologetic it contains.

With Everything

Wow!  Hillsong United on a Passion album!  Two worlds collide!  Is this some kind of modern worship monopoly--a centralization of power, seeking to overthrow all lesser contenders?  Are they threatened by the ever-growing influence of the hymns movement to the point of needing to rally the troops?  I wish…and I jest.  I like this song.  It is powerful and moving, even if a bit disjointed.  It ends with congregational “whoa’s,” the high note being a held-out G# (!).  It caps off the album with a sense of unceasing worship.  A friend who attended Passion 2010 told me that United was surprised by the congregational mass who kept singing the “whoa’s,” and the band was joyfully “forced” back into building the song up again.  It must have been powerful to worship with such eager participants. 

 

For Christ and His Church,
Zac