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Monday
Oct262015

Oceans, Rivers, and Other Two-Sided Biblical Images in Worship Songs

Two Thirds of Our Globe (and worship songs, so it seems)

It's high tide for nautical themes in worship songs. "Oceans"-makers, Hillsong Worship, have another album out, OPEN HEAVEN / River Wild. The title track alludes to the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and bridges the connection to what happens in worship. There are a couple of metaphors running through the song--prominent biblical imagery for the Holy Spirit: fire and rain. The Bridge gets to the center of the aquatic theme:

Living water
River wild in me
Immerse me
In Your mercy
Open heaven
Crashing over me
Restore me
In Your glory

I love the cross-pollination of biblical metaphors. I hear hints of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels and Revelation ("living water"), Hebrews' language for God ("consuming fire"), and lots of pneumatology ("fire," "burn," "rain," "flood"), baptismal language ("Immerse me"). There's a kind of under-the-surface Trinitarianism haunting the song, whether or not the songwriters had that in mind. I'm grateful for that.

Oceanic Psalms

I was recently reading Psalm 88, and I was reminded, though, that the nautical imagery of Scripture is more broad than some of our worship songs may lead us to believe. Now, we can grant that there are plenty of worship songs, recent and fairly recent, that have highlighted sea-storm imagery as a picture of suffering, uncertainty, and doubt (e.g. Elevation's "Last Word," Hillsong's "Cornerstone," even "Oceans" to a degree), but I'm referring here more specifically to the biblical pictures of waves crashing and bodies of water overwhelming and overtaking us. Psalm 88 shares a different perspective on what that experience is like:

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
(Psalm 88:6-7, NIV)

It reminds me of another Psalm that we often take out of context and put on it a positive spin when the Psalmist's experience is anything but positive. After talking about his downcast soul, the Psalmist exclaims:

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me. 
(Psalm 42:7, NIV)

A Double-Edged Sword

Scripture's maritime themes are actually a wonderful illustration of the way God works in our lives. Water, over and over again, is used as a two-part sign. The same split Red Sea that heraled the redemption of Israel came crashing down, drowning Egypt in God's holy condemnation. The imagery of water-changed-into-something is simultaneously a sign of blessing and future joy (think of Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana), and judgment of sin (think of Moses turning the water into blood). Noah's flood was both condemnation and liberation. Baptism itself is a gruesome murder scene (drowning the Old Adam in death) before it is freedom (resurrection in Christ's life) (Rom 6). 

Paul has labeled this dialectic, this Scriptural understanding of the two ways God's Word comes to us, the "letter" and the "Spirit." He says, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). This "letter" is "the ministry that brought death...engraved in letters on stone...the ministry that condemns men" (2 Cor 3:7-9). This "Spirit" is "the surpassing glory" of "the ministry that brings righteousness" (2 Cor 3:9-10). The Reformers, picking up on this and taking cues from the way Paul uses this dialectic in other passages like Romans 3 and Galatians 2, labeled these two voices "Law" and "Gospel."

The Naked God

I think Paul's theology of Law and Gospel is helpful when we think of employing Scriptural imagery like "oceans" and "rivers" (and "fire," for that matter) in our worship songs. We need to be remember that being immersed in the flood of God's presence is first terrifying (Law) before it is comforting (Gospel)...just ask Isaiah. We need to remember that asking God to "consume me" is first judgment (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29) before it is grace (Eph 5:18). "Immanuel" ("God with us") was for the prophets a frightening reality before it was a comforting one. 

And a song like "Oceans" teeters there, exposing what Luther called Deus nudus ("the naked God," or "the hidden God"), that mysterious and frankly scary side of God that we barely understand: "You call me out upon the waters / the great unknown / where feet may fail." Granted, the song is more about Peter, faith, and trust in the midst of uncertainty, but you hear in those lines a nod to oceanic themes being something other than just a warm, cozy blanket.

Let's Round Out the Imagery

My encouragement with this post is to allow the Psalms to offer course corrections and fill out the Scriptural voice. In any era, and on any bandwagon (or yacht, as it were), we'll always inadvertently forget a few important items at port once we set sail into the great unknown. Those of us who write, think, and live in the modern worship era need to be aware of a few blind spots when it comes to worship and some of the more negative, heavy, and weighty realities of the Christian's life before the face of God. I'm thinking here of confession, lamentation, suffering, etc. 

My hope is that there will be a few brave, influential songwriters who will write some oceanic songs that sound more like Psalms 42 and 88, so that we can be more fully immersed in our experience of the letter and the Spirit and give voice in our worship to all the fears, doubts, concerns, and burdens that we all bring to the table when we gather for weekly worship.

Tuesday
Dec232014

Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols at Coral Ridge (2014)

I always value seeing and hearing what others are doing in worship services, especially around "unifying" times of year when much of the Church focuses on pinnacle, earth-altering events like the incarnation of the Son of God. (That's one of the reasons I love being a part of the best, most thoughtful, most collaborative worship leader group on Facebook, Liturgy Fellowship.)

One of the things I LOVE about being at Coral Ridge is their strong heritage of pouring resources into the musical arts. Because of this, I can stand on the shoulders of my predecessors and help put together amazing, diverse, expressive, and beautiful services, like our annual Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols Services, with some of South Florida's best artists. (And, this year, we're pulling in folks from New York and Germany!) For those unfamiliar, "Lessons & Carols" is nothing more (and nothing less) than a Scripture-and-song-response service format. It's a simple yet compelling structure that has a lot of flexibility to fit a lot of different styles and traditions. Here's what we're doing tomorrow night. Here's the service, with some commentary:

Gathering of God's People

Jazz Prelude

O Come, O Come Emmanuel - arr. Gasior
Little Drummer Boy - arr. Gasior

Jim Gasior is on the faculty of New World School of the Arts in Miami, and he is an amazing pianist and arranger. He arranged "O Come" for a jazz trio/quartet and "Little Drummer Boy" for full band with horns. Coral Ridge Music commissioned Jim to write these pieces and hopes to release his live Christmas jazz preludes sometime in the next year or two. 

Welcome & Opening Prayer

I pulled a simple prayer from Thomas Cranmer's 1549 Prayer Book--a collect for Christmas Day.

Almighty God,
You've given us your only begotten Son
to take our nature upon him,
and this day to be born of a pure virgin;
Grant that we, being made new by You,
and made children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by the Holy Spirit,
through this very One: Jesus Christ,
our Lord and Savior,
who rules and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Gathering Carol

O Come All Ye Faithful - arr. Willcocks, Chen, 2013

David Willcocks' arrangement has been adapted by our Artist in Residence, Chelsea Chen, for orchestra and organ. Simple, majestic, fabulous.

Lessons & Carols

Lesson 1

John 1:1-17
The Unbelievable - Sovereign Grace Music 

This year, we wanted to open the lessons with John 1 and respond with this beautiful new song from Sovereign Grace Music. It's an invitation to "believe the unbelievable." The song is filled with similar paradoxes, including my favorite lines, "He will heal the unhealable / he will save the unsaveable"...A perfect thought to begin the night. It's orchestrated much like the recording, for acoustic guitar, piano, strings, winds, horns, and glockenspiel.

Lesson 2

Genesis 3:8-19
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - arr. Hillsong 

We wanted to pair the dark but hopeful passage about the fall of Adam and Eve with a congregational song that matched the depth and height of the text. "God Rest Ye" does that. This Hillsong arrangement for folk band (incl. banjo) and strings is an accessible and elegant, yet passionate setting.

Lesson 3

Isaiah 9:2-7
"Puer Natus Est," from Four Improvisations on Gregorian Themes (No. 1) - Everett Titcomb

A beautiful, meditative, slowly growing piece for organ that Chelsea will play. I can't wait to hear her registration choices and colors in our sanctuary and on our organ.

Lesson 4

Isaiah 11:1-9
There Blooms a Rose in Bethlehem - Sovereign Grace Music

I transcribed and arranged this wonderful modernization (in both text and tune) of "Lo How a Rose." Our choir will be singing it in a very simple SAB setting.

Lesson 5

Luke 1:26-38
A Hallelujah Christmas - Leonard Cohen / Cloverton / arr. Mortilla 

The viral video of this re-text of Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" is a telling of the Christmas story that plays with Cohen's original text and juxtaposition of earthy and lofty language...a perfect tension to explore the wonder of the Incarnation. My friend and composition student at Indiana University, Paul Mortilla, came up with a creative, complex, and beautiful orchestration for strings, organ, horns, winds, choir, percussion, and soloist. This will be a special moment.

Lesson 6

Luke 2:1-7
Hark the Herald Angels Sing - City Church Little Big Band

A terrific jazz arrangement with an Afro-Cuban feel was written by Adam Shulman, an artist connected with Karl Digerness over at City Church San Francisco. I have no doubt that some won't appreciate the setting ("Just give us the original!"), but I find the spirit and groove of the song to be refreshing, offering some new shades on the text we might otherwise miss. It's gorgeous and lively. To my ear, it sounds like heralding angels.

Offering

This is Our God (with What Child is This) - arr. Cottrell

A beautiful, lush, contemporary arrangement of a modern Christmas song woven into a classic Christmas tune. It's a tradition at Coral Ridge to do this piece, well predating me. It's powerful and climactic, with full band and orchestra.

Lesson 7

Luke 2:8-16
Meditation - Tullian Tchividjian, Senior Pastor 

Silent Night - arr. Hicks, 2012

A simple arrangment for harp and strings. We sing it as the room goes dark and the choir lights candles.

Sending of God's People

Prayer & Blessing

Joy to the World - arr. Rutter, Chen, 2013

This arrangement is our glorious finale--Chelsea Chen's adaptation of John Rutter's wonderful arrangement.

Monday
Jul072014

Review of No Other Name, by Hillsong Worship

Hillsong Worship, 
No Other Name (Live)
(Hillsong Music)
Released: July 1, 2014 

As Hillsong continues to put out Western-worship-influencing album after album at an amazingly rapid rate, I am reminded of what seems to have been Charles Wesley's (intentional or unintentional) principle of influence: put out a lot of material, and the handful of songs that are supposed to stand the test of time will. I admire this about the vision of Hillsong's now quite diversified worship offerings. As with most of my reviews, I try to funnel my ideas down two evaluative tracks: musicality and theological content.

Review Summary

Musically, No Other Name is beautiful, though "safe" and middle-of-the-road. The production is exquisite, and the musical vibe is largely the trademark, now classic, Hillsong sound: backing choir, lots of pad layers, simple but captivating electric guitar melodies, and lots of diverse drum work. The songs are singable (though high as always), with a few surprising melodic twists. Theologically, I'm moved and incredibly encouraged by an embracing and contextualizing of tradition (the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer), by a relative absence of triumphalism present on most, if not all, preceding Hillsong records, and by an intense focus on the person and the work of Jesus.

Songs I would most likely incorporate in my context:
"This I Believe (The Creed)"
"Our Father"

Musicality

I said above that the sound is "classic Hillsong," but there are tinges of 80s "synthology" on several tracks, a sound that is hot on current worship records. You notice it in the opening of "My Story" and the musical hook of "Heaven and Earth." 

"Heaven and Earth" has an unusual approach to the Chorus which is worth songwriters giving a listen. There's a push and pull of the downbeat of the Chorus. Though it starts on the word "heaven," the tonic chord and the overall "drop" into the Chorus doesn't happen until "-lide" of "collide." It creates an interesting musical moment of collision, painting the text in a helpful way. It gives you the sensation of singing over a mixed meter when you're not.

I always admire (envy? :) ) the imaginative simplicity of the electric guitar parts. They are always tasteful and fitting, yet melodic and colorful. They're not overblown, but they add interest and movement to the music that I find satisfying and beautifying. Listen to what the electrics do, for instance, in "No Other Name."

Finally, noteworthy is an unconventional (for Hillsong) melodic turn in "Depths." In the second half of each verse (e.g. on the syllable "-va-" of "salvation's song"), the melody jumps unexpectedly. It gives the song a folk-Celtic quality that is unusual for the pop melodies we've come to expect.

Theological Content

Overall, the album is quite focused on Christ's atonement...not a bad center-point at all! The Bridge of "Heaven and Earth," for instance, grounds the reconciling love foretold by the prophets in the sacrifice of Christ:

By His stripes we are healed
By His death we can live
In Jesus' name
All oppression will cease
Every captive released
In Jesus' name

There are a few fresh, imaginative turns of phrase, like, "Salvation's robe" and "freedom in His scars" in the same song. The second verse of "No Other Name" grounds the general praise of Christ in His work on the cross. And "Calvary" is all about the freedom and "covering" (a biblical word laden, especially in Hebrew, with atonement-overtones).

As I mentioned above, for the first time to my detection, Hillsong has minimized triumphalist lyrics and expressions like "Jesus, I'm living for You," "I give it all away for You," "I'm standing up for You," etc. I'm really encouraged by this, and I pray it is a sign of their theological editors (my understanding is that they have a group of people who edit their lyrical content) taking this dynamic that I've pointed out over the years seriously. Even in moments on this record when we are declaring our love for and commitment to God, it is couched in the context of God's prior love for us. "Depths" captures this beautifully:

Verse 1
In Your presence I quiet my soul
And I hear Your voice
In my spirit I hear the sound
Of salvation's song
Jesus, Jesus

Verse 2
I will wait in Your Word, O Lord
There Your Spirit speaks
Bringing life to the weary soul
To the depths of me
Jesus, Jesus

Chorus
I love You with all my heart
I love You with all my soul, Lord
I love You with alll my strength
With all that is within me

Notice several things. First, the Spirit is mentioned as speaking through God's Word. That's not a small thing, given the strong emphasis in Pentecostalism on the Spirit speaking directly to individuals. I appreciate, too, how, throughout the album, we're noticing a better definition/distinction of the persons and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in places like these. Second, the Chorus, based on the shema, is a simple but beautiful response to the psalm-like verses. It may be that this song, without the proper context, could be a bit too individualized ("me and God") to be regularly utilized in corporate worship, but I don't think it should be written off.

One aspect of No Other Name's content is VERY encouraging. There is an embracing of and interaction with the Church's Great Tradition like I've never seen before. The opening song parts from the standard fare of an upbeat song focused inward. Instead, "This I Believe (The Creed)" looks out and up, ground the album in nothing short of a sung version of the Apostles' Creed. Amazing! Several songs later, "Our Father" begins with these lines that are quite uncommon in the songs of the Pentecostal tradition:

The words of Christ
Passed down through generations
The Son of God
Teaching us to pray
Echoed words
Father, have Your will, Your way in me
Completely

The Chorus then recites the first section of the Lord's Prayer. It's simply beautiful, and it appears to be yet another indicator that evangelicals are continuing to explore and embrace the Church's tradition in increasing measure.  This is extremely encouraging. 

I might finally mention "Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)." I love the song's idea of wedding a beatuiful re-tune of "Amazing Grace" with the 2 Corinthians 4 language of broken pottery and jars of clay. Perhaps this song could have been more powerful if it had lingered longer in confession before singing of amazing grace. As with many gospel- and salvation-oriented songs, we evangelicals make short shrift of our Confession of Sin. I was hoping that this song would stay there a while longer. We need more confession songs. Hillsong, please write some!

In sum, No Other Name doesn't really break new ground for Hillsong musically, but it certainly does theologically and lyrically...for Hillsong. More of their songs are avoiding looking down and in, but instead look out and up to Jesus, and there is a refreshing picture of how they're attempting to contextualize the Great Tradition in their music. It's an important marker in the evolution of this very influential worship resource provider.

UPDATE:

A friend pointed to me to the interaction of John Dickson with Hillsong over the song based on the Apostles' Creed. Fascinating to hear what Ben Fielding had to say. Check out this video, but first, a quote from Fielding:

We [songwriters] are writing the liturgies of the church today...recognizing that in a lot of contemporary churches these liturgies aren't read. And so, the songs of today literally become the confession of the church.

Yes, and amen. Thank you, Hillsong, for your open ears and your passion for the church universal! 

Monday
Dec172012

The Missing Piece in Debates about Physical Expression in Worship

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY. Yesterday in worship, I encouraged our congregation to respond to the preaching of the Word of God by engaging in a physical act on the final verse of our closing hymn, “Jesus, with Thy Church Abide.”  I reminded them that early Christian art (shown here) depicts at least some Christian worshipers praying in nearly the opposite physical manner that we do—eyes open, body standing, heads lifted, and hands raised.  (I found the above depiction on the cover of the outstanding work, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.) So, on the final verse, we all raised our hands together, 300-strong, and sang:

May she holy triumphs win
Overflow the hosts of sin
Gather all the nations in
We beseech Thee, hear us

Click to read more ...

Monday
Oct152012

Distinguishing Between Songs that are Theologically Incomplete and Songs that are Theologically Wrong

From XKCD.comMy last (provocatively titled) post sparked a brief but helpful comment-dialogue between me and my friend, Bobby Gilles, over at My Song in the Night.  It got me thinking about an important point of distinguishing when appraising songs for use in corporate worship.  There's a necessary distinction that worship pastors, planners, and leaders must make between songs that we can describe as "theologically incomplete" as compared to songs that are just wrong.  Sometimes in our zeal for truth, we blur that line and dismiss songs with a prophetic kibosh, branding them with the scarlet letter of "bad theology" when the truth is that they are not wrong, just incomplete.

Think of songs that do not preach the whole (or any) gospel.  For instance, one could look at the wonderful, well-known hymn by Frances Ridley Havergal, "Take My Life and Let it Be," and argue that it's encouraging works-based righteousness.

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love

You walk through the whole hymn, and it's all take, take, take.  The hymn doesn't supply the grounding for such consecration.  Where's Jesus?  Where's the gospel?  We're probably cocking our heads funny because we all recognize that songs have both authorial and doxological contexts.  In other words, we know that the song is gospel-driven because we know a bit about the author and (more importantly) we understand how it is used in the flow of worship.  Good worship planners put a song like this after we've sung, read, or rehearsed the gospel narrative of God's saving grace in our lives.  It is not that this hymn is theologically wrong.  It is that it is incomplete and needs a context for its completion.  And in saying it is "incomplete," we're not saying it's a bad song at all.  We recognize that not every song can do everything.  We recognize that worship services move along a path and that, while most songs can't embody the whole path, they can be waymarks for various points of the journey.  "Take My Life and Let it Be" is a marker on the offering/consecration part of the path.

This all makes me wonder whether we have dismissed some helpful, beautiful, and edifying songs because we fail to apply the incomplete-wrong distinction more liberally or because we have some knee-jerk biases against certain expressions.  Let me illustrate with a confession of one of my own biases.

I sometimes struggle with the Hillsong corpus.  Time and again, I've identified in album reviews and other posts their penchant toward what some call "triumphalism"--this idea that "I can do it," "I'm running after You," "I'm chasing after God," "I will get there," "I'm giving it all to you," etc.  This emphasis certainly has a theological explanation.  Church history teaches us that Pentecostalism (Hillsong's tradition) is rooted in the Wesleyan holiness movement, which holds up sanctification as a strenuous effort toward greater and greater perfection until we reach triumph.  It's a very "can-do" theological orientation.  When I am hearing or singing songs of triumph, something deep inside my (Reformed) bones shudders.  I squirm and bristle when I feel like TULIP's "T" has gone underserved and when Christ's finished work of righteousness for us gets eclipsed...and rightfully so.  It is an affront to the gospel and to Christ Himself when we minimize His work and maximize ours.  

But the incomplete-wrong distinction helps me to temper my analysis of such songs for use in my context because I know that, in the context of our worship service, such songs of our triumph will be adequately wrapped in a context of Christ's triumph.  We can do these things, as we are united with Christ, and brought along by the Spirit.  We can put forth effort and chase after God, as we fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith.  And, my most important task is to be faithful to Christ as pastor in my context, and perhaps work harder at suspending judgment on the contexts of my brothers and sisters when I have only partial knowledge (i.e. I've got their album).*  

The incomplete-wrong distinction opens up new possibilities for engaging songs that seemed to be ruled out before.  It becomes more about weight and balance within a whole service (or within a whole series of services).  This distinction also allows us to assume a more humble posture with our brothers and sisters from traditions which differ from ours (and God knows we could use more humility!) without compromising on what we feel is solid, biblical truth.  It seizes on 1 Corinthians 13's encouragement that, within the body of Christ, "love hopes all things."  So before you dismiss a song outright because you believe it's "wrong" (which it still might be), stop and ask yourself if this song wouldn't be more "right" when given its full doxological context.  

Check your heart, worship planners.  Where might this distinction be helpful to you?

 

*As a little sidenote, I was immensely blessed at a Hillsong Live concert in Denver a few weeks ago, when it appeared that many of their songs of triumph came after a healthy dose of Christ's work and atonement.  It was a glorious evening and gave me a renewed appreciation for the movement and their influence.
Friday
Sep092011

All About Our New Album, Without Our Aid

Without Our Aid is the second full-length release of Zac Hicks + Cherry Creek Worship, out of Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Denver, CO.  Their debut album, The Glad Sound, was their first hymns project, released in 2009, and between that time and the present, Zac has contributed to three other compilation projects with Cardiphonia: The Psalms of Ascents (March 2010) , Hymns of Faith: Songs for the Apostles’ Creed(October 2010), and Pentecost Songs (June 2011).

VISION

Without Our Aid is an experiment in songwriting for the sake of building bridges between two current camps in modern church music—the so-called “hymns/rehymn movement” and mainstream modern evangelical worship.  The album’s aim is to combine the energy and vitality of the modern worship sound (made most popular by groups like Passion and Hillsong), with the depth, theology, and historical connectedness of Christian hymnody across time.  From a songwriting perspective, the two do not easily go together: hymns are usually written in through-composed verses, while modern worship songs tend to have three and sometimes even four unique sections (verses, choruses, bridges, and “surprise” refrains or endings).  Though hymn purists might decry the liberties taken in bending and arranging the original hymn-texts, and though modern worship connoisseurs may consider the texts too verbose and archaic, our passion for greater growth and unity convinces us that Without Our Aid is a unique and worthwhile project.

STYLE & PRODUCTION

The goal of Without Our Aid was to create an album which sounded live in order to capture that more tangible “moment” of corporate worship.  It is not a live album in the true sense, mostly because our current setting does not have the bandwidth to be able to pull off a live recording.  However, the recording was pieced together in the “live” setting of our reverberant, 900-seat, traditional sanctuary, employing ambient mic techniques for all the major instruments.  A backing choir of approximately 20-30 voices sang through the album multiple times; those sessions ended up being powerful times of worship themselves.‚Ä®Stylistically, Without Our Aid is best characterized as a “modern arena-worship” record—big drums, driving electric guitars, layered synths, crowd noise, and a live “congregational” sound.

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.

Thursday
Feb172011

Review of Aftermath by Hillsong United

Hillsong United, Aftermath (Sparrow)
Released: February 15, 2011

Within the “imprints” of the Hillsong brand (Hillsong, United, Live, and Kids), it is United which propels their style and artistry forward.  In the case of Aftermath, their movement is a retro-progression (different from a retrogression) into 80s sounds and styles.  This album is atypical of what has come before in that it feels much less like a “worship album."  The backing choir, congregational sound, and crowd noise are absent—it’s only solo voices and faint BGVs.  There are no arena sounds and reverberant air.  It is a clean, tight, studio album that appears to have been recorded on three different continents.  I have no doubt that, because this is not an “arena worship” recording, there will be many Hillsong United fans at least initially disappointed.  But this should not take away from the fact that Aftermath is a fabulous sonic feast, expanding our United palette with fresh tastes from the not-so-distant past.

REVIEW SUMMARY

If you are looking for new material for congregational singing, you’ve come to the wrong place.  With some exception (e.g. “Rhythms of Grace”), though United undoubtedly uses these songs in their worship contexts, the melodic complexity of these songs lend themselves to performance-material rather than lifting voices in corporate worship.  That said, Aftermath is still a well-produced, musical, and artistic achievement.  Furthermore, the album is Christ-centered and God-exalting in its texts, though it suffers a bit from theological imprecision and scattered logical flow.  If United’s goal was to provide the Church with more worship songs, I would say that previous albums (e.g. Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth and All of the Above) have done a better job at accomplishing that end.  If their goal was to artistically stretch themselves and their listener-ship musically, they have succeeded greatly.  No song stands out as one I would enthusiastically recommend for congregational worship, but many songs could be fitting.

MUSICALITY

The best way I can describe the unity of styles on this album is with the label “neo-80s space galactica punk.”  It is as if Talking Heads, Enya, Green Day, and the creators of Tron all got together in a collaborative project.  From Cars-like moog intros (“Light Will Shine”), to Top Gun-ish airy keys and staccato bass lines (“Nova”), to programming and legato lines mixed with Enya-style vocals (“Bones”), to pumping, tremolo synths (“Search My Heart”), United appears to be jumping on the 80s retro bandwagon that pop, rock, and hip-hop artists alike have been exploring as of late.  United seems to be stepping off their penchant toward heavy tom-work in the drumming.  “Rhythms of Grace” is a great example of this, where, at about the 3:20-marker, the drummer has chosen a creative, unorthodox, indie-style beat.

Track six, “b.e. (interlude),” gives a shout-out to Hillsong Live’s “Beautiful Exchange,” with the haunting choir in the background, singing,

Holy are You, God
Holy is Your Name
With everything I’ve got
My heart will sing, how I love You

Joel Houston, as Executive Producer and songwriter/co-songwriter for many of the tracks, is extremely talented and creative.  This project seems to reveal that Houston was challenging himself with something different.  This album is an enjoyable listen, with authentic artistry in the musicality and production from top to bottom.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

That Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood had very little involvement with the album (the credits indicate that she sang BGVs) shows, especially in the songwriting.  Ligertwood, especially in recent years, has provided a bit more biblical depth and theological reflection in her material.  Aftermath has no “standout” song, textually speaking, which parallels the depth of “Desert Song” (Ligertwood) or “You Hold Me Now” (Morgan/Crocker) from United’s previous album, Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth (read my review of that album here)That said, Aftermath is beautifully Christ- and Gospel-centered.  The unifying theme and song of the album, “Aftermath,” is a rich metaphor for how the Gospel reaches sinners in the beautiful mess of the incarnation of Christ:

The skies lay low where You are
On the earth You rest Your feet
Yet the hands that cradle the stars
Are the hands that bled for me
In a moment of glorious surrender
You were broken for all the world to see
Lifted out of the ashes
I am found in the aftermath

“Aftermath” implies that an important and decisive battle took place, yet the battle was not clean.  This is a wonderful picture of the cross—the deepest love possible poured out, combined with the greatest injustice that ever took place.  The cross is simultaneously a place of healing and a place of wreckage.  “Aftermath” gathers all those concepts into one word filled with rich imagery, which is quite remarkable. 

Especially against the backdrop of historic Christian hymnody and the biblical Psalms, United’s texts continue their general trend of being more “impressionistic” as opposed to logically coherent.  Take, for instance, the opening verse and pre-chorus of “Go”:

In the Father there is freedom
There is hope in the Name that is Jesus
Lay your life down, give it all now
We are found in the love of the Saviour
We’ve come alive in You
Set free to show the truth
Our lives will never be the same

There isn’t much that helps these statements hang together in a logical progression, which ends up seeming more like mere emoting than making any cohesive statement in the song.  The same song also exhibits the triumphalism that some have rightly criticized in the past:

We’re giving it all away, away
We’re giving it all to go Your way
We are sold out to Your calling

Certainly we need to make room for consecration.  We should sing statements of commitment, even whole-hearted commitment.  But I have dialogued with not a few folks who are weary of singing such words when they know that their sinful, broken hearts feel very inauthentic when such lyrics are sung.  I admit myself that, much of the time, I don’t feel sold out to God’s calling; I don’t give it all to go God’s way.  Such triumphal lyrics need to be administered in careful dosages, set in the context of Gospel-response and consecration as opposed to an “I’m trying, God! I can do it!” mentality.  I’m not saying that this is what United has done or that this was the songwriter’s intent, but I am saying that too much of this can either drive people away or lead them to false senses of their own spiritual power and moral success.  “Like an Avalanche” is a good counter-example to that issue of triumphalism, displaying consecration as Gospel-borne response:

Trading Your righteousness for shame
Despite all my pride and foolish ways…
Oh, take my life
Take all that I am
With all that I am I will love You

One other concern on the album is with some “Trinitarian confusion” in the song “Father” (I mention this issue in my article on my criteria for choosing worship songs.)  A problem exists in evangelical worship that shows up more than we’d like to admit.  There are times when our prayers or our songs can speak to or of one member of the Trinity about works or characteristics that really are attributed to another member.  In “Father,” the following is sung:

Father
Let heaven and earth collide in the endless wonder
Of Your love upon the cross

The collision of heaven and earth is most precisely a reference to the incarnation of Jesus, God the Son, the second member of the Trinity.  Furthermore, though the Father’s love was certainly present at the cross, “Your love upon the cross” is a phrase one would expect to be singing to God the Son.  But the whole chorus begins with the vocative, “Father,” indicating that what follows is addressed to Him.  Hillsong has an incredible international platform, and because of that, they must be aware that they have the privilege of teaching and conveying both spirituality and theology to a broad swath of the Church catholic.  Theological precision should be a high-priority analytical grid that they perpetually apply to their new material.  The scope of their influence demands it.

I thank God for Hillsong United.  Like never before, more tribes, tongues, and nations are unified in worship in ways previously unthinkable.  God is using them to stir hearts, to promote justice, and to form people into the image and likeness of Christ.  May God bear fruit for His kingdom through Aftermath.