The last post began unpacking the "matrix of creativity" I'm looking through when writing a worship song or preparing creative elements for a Sunday service, focusing on "theological depth" as the first of three values. Today I want to continue with the other two values: "poetic imagination" and "congregational accessibility." (A reminder: check out the new Imago Dei Arts Unleashing Creativity site that sparked this reflection).
Artists have an opportunity to bring fresh perspective on ancient truth. Unfortunately, however, it’s often easier to simply rely on cliche. Contemporary worship music can sometimes feel like we have a grab bag with the same 50 words and phrases, recycled over and over. As a songwriter, I understand it. It’s all too easy when I get stuck to just reach into the grab bag for a “Glory,” a “You’re so good,” or “Your love is deeper than the ocean.”
The problem is not that these words are untrue, or should never be used. The problem is that they can be creatively lazy and miss an opportunity to steward creative gifting in the body of Christ and reveal afresh the wonder of our Creator.
Art has an ability to take something familiar and help us see it again as if for the first time. I’ve talked to countless people who “knew” God was Father for a long time, but upon encountering Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” something happened: God as Father “popped” in a fresh way. They felt it. Rembrandt’s art gave fresh perspective. Many like Henri Nouwen have said they’ll never be the same.
I believe we have the opportunity, when we move beyond cliche, to do the same today.
Love Like a ’57 Chevy
So after I’ve got my first draft down on paper, I’ll go over it and circle spots that sound cliche. And then I’ll try and think through, “What’s the point this cliche is trying to make? What are some other ways I could say this?” To use a humorous example, a musician friend and I recently heard a song singing the classic refrain, “Your love is higher than the skies, deeper than the ocean.” He turned to me and said,
It sounds like the main point they’re trying to make is, ‘Your love is big.’ How about instead, ‘God, your love is bigger than a ’57 Chevy.’
I laughed . . . and though I probably won’t end up using that one for a song, I’ve still got the unique image stuck in my head weeks later.
To use a more practical example, there’s a homegrown song we do (along the same “prodigal” theme as Rembrandt’s painting) that opens:
Like a prodigal in Babel, like a sheep whose gone astray, like an Adam east of Eden, I’ve run so far away
But you come breaking through my distance, past the walls that I have made, by cynic sentinels I’ve placed there
You come, Lord you come, and take me
Home, where I’m with you restored, by you so faithful and strong
The goal for this opening was to introduce the common theme of, “God, you pursue us,” but to wrap some narrative imagery around it: what does it look like for us to run, and for God to come after? The first line tried to combine some classic biblical imagery we might not normally connect, of our running from God and the distance created (Adam exiled from Eden, the sheep leaving the fold, the prodigal son, Babel as the distant land).
Originally, the line “cynic sentinels” was in the first draft “all the idols.” But while brainstorming, the word “idols” seemed abstract for us today (most folks think of ancient stone statues), whereas cynicism seems to be a big issue we wrestle with in 21st century Portland (related to our various idolatries). And I liked the idea of our idols “standing guard” like sentinels, as if we had erected them to keep watch to prevent the oncoming pursuit of God.
Anyways, not perfect, but an example of trying to rework cliches with some poetic imagination.
Since we’re heading into Lent this week, here’s another example from last year’s season: when I was asked to write a song for our Good Friday service, I grappled with some possible fresh angles. I landed on attempting to look at the cross from the perspective of Hades, Sheol, the grave. The year before I’d explored the cross from the perspective of empire; this year I wondered what it would be like to personify the grave as it welcomed Christ the king.
The chorus became a darkly ironic twist on Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates, that the King of glory may come in.” In the original psalm, it is a reference to Jerusalem’s gates flinging wide to welcome the city’s triumphal King. I played off this to open the song with Jerusalem welcoming Christ, the (ironically) triumphal king:
Who is this king of glory? His chariot a colt, a donkey. Comes to be crushed like grapes for our rebellion.
Our iniquity upon him, no majesty to recognize him, the punishment that brings our peace now lays him low.
O Jerusalem your hour has come, to crucify God’s beloved Son . . .
Lift up your heads, O you gates! The King of glory is coming in
This sets up the even darker twist, however, that builds in the following verses, until the final verse when Christ is crucified and his dead body received into the earth:
Judge of justice, now arrested; all stand silent, someone contest this! Lifted up, arms outstretched, exalted high
The grave now stirs to greet your coming, the tomb receives your trampled body, mercy buried six feet under for the world
Rejoice O’ Death, your hour now has come! Open up you grave, receive the Father’s Son
Lift up your heads, Hades’ gates! The King of glory is coming in
The Father’s Son, atoning One, the King of glory is coming in
Anyways, by no means perfect, but striving for fresh creative angles to encounter the glory of our King. For some other examples, here’s an amazing song by Lee Green from the same Good Friday service that rocked (and humbled) the house; and a creative reading my friend Van did that I thought was amazing.
Finally, congregational accessibility: the third value on the grid. We may bring theological depth and poetic imagination . . . but can the church body engage? This was one of my biggest challenges back when I first started writing worship music. My melody lines were all over the place–people complained they needed to be at our church for 6 months before they could learn to sing along.
Now this didn’t matter when I performed in mainstream venues. My imagery might be abstract, the melody might change every other line, people could simply enjoy the groove and receive the music. I loved music by folks like Paul Simon (think “Graceland”), who were amazing . . . but his melody could be hard to sing along to because the syllable pattern was all over the place, and half the time you didn’t know what the heck his lyrics were saying (even if you could grasp the emotional jist of the word picture he was painting).
That’s great in mainstream art, perhaps even ideal. But the context of a worship service is substantially different: where the purpose is not a platform for self-expression so much as a people gathering together before their God.
This can be a challenge in the 21st century West, where self-expression has become the ultimate goal for the arts in many ways. I’ve found artists can often feel like they’re compromising, or “dumbing it down,” when they move from ambiguity to congregational connection in creating something for a Sunday service.
I think this shifts when our purpose in this context moves from self-expression, to facilitating gathered worship.
In my own life, I’ve written some songs where I found my original lyrics evocative but realized the congregation would not really know what they were singing, and this would be a hindrance to their being able to more fully enter in. In the early years, I found a part of me intuitively muttering under my breath, “That’s their problem; I like it better this way and they’ll have to get along with it as best they can.” But over time, I began to realize that part of me was looking to the stage as a platform for my self-expression, rather than embedded in a liturgical context for our collective gathering before God. I began to see my role first as shepherding . . . with creativity serving that broader context.
So now I try and make my melody lines easy to sing, even if it feels a little more “pop” than the music I tend to listen to. And I try and re-work the lyrics until it feels like something the church body can sing together with confidence, fully engaged in our gathered worship of God.
So those are the three values for the “creativity matrix” I’m using: theological depth, poetic imagination and congregational accessibility. Sometimes we hit some stronger than others, and we probably rarely hit all three perfectly, but hopefully they provide a grid that helps frame what we’re striving for as we integrate the arts in our Sunday services for our gathered life together as the body of Christ.
Be sure to check out the new Unleashing Creativity website and Good Friday documentary here. And also check out my friend Scott Erickson's 3-part video series "Why The Church Needs Art."