Do the Words Really Matter?

Do the Words Really Matter?

Stacey Gasson & Chris Duthie-Jung

by Stacey Gasson & Chris Duthie-Jung

Do the words really matter?

Not too many years ago, Christians used to have a field day critically analysing the lyrics of contemporary pop and rock songs. Few of them stood up to the rigorous gospel spotlight that was trained upon them and, for a while, Christians were urged to stay within the safe confines of the offerings of Christian artists.

Times have changed and thankfully a less judgmental attitude prevails today. Still, none of us are too slow to finger any secular song that dares to present values we perceive as anti-gospel.

Led Zeppelin’s 1971 song, Stairway to Heaven, has been examined frontways and backways.

What often doesn’t occur so readily is the willingness among Christians to put their own music on trial. Call them hymns, songs of praise and worship or just plain church songs, most of us appear pretty hesitant to look for anomalies in the words of our own music. “After all,” we protest, “they’re written for God! How could anything unhelpful result from that?”

Double Entendre

Just as secular music can present us with the occasional deliberate or accidental double meaning, so too can Christian music. The way we present the God-human connection (our theology) may carry implications that we have never really considered.

Take for example a common refrain suggesting something like “Jesus is everything for me”. To make the point we flip it over and end up singing lyrics like Crystal Lewis’, “this world has nothing for me” (People get ready, Jesus is coming, from her Beauty for Ashes album).

Crystal Lewis’ Beauty For Ashes album

What we (and the song writer!) haven’t realised is how this message might read to a depressed young person immersed in a youth culture that often emphasises self-destructiveness and a lack of hope. Suddenly a song of praise turns into an invitation to leave this tragic world behind. With teen suicide at the levels we see here in NZ this is not something we want to be saying!

Pain in the neck

Another undesirable situation arises when we use imagery that is objectionable to others. A good example of this is found in the classic Christian victory song, pulling out as many military images as possible to show what “Jesus is gonna do (or has done) to Satan!”For many Christians however, the very idea of “fighting for Jesus” is a contradiction in terms. For them, Jesus is the consummate pacifist, He refused to fight, commanded Peter to put away his sword and taught us to turn the other cheek! St Paul’s spiritual warfare imagery may well have its place, but when we use it we must keep in mind that for some the message quickly becomes almost counter-gospel and totally unpalatable.

Heroes

These issues of what we say when we sing become even more critical when we begin to consider the status accorded Christian songwriters and musicians. If it is true that we tend to make heroes of our favourite artists, then it’s probably not too far from the truth to suggest that Christian songwriters are often uncritically accepted as being Christian authorities, somehow spiritually superior. The burden of responsibility surely falls heavily on such persons to make sure that their message is helpful. But equally, it falls on us as the guides of the young and especially as their advocates in the adult Christian world.

Try putting on those spectacles of critique this Sunday and, as you sing, ask yourself, “What am I really saying?”
Chris and Stacey work in the Youth Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington