Praise music gets no respect, even among Christians. It is not hard to figure out why the unchurched don’t care for it. They can sing “Stairway to Heaven” with gusto because they don’t believe that the stairs are really going anywhere, while it is hard to sing “Here I Am to Worship” without doing exactly that. But Christians are people of praise. That’s what we do. So why do so many Christians have such a condescending attitude toward praise music?
A note to the trads no doubt already heading for the comments: I am not talking about liturgical music. The Protestants had their worship wars, and praise music won. A worship skirmish or two might help shake up lethargic celebrations of the Mass, but I am not asking traditionalists to give praise music a liturgical hearing. Nor am I suggesting that praise music is the best kind of sacred music that anyone can listen to. All I am saying is that praise music should have a significant place in every Christian’s heartor at least in their iPods.
I suspect Christians dislike praise music for the same reasons as the unchurched. The words are too simple, direct, and demanding, the emotions too transparent. Musical sophistication often means little more than genre compartmentalization, which leads many musically sophisticated Christians to try to keep their listening habits separate from their prayer life.
There is a bias among many rock aficionados against any contemporary music that makes the lyrics audible, indeed, that subordinates the tune to the words. Christians should not buy into that. It is especially sad, I think, when Christians immersed in hard rock turn their noses up (or shut their ears to) any music that is uplifting, as if only dark sounds are authentic.
For those who say rock and praise can’t coexist, listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” True, this song is as much about sex as God, but Cohen has made it clear in interviews that it gives voice to a transcendental longing: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”
Unfortunately, many covers, including Jeff Buckley’s, leave out its most theological verse, “And even though it all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” And some versions make it sound more resistant to joy than Cohen’s original, but the melody is so powerfully simple that its positive progression cannot be vocally denied. The poignant ascent of chords provide an uplift as natural as the scale.
Those who believe that pure rock must be transgressive will argue that “Hallelujah” comes close to the cheesiness that Christian praise music gluttonously devours. It is saved from sounding maudlin by Cohen’s deadpan wit, as when he rhymes hallelujah with “what’s it to you,” and challenges the Lord by saying, “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Christian musicians could learn a lot from this song about how to heighten sincerity with humor.
Still, the fear of sounding sappy when it comes to praising God is a red herring. We have become so used to the way that rock sublimates our spiritual desires that it can be jolting to tune into pop music that asks us to make plain what we seek. So much of rock is a spiritual fantasy, a sonic playground for highly secularized religious sentiment. And fantasy, in whatever form, can make the real thing look too real.
I have Christian friends who can get into any kind of music, from throat singing to singing bowls, from Appalachian to Ethiopian, but who would never open their mouths to a praise song. Personally, I cannot imagine listening to Michael W. Smith’s “Breathe” without being deeply moved by God’s grace. If that song sounds too showy for you, then you should broaden your acoustical taste for worship. Cynicism is a far greater spiritual danger than naiveté. And if you are Roman Catholic, what’s the worst that can happen to you? You might learn that you actually like singing, and you might take that lesson to the mass.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image adapted from Flickr.
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