Mixing metaphor in Worship

September 21, 2009

Last night at church I was left a bit out of sorts musically and lyrically. I always have trouble keeping a straight face if things go comically wrong, but I also have a job to stop gurning if things go more seriously against the general plan.

The biggest problem to begin with was unsingable worship. Songs in B flat are often written in G for guitarists to play on capo 3, but this shouldn’t mean they can simply drop the key by three frets and get away with it. Please, people, just check the highest and lowest melody notes to see if your key change is possiible.

The second song was full of religious jargon and thus distracted me from the actual matter at hand. Words like “holy”, “worthy”, “glory” and “sphincter” aren’t generally used in polite conversation, but I bet more people know the meaning of the last one than those of the others. It too had suffered at the hands of the phantom transpositionist.

What really left me wanting less, however, was the lyric “Consuming fire, fan into flame a passion for your name.”

I know it’s not just me. The image of God as a consuming fire works for me, even if it didn’t for Moses. How, though, should a fire fan something into flame? That’s a job for wind (see metaphors for Holy Spirit) and not fire. Fire spreads by many means, but fanning requires wind. Ask any Californian.

The metaphors of fire for God and flames for religious passion are acceptable but mutually exclusive. It spoils my enjoyment of what is otherwise a perfectly adequate song.

So this week my message to Christian lyricists everywhere is this:

Grasp the nettle by the horns and sort out your metaphors.

Recorded Worship Songs

September 4, 2009

I was surprised but not amazed last Sunday to be “treated” to recorded music in worship. It’s hard to sing along with a backing track, and sometimes even harder to sing along with a jolly vocalist who was in a nice warm booth at the time of recording and didn’t have to keep an eye on the kids, match the lyrics to the tune he’d never heard before, or try to make the song relevant to the service as it progressed.

I’m not against recorded music in worship, although singing along to it can be tricky. It’s a development I reserve the right to observe with caution, but I’m not beating it down with a big stick.


I find that no recorded worship can flow with the service unless the service leader and PA operator are quite experienced. Even then, the congregation need to be comfortable with it.

Please, don’t stick on the CD track then segue to a live song by the worship band. It’s a totally false progression, and makes the band sound thin and reedy. No worship band is ever as polished and processed as a recording is.

Please, don’t stick the music on louder to get a greater response. Watch the members of the congregation who don’t know what to do, and feel self conscious. They deserve better. Try out a sample session with a single song introduced and run through like you would a normal new worship song. You can’t play a CD with an extra verse, or go back to the beginning once people have the hang of it, but you can make sure it’s played and performed by the band or service leaders in the pre-service.

Please, remember that the live musicians can do repeats, shorter or longer versions, variations in tempo, a range of dynamics and above all can react to events in the service as they present themselves. In the same way that projection software in churches needs to be flexible in response to song structure as played in a particular service, the CD recording forces conformity from the congregation and leaders, but lets you type the song in advance in certain knowledge of the order of lyrics.

Above all else, be gracious. The inevitable jump in the flow of the service at both ends of the CD tracked worship can be made easier if you have spent some time selecting a suitable rendition which serves your needs. Worship leaders and bands rehearse, so please take the same level of care in selecting recorded music. Having said that, I often turn up an hour beforehand with a pencil and a pad and more or less go with the flow. Maybe I don’t have such a strong case on this point. The grace, however, remains the vital ingredient.

With reference to my earlier post about Angels, please also make sure it’s worship material we’re singing. I assume you’ll check the lyrics and context thoroughly beforehand. It’s more glaring if the song you’re trying to sing is inaccurate or just very wrong lyrically, because the recording is perfect and delivers each word with perfect clarity.

Apart from that, bring it on. Let’s sing to the CD more often, and I get to lie in more Sundays.

Writing songs with Bite

September 3, 2009

I’ve been asked to write some songs for Turnstyle, a little company of thespian bods including my brother. He’s had the ridiculous concept of a panto including a vampire. I am supplying awful puns, garlic jokes, and hopefully tuneful ditties to sing along with.

The only problem I face is the character and history of the vampire. Count Dracula (or Count Wampyr as he would have been in Bram Stoker’s earlier notes) is a deliberate excommunicant. He intentionally sets aside his Christian faith to pursue other aims. In fact, he is not able to deal with Christian symbolism or symbols.

In literature, the vampire has been presented more recently as a vicious blood-sucking thug with a human side. In original tales, the vampire was more human and less thug, but with the need for human blood still prevalent in the darker aspects of their character.

This is a worrying set of values and images for a Christian to deal with, surely?

I feel (and so does my Christian brother) that the story need not be a total disaster in terms of moral and spiritual corruption. I am unlikely to suddenly develop a taste for blood just because I am currently reading Dracula as source material. What many forget is that despite the undead (implied immortal) nature of the Count, he ends up defeated in the book and in the myriad film representations which it has spawned. In fact, there are no tales of vampires taking over the world. We like a narrative where the normal human wins. Whether it is by strength of character, human cunning, religious weaponry (see the film Van Helsing for comic but adrenaline pumping reference) we see the vampire defeated and if not killed (you can’t kill people in a panto!) at least defeated, banished, vanquished, or otherwise disposed of.

So, with a little care, I think I’ll be OK, and not too displeased with the result. Just because I am a Christian doesn’t mean my entire output has to be overtly Christian. That fact that I have Christ in me allows me to write material which will poke some minor holes in this legend of evil incarnate, and possibly poke a lot of fun too. Hurrah!

Better get it right though, the stakes are high.

A rose by any other name

June 11, 2009

It’s a pity, but plagiarism takes place. It’s a fact of life. And nicking either words or music and redoing the other is a quick way to deal with embarrassing accusations. Just admit wholesale theft of one, and provide brand new versions of the other.

In much the same way as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and the wrong words to the tune game, it’s quite possible to match off lyrics to the wrong tune but have them fit. For instance, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has six phrases of seven syllables each. So does that old favourite Christmas carol As With Gladness.

So I issue now a quick challenge.

What’s the least appropriate song-tune mix out there? Not necessarily offensive – it could be a funeral hymn to a children’s theme tune, or whatever you like. The only real requirement is that the syllable counts match up. Just comment with your suggestions on the bottom of this post.

Have fun!


June 10, 2009

No, it’s not a Swedish truck company, or a bar code printer.

It’s the way words read or sing back when you have them in a song or poem.

And, scansion is the big bugbear of my life at the moment.

I freely admit (again) that I’m not the world’s authority on worship music or what’s appropriate for a song, but please can we have something that uses the same rhythm in the lyrics for verse one as it does for verse two?

Keith Getty, you are my hero. You write hymns that scan and have meaning. GK, you similarly are wise and well versified, even in the more recent stuff.

The one who gets my hackles raised in anguish (as opposed to my hands in worship) will go for now unidentified. He is responsible for appalling changes of emphasis, and the one that set me off this Sunday involved a ten syllable line delivered quickly over three beats. Not a sin, but when it follows a three syllable line that lasts a couple of bars, you need a bit of warning to change gear!

I’m not going to rant forever, but leave you with this poem which I wrote.

music is great

but how I hate

lyrics that grate

and kill the music by forcing a compromise to deal with poor scansion.

‘Nuff said?

It’s all Greek

May 2, 2009

Did you know that much of the New Testament language we use is not only based in Greek, but coloured or flavoured by Greek culture from the time of Christ and before?

Of course you did. I’ve known for some time that my audience is mostly scholars of ancient culture and biblical studies.

It does, however, present the odd problem when dealing with words out of context.

I’m beginning a project based on a text from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The passage describes Christ as The Word (lots of capital letters) and in Greek that would be “logos” (obviously written in funky Greek letters, not this alphabet) (Ooh “Alphabet” – another Greek word hiding in our language)

Except that Logos has a distinct meaning in Greek culture before Christ which John is deliberately referring to. It’s OK for me to associate Christ and the Logos, but I now feel I need to undertake a couple of weeks undergraduate study to find out the relationship between the Greek Classical “Logos” and the Biblical use of the word, including how the use in John’s Gospel makes use of the pre-existing Greek meaning.

Phew! A quick consultation of Wikipedia proves two things – firstly that some people are really clued up on this, and secondly that they’re being edited randomly by people who aren’t. So much for the Internet I feel.

And what is this wonderful project I’m working on? It’s going to be called “logos” with a lower case L, and it’s going to be a music and art thing, ironically requiring no written words in any of the pieces which will make it up.

Is there a point to this? Yes, I wish to provide a focus for my creative energy other than the Musical I’m writing, and the other little composition projects I have on the boil. I also want to include as many other people as will give up their gifts for it. I like it when arty people work together even if it tends to get like a sack full of sleep-deprived freshly shaved cats sometimes.

It’s good to talk (Thanks, BT) but it’s sometimes even better not to talk and instead let the art do it’s job. Assuming I’ve identified a valid cause and use of art in the first place. I feel that discussion could require some further study as well. I get the horribly appealing idea that I should get on with doing the project and leave the undergraduate navel-gazing where it belongs – firmly in the past.

Which brings me full circle to dredging up a dead branch of the ancient tree of language and trying to apply a word from that language to a culture and concept some two thousand years anachronistic to the people who originally used it.

Did you hear the one about the vicar and the organist?

March 29, 2009

No? Can’t be helped I suppose. Ever since I read about the Reverend Persimmon in An Alien at St Wilfred’s and his continuing interaction with his organist, I’ve shied away from discussing this sort of relationship.

It’s tough when you have to provide musical accompaniment to a church that your choices are subject not only to that internal moderation which identifies the sorts of things which “will not do”; but also to suggestion and even instruction by the minister in charge. If you’re lucky, the minister is approachable and sensitive. Even if they’re tone deaf, they can see the need for good quality worship material and the relevance of specific lyrics to specific occasions.

The danger is a clergyman who either by virtue of wide musical experience or a cultivated ignorance of that entire sphere (or, more likely, somewhere between the two) deems their own opinion to have intrinsic value and will not allow the musical life of the church to proceed without supervision or even intervention.

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. In the vicar, there is no enemy, there is no danger. We may (as the Revered Persimmon) fail to communicate effectively between one another, but the responsibility lies in both quarters. It is as much the vicar’s remit to direct musical worship as the readings, sermons, prayers, and most importantly the work that happens outside the hour or so we meet up to renew our sense of community, connect with God and celebrate together.

In fact, the joke about the vicar and the organist is that often one or other has a sense of pretension about their role and responsibilities that they have no right to bear. I see no need to instruct an equality of all people under God. God himself is ruler and judge. If he gives the responsibility for worship to one, and the responsibility of music to another, that’s how it is.

There’s a fair chunk of New Testament scripture which seems to tell us collectively and specifically to get over ourselves, submit ourselves to Christ (however one does that – I’ve never seen the instructions for that bit) and serve each other. The point about loving one another cuts both ways. In being a useful part of our church in concert with our fellow people, we serve God and His plans for us.

Too Prosch?

March 27, 2009

Lyrics are a funny thing. In an old Kevin Prosch song, we find this lyric:

“It breaks the heavy yoke, breaks the heavy yoke, when you shout, you shout to the Lord.”

Obviously, as all you Doctors of Christian Theology will know, this is a reference to the first chapter of Nahum in the Old Testament. Nice.

Tragically, it fell foul of some really amusing typography when someone in my previous church tried to type the lyrics up for an overhead projector.

One Sunday we sang this song, and “Shouting to the Lord” allegedly broke “the heavy oak.” A gentler person than I broke the news that a typo had been spotted (not the first, never going to be the last; we’re all human; etc….) and a new sheet was produced.

Obviously, “No, it should be ‘Yoke’ with a ‘Y'” wasn’t enough, for the following week “Shouting to the Lord” broke “the heavy yolk.”

My father, ever the diplomat under most circumstances nevertheless grinned and made a comment about divine omelettes. This was an unusual event in itself. If even he was moved by this appalling lack of research and blatant misunderstanding, I feel I’m entitled to a brief titter.

Before I get too superior though, the mistake makes a point which we overlook at our peril. Someone in the church in a position of responsibility didn’t understand the lyric. That’s the root of the mistake, and the lesson we should learn. In the same way that we have to be careful how we use “there/they’re/their” we have to be careful that the words we write in songs mean something to those who sing them, and that their meaning is clear even out of the fullest context.

If we don’t understand the words, or we’re not sure why we’re singing them, why should we expect everyone to join in?

Turn on the Lights

March 26, 2009

I have just been honoured to witness the fruit of an unusual and exciting labour of love for some friends of mine.

They are talented musicians trying to make it in the big world. They have supported Razorlight, headlined local gigs and finally settled upon their EP content. As a contributor (my trombone has done its service!) I have been allowed a brief glimpse of the genius to come.

I heartily recommend that everyone listen to Rogue States and buys their EP. It’s not because I like them, because they pay me to advertise or even because my name is in the credits. It’s simply because I shall be driving some of these tunes up my Most Played in short order. At least two of those tracks deserve to be played at full volume with the windows open (or top down if you’re rich enough) as you roll up to work this summer.

The lyric work and standard of production are exquisite, and the sheer energy of the opening tracks is breathtaking.

Oh boy, I can’t wait for the release. It will be called Kings of the Ghost Town Mile and I’m going to love it. See if you do too.

Limits of nomenclature

March 22, 2009

This morning in the service: A hymn was announced from the front as “A great hymn of praise!”

The first line read: “O praise him! O praise him! O praise him!”

The second line read: “O praise him! O praise him! O praise him!”

It’s the Ronseal of worship music. I feel, however, I’d have been sorely pushed to come up with a more apt adjective for the intro.