“You put the sun and the moon to shame with the way that you shine”
I grew up in one of those traditional churches struggling with the whole “contemporary worship” trend. We had the hymnals in the pews and quite a few people in those pews sitting in the same place their parents had, and their grandparents before that, and they would just as well prefer the hymnals stay in the pews and nothing change. Of course that didn’t happen.
It first began with praise choruses — Shine Jesus Shine and I Will Enter Your Gates With Thanksgiving in My Heart — then some acoustic guitar, and finally, aghast, drums. We tried everything to find a happy medium – mixing the styles, alternating weeks, separate services. The question of contemporary worship was driving us in circles, some out the doors and others into the pastor’s office with questioning (or, worse, accusing) tones. Having now moved to a different city, and being involved with a very different faith community, it is hard to get a feel for how serious those debates were. It is tempting trivialize it, to think, ‘Really, we fought about that?’
But I think that would be to miss the point. The contemporary worship question actually does matter, I just don’t think we were asking the right questions. As often happens, debates go ary when a question actually about values or theology is approached as one of style and preference. And that is where I find the traditional/contemporary debate has gotten off the track, and sadly, where the contemporary movement has somewhat missed the mark.
And what was missed? We substituted what should have been a theological question for one about style. And as a result have produced music that sounds contemporary but have mostly failed to do is produce music which is truely contemporary. That is, music with a contemporary theology.
What do I mean by contemporary theology?
I began this post with the line that provoked these thoughts.
“You put the sun and the moon to shame with the way that you shine.”
And this is where the issue of contemporary theology comes in. This line is very biblical in the sense that the language of it is that of the bible, of the prophets and the psalms. In that way we could say, “well, what needs contemporized? Seems pretty biblical to me.”
To answer this question we have to think more carefully about why this language is biblical. In short, we have to think historically about the worship of the bible, particularly the Old Testament. The reason these words, the sun and moon thing, are biblical is because it is contemporary to the writers of the bible, to the singers of the psalms.
YHWH shining brighter than the sun and moon mattered to those individuals not because it was biblical to say so, but because their neighbors worshiped the sun and moon! Israel lived, worshiped, and struggled with cultures saturated in paganism. When they exalted their God above the sun, moon, stars, waters, sea monsters, and mountains they weren’t just being poetical, they were being contemporary.
The worship of ancient Israel was a pointed critique of the paganism of their day, subverting the sacred imagery of their neighbors to sing songs that showed the gods of the nations subservient, dethroned, and out-shined by YHWH. The psalms were contemporary to ancient Israel because they drew powerfully on symbolism, thought forms, and concepts of their day in order to to tell a different story about the world, who God was, and what it means to live in the world.
And so the contemporary music discussion. The problem is, none of my neighbors worship the moon. I don’t feel pressure to bow down and sacrifice to the sun when I go to work. Those symbols don’t carry the same power as they did in ancient Israel. The sun and moon song is a pretty easy one to sing because it isn’t really confronting any of the concrete temptations of syncretism or pluralism within my world.
To sing contemporary songs is to sing songs that subvert the symbols of our culture and assert the reign of YHWH over and against those powers vying for our attention. It is not enough to have biblical language, we need the theology behind that language in order to have songs that smack of truth in the face of the contemporary power structures of our world. It is these songs which will be both poignantly contemporary and truly ancient.
So, how should our songs go?
“You put Lady Gaga and Justine Bieber to shame with the way that you shine”
“You put the Dow Jones and the NASDAQ to shame with your reversed economy”
“You put individual autonomy and narcissism to shame with your community of self-giving love”