Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Simple vs. Simplistic

"A Simple Song" is a mildly whimsical (if I can use that word) piece in Leonard Bernstein's Mass. I know it best as sung by Renee Fleming. "Sing God a simple song: Lauda, Laude... God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all." Naturally, the song isn't all that simple and requires a good bit of work to be sung well. But there it is: simplicity is somehow integral to faith and to worship.

In "Four Quartets," T. S. Eliot describes the life of faith thus: "A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)." I'd wager many a believer (myself included) long for that condition of complete simplicity while ignoring the parenthetical aside, which is really the heart of the matter. The simplicity is not one of being satisfied with ourselves as we are, for we are sinful and in need; it must be a simplicity of having given all to God, of having one's source and being in God. Simplicity is not about dumbing it down to the least common denominator; it is about giving one's all.

We mess this up in worship a lot, especially in music. Lately, I've been pondering a question: what is the difference between simple and simplistic in regards to worship music? Having grown up in mainline Protestant churches going to traditional worship services, I've long made fun of "7-11 songs"--songs with 7 words sung 11 times. Just to pick on David Crowder for a minute, I heard his song "O Praise Him" recently and was struck by the lack of lyrical depth. "O praise him! O praise him! He is Holy! He is Holy! La la la la la la la la..." Really, it was the "la la's" that got me. I was bored by the song and was sure God was too. (By the way...I hadn't really seen a picture of David Crowder before. That is one goofy-looking cat.)

But, speaking of "la la's"--Simon and Garfunkel somehow managed to write an incredible song, "The Boxer," using only the syllable "lie" on the chorus. Yet I find that song deeply moving. And to get back to worship music, there is a whole tradition of meditative chant that relies on simple, repetitive choruses. A favorite source of such music for me is the Taizé Community, an ecumenical Christian monastery in France that practices meditative prayer and song; they have songs like "Jesus, Remember Me," which simply say, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." That can be repeated interminably, and somehow I find that prayerful and meditative, not boring.

For my part, I love worship music with substance. The theology of hymn by John and Charles Wesley feed me spiritually and intellectually. However, last week in my Holy Spirit class, we looked at several Wesley hymns, including "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire." It's a great hymn with rich lyrics--just check out the third verse: "Expand thy wings, celestial Dove, brood o'er our nature's night; on our disordered spirits move, and let there now be light." Just in that verse, Charles Wesley performs significant theological exegesis, connecting the Holy Spirit directly to the creation story. But one classmate of mine expressed a concern that such dense, weighty lyrics might bog a worshipper down--some Wesley hymns are very heady. The idea, my professor said, is that these hymns were meant to be carried by the worshipper throughout the week, to be ruminated over, gradually unfolding their depth of meaning as they were contemplated. Maybe some Wesley hymns are too dense; or maybe our ADD culture doesn't allow us to process them as they were intended.

So what is the different between simple and simplistic? Can even a tightly written, theologically dense hymn ultimately convey a simple truth? In talking to my boyfriend (who regularly leads contemporary worship services), he pointed out that context probably makes a difference. A "7-11 song" played by a big praise band with images flashing across a screen probably won't carry the meditative potential of a Taizé chant sung a cappella by candlelight. The songs could probably even have the same words but create a very different worship atmosphere. As for a headier hymn like "Come, Holy Ghost," if it is sung in a congregation that has used it in worship before, for most it will lose its character as prohibitively dense, as its meaning and implications will have had time to open up to the worshippers.

These questions, I think, apply to prayer as well as song. Lately, I have become attached to a book called The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. It is a compilation of beautiful prayers, two of which I have adopted as daily morning and evening prayers--the prayers live next to my bed. Each prayer is about a page long, and although they are in poem form, they do have some length to them. The theological depth in the prayers is real, and part of why I enjoy using the same prayers daily is that I can allow their full meaning to sink in over time. However, another prayer that has influenced me over the years is the Jesus Prayer, an Eastern prayer most closely associated, at least in my mind, with the 19th-century Russian work The Way of a Pilgrim. It is a simple prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." It is intended to be repeated over and over again. Those few words can be more powerful than the most theologically profound supplication.

So, what do you think? Are there simplistic (or simple) worship songs that drive you crazy, or do you like them? Do heady theological hymns distract you from or deepen worship? What role might context or intention play in making a song simple (in a positive sense) or simplistic (in a negative sense)?

2 comments:

DougJ67 said...

Hey Sarah, I appreciate you tackling such a heady subject and a deep question concerning "simple vs. simplistic". It's kinda sad, then, that you don't make much of an attempt to answer it. You quote the lyrics to a David Crowder song, but you only quote the chorus, while skipping verses such as:
"Turn your gaze
To Heaven and raise
A joyous noise
Oh the sound of salvation come
The sound of rescued ones
And all this for a king
Angels join to sing
All for Christ our King"

Then you turn around and admit that you like Paul Simon's "The Boxer" which also has wordy verses but a simple chorus. You also like Taize choruses, which are very simple and repetitive, as are liturgical prayers such as the Kyrie and the Jesus Prayer. So, all that can be deduced from your blog is:
1. You like classical music and
60's folk songs
2. You don't like rock'n'roll, and
3. You don't like freaky-looking people
(My mother would absolutely love you.)
Seriously, it's okay to admit that there are different worship styles and musical styles that either resonate with us or annoy us. You obviously resonate with candlelight services and Taize chants & choruses much more than with guitar-driven praise bands and big screens with MediaShout. That's totally cool - with both God and the majority of your fellow worshippers. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking your favorite worship styles and songs are somehow "deeper" than others just because you like songs written by white men in Europe over 100 years ago, and not songs written by shaggy-haired, 21st century American men & women who play guitars. A song doesn't have to use a neoclassical form or King James English to be "deep". There are plenty of poetic, challenging, theologically-informed worship songs that have been, and are being written today. You just have to look a little deeper than one song that uses "la-las" in part of the chorus!

Sarah said...

Hi Doug,

Thanks so much for the reminder! Your point is well-taken, and actually, that was a big part of what I was trying to ask--what is it that makes the difference between simple and simplistic? I intended to be self-critical to some degree: why does that David Crowder song bug me while a Taize chant doesn't? Should it? (I was totally on a rant against that one song when I wrote this post, probably for no good reason--it just served as a jumping-off point.)

And a few more general words in response:

I hope that I am a more interesting and complex person than can be summed up in a single short blog post! One frustration in blogging is that someone can read one post in isolation and take away something completely different than what a person who knows the writer's broader perspective might. The interesting thing is that these days I'm more likely to be found worshipping to (or, actually, playing in) a praise band than chant or traditional worship. I am highly critical of any church that employs only the music and liturgy of dead white guys. And I'm totally OK with David Crowder being shaggy--frankly, I prefer that to what seems to be a trend in big-box contemporary worship of having insanely well-groomed, good-looking worship leaders (not bad in and of itself, only when looks become a prerequisite to joining the worship team). You are absolutely right that it is not OK to decide that one style of worship is "deeper" than another--looking back now, I can see how this post might not make you think I believe that, but that's actually kind of my life project: to help people get over their assumptions about worship styles and open them up to new (or old) things.

All of that is to say...I appreciate your perspective, but I actually share it, too. It's easy to poke fun of some of the contemporary Christian music out there, but there is a lot of wonderful stuff--lately, my church has been delving into bands like Gungor and All Sons & Daughters in addition to Hillsong and Chris Tomlin.

My hope is that my blogs stimulate conversation rather than being an occasion for people to put me in a box. The funny thing is that I don't listen to classical music much, 60s folk songs are just what I was raised on, I love rock'n'roll, and I love freaky-looking people. I play guitar and mandolin in a praise band and have been known to raise my hands in worship, but I also sing in a choir that does Renaissance-era sacred music and wears robes. That's what I love about the church--it can look like so many different things and still glorify God.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Simple vs. Simplistic

"A Simple Song" is a mildly whimsical (if I can use that word) piece in Leonard Bernstein's Mass. I know it best as sung by Renee Fleming. "Sing God a simple song: Lauda, Laude... God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all." Naturally, the song isn't all that simple and requires a good bit of work to be sung well. But there it is: simplicity is somehow integral to faith and to worship.

In "Four Quartets," T. S. Eliot describes the life of faith thus: "A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)." I'd wager many a believer (myself included) long for that condition of complete simplicity while ignoring the parenthetical aside, which is really the heart of the matter. The simplicity is not one of being satisfied with ourselves as we are, for we are sinful and in need; it must be a simplicity of having given all to God, of having one's source and being in God. Simplicity is not about dumbing it down to the least common denominator; it is about giving one's all.

We mess this up in worship a lot, especially in music. Lately, I've been pondering a question: what is the difference between simple and simplistic in regards to worship music? Having grown up in mainline Protestant churches going to traditional worship services, I've long made fun of "7-11 songs"--songs with 7 words sung 11 times. Just to pick on David Crowder for a minute, I heard his song "O Praise Him" recently and was struck by the lack of lyrical depth. "O praise him! O praise him! He is Holy! He is Holy! La la la la la la la la..." Really, it was the "la la's" that got me. I was bored by the song and was sure God was too. (By the way...I hadn't really seen a picture of David Crowder before. That is one goofy-looking cat.)

But, speaking of "la la's"--Simon and Garfunkel somehow managed to write an incredible song, "The Boxer," using only the syllable "lie" on the chorus. Yet I find that song deeply moving. And to get back to worship music, there is a whole tradition of meditative chant that relies on simple, repetitive choruses. A favorite source of such music for me is the Taizé Community, an ecumenical Christian monastery in France that practices meditative prayer and song; they have songs like "Jesus, Remember Me," which simply say, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." That can be repeated interminably, and somehow I find that prayerful and meditative, not boring.

For my part, I love worship music with substance. The theology of hymn by John and Charles Wesley feed me spiritually and intellectually. However, last week in my Holy Spirit class, we looked at several Wesley hymns, including "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire." It's a great hymn with rich lyrics--just check out the third verse: "Expand thy wings, celestial Dove, brood o'er our nature's night; on our disordered spirits move, and let there now be light." Just in that verse, Charles Wesley performs significant theological exegesis, connecting the Holy Spirit directly to the creation story. But one classmate of mine expressed a concern that such dense, weighty lyrics might bog a worshipper down--some Wesley hymns are very heady. The idea, my professor said, is that these hymns were meant to be carried by the worshipper throughout the week, to be ruminated over, gradually unfolding their depth of meaning as they were contemplated. Maybe some Wesley hymns are too dense; or maybe our ADD culture doesn't allow us to process them as they were intended.

So what is the different between simple and simplistic? Can even a tightly written, theologically dense hymn ultimately convey a simple truth? In talking to my boyfriend (who regularly leads contemporary worship services), he pointed out that context probably makes a difference. A "7-11 song" played by a big praise band with images flashing across a screen probably won't carry the meditative potential of a Taizé chant sung a cappella by candlelight. The songs could probably even have the same words but create a very different worship atmosphere. As for a headier hymn like "Come, Holy Ghost," if it is sung in a congregation that has used it in worship before, for most it will lose its character as prohibitively dense, as its meaning and implications will have had time to open up to the worshippers.

These questions, I think, apply to prayer as well as song. Lately, I have become attached to a book called The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. It is a compilation of beautiful prayers, two of which I have adopted as daily morning and evening prayers--the prayers live next to my bed. Each prayer is about a page long, and although they are in poem form, they do have some length to them. The theological depth in the prayers is real, and part of why I enjoy using the same prayers daily is that I can allow their full meaning to sink in over time. However, another prayer that has influenced me over the years is the Jesus Prayer, an Eastern prayer most closely associated, at least in my mind, with the 19th-century Russian work The Way of a Pilgrim. It is a simple prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." It is intended to be repeated over and over again. Those few words can be more powerful than the most theologically profound supplication.

So, what do you think? Are there simplistic (or simple) worship songs that drive you crazy, or do you like them? Do heady theological hymns distract you from or deepen worship? What role might context or intention play in making a song simple (in a positive sense) or simplistic (in a negative sense)?

2 comments:

DougJ67 said...

Hey Sarah, I appreciate you tackling such a heady subject and a deep question concerning "simple vs. simplistic". It's kinda sad, then, that you don't make much of an attempt to answer it. You quote the lyrics to a David Crowder song, but you only quote the chorus, while skipping verses such as:
"Turn your gaze
To Heaven and raise
A joyous noise
Oh the sound of salvation come
The sound of rescued ones
And all this for a king
Angels join to sing
All for Christ our King"

Then you turn around and admit that you like Paul Simon's "The Boxer" which also has wordy verses but a simple chorus. You also like Taize choruses, which are very simple and repetitive, as are liturgical prayers such as the Kyrie and the Jesus Prayer. So, all that can be deduced from your blog is:
1. You like classical music and
60's folk songs
2. You don't like rock'n'roll, and
3. You don't like freaky-looking people
(My mother would absolutely love you.)
Seriously, it's okay to admit that there are different worship styles and musical styles that either resonate with us or annoy us. You obviously resonate with candlelight services and Taize chants & choruses much more than with guitar-driven praise bands and big screens with MediaShout. That's totally cool - with both God and the majority of your fellow worshippers. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking your favorite worship styles and songs are somehow "deeper" than others just because you like songs written by white men in Europe over 100 years ago, and not songs written by shaggy-haired, 21st century American men & women who play guitars. A song doesn't have to use a neoclassical form or King James English to be "deep". There are plenty of poetic, challenging, theologically-informed worship songs that have been, and are being written today. You just have to look a little deeper than one song that uses "la-las" in part of the chorus!

Sarah said...

Hi Doug,

Thanks so much for the reminder! Your point is well-taken, and actually, that was a big part of what I was trying to ask--what is it that makes the difference between simple and simplistic? I intended to be self-critical to some degree: why does that David Crowder song bug me while a Taize chant doesn't? Should it? (I was totally on a rant against that one song when I wrote this post, probably for no good reason--it just served as a jumping-off point.)

And a few more general words in response:

I hope that I am a more interesting and complex person than can be summed up in a single short blog post! One frustration in blogging is that someone can read one post in isolation and take away something completely different than what a person who knows the writer's broader perspective might. The interesting thing is that these days I'm more likely to be found worshipping to (or, actually, playing in) a praise band than chant or traditional worship. I am highly critical of any church that employs only the music and liturgy of dead white guys. And I'm totally OK with David Crowder being shaggy--frankly, I prefer that to what seems to be a trend in big-box contemporary worship of having insanely well-groomed, good-looking worship leaders (not bad in and of itself, only when looks become a prerequisite to joining the worship team). You are absolutely right that it is not OK to decide that one style of worship is "deeper" than another--looking back now, I can see how this post might not make you think I believe that, but that's actually kind of my life project: to help people get over their assumptions about worship styles and open them up to new (or old) things.

All of that is to say...I appreciate your perspective, but I actually share it, too. It's easy to poke fun of some of the contemporary Christian music out there, but there is a lot of wonderful stuff--lately, my church has been delving into bands like Gungor and All Sons & Daughters in addition to Hillsong and Chris Tomlin.

My hope is that my blogs stimulate conversation rather than being an occasion for people to put me in a box. The funny thing is that I don't listen to classical music much, 60s folk songs are just what I was raised on, I love rock'n'roll, and I love freaky-looking people. I play guitar and mandolin in a praise band and have been known to raise my hands in worship, but I also sing in a choir that does Renaissance-era sacred music and wears robes. That's what I love about the church--it can look like so many different things and still glorify God.

 

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