6 Contemporary Christian Music
In this chapter you will
- explore the way the Bible is used and interpreted in this modern genre of Christian music
- consider the different ways the Bible may function in relation to music that is primarily for use in communal singing versus music created to be performed and listened to
Music of Many Labels: Praise Worship / Contemporary Christian Music
There are abundant allusions to the Bible in contemporary Christian music (CCM), both the songs written for use in communal singing in churches and those written to be performed by a particular band or artist. These two categories blur into one another, as often songs that are heard on the radio in the first instance are then learned and embraced by congregations. A close examination of these songs provides examples of how the Bible is understood, received, and interpreted within the contexts that produce and utilize that music. Most (but not quite all) of this music is produced by Evangelical Protestants, and the role the Bible plays in these songs provides a window into that tradition and its emphases. See, for example, the thoughts on this topic shared by famous British songwriter Graham Kendrick. He suggests that singing songs is the closest many Christians come to memorization of Scripture and that there is a need for new “Scripture songs” as well as songs based on biblical stories and characters. Artists like Michael Card have sought to offer albums that do precisely that—in his case, including a trilogy on the life of Christ, separate albums that explore individual New Testament Gospels through songs based on their contents, and albums based on the Pentateuch and the Prophets, as well as many other songs that not merely echo Scripture in a vague way but offer either a focused retelling or at least enough specific content that someone with familiarity with the relevant biblical stories will easily make the connections.
The song “El Shaddai” can serve as a good example from among the many just alluded to. Michael Card wrote this song, although it is most famous in the rendition performed by Amy Grant. The title is a transliteration of one of the ways that God is referred to in the Hebrew Bible. In the first verse, one finds references to the stories of the binding of Isaac, the exodus, and Hagar and Ishmael. A songwriter must make decisions about what to include when summing up a longer story in a song (or alluding to biblical material in part of a song). The need for rhyme is often a significant consideration and may impact not only word choice but order. The results of those choices deserve close examination. In this case, we may observe that reference is made to the saving of the son of Abraham (i.e., Isaac) through a combination of God’s love and a ram. In the story in Genesis thus alluded to, we encounter the first mention of “love” in the Bible, and it is Abraham’s love for his son that is in view (Genesis 22:2). In Genesis, God is the one who demands the sacrifice of Isaac, and thus referring only to the “rescue” of Abraham’s son leaves more troubling aspects of the story to one side. The same happens in some treatments of the Noah story, in which the focus is on God as the one who rescues from the flood and not God as the one who sends the flood. Returning to “El Shaddai,” God is also the one who sees the outcast, which is an allusion to the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. Just as Abraham is the first person said to love in the Bible, Hagar is the first to name God, calling God “the God who sees me.” The Hebrew phrase is often transliterated into English characters as “El-roi,” and despite the mention of Genesis 16:13, this name for God is not featured in the transliterated form in the song.
Songs from the Book of Job
The song “Blessed Be Your Name” was written by Matt and Beth Redman in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, although it reflects a broader experience of suffering than that one event. They realized that there was a dearth of songs that could be used to express grief in a manner appropriate to such an occasion. They unsurprisingly drew inspiration for the song from the book of Job, which explores an instance of undeserved suffering. Job’s suffering is compounded by the theological commentary offered by his friends, who assume that since God is just, Job and/or his children must have done something to deserve the misfortune that had befallen them. The reader of the book, however, knows better, being shown a glimpse of the heavenly court in which God boasts about Job’s impressive righteousness. The song takes words from Job 1:21 not only for the chorus but also for the bridge, which addresses God rather than speaking in the third person but nonetheless refers, like its source material, to God as the one who gives and takes away. An important question to ask is whether that affirmation by Job is reinforced or negated by what follows in the dialogues, in which Job seems far less willing to simply assert that whatever God does is to be accepted, insisting that there ought to be some opportunity to bring charges against God in circumstances like his so that the righteous sufferer might not be made to experience additional pain at the loss of their good reputation in the eyes of those who believe suffering must correlate with wrongdoing.
Relatively few songs draw from the main body of the book of Job, the dialogues between Job and his three friends. Those that do often simply borrow language with little connection to the context, as in the case of the song “My Redeemer Lives” by Hillsong, which reflects a long history of interpretation of those words from Job 19:25 in a manner that is disconnected from its original context. Within the book of Job, Job explicitly denies that an afterlife exists that will resolve the problem of his suffering. That has not kept Christian readers from treating the reference as though it were to Jesus and his resurrection, with the following verse (Job 19:26) supposedly an affirmation by Job of his expectation of his own resurrection. Nicole C. Mullen, on the other hand, in her song “Redeemer,” offers a treatment of the words that is more closely linked to the overall arc of the book, bringing in creation, although ultimately she too reads Jesus’s resurrection into the phrase.
Laura Story’s song “Indescribable” is most famous in the version recorded by Chris Tomlin. It draws from the theophany (God’s appearance) near the end of the book of Job. There are a wide range of interpretations of the significance of that moment in the story. Some understand God to be showing off the greatness of the divine power, which is supposed to awe Job and everyone else into quiet humble submission. Norman Habel offers a different interpretation. Habel is an Old Testament scholar who is himself also a songwriter, as we see in chapter 7 on creation. He notes that the book of Job falls into the category of Wisdom literature, one of the distinctive characteristics of which is that it does not appeal to divine revelation but instead focuses on things that are universally accessible—in particular, observation of the natural world. Habel thus thinks the author of the book is being ironic in having God appear in a work in this genre only to talk about the weather and animals. It is also interesting and important to reflect on how much more we know about snow, lightning, and other natural phenomena mentioned in this part of the book of Job. If Habel’s interpretation is right, the point is not to cower in response to impressive power but to recognize that our observations of the natural world do not lead to nice, neat theological packages. When the mountain lion is fed, the young deer becomes food. As Jesus would later emphasize, rain falls upon the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Observation of the natural world shows how hard it is to make sense of life in our cosmos, yet some insist that it leads to clear theological and ethical conclusions. The song captures very nicely the emphasis in the book of Job (according to Habel’s interpretation) on how observation of nature should lead to humility before God. If the cosmos has puzzles and loose ends that elude our attempts to solve and resolve them, how much more the Creator thereof?
On the other hand, those who sing the song should not do so uncritically, any more than those who read the book apart from any musical treatment should read it without giving due thought to our very different perspectives. We understand weather differently and thus do not believe there are literal “storehouses laden with snow” (as the song says, echoing Job 38:22). Understanding modern meteorology allows us an alternative to believing that God “tells every lightning bolt where it should go.” This can be extremely helpful for those wrestling with their sense of undeserved suffering, like Job’s, when it is due to the impact of storms, tornados, and other weather phenomena. A song like “God of Wonders” (written by Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd) can also prompt this sort of reflection. The heavens are said to be God’s tabernacle, drawing on biblical imagery. Yet God is also said to be “beyond our galaxy,” introducing astronomical knowledge available to us but not to any of the biblical authors, none of whom was aware of or mentions galaxies or a universe. Preserving the biblical image of God “above the heavens” (Psalm 57:5, 11) situates God much farther away than the same language would have implied for ancient people. (Consider as well the similar imagery in the worship song “Be Exalted O God,” written by Brent Chambers, which draws on that and other psalms.) Interestingly, it is Job’s friend Zophar who mentions that the deep things of God are “higher than the heavens” and thus unfathomable to mortals (Job 11:8). That idea is in keeping with the overall emphasis of the book of Job, yet what Zophar does with that true principle leads to him and his friends being condemned for not speaking rightly about God as Job does in the very act of complaining and asserting his innocence (Job 42:7). Perhaps above all else, the book of Job emphasizes the need to use the wisdom of ancient Israel’s Wisdom tradition wisely. As Proverbs 26:9 emphasizes, a wise saying can be used in an unwise manner. The lyrics of songs often become the proverbs of our time, from which phrases are repeated in sermons, in individual moments of crisis, and in many other contexts. Reflecting on the different musical treatments of the book of Job as well as the literary and theological significance of that book is likely to lead to a more nuanced and richer appreciation of the theology of suffering, contemporary religious music, and the Bible.
For Further Reading
Cusic, Don. Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Ingalls, Monique M. Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Powell, Mark Allan, ed. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.
Woods, Robert, and Brian Walrath, ed. The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.
- Graham Kendrick, “Worship in Spirit and in Truth,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 86–103 (here 95–97, 101). ↵
- The attempt to include another Hebrew phrase does not succeed in the same way, with something becoming garbled in the process, since “Erkamka na Adonai” is not a meaningful Hebrew phrase. On this, see the helpful discussion by Claude Mariottini. ↵
- Each of these is the focus of a complete chapter elsewhere in the present book. ↵
- Wendy Zierler, “In Search of a Feminist Reading of the Akedah,” in “Jewish Women’s Spirituality,” special issue, Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues 9, no. 5765 (2005): 19–20. ↵
- Matt and Beth Redman, Blessed Be Your Name: Worshipping God on the Road Marked with Suffering (Ventura: Regal, 2008), 34. ↵
- See his discussion in Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster, 1985). ↵