Plumbing the Depths of “Oceans”

95 million page views on YouTube.  Last time I looked, I think it was only 92 million.  Regardless, it is quite clear that the Hillsong United song “Oceans” is one of the most popular contemporary praise songs ever written.  If you’re the leader of a praise band, and you think that worship should look and feel like a rock concert, you definitely should introduce “Oceans”.  It’s hard to argue with 95 million page views.  96 million now?

ROCK BALLAD OR CONGREGATIONAL STANDARD?

However, for those of us who are committed to the New-Testament pattern for song worship, who look to Colossians 3:16 rather than to rock concerts for spiritual guidance, the question remains unanswered.  Just because a song works when played by a praise band for a crowd of swaying evangelicals does not mean that it will work in an a-cappella congregation.  To argue otherwise is to insist that Michael Jordan ought to be as good at baseball as he is at basketball.  Two different sports have different demands, and so do two different modes of worship.

In particular, there are two characteristics of “Oceans” that we ought to consider before we import it into our worship services.  The first is content.  After all, content requirements for a rock ballad and a Colossians 3:16 hymn are very different.  Rock music doesn’t have to make sense to be successful.  It just has to generate feels.  Hymns, on the other hand, have to teach and admonish.  A good hymn is a sermon in song. Continue reading

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Hymns and the Lindy Effect

A couple weeks back, I tackled Nassim Taleb’s latest book, Skin in the Game.  I’m not terribly sure that I’d want Taleb for a next-door neighbor (as a writer, at least, he tends toward the obnoxious and profane), but he does have some interesting ideas.

In particular, I was struck by one that he calls “The Lindy Effect”.  It’s named after a delicatessen in New York City where a lot of show-business types would gather to discuss their trade.  While there, they noticed a trend:  the longer a show ran, the longer it was likely to continue running.  A show that had been around for a week was likely to last only for another week, but one that had been going strong for five years most likely had another five years of lifespan.

Taleb generalizes from this to argue that in the realm of ideas, the longer an idea has been around, the longer it will continue to be around.  We can confidently expect that 2000 years from now (assuming the earth continues, of course), The Iliad will still be read and studied, but this year’s bestseller is unlikely to survive.  The best test of an idea’s value is how long it has endured already. Continue reading

Psalm 136 and Repetition

A couple days ago, I posted about the hymn “Days of Elijah” and my complicated perspective on it.  Even though I didn’t introduce the topic myself, at one point, the conversation drifted to the bridge of “Days of Elijah”, which repeats the phrase “There’s no God like Jehovah,” about 20 times.  Lots of people don’t care for the repetition, said so, and provoked the usual online discussion/argument about repetition in hymns.  Continue reading

Are These the Days of Elijah?

I will admit to considerable ambivalence about the hymn “Days of Elijah”.  The tune is stirring, and it undeniably has lots of Biblical content that gives me a great deal to think about.  Nor, despite discussion to the contrary, do I think the hymn is premillennial.  (Note that, as always, only hymns that say something get criticized, while hymns that say nothing get a pass even though they teach nothing.  It’s hard to see the problems with what isn’t there.)  In short, there are many credits on the ledger.

On the debit side, though, I have to list the unfortunate couplet about David rebuilding the temple.  Yes, I’ve read the author’s defense.  No, I don’t buy it.  Instead, I think that one of the problems with writing a song in the church kitchen in half an hour is that you’re prone to make mistakes.  However, once people worldwide have started singing your mistake, it’s tough to admit that.

More than that, though, the content simply makes me uneasy.  The hymn brings in all sorts of Biblical concepts that fit together in a coherent picture, but I don’t think the picture is one that the author intended.  The music of the song is bouncy and upbeat, but the days that we’re singing about so happily are not.  Not at all. Continue reading

Why Do the Nations Rage? (from Psalm 2)

Why do the nations rage
And peoples plot in vain?
For kings conspire against the Lord
To overthrow His reign.
Against both God and Christ,
They set themselves and say,
“Now let us burst Their bonds apart
“And cast Their cords away!”

But God in heaven laughs
And speaks in fury still,
“On Zion I have set My King,
“Upon My holy hill.”
I make His judgment known;
To Me He has decreed,
“Today I have begotten You;
“You are My Son indeed.”

So then, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O lords of earth;
Obey the Lord with holy fear,
And tremble in your mirth.
Do homage to the Son,
Or perish in the path;
How blest are all who trust in Him
But rightly fear His wrath!

Hymn Form and the Congregation

When it comes to congregational worship, I believe these three things are true:

  1. Content is the most important characteristic of a sacred song.
  2. Structure makes content accessible.
  3. Most members of a congregation are not trained singers, so unfamiliar music hinders them in their worship.

Taken together, these three things indicate that the most useful songs for the congregation contain good content in a highly structured form with music that is as easy to learn as possible.  I don’t think it’s any accident that this description matches many of the best traditional hymns. Continue reading