Tomlin’s Gospel

At ponder anew, Jonathan Aigner writes a critique of Chris Tomlin. The criticism is fair, respectful, and thoughtful. I also agree with everything he has to say (which happens pretty frequently). He includes a reader response which argues that Tomlin’s music is justified by the thousands who have heard the gospel through his music.

This made me wonder what sort of gospel one gets from the music of Chris Tomlin. So, I took his most recent album, “Love Ran Red,” and reduced the lyrics to a creedal statement. The purpose of this distillation is to look at what Tomlin believes and whether this would actually count as “the Gospel.”

Here’s my creedal reduction:

I believe in God. To God be glory.

    The heavens worship at His throne,

    He is good, His love endures forever,

    He is the King of Kings and a Mighty Warrior,

    He is our shield and defender and will deliver us,

    His love comes like a flood,

         He fills up my heart and everything I’ve done is covered in grace,

    He came to me when I needed Him.,

    He died on the cross, broke the curse, and set me free,

     There is peace and healing at His table.

I believe in God the Father and His love at Calvary.

I believe in Jesus.

     He loves me. His love is greater than my sin and the grave.

     He is full of grace, power, kindness, wisdom, perfect peace, and righteousness,

     He came for me and I couldn’t run away.

     At the cross I surrender myself to Jesus and my sin is washed white.

I believe that when I worship I stand before the majesty of the throne of God.

I will feast at the table of the Lord.

Is this the gospel? Perhaps it’s better if more learned theologians make that decision. It seems to me that this album, which is based on the Psalms, expresses the Gospel in the language of American evangelicalism, which is what one would expect from an American evangelical. It’s very personal and involves surrendering to Jesus at the cross.

If I were to criticize Tomlin’s lyrics, it would be for his poor use of the English language and for his terrible poetry. I’m not an expert in poetry (I didn’t even realize I liked poetry until I was 29 years old), but even I can tell that this isn’t quality writing. Here are some examples:

The love of Jesus… is greater than all other thrones. 

His power in us, he is strength for the weak.

It’s coming like a flood, I’m dancing in the rain. 

Your love never changes, amazing.

My only hope, my everything. 

He loves me, He loves me, He loves me, He loves me, He is for me.

You alone the sovereign crown of royalty

Through troubled waters he won’t abandon.

The Father’s love at Calvary. My sin erased, my debt He paid. [Yes, the song actually says that. The word He is supposed to refer to Jesus in this song, but Tomlin never actually names the second person of the Trinity.]

There is such a great need for people who are skilled in poetry and theology to write new hymnody (I’m including all worship songs here as hymnody) for the church. May God bless Tomlin’s efforts. All the best to him.

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Messiaen responds to his critics

“Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books…. They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the office… Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults, and rejoices in turn.”

My Poor Choir

They didn’t know what was in store for them this year. I decided at the end of the last school year that I was unsatisfied with my ability to get a good choral tone out of school and adult choirs and that working on this aspect of my skill set would be a primary focus for me. To better understand the voice I’ve been taking private voice lessons all school year. I took voice lessons in my undergraduate years, but never took them seriously. At the time, anything that took me away from organ practice was a distraction to be completed in as little time as possible. But now that I’m actually taking this seriously, I’m really enjoying singing.

But my poor choir.

Stand up straight! Breathe! Support! Open your mouth! Sing on the vowels! Listen to each other! I need to hear your consonants!

I have been a lot harder on them this year, this semester especially. I’m asking them to improve their singing skills, which is a difficult task. I’m at my wits end as to how to get a proper [u] vowel out of them. I really hope they don’t quit on me.

But what is the purpose of the church choir anyhow? The norm at this time and place is that the church choir is a group of amateur volunteers. This means, in the vast majority of cases, that the performance level will be nowhere near that of a professional, semi-professional, or collegiate group. Since a good collegiate choir is the lowest level that the public will seek out and pay to hear perform, I think I can assert that people aren’t interested in listening to musical performances by volunteer church choirs. There are some notable exceptions, but these are definitely exceptions rather than the rule.

If the church choir isn’t performing music at an excellent level, then why have one? These four views of the church choir all give the ensemble value apart from musical excellence. There may be more, but I have encountered all of these:

1. Church choir as sacred singing club. 

Singing in a church choir is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do. It lifts up the spirit, exercises the mind, fosters community, allows for depth and understanding in one’s devotional life, and puts the worship of the Triune God onto the lips and into the hearts of choristers.

2, Church choir as song-leader. 

The primary purpose of the choir is to lead the congregation in the songs of the congregation. In this view, the singing of anthems, psalms, and motets is downplayed because these things are less important than leading the hymns.

3. Church choir as adult music education. 

The church choir gives adults the opportunity to learn how to sing. The choir director here is primarily a music educator, raising the level of music literacy in his or her parish. The performance of the choir in worship is similar to a middle school music concert; it’s a chance for those in the choir to share something they’ve learned with those who care about them.

4. Church choir as social club. 

The church choir talks through rehearsals, does not focus on musical excellence, but really wants to spend time together. I once accompanied a choir like this. They were terrible, but they had a great time being terrible together.

Music is an inherently good thing and has value apart from performance.  The quality of the music we present in worship, however, relates to how we view aesthetics, truth, and our God. This is the church musician’s dilemma; the tension between praising God with the best that we can offer and the desire to draw as many as possible into the joy that is making music in Christian community.

I will continue to push my choir to improve, but let’s hope their director doesn’t forget the tremendous meaning and value in the process along the way.