We seem to have a tendency in modern worship songs to want to write simple statements like “God, you’re so good,” or “Your love is so vast” or something – statements that try to capture how big and how wonderful this love of our God is as we’ve discovered it. Often though, if you’re anything like me, you find yourself falling short when you pen these words. You’re saying it, and yet somehow failing to communicate through words and music just how wonderful God really is. Will an unbeliever stand and sing “God, you’re so good,” and mean it – or even understand it? What can we write instead that will make them understand it?
It’s not that words are inadequate, as we might be tempted to say. I think part of the problem is that we’ve become less familiar with how to use words and language to develop meaning. One of the myths we’ve grown up with is that simply by saying “You’re so beautiful” we’ve somehow said exactly what needs to be said about God’s beauty. In reality an adjective is almost worthless in such circumstances as people’s concepts of beauty might be all over the place.
One of my favourite pieces of advice on writing in general comes from C.S. Lewis in a letter he wrote to a girl in Florida (Lewis was wonderful for replying to fan letters) in which he disclosed a number of excellent points about writing. He finished up the letter with these words:
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
This morning I read a powerful report from the New York Times on a photographer who returned to Southern Rwanda twenty years after almost a million people died and many more had their lives and homes decimated by the genocides. What he captured were images of surviving victims together with perpetrators, side by side, telling him their stories of reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s stories like this that ought to make our world go round.
And it made me think. We have a lot of songs about God’s forgiveness, but how many that tell stories like those in the NYT article? Are people being told more about forgiveness by the reports in world media now than they are in the songs sung by God’s people?
I don’t want to sound gloomy, I just want to issue a challenge. I may slope off after writing this and have a go at such a project myself. But I did also think of one semi-popular Christian song which achieves this. There’s a chorus by Delirious? which says “Our God reigns, our God reigns, forever your kingdom reigns.” You may know it. It has become popular to use in the middle of worship sets and has become of the order of things like the more Gospel-style “Our God is an awesome God”.
Yet the song it comes from is powerful because of the sharp relief it throws the verses into. Not many churches sing the verses of that song, I expect.
40 million babies lost to God’s great orphanage
It’s a modern day genocide, and a modern day disgrace
If this is a human right then why aren’t we free?
The only freedom we have is in a man nailed to a tree
100 million faces staring at the sky
Wondering if this HIV will ever pass us by
The devil stole the rain, and hope trickles down the plug
But still my Chinese take-away could pay for someone’s drugs
Our God reigns…
And so it goes on. In a way this song is a step beyond even what I’m suggesting; it’s a song that ought to awaken the church to the sharp reality of what it is to be a people that sing “Our God reigns” in such a broken world.
My point is this: Are we singing songs that say, “Forgiveness is so wonderful,” or can we have songs about how Dominique came to Cansilde to ask her pardon, and along with 50 other perpetrators of genocide, came and helped rebuild her house? How Cansilde went from feeling ‘like a dry stick’ to being at peace within herself and with her neighbours? Songs that help us say, after we’ve recovered our breath, “Forgiveness is so wonderful!”