Introduction to the Analysis

Traditionally attributed to David, Psalm 56 begins by petitioning for the mercy of God in light of enemies who are “hotly pursuing” him. For “all day long,” David agonizes, “they press their attack.” This first verse may seem like a song only about a specific place at a specific time calling on a God who is particular, but language used to petition God has to do with more than the original time and place the song was written. For the Psalmist who writes such words, there is keen awareness that God really does care about the situation the Psalmist finds himself in. God is not up in some bubble in the far reaches of another galaxy, but he is here in this situation with this man in this time. But even more, the first verse of the Psalm suggests that God takes sides. God is for the Psalmist and against the enemies of the Psalmist. This is also precisely the reason that we do not see such language uttered in modern worship circles.

Why don’t we sing about deliverance from mortal enemies anymore? First, we do not live in a warrior culture. Most Americans will never have to know the horror of war. They will never have to dig a trench. They will never have to hear the gunfire or see the bloody corpses. Second, we do not believe theologically that we can pray for the destruction of our enemies. We are in fact taught to love our enemies in the modern church (however vague such a term might be). We don’t believe God takes sides anymore. He is not a tribal God to be thought of in such limiting terms. But why is this?

It is largely because of worship music. The songs and the words that we sing day in and out in church are a form of indirect indoctrination. The types of songs we sings, the tempo in which we sing them, and the way in which we sing them will largely define the theology of our church. As much as we like to think we are Biblically centered church, most churches really sing their theology. I want to look at the songs featured on WOW 2008 and analyze the songs for their theological content.

At this particular point in the series, we are looking at our first song called Made to Worship, a song written by Chris Tomlin. Please read the song and mediate on it before reading the rest of the post.

This song suggests that before creation God “stepped into time” and “wrote the story of his love for everyone.” The idea that God “stepped into time” suggests the theological idea that God lived outside of time until he chose to come into a world governed by laws of time and create the known universe. What is the story that he writes? It is a “story of love.” Resultantly, our hearts should be “filled with wonder…as we always remember” that “you and I are made to worship.” The first verse is, however, quote confusing until one thinks about what Chris Tomlin is referring to. Because of the vagueness of the lyrics, we have to assume that if God came down “before the light” or “before the day,” Tomlin is referring to God stepping down to create the heavens and the earth. In other words, before the world was created, God wrote a story. Notice the past tense of the story. The story is already written.

From the perspective of the story already being written, humans then must then ask what the design of a human is within the story of God. Our hearts are to be filled with wonder at the remembrance of this already written story unfolding before our eyes as we worship God. The story that God-as the chorus goes-is one where we are called to love, one where we are “forgiven and free,” one where we are “embrace surrender” while choosing “to believe…who we were meant to be.” We cannot, in other words, change the divine story because we are but players in the larger already written salvation story. But as we love one another, forgive one another, find freedom, and embrace this story in utter surrender, we realize who it is that we were “meant to be.”

The question still remains, who is it that we are meant to be? What story has God written that demands such total abandon? In the second verse, Tomlin reiterates the first by reminding us “all we have…is a gift from God.” The story that God has written is, in some mystical sense, a gift-from an all powerful God who gives away his own image to his own creatures-that we must receive. The gift itself is when we have our eyes opened and see “the majesty and glory of the king.” It is this story, this experience of the king-this utter lostness in the grandeur of the king-that Tomlin says our hearts should again find only “wonder” as we stare in the divine story. This very vision of God is what Tomlin says is worth total worship, total abandon, and total commitment. This vision-this glimpse of the almighty-is what we are called to worship. It is in this story that we find meaning to our own story.

The bridge of the song is a picture of all humanity, all creation, and all the world bowing before the glory and majesty of this king we are speaking off. The bridge prophetically calls all people to the king of kings and the Lord of Lords. It is a picture of parousia-the return of the almighty God-calling all creatures to return to his holy name.

What then could such a song teach us about the theology of the modern church? One particularly noticeable item off the top is the lack of traditional theological language-created over the centuries of the church-within the songs. There is no mention of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son (or even Jesus), the Spirit, the Virgin birth, election, or any other distinctly Christian doctrine. This song could fit many different religious beliefs. References to “God on high” and “Glory of the king” are both references that could be changed to refer to Allah on high or the glory of Allah the king and still work. These could reference the almighty Braham-by whose force the world stays together-and how we can share communion with him as we meditate upon and see him as he is. In seeing love for one another, embracing our destiny surrender, and practicing forgiveness we could also be Jewish, Buddhist, or even Gnostic.

Chris Tomlin intentionally (or unintentionally if he is unaware) distances himself from the theological language of his particular religion. The “love story” in the first verse is a “song for everyone.” Tradition and the scripture, however, do not appropriate such vague speech. If there is freedom, it is found in Christ. If there is justification, it is found in Christ. If there is hope, it is found in the parousia, the Triune God, the hope of heaven, in the patriarchs, in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and within the kingdom of God. None of these, however, are mentioned in the song. If anything, we have learned that while many Christian worship songs are rich in imagery, they are poor in theological traditional value.

Second, we note the importance within Tomlin’s theology of experience. We can “know” all the things in the first verse-that God created-but if our hearts are not “filled with wonder” at the experience of seeing the “king of majesty,” we have not yet fully experienced the presence of God. It is in such seeing and vision that we truly experience God. There is no call to obedience. There is a vague call to “worship,” a vague call to “love,” and a vague call to live as one “forgiven and free,” but what do these things mean. These ideas of worship, love, forgiveness, freedom and surrender are only given meaning by the theological language behind them. As a result, it is up to the worshipper to fill in the theological gaps. But even this is something that we can learn about modern worship-they do not want to provide all the answers. In the midst of experience, Tomlin is allowing space for the worshipper to interpret the lyrics for himself or herself in the midst of their own circumstances.

Such practices have their pros and cons. For instance, worship can mean a number of different things to a number of different people. Michael Spencer has recently written a wonderful article on how “freedom in worship” can mean so many different things depending on the denomination one enters into. The major con of such an interpretive practice is that the leaders of a church can make the idea of being “made to worship” whatever they want it to mean. Tomlin’s vague theological language can be used by cunning pastors to mean something other than what Tomlin originally had meant for a song. Such practices though are almost inevitable, however, because many worship songs are attempts-as Tomlin is doing here-to bring a mystical idea down to earth. Such ideas cannot always be expressed concretely. In fact, such concreteness may sometimes take away from the power of a song.

There is also the positive of such a practice that songs can become malleable to many different worship settings. Tomlin’s song can focus on the surrender of the song, on the majesty of the song, on the centrality of worship in the song, on the centrality of love in the song or any other part of the song. The song can be changed and manipulated by what the pastor has emphasized that particular morning because the song is vague enough to cover a variety of topics.

Thus we have with Tomlin a theologically limited, but at the same experiential worship song.


One Response

  1. […] am trying something new on a new blog called Kingdom Conversations.  The idea behind the new blog is to get together a group of people who want to talk about deep […]

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