CCM (4) - The Lyrics
Written by Eric Moerdyk
|Reformed Practice - Music|
The following article is a part of Rev. Moerdyk's booklet in which he evaluates Christian Contemporary Music from a Biblical perspective.
As we continue to pursue our calling to put everything to the test, and to discern, we need to pay particular attention to the lyrics of CCM.
It was noted earlier while considering the history of the movement that the lyrics of CCM are generally theologically weak and vague. This has been a staple criticism of the movement over the years. I want to make my point here, however, not by quoting critics but by quoting industry insiders. Michael Card stated in a recent interview:
“The lyrics of a good number of songs don’t betray anything specifically Christian – there may have been some moral message, but not a lot of the big songs are identifiably Christian...there is an essential part of the gospel that is not ever going to sell. The gospel is good news, but it is also bad news: you are a sinner, and you are hopeless. How is a multimillion-dollar record company going to take that? That’s a part of the message too, and if that’s taken out – and it frequently is in Christian music – it ceases to be the gospel” (italics added).
The vague nature of much of the lyrical content is readily admitted by some of the musicians as a deliberate and positive aspect of their music. Robert Sweet of the group Stryper said “you won’t pick up this record (Against the Law) and hear anything that says ‘God’ or ‘Christ.’ That was intentionally done. We were tired of people coming back with excuses, saying, ‘Sorry we can’t play this.’ MTV’s got to play this and the radio’s got to play it or it doesn’t serve the purpose.”48 Why does the world need to approve of what a Christian produces in order for it to serve its purpose? The world hates the true gospel, and the name of Christ. Why do some artists think then that their music is not acceptable unless it meets the standards of the world? Is this not showing more concern for the approval of sinful men than for standing by the truth of God?
Amy Grant prefers to be “a bit sneaky” with her lyrics. “We don’t want to shove anything down anybody’s throat. When you start getting churchy, they start running.”49 This did not keep the Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles, or the prophets in the Bible from clear and direct presentations of the gospel. The crowds stopped following Christ because they did not want to hear what He had to say. The apostles ended up in jail. The prophets were persecuted and killed.
All this could have been avoided simply if they were a little less ‘churchy’ and learned how to present their message without standing for absolute truth with conviction and boldness. When you take out the offence of the gospel to keep people from being offended, what is left is no longer the gospel. Instead you are being ashamed of the gospel. The world is open about glorying in the things that ought to be their shame (Phil 3:19). But it seems like many CCM artists think they need to be ashamed about what ought to be their glory.
If you examine many of the top songs, their message is so vague that unless you knew ahead of time that they were part of the CCM movement, you would see nothing identifiably Christian about their lyrics. Many secular artists like Michael Jackson also sing vaguely about the power of love in the same way, and you can not distinguish his lyrics from those of some CCM artists.50Calvin Jones, a Presbyterian musician from Colorado, has some insightful words with regard to this phenomenon.
“Another common falsehood in Christian music is the ‘easy love’ deception. Love towards God and man is described in about every possible way except as obedience to God’s law- word. The emotions of love and sentimentalism abound in Christian music while the actions of love defined by God’s laws are conspicuously absent. Our Lord said, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). Love is keeping God’s commandments with respect to God and our neighbor. With love being the dominant subject of both pop and Christian music, why is it that I have never heard the true definition of love from either of them? I expect this from the world, but not from Christians.”A clear example of this problem is the popular song produced by Jaci Velasquez, called John 3:16. The Bible text is the chorus.
[Chorus] I try so hard to find the words to say to let you know how great is this God to whom I pray. Nothing can or ever will compare to the peace that flows in your soul when he is living there. [Chorus]. O I know you’ve been through so much it’s hard to contemplate letting to and reaching out in trust, but I know the simple truth, that love is here for you so take him at his word and see what he can do. [Chorus] The promise is yours and mine. Take hold of this step for the rest of your life. But it’s time to take a step of faith. Be prepared for Jesus’ love to carry you away. [Chorus].52
Notice how a text and chapter of the Bible that are God- centered have been turned by these lyrics into a message that is centered on my own experience. The text centers on God’s love. The lyrics by Velasquez center on the self-esteem of her audience. Christ has become someone who is filled with love, and who is just waiting to meet all my felt needs. All I need to do is take the step of faith and be carried away by love and peace.There are elements of truth in this song, but on the whole it is a tragic reduction of the gospel. Of course the whole counsel of God does not need to be expressed in one song, but this song illustrates the way in which the gospel has been reduced by the great majority of CCM artists to the thing that meets all my felt needs and sooths all my traumas and hurts. They have made the gospel out to be the cure for all my woes and sorrows, rather than the revelation of the glory, character, and redemption of God. It is not God centered, but man- centered. The greatest problem we have is no longer our own sin and guilt, but the misery and troubles in life.
Most presentations of the gospel by CCM artists in their songs or in their concerts are distorted by this problem. The lyrics are one- sided in that they stress the love of God for all men almost exclusively, without regard for the rest of the attributes of God. What you get then is a concert attended by all sorts of people, who are patted on the back and given a bandaid that fails to deal with the deeper issues of life. Everyone living in a world cursed by sin longs for a utopia of some sort. The singers tap this desire and evoke it with poignant imagery. Then they promise that all who have such longings will be saved by Jesus when He comes. When attached with a style of music which has tremendous power to stir the emotions, you end up with ‘feel-goodism.’ The gospel of repentance and faith is often completely missing. Such gospel peddling is deceit, not proclamation.
What a far cry from the bold and God-centered presentations of the gospel in the Scriptures (cf Acts 17:16-32). It is also a far cry from the songs of the triumphant church in Revelation (ex Rev 4:11, 5:9-14). In Scripture the first concern is the honor and character of God. There all His attributes are mentioned, and He is not reduced to a benevolent and sappy deity consisting mostly of love and kindness. When you reduce God in this way you end up destroying the gospel in the end. A half-truth easily becomes a whole lie.
Some artists do make use of biblical words, but you don’t learn anything about what these words mean. They are left vague and undefined, meaning that what is left is the form of sound words without their power. Contrast this with the lyrics of great songs such as ‘Amazing Grace’ which use these terms in a way that reveals something about what they mean. Contrast this with scripture that clearly brings the message of the gospel home to the heart.
Now of course as people with a valuable Reformed experiential heritage, we have historically recognized the need to know the power of the truths of the gospel in our own experience. A purely mental acquaintance with the truths of the Bible leads to dead orthodoxy, and can not save us. We need to experience the power of the truth in our own hearts. Yet we may not become so focussed on experiencing the truth that we lose sight of the truth itself and focus on experience by itself. When we focus on experience rather than on applying the objective truth of the gospel in a way that aims to impact us and produce experience indirectly, we will ultimately lose genuine Biblical experience.
Another problem that is evident in many CCM lyrics is that they are simplistic and irreverent. To be fair, we need to note that most CCM artists do not set out to be deliberately irreverent. However reverence is not purely in the eye of the beholder. Reverence needs to be defined first of all objectively in terms of what God requires in His Word. Just because people feel reverent does not mean they are being reverent. We need to define reverence by turning to the places in the Bible where men met God face to face (Isa 6, Eccl 5:1-4, Job 42:1-6, Rev 1:17). We need to define reverence by studying the way in which men in the Bible spoke about and to God.
Some people may object at this point that I do not really understand the genre of contemporary music. The lyrics are supposed to be cryptic, because that is the way this kind of music speaks. That may be, but is it a fit mode then in which to try to communicate truth? Perhaps there is something wrong with this type of music if it can not bear a theologically accurate and clear message.
The problem though is not just that a great many of the lyrics are vague, unclear, or simplistic. There is a great deal of theological error and even heresy that is taught in them. CCM abounds with Pentecostalism, Arminianism, Catholicism, and a host of other errors. The entire theological spectrum in the North American church scene is reflected, including liberalism and Unitarianism.
When examined in light of the Biblical and Reformed view of music, CCM lyrics are sadly lacking. Big deal someone says. We are not listening to this stuff to learn our doctrine, but simply to be entertained. We need to have something that we can listen to relax, or just to enjoy. But it is not so simple as that. You will be impacted by the music you listen to. You are what you listen to. What people sing is an indication of the direction in which they are headed. What comes out of your mouth is an indication of what lives in your heart, also with regard to song.
When we think that the music we listen to does not impact our thinking and living, we underestimate the power of music. There are two famous sayings that capture the power of music. “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” “More heresy has been sung into the church than taught into the church.” Why do people say things like this? Because of the tremendous way in which music affects memory and thought. I seriously doubt that anyone will be humming lines from this journal after reading it. But you will hum songs and words from the music you hear, even if you don’t like the song. What an illustration of the power of music!
Because music is didactic by nature, the songs you listen to are your teachers whether you realize it or not. The lyrics of the songs you hear will shape and inform how you think about God. You will use their words in prayer. You will remember them when you grow older and forget other things. You will remember their way of expressing things long after you forget sermons you hear, or catechism lessons you learn from the Bible. We would never allow most CCM artists to teach their views from our pulpits. Why then do we allow their teachings to reach us in our bedrooms and cars where we hear them more often than preaching, and when we remember their words better than we do the words of a sermon or good book?
Listening to shallow and even erroneous doctrine in music is a big deal because it impacts character. It has serious consequences for spiritual life. This is no insignificant or trivial matter. Throw out shallow songs, and fill your mind with music that fills your mind with the word of God.
Some have asked whether or not this music could be used to evangelize people from the world. The problem is that the gospel is missing from most CCM. It will not serve the purpose. The Lord is pleased to work through His Word. We could better give people something that brings the message of His Word. Why give a thirsty person muddy water when the pure water of the gospel is available?
I have painted a bleak picture of CCM lyrics in these pages. Are there no exceptions to this problem? There are. It would be neither fair nor accurate to ignore the good songs. I have found songs that are biblical and well-written. However they are by far the exception. To find them you have to wade through a great deal that is not acceptable. What I have written is not a description of some fringe problems in the movement. It is a theological corruption right at the heart of things.
On the basis of this section alone, 90% of CCM can be dismissed as unsuitable for Christian people.
Rev. Eric Moerdyk is pastor of Monarch Free Reformed Church in Alberta, Canada.