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Praise, Protest, and Preaching

March 9, 2007

As you can tell if you’ve been following this blog, I am a huge music fan. I’m totally into rock, blues, folk, soul, and even some country music. I’m particularly fond of a lot of music from the 60s, especially the Beatles and Dylan. It’s almost a cliché to say that you love Dylan and the Beatles, but there really is something about their music that resonates with me deeply and I can’t help but keep going back to it.

Now, as a Christian and a pastor I have always had this weird, guilty feeling that I should like Contemporary Christian music. The folks who write and perform that music are rockers (like me), they are Christians (like me), and they have a deep commitment to the church and to evangelism (like me). Problem is, I don’t like a lot of it. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why I don’t like it.

Well, leave it to the Sage, the Prophet, the real Songwriter to help me put into words what I feel. I’ve been reading Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob’s first installment of his autobiography. On page 54 he writes a bit about protest songs. Dylan has always asserted that he didn’t really write protest songs, they were just songs that expressed how he felt even though many folks interpreted them as protests. I agree with that assessment. Here’s what Dylan writes:

Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come across as preachy and one-dimensional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they didn’t know is there.

There it is. That makes perfect sense to me. As usual, Bobby is onto something.

Substitute the word “Christian” for “protest” and that’s pretty much how I feel about most Christian music these days. An awful lot of Contemporary Christian music, including Praise and Worship music, comes across as one-dimensional and sometimes preachy. Many times the songs come across as expressing a sort of hollow piety, with no real critical insight or genuine self-expression, at least in my opinion.

Of course, the irony is that during the “born again Bob” period, some of his own gospel music lacked the biting insight and the poetic flow that makes so much of his music timeless and appealing. “Gotta Serve Somebody” has that insight; it reflects the universal condition that our actions are in the service of good or evil whether we’re aware of it or not. “Every Grain of Sand” walks the fine line between faith and doubt, and expresses the Christian’s reluctance to gaze inward at our own nature; it reflects the fear that we might judge ourselves as harshly or even more harshly than God does. “Saved,” on the other hand, with its repetition of the phrase “saved by the blood of the lamb,” sticks pretty close to pious church language without expressing any sort of critical introspection or deeper analysis of the human-divine relationship.
So often when I’m listening to CCM or Praise and Worship music, I feel like repeating the words of Elvis when he interrupts Milkcow Blues Boogie: “Hold it fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.”

Don’t just repeat the Psalmist or Paul. (Have you ever noticed how utterly dependent Christian songwriters are on Paul and the Psalms? They don’t do much with Jesus except repeat his name, praise his name, or lift up his name.) Dig deep into your soul. Give me something to really think about, something to pray about, something that makes me look inward and outward and upward. Give me something that makes me think, something that makes me feel. Show me something about myself that I didn’t already know, or something that I’m in denial about, reveal something about the human condition and God’s hopes and dreams for it.

Having ranted against others, now let me turn my pointed finger back at myself. Do I challenge myself to fully express my relationship with God in my preaching? Do my sermons carry the quality I look for in a great song? Do I stand before the congregation every Sunday and show the folks who are truly listening something about themselves that they didn’t know? Am I willing to bare my soul in front of the Church? Or am I content to just tell the story, leaving the work of introspection to the congregants?

Recently I read the book The Jazz of Preaching by Kirk Byron Jones. I highly recommend it for anyone who preaches and appreciates music as deeply as I do. You don’t have to be a jazz fan (I’m not) in order to get something from it. This book has caused me to think deeply about the parallels between the art of musical expression and the art of preaching. It caused me to throw away the manuscript, to let the music breathe when I’m preaching, to improvise within a narrative structure, to let the song (sermon) be in a relationship with the listener (congregation) in the moment – in real time.

Another great songwriter, John Prine once said something to the effect that great songwriting begins with a blank page and leaving out what doesn’t belong on it. My challenge is to compose a sermon like Dylan or Lennon, expressing what we don’t know about ourselves or are afraid to say out loud, and to preach it like B.B. King plays a guitar solo, hitting the right notes at the right time and leaving out superfluous notes and passages. To know what to say and what not to say, to know what to play and what not to play. I pray that my preaching is devoid of uncritical piety, of utter dependence on words that someone else said first and better, of unreflective fluff. Let my preaching be soulful, jazzy, bluesy, expressive and relational.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2007 12:58 pm

    Will –

    Being a Christian pastor who once worshipped at the altar of John Prine, I covet his ability to speak truth as Jesus spoke parables. I have found, though, such Christian artists as Andrew Petersen to, in a small way, follow in his footsteps.

    I’d love to correspond more. Visit my blogs http://pistolpete.wordpress.com & http://god4today.blogspot.com

    Peace, TR

  2. Will Deuel permalink
    March 15, 2007 1:10 pm

    Andrew Petersen – I’ll have to check him out.

  3. Roadtripray permalink
    April 11, 2007 4:29 pm

    I don’t find CCM as much “preachy” as I find it so saccharin-sweet. I enjoy much of it, but there are many songs that are just so repititious and predictable as to lack inspiration.

    Speaking of pointing your finger back at yourself, how about “Why Me, Lord?” by Kris Kristofferson. That one speaks to me personally of God’s grace and our repentence upon receiving it. I know, it’s not CCM, but it’s a good one, nonetheless.

    — Ray

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