Recovering Biblical Music for Today

I have written many times on the state of contemporary Christian music. Overall I am generally not impressed with Christian music both in Ghana and internationally. While there is and will always be good Christian music unfortunately a large proportion of contemporary music is just not good enough. This assessment goes beyond my own subjective musical tastes and looks at the substance of the music, particularly the lyrical content.

Ever since I got into biblical theology I began to notice that what is popularly considered Christian music is only superficially Christian. The more I understood Scripture the more I realised most of our songs simply lacked theological depth. I had an ever growing awareness that contemporary Christian music just did not resemble what I found in the Bible. This came into stark relief recently when I was reading an interview of Bible scholar Matthew Gordley on his new book New Testament Christological Hymns.

…I argue that the New Testament hymns show a pervasive interest in presenting Jesus as inaugurating a “new era”—the era of God’s fulfilling of the promises of the Jewish scriptures.

I knew that in popular theology the biblical dogma that Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s scriptures is virtually absent. Where it is present it is merely a type of proof texting in support of claims about Jesus instead of being a load bearing belief. Gordley’s astute observation showed me the view that Jesus had begun the new era in which the Scriptures are fulfilled is distinctively lacking in modern Christian music. It really struck me that there are very few modern songs about Jesus starting this new era. It is not a theme that is explored at all in our music but it is something the New Testament, including the songs in it as Gordley points out, are preoccupied with.

All this put into stark contrast for me the substantive differences between modern Christian music and biblical music. It is quite baffling because the Bible matters fundamentally to all believers yet surprisingly we are not too bothered to check if our music actually matches up to the Bible. Now I do not think the music that Christians make has to be explicitly religious all the time however, the core of Christian music is explicitly religious. This brings us to the fundamental question of what the lyrical content of Christian music should be. Again I define Christian music very broadly but reflecting on these things I came to the simple yet remarkable proposition: distinctively Christian music, that is religious songs made for church, must mimic biblical music.

Within a Christian context insisting on a biblical standard for Christian music is not a particularly special insight. What was “remarkable” about it was that I had never heard this simple criterion being straightforwardly said, much less diligently applied. On the other hand this lack of attention to being biblical is not that surprising considering most Christians have very low levels of biblical literacy. We think a song passes for being Christian as long as it has churchy, religious words in it without regard for whether the words are being used in a valid, theological coherent and distinctively Christian manner. In fact, on careful analysis most of our music espouses folk theology instead of solid biblical theology.

When you examine the songs of any group, you learn what matters to them the most since people do not tend to commit to song things that are mundane or of very little to concern to them. The group expresses its values, ideals and beliefs through the type of songs it makes. Since songs are easy to remember and they often express what the group values, they are great tools for teaching and reinforcing group beliefs. As such modern Christian music serves as a good diagnostic indicator of the state of mainstream theology which is a direct result of what the Church has been teaching. If we are going to make properly Christian music we have to be immersed in the outlook of the Scriptures. That is because it is a foundational belief that Jesus is the Christ which means he is the fulfilment of the grand story of Israel’s Scriptures. The fact that our contemporary music in general does not articulate these things is a huge failure in discipleship. The Church has not done it’s job properly of teaching even its most foundational doctrines.

One of the ways the New Testament Church taught what it believed was through song. For example Paul says,

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.Colossians 3:16 ESV

A great example of a profound hymn that has great didactic value is Philippians 2:6-11. Many scholars consider it to be an early Christian hymn which possibly precedes the writing of the New Testament. It therefore expresses early, widespread and therefore foundational Christian beliefs. It is such a remarkable piece of poetry so no wonder it is one of the most studied passages in all of New Testament scholarship.

Paul introduces the hymn saying “Let this mindset which was in Christ be in you” (Philippians 2:5.) Instead of using prose, and we all know he was very capable of long sophisticated discourse, he went for this hymn to teach the Philippians. Gordley points out that these hymns are poetry so they were written to stir the heart and the imagination. Condensed within this little poem was all he needed to say in a manner he knew his audience would understand and emotionally connect with. The Philippian hymn perfectly tells the story of Christ as the ultimate example so it was of value for training disciples. In comparison, there are not many Christians like it today that encourage us in a biblically literate, theologically significant, poetically articulate and emotionally compelling manner to be good disciples of Jesus.

The Philippian hymn follows a clear narrative arc which climaxes with Jesus being universally acknowledged as Lord to the glory of God the Father. This is actually a reference to Isaiah 45:13 where it was rather YHWH to whom every knee would bow and every tongue confess. With that modified quote it is saying that through Jesus that the new age of God’s universal rule is being implemented. Again Gordley’s observation of the prevailing theme of the new era of Scriptures’ promises being fulfilled is present in this hymn as well.

Even though it should go without saying, the Philippian hymn is a thoroughly christological hymn, that is, it is all about Jesus and his accomplishments. It is also thoroughly theological as well because it is about God’s relationship with Jesus. Jesus, his relationship with God, and his accomplishments, which are all according to the Scriptures, are the bedrock of Christian faith. These are distinctive features of New Testament hymns, which are especially striking when you compare them to modern songs. There are relatively not many modern songs that are exclusively Christocentric in their lyrics. Perhaps, that is the main reason why our songs lack true spiritual depth since they are mostly about our personal interests, whether emotional or our ambitions for success and prosperity. These things do matter but they are not what Christian faith is fundamentally about. Gordley summarizes well in the same interview what we should learn from these New Testament Christological hymns:

[T]he question for worshippers today is: to what extent does our worship reflect this recognition that Jesus has inaugurated a new age? And a second question is: in my own life, to what extent am I living my life, going about my daily activities, with an awareness that I am living in the new era which Jesus initiated? Rather than being prescriptive about what we should do, these passages invite us to see the world, to see ourselves, and to see Jesus in a particular way, and to live our lives in light of those realities.

Modern Christian music should mimic the qualities of these New Testament hymns. They should invite us to have the same biblically informed, communal, Jesus-centred perspective. Even though there are not that many, there are wonderful modern Christian songs that do embody this outlook and we need to bring them to the forefront in our worship. We should also adapt to fit contemporary styles the songs we already have in the Bible since there is nothing more guaranteed to be of the highest spiritual quality. There are a diverse number of songs in the Bible and it encourages us to create more diverse music.

With all that being said about contemporary Christian music, the songs found in Scripture should be the staple of our worship. Both in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, which I earlier quoted, believers are exhorted to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual song” which definitely includes the Psalms. I think we should also sing the New Testament’s hymnic material because they are some of the earliest expressions of the foundations of our faith. We should not only sing them but carefully study and meditate on them so we can be lyrically inspired and influenced by them to produce more theologically rich and edifying music.

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