Living in the US I have frequently had a strange experience while flicking through the car radio. There have been times when I find some cheesy pop ballad or inane soft rock track to listen to as I drive. But then, as I hum along to the music, I discover that it is actually some contemporary Christian worship song.
Part of the reason why I get caught off guard lies in the way that so much Christian music emulates the structure of popular music. In order to begin to reflect upon what this means (and these are only provisional reflections) we could offer the following working definition of worship music: any music that presents someone or thing as the fulfilment of a gap at the core of our being.
For example a worship song might hold up a woman, fame, sex, money, revenge, Jesus etc. as that which is the answer to our sense of being incomplete. This should not be confused with a piece of music that simply celebrates and upholds someone or thing as good, beautiful and worthy. Rather it describes a song that holds someone or thing as the absolute answer.
It is not then the person or thing which makes a piece of music a worship song but rather the position that person or thing holds in the song itself (as that which fills, or would fill, a perceived void).
The most immediate problem with singing such songs in church lies in the way that it reduces the source of faith to just one more product promising us fulfilment and happiness in our soul. The church is then reduced to just one more company with it’s advertising sales pitch, it’s promises of happiness and it’s impotent snake oil supplement to supposedly enhance our lives.
In contrast to such music there are songs that don’t posit fulfilment but which rather ask us to stop pursuing such a false path and embrace life in all of it’s messiness. Songs which celebrate the good times and face up to the bad times. Songs that bring us face to face with ourselves.
In their humanity such songs do not promise a way to be fulfilled but rather invite us to face up to and embrace our lack of fulfilment. To find meaning in the smallest of things such as a stolen kiss, an unexpected conversation, a short email or shared meal. They tell us that the devil does not reside in the tiny details of our lives but rather the divine. And they remind us that beauty is to be found in the most fragile and flimsy of things.
I am not sure if these songs could properly be described as worship or not for they do not directly hold up and celebrate some god (that person or thing which we believe will make us complete). Yet by encouraging us to lay down the desire for that which we believe will fulfil us, and instead embrace the world, the trick is that we (indirectly) find a deep form of happiness and fulfilment.
In such songs (which transcend specific genres, even if they are found in some more than others) radical faith communities will find their liturgical heart. For these songs do not posit some god-object to fulfil our desires but rather encourage us to find meaning and beauty in the world we inhabit. They sensitise us to one another, encouraging us to embrace each others brokenness and stand together in our joys and sufferings.
It is here, in the difficult celebration of life, that God is manifest: not as that which we sing to but rather as the source which makes us able to sing.
Such songs remind us that the Holy of Holies is not a place we ought to love but rather a place that is manifest in the act of love itself.
To conclude these provisional thoughts, what if church is the place we go precisely to escape worship music, instead singing songs that invite us to turn our backs on some ultimate solution and affirm the life we find ourselves in? A place where the art encourages us to find meaning, beauty and goodness in our world rather than in something beyond it?
This affirmation of life should not in any way be seen as a call to remain in the relationships, jobs or situations we currently find ourselves in. This is not a call for conserving the status quo. For truly affirming our lives often means making important steps in changing them. It is by courageously entering into grace (the act of accepting our life as it is) that we are able to change our lives.