Archive for the ‘Worship’ Category

Neglected Battle Fronts

May 17, 2013

And the most notable era of Scottish preaching was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they had great power. In fact, the strongest reformational preaching going on in Europe at that time was in Scotland, the great preaching of the Reformation in Scotland. For two centuries it lasted. And Blakey writing in 1888 points out that what made the difference in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the preaching in Scotland was that the preachers viewed themselves…I like this, I never heard the phrase before…as warrior preachers…warrior preachers. And he says by that they meant that they believed that they were guardians and that any place where an assault came against the truth, they went to battle. They went to battle. I always wondered where I got this. But I guess some of that warrior mentality got down through the MacArthurs to me because that’s just how I think. If I see some area where I believe the truth is under assault, I feel like I need to run to that area and go to battle. That’s just the way I’m wired. At the same time, Blakey writes about the fact that there were more moderate preachers who wanted more love and tenderness and compassion and kindness and tolerance to be preached. They finally took over in the eighteenth century and you know the history, down went the church. And today in Scotland you’d look a long time to find anybody who preached any gospel at all. They were warrior preachers and they were guardians of the truth. And wherever the truth was being breached, or wherever the truth was being assaulted, they went to that front and engaged in battle. And this is one of those fronts for me. I run from front to front, as you know.

 – John MacArthur, “Personal Commitment to the Church, Part 1”, sermon preached November 18, 2001

John MacArthur has been one of the important influences on my ministry, preaching and thinking. When I was still in college, I found out he was a hot potato amongst independent Baptists, and this made me even more curious about the man. For the most part, his ministry has edified and challenged me.

His approach of doing battle where the truth is under fire has also influenced me. I am thankful for the battles he has fought, particularly against easy-believism, seeker-friendly pragmatism, charismatic chaos, and attacks on the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, I am thankful for many men who have fought other battles: Mark Dever against aberrant ecclesiology, Wayne Grudem against egalitarianism, Kevin DeYoung against emergence, John Piper against New Perspective, and a host of others who have fought against some threat to the faith. Though I seldom mention them when blogging, this is not because I do not appreciate their efforts. I have benefited from them, and some of their books sit in our church library. Far be it from me to try to say better what these men have already said. I’m happy to let their books and sermons do the most eloquent talking on those areas.

Instead, I have spent my blogging time trying to do battle on that front which seems to get less attention from these heavyweights: the trivialisation of Christian worship, the warping of the Christian imagination, and the secularisation of pulpit and altar. I choose a supplemental approach: I attempt to say what is seldom said, or said so quietly as to escape notice. I know that for those who know only my blogging voice, it can seem as if I have only one string on my banjo, and care to speak of nothing except worship. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because blogging is not pastoring (though I do not cease to be one when I blog). For the wider Christian world, I would rather go to war on the front I think is most neglected: the Christian affections, and the development of right judgement about these things.

I am not naïve enough to think that worship is a neglected battleground altogether. However, what I see developing is a growing indifferentism to the battle. Some of this may be battle-weariness; some of it may be because some of the recognised names of evangelicalism, with widely divergent views on worship, have chosen to publicly partner in other causes. The message that some take from this otherwise healthy cooperation is that the worship wars do not matter, even though some of these men would not necessarily agree with that conclusion.

This urges me, as MacArthur puts it, to run to that front. And part of the lot of those who do battle on this front is to convince others that this is a real threat, and a real battle. Tough to do, when men of far greater brilliance and influence than this writer are seemingly not exercised over this. When the movers and shakers of evangelicalism don’t discuss the elephant in the room, it’s easy to dismiss people battling on the worship-front as extremists, legalists, hyper-separatists or schismatics. If the growing hegemony of the day is that the worship wars are nothing more than arguments over morally neutral preferences, you start to sound merely alarmist. If people are abandoning the battlefield in droves, you begin to appear pugnacious and belligerent.

I am heartened that I am not alone. On this particular front, apart from the writers on Religious Affections Ministries, men like Ken Myers, D.G. Hart, Paul Jones, Calvin Johansson, T. David Gordon, Ligon Duncan, Calvin Stapert, Peter Masters, and Carl Trueman  are saying some of the same things. No, we are not identical in our criticisms or applications. But we’re on the same side of the trenches, at least.

There are plenty of other battles to fight, and I praise God for the soldiers leading the charge there. I may not be a brilliant marksman, but until convinced otherwise, I’m going to add my limited firepower to the fight for ordinate affections and appropriate worship of our God .

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From Palestrina to Pino

October 19, 2012

I think you should watch these. Set aside a few hours, and enjoy.

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If you hunt, you might find most or parts of the eight episodes online. Or you might simply splurge and give the BBC some more filthy lucre, for the two series on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.

If for no other reason, watch them to hear The Sixteen sing some of the most beautiful vocal music written for the human voice, and to hear Harry Christopher’s explanations of what the composers were doing in those works.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to be jarred or upset, ask this question: from Gregorian, to Palestrina, to Byrd, to Bach, to Brahms, to Pärt and Rutter, how did we get to this?

From each of the composers profiled in the Sacred Music programs to one another, you can draw a nearly straight line. As you progress in time, they build on each other, and develop from one another. Our last example, however, is not just the latest in a natural progression, it is a break altogether. It does not represent an ‘updated style’; it represents an altogether foreign view of what is good, what is beautiful, what God deserves, and how His people respond to Him. Allegri, Tallis, Luther, Bruckner, and Gorecki are different to one another but equivalent in their sentiment. Our sock-waving friends have no correlation to historic Christian sentiment.

So how did we come to this? It is not as if the rolling on of the years brought this naturally, like your child’s height chart. Nor does one go from Allegri’s Miserere to “You Spin Me Right ‘Round Jesus” passively, like sun-bleached paint on the outside of the church. Humans made deliberate choices, and the results of the choices we made are right in front of us on YouTube.

If we are to change matters, we would do well to ask: What was rejected, and why? What was preferred and loved and promoted? What is still being rejected and preferred? Forget about the sock-waving worship-leader; ask, why is there a supposedly Christian audience for this stuff? What did the parents and pastors of those children do (or not do) so that the people in that clip had a strong liking for that music, and considered it worship?

Here’s the trick. Instead of beginning your answers with “They…” or “Some people…”, begin the answers with “We…”

The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works.

Tozer on Worship Music: An Evaluation

September 28, 2012

We’ve gathered much of what Tozer wrote on music and hymnody. Having done so, some reflections on his writings might be helpful. I notice three outstanding features of Tozer’s approach to worship.

First, it’s clear that Tozer made an attempt to understand poetry and music. Tozer did not have to become a literary or musical critic in his office as pastor. He simply had to become competent enough to judge inferior from superior; ugly from beautiful, simple from trite. (No doubt, he read critics in this pursuit.) His criticisms seen in the quotations we’ve looked at demonstrate that Tozer did not simply tow a party-line, or reject songs for political reasons. He judged works for their meaning: for their beauty, truth and fitness for Christian devotion. His compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, is a collection of superior Christian verse. Tozer was not copy-catting another man’s taste when he put this collection together. It emerged from careful judgement of individual pieces. Remember, Tozer educated himself while cutting pieces of rubber in a factory in Akron. What’s our excuse?

Second, Tozer developed a healthy catholicity when evaluating the expressions of piety from the historic church. Tozer’s own theological leanings were baptistic, Arminian, Holiness, Keswick, with some dispensationalism thrown in. Had he wanted hymns to reflect only this slice of Christianity, his hymnbook would have been slim indeed – or made up entirely of A.B. Simpson hymns. Tozer was, thankfully, bigger than that. He understood the principle of catholic sentiment: when Christians of different ages testify similarly of their devotion. These testimonies are different, but equivalent. They represent a kind of consensus of what Christians have always felt towards God in worship. Whether it came from the Roman Catholics Bernard of Clairvaux and Frederick Faber, the pietist Tersteegen, the Lutheran Gerhardt, Anglicans Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or Presbyterian Anne Cousin, Tozer could find the catholic affections in their verse amidst the errors of their churches. And he smelt a rat when people tried to use hymnbooks as political tools to advance their own doctrinal agenda.

Third, Tozer’s writings in these matters were after one thing: fitting worship. He had no interest in aesthetic refinement divorced from worship. If Tozer could spot beauty, it was because he was after the beauty of holiness. If he called for true sentiments in the lyrics of hymnody, it was because he wanted to worship in Spirit and in truth. He raged against the trivialisation of worship not because it violated his own aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, his aesthetic sensibilities had been so trained in the service of worshipping God, and God’s name is profaned when worship is trivialised. He knew the dangers of churches that become proud of their beautiful worship and are crossless and Christless. For Tozer, truth, goodness, and beauty are not the Trinity. They are indispensable for the worship of the Trinity.

Tozer understood the dire need of the hour: restored worship. Our churches have lost worship, because they have lost judgement. Discernment has evaporated, and with it, the ability to judge what is fitting for worshipping God and what is not. In response to this worship crisis, it is important to notice what Tozer did not try to do. He did not try to restore worship by calling for resolutions at the Christian & Missionary Alliance annual meeting. He did not try to restore worship by writing a book and then touting it as the solution. He did not try to build a coalition with enough clout to enforce his views on worship. He did not set up The Christian Book of Mystical Verse as the canon for private or corporate worship. These are political solutions, solutions that are tempting only when we do not understand how sensibilities are formed or how taste develops.

Tozer got down to the hard work of discriminating between good and bad. He opened dusty books that were not popular, relevant, or endorsed by celebrities. He searched, he read, he prayed, he sang, he wrote sermons, hymns and prayers, and then he wrote down his informed judgements for others to see. In his writings, he tried to revive the conversation that true culture is, a conversation of what is fitting and right and true – with particular respect to Christian piety and worship. These approaches, to me, represent much of what we must do in this new Dark Age.

Tozer on Worship Music -12

September 21, 2012

(From the Introduction to The Christian Book of Mystical Verse)

This is a book for the worshiper rather than for the student. It has been carefully and lovingly prepared for those God-enamored persons who, while they feel as deeply as the enraptured poet, yet lack the gift that would enable them to express their feelings adequately. Such will sense a kinship with the gifted souls they find on the pages of this book and will join them as they mount on high to pour out their hymns at heaven’s gate.

In making these selections I have largely followed my own bent, though I have been guided somewhat by a few simple rules. First, all sentimental verse was excluded, along with everything homey and maudlin. The only healthy emotions are those aroused by great ideas, and even these must be restrained and purified by the Spirit of God or they will spend themselves in weak and sterile rhymes. Of such there is enough in the religious world; I think none will be found in this book.

Second, while the compiler is not unfamiliar with the judgment of hymnologists and literary critics on the larger body of English religious verse, that judgment has been set aside and another adopted for this book. For this reason some of the standard classics have been omitted because I felt they would not contribute to my purpose. Conversely, certain poems of admittedly inferior literary rank have been included because I felt that they would.

Third, everything selected for inclusion in this work had to be judged theologically sound. While considerable latitude was allowed, even welcomed, in doctrinal outlook and emphasis, to be accepted every hymn and poem had to meet the test of faithfulness to the Christian Scriptures. Though almost everything here is pure lyric poetry and may easily be sung, yet this book is not intended for use in the public assembly. Had I meant it to be so used a wholly different kind of verse would have been chosen for it and the book would have been another sort of book altogether. Everything here is for use in private devotion. I have had in mind not a congregation but the lone individual. For this reason I would respectfully urge the one who may come into possession of this book not to “read” it as he would read another book. Let him try rather to enter into its mood, to capture and be captured by its spirit. How many pages he gets through in a day is of no importance; what one poem or even one single stanza does to him and for him and in him: that is everything.

Admittedly much pure gold has been left out of this treasury. The chief reason is lack of space. I have tried to keep the book small enough to be portable, that its possessor may carry it with him and so turn any bus or train or airplane into a sanctuary. Certainly not all the gold in the world is in this one volume, but what is here is, I believe, true gold of Ophir. I hope many of my fellow Christians will find it to be so.

—The Christian Book of Mystical Verse

Tozer and Worship Music – Hymnody – 11

September 14, 2012

Simple truth requires us to state that A. B. Simpson does not rate high as a writer of hymns. The effort on the part of some of his admirers to place him along with Watts and Wesley is simply absurd.

A hymn, to be great—to be a hymn at all—must meet certain simple requirements. 1. It must have literary excellence. 2. It must be compact enough to be sung easily. 3. It must express the religious feelings of the Universal Church. 4. The music must have dignity and reserve.

On none of these counts could Mr. Simpson’s compositions qualify. His poetry lacked literary finish. The central idea might be poetic, but his craftsmanship was not equal to the task of expressing it. His singing heart sometimes betrayed him into attempting to sing things that simply were not lyrical and could not be sung. The virtue of brevity also was lacking in most of his songs. He sometimes rambled on into eight and ten verses, and if by happy chance he got through before the eighth verse he was sure to append a chorus that would run down over the next page. The minister in him overcame the poet, so that when he attempts to write a song the sermonic division is apparent at once. With few exceptions his songs are simply sermons in verse, the whole thing being there before us in plain sight, the introduction, the various “points'” and the conclusion. But it is in the music that his songs suffer the most. A few of his compositions can be sung, but the most of them can be negotiated by none except trained singers. The transitions are too abrupt and the range too great for the ordinary congregation.

There can be no doubt about it, Mr. Simpson wrote too much poetry, or at least too much of it has been published. He could produce good strong, if ordinary, verse, and it is to be regretted that so much got into print which is not only very poor but is certainly far below what he was able to do at his best. In rushing into print with certain of his casual poems his friends have done him no small disfavor. Much is said there in bad verse which he could have said in beautiful prose at a great saving to his reputation as a writer.

“Scorn not the sonnet,” wrote Wordsworth, “with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “The less Shakespeare he,” replied the forthright Browning. The less Simpson for some of his poetry. Only a big man could live down such a failure. And he has done it triumphantly.

After saying all this I would yet confess that hardly a day goes by that I do not kneel and sing, in a shaky baritone comfortably off key, the songs of Simpson. They feed my heart and express my longings, and I can find no other’s songs that do this in as full a measure. Of his songs—there are 155 of them in the old Hymns of the Christian Life alone—only about three have attained to anything like wide popularity, and not above a dozen are heard even in the gatherings of The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Yet it is my sober judgment that Simpson has put into a few of his songs more of awful longing, of tender love, of radiant trust, of hope and worship and triumph than can be found in all the popular gospel songs of the last hundred years put together. Those songs are simply not to be compared with his. Simpson’s songs savor of the holy of holies, the outstretched wings of the cherubim and the Shekinah glory. The others speak of the outer court and the milling crowd.

Wingspread

Tozer and Worship Music – Hymnody – 10

September 7, 2012

In the poetical works of Frederick Faber I have found a hymn to the Holy Spirit which I would rank among the finest ever written, but so far as I know it has not been set to music, or if it has, it is not sung today in any church with which I am acquainted. Could the reason be that it embodies personal experience of the Holy Spirit so deep, so intimate, so fiery hot that it corresponds to nothing in the hearts of the worshippers in present-day evangelicalism? I quote three stanzas:

Fountain of Love! Thyself true God!
Who through eternal days
From Father and from Son hast flowed
In uncreated ways!

I dread Thee, Unbegotten Love!
True God! sole Fount of Grace!
And now before Thy blessed throne
My sinful self abase.

O Light! O Love! O very God
I dare no longer gaze
Upon Thy wondrous attributes
And their mysterious ways.

These lines have everything to make a great hymn, sound theology, smooth structure, lyric beauty, high compression of profound ideas and a full charge of lofty religious feeling. Yet they are in complete neglect. I believe that a mighty resurgence of the Spirit’s power among us will open again wells of hymnody long forgotten. For song can never bring the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit does invariably bring song.

The Best of A. W. Tozer

Many beauteous names thou bearest,
Brother, Shepherd, Friend and King,
but then none unto my spirit
such divine support can bring.
Ishi, Ishi, is the jewel,
Mine He is while ages roll.
Angels taste not of such glory,
Holy Ishi of the soul.
Other joys are short and fleeting
Thou and I can never part.
Thou art altogether lovely,
Ishi, Ishi of my heart.

They sang that once. Where could you sing that now? I think we could sing it here, but there aren’t many places where you can sing it because people don’t have the experience that it conveys and embodies. Whenever a good song is rejected, it’s rejected because the people don’t understand it and they find it dull. If you like rock ‘n roll, you won’t like “Ishi.” And if you like Tenderly He Watches Over Me,” you won’t like “Ishi.”

Success and the Christian

Tozer on Worship Music – Hymnody – 9

August 31, 2012

Compare the Christian reading matter and you’ll know that we’re in pretty much the same situation. The Germans, the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the English, the Americans and the Canadians all have a common Protestant heritage. And what did they read, these Protestant forebears of yours and mine? Well, they read Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. They read Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying. They read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War. They read Milton’s Paradise Lost. They read the sermons of John Flavel.

And I blush today to think about the religious fodder that is now being handed out to children. There was a day when they sat around as the fire crackled in the hearth and listened to a serious but kindly old grandfather read Pilgrim’s Progress, and the young Canadian and the young American grew up knowing all about Mr. Facing-Both-Ways and all the rest of that gang. And now we read cheap junk that ought to be shoveled out and gotten rid of.

Then I think about the songs that are sung now in so many places. Ah, the roster of the sweet singers! There’s Watts, who wrote “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Zinzendorf, who wrote so many great hymns. And then there was Wesley, who’s written so many. There was Newton and there was Cooper, who wrote “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and Montgomery and the two Bernards—Bernard of Cluny and Bernard of Clairvaux. There was Paul Gerhardt and Tersteegen, there was Luther and Kelly, Addison and Toplady, Senic and Doddridge, Tate and Brady and the Scottish Psalter. And there was a company of others that weren’t as big as these great stars, but taken together they made a Milky Way that circled the Protestant sky.

I have an old Methodist hymnal that rolled off the press 111 years ago and I found forty-nine hymns on the attributes of God in it. I have heard it said that we shouldn’t sing hymns with so much theology because peoples minds are different now. We think differently now. Did you know that those Methodist hymns were sung mostly by uneducated people? They were farmers and sheep herders and cattle ranchers, coal miners and blacksmiths, carpenters and cotton pickers—plain people all over this continent. They sang those songs. There are over 1,100 hymns in that hymnbook of mine and there isn’t a cheap one in the whole bunch.

And nowadays, I won’t even talk about some of the terrible junk that we sing. They have a little one that is sung to the tune of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” which goes like this:

 

One, two, three, the devil’s after me,

Four, five, six, he’s always throwing bricks,

Seven, eight, nine, he misses me every time,

Hallelujah, Amen.

 

And the dear saints of God sing that now! Our fathers sang “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and we sing junk.

This tragic and frightening decline in the spiritual state of the churches has come about as a result of our forgetting what kind of God God is.

— The Attributes of God

Tozer on Worship Music – Hymnody – 8

August 24, 2012

Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us” (Revelation 5:9)—that’s the theme of the new song. The theme of the new song isn’t “I am”; it’s “Thou art.” Notice the difference! When you look at the old hymnody of Wesley, Montgomery and Watts, it was “Thou art, O God, Thou art.” But when you look at the modern hymns, it is “I am, I am, I am.” It makes me sick to my stomach. Occasionally a good hymn with testimonies is all right, but we’ve overdone it. The song of the ransomed is going to be “Thou art worthy, O God.”

The Attributes of God

I’m always suspicious when we talk too much about ourselves. Somebody pointed out that hymnody took a downward trend when we left the great objective hymns that talked about God and began to sing the gospel songs that talk about us. There was a day when men sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “O Worship the King,” and they talked objectively about the greatness of God. Then we backslide into that gutter where we still are where everything is about “I.” “I’m so happy,” “I’m so blest,” “I’m so nice,” “I’m so good,” always “I.” The difference between heaven and hell is the difference between God and I. Jesus Christ, by canceling His “I” was the Christ of God, not as I will, but as Thou wilt. The devil by magnifying his “I” became the devil—when he said, “I will arise, I will raise my throne above the throne of God.” (Sermon, “Ezekiel”)

Tozer on Worship and Entertainment

After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.

The Best of A. W. Tozer

The older I get the more I love hymns, and the less I love secular music. Secular music, however beautiful and artistic it may be and however it may express the genius of the composer, has one jewel missing from its crown. But a hymn, though it may not reflect the same degree of genius and a good musician might find fault with it, is still beautiful because it has God there. The song that honors God is bound to be beautiful.

The Attributes of God

Throughout the Western world we tend to follow the poet and approach Christmas emotionally instead of factually. It is the romance of Christmas that gives it its extraordinary appeal to that relatively small number of persons of the earth’s population who regularly celebrate it.

So completely are we carried away by the excitement of this midwinter festival that we are apt to forget that its romantic appeal is the least significant thing about it. The theology of Christmas too easily gets lost under the gay wrappings, yet apart from its theological meaning it really has none at all. A half dozen doctrinally sound carols serve to keep alive the great deep truth of the Incarnation, but aside from these, popular Christmas music is void of any real lasting truth. The English mouse that was not even stirring, the German Tannenbaum so fair and lovely and the American red-nosed reindeer that has nothing to recommend it have pretty well taken over in Christmas poetry and song. These along with merry old St. Nicholas have about displaced Christian theology.

The Warfare of the Spirit

Why Listen to Tozer?

June 29, 2012

A.W. Tozer is found in places where he probably wouldn’t have been invited to preach. His books will be found on the shelves of the charismatic church and the conservative, the Reformed and the Wesleyan, the fundamentalist and the seeker-sensitive. Tozer’s writings were of such penetrating clarity that they resonate with people of very different theological leanings. Perhaps this partly explains his nickname – ‘the twentieth century prophet’. He did not claim any personal gift of special revelation, but his insight was prophet-like: incisive, penetrating and filled with unusual clarity. His bold warnings to the church have nearly all proved well-founded, though not many of them have been heeded.

When a writer is found to have appeal across such broad lines, there are only two ways to explain that. The first is that his writings are so generalised, so ambiguous, and so populist in appeal that almost anyone can pick it up and find some soothing platitudes. Such writing is of such a vague nature that as Tozer himself put it – if it were medicine it wouldn’t heal, and if it were poison it wouldn’t kill. This can hardly be pinned onto Tozer’s writings.

The second possible explanation is that the writer writes with such illumination that his writings are almost always ‘close to the centre’; that all those within the realm of orthodoxy identify with his keen sense of understanding truth. His writings send forth ‘a distinct sound’, a ringing call to orthodoxy. His writings build on the faith of the historical, universal church with the moss of worldly pragmatism or false tradition scraped off.

It is this second explanation that is surely the reason for Tozer’s broader appeal, and one reason to hear his voice on the issues of worship and music. Clarity, incisive vision, and a catholic spirit are very often missing in this debate, and Tozer’s voice deserves to be heard. Tozer’s voice still carries authority to people on both sides of the debate.

Tozer was seldom, if ever, guilty of towing a party line or grinding a denominational axe. He was not afraid of the opinions of men, perhaps to a fault. When reading Tozer, one never feels he is placating the scribes from a particular ‘camp. Tozer’s spiritual independence comes out strongly in his writings; he had little time for the provincialism of many in Christendom, or the desire for Christians to curry favour with one another. Today, it is becoming rarer to find a writer who is not looking over his shoulder as to how his circle of friends or ministerial colleagues will review or regard his work. As such, we can approach Tozer’s writings and not fear a hidden allegiance to one side or the other.

Another reason for considering Tozer’s views is that he was largely self-taught. Tozer valued tertiary education and seminary training highly, but did not have those opportunities himself. As such, he diligently set about educating himself in everything from English grammar to poetry, from philosophy to theology. And Tozer showed no partiality when it came to these theologians. His writings freely quote from Augustine to Wesley, from Spurgeon to A.B. Simpson, from Fenelon to Martin Luther, from early revivalists to John Calvin. Tozer grazed where many seminarians are warned off by their professors; indeed, many would not be able to read from them and profit as he did. While many will regard his lack of formal education as a reason to disregard his views, I see great value in hearing from a man who, as it were, gave all the writers of the ages a fair hearing. He was not prejudiced against any. While he certainly had his own views, he did not judge a writer to be a heretic before he had read him. To me, this places Tozer in a unique position regarding this debate. Certainly it would be naïve to imagine that he was not shaped in some measure by his own denomination. But in Tozer we find a man who studied his Bible, and indeed, most books he read, on his knees. This does not give all his works doctrinal or intellectual infallibility. The point is, Tozer’s experience was to be thrust into the ministry before he could be made into a unbending disciple of one particular theological system.

And to this we must add, if his lack of theological training unnerves some, they must simply consider his orthodoxy on almost every other theological issue he wrote on. His views on the inerrancy of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the need for regeneration, the resurrection of the body and the Second Coming are impeccably sound. If he came to these by reading and studying humbly and diligently, there is sure to be some value in his writings on worship.

Certainly, Tozer had his weaknesses. He was no aesthetician. Nor was he a scholar of the first rank. He was a pastor. He was a generalist who strove to be a competent thinker. And as a pastor, he seems to me to be a model of what shepherds of this age should strive for, at least in the area of learning and personal piety. Given that he had come through some of the more vigorous expressions of revivalism, that he wrote and thought as he did is quite remarkable.

Several years ago I invested in some software that contains everything that Tozer had written. It’s been as invaluable to me as my complete volumes of Spurgeon. I’ve spent some time searching his works for his views on music in worship. What I hope to do in the next months is present a near-complete collection of Tozer’s views on worship music. There are some that I don’t completely agree with, but I don’t intend to cherry-pick only the quotes that seem to support my position. To my knowledge, these will be the collected written words of Tozer on worship music.

Hold the Superlatives, Please

June 1, 2012

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me”.

– C.S. Lewis

Lewis helps us to recognize a lot of modern Christian songwriting for what it is: laziness. No doubt, many of these songs are vast improvements on the Bliss and Crosby cliché-mill. Certainly, it’s a breath of fresh air to be singing about the faith without a constant nautical theme: waves, anchors, lighthouses and ships ahoy. And any serious Christian will be thankful for an injection of sound theological ideas into the gelatinous world of evangelical conviction.

With all that said, I find Lewis’ sentiment played out before me in not a few modern songs. These songs seem to try to gather as many superlative adjectives as possible that will fit the metre of the song. These are then piled on top of one another, and the result is a rapid-fire of high-concentrate adjectives. The resulting lyrics are something like: “Indescribable majesty, incomparable glory, unbounded mercy, immeasurable beauty…You’re the highest, greatest, most wonderful, most awesome…” – you get the idea.

Yet for all this, the effect is palpably flat. Instead of soaring into the heights of praising God as the ultimate Being, one sings these super-hero adjectives with a sense of dull oughtness: yes, I should feel God’s surpassing value, but I don’t. Perhaps if I keep singing these superlatives with sincerity, I will.

Some worshippers succeed, others don’t. Some do better at creating placebo emotions to connect to an incomplete thought, until like Pavlov’s dog, the melody of the song manages to bring those feelings back every time. Others content themselves with the thought that ascribing superlative adjectives to God is surely the right way to go, even if little moral excitement is raised in response to them.

Lewis helps us to see the difference between mere ascription and description. Ascription is fine in its place – and yes, the psalmists certainly use ascriptions of praise. They rarely, if ever, do this apart from some metaphorical description of God. Ascription by itself does little to fire the imagination of the reader, or in our case, the worshipper. The job of a writer of works of imagination (as poetry is) is to do more than report matters, but to transport the reader through the imagination. Likewise, a songwriter wants to do more than simply inform disinterested listeners as to the objective worth of God. A songwriter wishes to draw Christians to encounter the beauty of God through poetic descriptions. As a work of imagination, poetry has its power through descriptive analogies. We feel God’s satisfying glory not when we sing, “You are incomparably satisfying”, but when we sing, “We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still.” We feel God’s power not when we sing, “You are unimaginably powerful”, but when we sing, “Thy chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form.” We feel God’s love not when we sing, “Your love is unbelievable”, but when we sing, “The King of Love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His, And He is mine forever.” Description evokes affection; ascription, by itself, simply invites agreement or disagreement.

Merely stringing adjectives together that rhyme or fit the melody is ultimately a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper. The result is a frustrating emptiness as we sing. The writer has cheated us, and abandoned us before his work is done. He has found a pleasing melody and invited us to feel something toward God. Just as we begin to use our minds to consider God, he leaves us with a true ascription of praise about God with nothing to help our affections to rise to the occasion. He expects us to do imaginative pole-vaulting with the twigs of his superlative synonyms. We are to do his work for him, and he skips town unmolested because he dumped a bunch of fancy-sounding adjectives upon us to the melody of a pretty ballad.

God’s people need better. Songwriters can do better. It is not as if we don’t have an inspired songbook to show us how it’s done.

***

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.
Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee.
Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips:
When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.
Psalm 63:1-5