At the church we visited on Easter Sunday, led by friends of ours, we sang "I Saw The Light" by Hank Williams Sr. As I sang a song I grew up hearing, more on my dad's 8 Track player than at church, I wondered why this simple little song, bearing nothing in common with the great hymns, with a melody that could be considered hokey by today's standards resonates so strongly with me (and others I would presume).
I wonder if it is the same thing that brings such power to Come Thou Font, Amazing Grace and It is Well With My Soul along with gospel songs written and sung by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and even Ryan Adams or Kanye West. In each of these songs there is an underlying darkness, whether it is because of the past actions of the person (Amazing Grace), the doubt of the writer (Come Thou Font), the tragedy of life (It is Well With My Soul) or the inability to reconcile the belief system one has to the world in which one finds himself (Hank Sr, early Johnny Cash or Kanye West).
It is not surprising that most of the good examples come from country/ folk and soul (and hip hop). However, I think this is why some of U2's songs have been canonized, as well as works by Rich Mullins, both of whom struggle(d) with much of what I described earlier. It is also why a song such as The Lust, the Flesh, The Eyes and the Pride of Life by the 77s works so well. Dark honesty of the human condition and longing for something you know you have not achieved works well for many of us. But, I will acknowledge, personality-wise it is the same reason some of us are drawn to the Emerging Church or liturgical music versus the happy, happy, joy, joy Charismatic music. Of course, I would wonder if the best songs written straight to God, with no apparent darkness, still have it underlying (see the hymns above, as well as I Saw the Light).
As I think of this, I wonder if this is one of the reasons contemporary church music (praise and worship, etc.) usually lacks anything beyond an emotional high and lyrics that could have been written by a computer program that randomizes Biblical phrases and words. People feel a spiritual buzz when they sing it, but it leaves them in the same state of euphoria they feel after a kiss from their significant other, longing for another song but untouched by something deeper and other-worldly.
This other worldliness or transcendence is something I will talk about in another post. However, do the songs that hold the most sway come from a place of extreme honesty as opposed to a desire to write a song to be sung in church because it is expected or you want to hear people sing your songs or you are feeling awful happy about God today? Does this unsettled spirit, the same that creates the greatest art, also create the best church music? As one that loves the paintings of Van Gogh, films of Hitchcock and the music of Hank Williams, this makes sense to me.
When I was younger, I was told to look at the lifestyle of those creating contemporary Christian music to see if their words and the actions were in alignment, not understanding that many of the great songs we sang in church were written by those that would have been ostracized by the CCM industry of the 80s and 90s. As I have grown up, I have realized that many of the great songs of Christian faith have been written by those that did not always believe it, hardly ever lived it (whatever it is) but always longed for it (at least a connection to God). Since they could not experience it, they wrote and sang about it. It is why so many great musicians left the church and CCM or struggled to hide who they really were. In fact, I have heard this from many of my friends formerly involved in CCM and church music.
So, just maybe I need to find all the songs written to God by drunks, drug addicts, former drunks and addicts, along with those struggling with (or happy with) doubt and ask my church to sing those.
in part 2 I will explain why Arcade Fire writes better church music than Chris Tomlin
in part 3 I will explain why church music is kinda like Disco music
If I continue I will look at why church music works better when it comes from community and common experience, why I think hymns work better than praise songs (and we need to write new hymns), why I think it is so hard to write good church music (especially theologically centered church music) and try to figure out who is doing it better. Of course, I may give up very quickly.