Friday, August 19, 2016

Ben-Hur 1959 v Ben-Hur 2016: A Pastor's Review

One title. Two movies. Okay, actually it's three movies. Hang on, let me double-check that... There were four Ben-Hur movies? I guess one of them is listed as a short-film. The three-and-a-half movies called Ben-Hur are based on an 1880 novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. I haven't read the book. But I've now seen at least two of the several movies it spawned.

The Ben-Hur most people are familiar with is the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. For almost 40 years, it was the only movie to win 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards (until Titanic matched it and later Return of the King). It's a theatrical epic in two acts separated by an intermission given its almost four-hour run-time.

The new adaptation of Ben-Hur is produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (I've written on their Bible-bending before), starring Jack Huston in the title role, and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov whose most notable credit is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The movie cuts a lot of material from its predecessor and writes in some of its own (I'm talking about Ben-Hur now, not Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

I watched both movies this week. It'd been quite a while since I'd seen the 1959 original... er, first remake... second remake? Anyway, despite borrowing from the same source material, they're two very different films and deserve their own reviews. They both have their own strengths and their own weaknesses. Yes, despite being an Oscar decorated epic, the Ben-Hur of 59 has its flaws.

For the sake of avoiding confusion, I'll be referring to the two films as Ben-Hur59 and Ben-Hur16 from here on out. First, a review of the most classic film...

Ben-Hur (1959)

The movie begins with the birth of Christ. Three wise men follow a star to a stable in Bethlehem where they find the baby Jesus and present him with their gifts. Balthasar, one of the magi, is also the narrator of the story. He comes back up later on looking for the child who has since become a man, and encourages Judah to search with him.

Fast-forward to about 26 A.D. when Judah Ben-Hur's childhood friend, Messala, returns to Jerusalem as a Roman Tribune. Messala is played by Stephen Boyd, and boy does he have the googly eyes for Charlton Heston's Judah. The bromance on Messala's part seems a little more than friendly. He even throws in a line about their "unrequited love."

Rumors have swirled about a homosexual subtext. In 1995, one of the film's contributing writers, Gore Vidal, revealed that they had envisioned a homosexual backstory in the relationship of Judah and Messala to explain why it was so easy for Messala to turn on Judah. Heston, a staunch conservative, was never in on it, but Boyd was.

Great googly moogly!

Many have dismissed Vidal's story as being made-up, just stirring up controversy in the 90s. Perhaps he was playing off Boyd's overacting (Boyd died in 1977, so we didn't get to hear his side). But even if Vidal was telling the truth, I don't really have a problem with seeing Messala as having some kind of desire for Judah beyond friendship. He was a Roman. Depravity was kind of their thing. Maybe Messala wanted more out of his relationship with Judah. At one point, he talks to Judah about coming back to Rome with him.

Judah is not as taken by Messala's offers. He's downright insulted by the suggestion that the Roman occupation is a good thing. Refusing to help Messala tame the Jews, Judah's frustration is sold well by Charlton Heston. A clear rift occurs in Messala and Judah's friendship and neither one can trust the other (this split isn't as obvious in Ben-Hur16).

Later, Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt on a Roman official and he and his mother and sister are arrested. Judah is banished to the Roman galleys for life, where he'll row the oars for Roman battle ships. During his slave trek across the desert, they come to a town where the prisoners are allowed to get a drink. The water passes Judah who falls to the ground and prays to God for relief. A man walks up and gives Judah a drink. That man is Jesus. But his face is never seen and his voice is never heard in any of his appearances throughout the film (I like that touch).

Judah spends years rowing Roman ships, earning a spot on the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius. During a battle on the sea, the ship is rammed and destroyed. Judah saves Quintus from drowning, who then also tries to kill himself, but Judah prevents his suicide, too. Quintus would not only set Judah free, he would adopt Judah as his heir and give him the name Arrius.

Now a Roman citizen, Judah has a successful career racing chariots. But despite his fame and fortune, he longs to go back to Jerusalem and find out what happened to his mother and sister. Upon his return, Esther (his romantic interest) tells Judah that his mother and sister are dead. This enrages Judah all the more to seek revenge on Messala. He comes into the company of an Arab Sheik named Ilderim who breeds race horses and bets on them. Judah decides to race the Sheik's horses in the Roman Circus, and it's there he'll get vengeance against Messala.

The chariot racing scene is gorgeous, the part of the film the movie is most famous for. To cut to the quick, Judah beats Messala who's trampled by horses at the end of the race. With his dying breath, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister aren't dead but are lepers living in a leper colony. As he dies, Messala says, "The race goes on," still trying to agonize the heart of Judah.

Judah sees people flocking to hear Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He refuses to go with them, but Esther does and desires to hear the words of this great teacher. Tensions arise in Judah and Esther's romance because Judah still can't let go of his hate.

When he finally retrieves his mother and his sister, he decides this Jesus of Nazareth can help them. But by the time he brings them to him, he's being led down the road with a cross to Golgotha. Jesus stumbles and Judah goes to take him water just as Jesus did for him years before, but the guards prevent Jesus from drinking any. Judah follows all the way to Golgotha where he watches Jesus being crucified.

Meanwhile, Judah's mother and sister are with Esther. Upon the death of Jesus, the sky darkens and during a storm the rain cures them of their leprosy. Judah returns home to tell Esther what he'd witnessed. He sees his mother and sister are cured, and they all lived happily ever after.

Maybe this is where Michael W. Smith got the idea for "Healing Rain."

Ben-Hur is an epic and every shot is beautifully filmed, but very slow-moving contributing to its nearly four-hour run-time (there's a musical prelude and a built-in intermission). This was at a time though when you couldn't rent a movie and take it home. Going to the movies was like going to a play. Its slow pace is part of what gives the movie its grandeur. But as much praise as the movie receives even among Christians, it's not without its problems.

All the Jews in this movie are quite white and very westernized. Then there's the Arab character Sheik Ilderim played by English actor Hugh Griffith in brown-face (he won an Academy Award for the role). Speaking of faces, though the face of Jesus is never seen in the movie, he's still clearly a light-haired white dude. Everyone who looks at him is also quite taken with him when the Bible says he was nothing to look at (Isaiah 53:2).

That huge, iconic chariot race? It takes place in Jerusalem. Come on, that's just lazy storytelling. There was no massive colosseum nor chariot racing in Jerusalem. How hard would it have been to write that Judah went back to Rome for the chance to race Messala and get revenge? That's way less far-fetched than Roman chariot racing in Jerusalem.

Edit: Well, I sit corrected! Though ruins of a hippodrome were never found near Jerusalem, there was a one in Caesarea, northwest of Jerusalem along the Mediterranean. It looks to have been a gorgeous sight, watching chariot races against an ocean-view backdrop. Caesarea is mentioned in Acts 8-12, and was also where Paul was brought to trial before Felix and Agrippa.

The film ends with the crucifixion of Christ, not his resurrection. I hadn't seen the movie since I was in college, and I could have sworn the film ended on resurrection Sunday morning. Nope. Judah sees Jesus die, his mother and sister are cured of their leprosy, and then the closing shot is of shepherds herding sheep past an empty cross. There's a reference in the dialogue to Jesus dying for the whole world, but no mention of his conquering death.

At one point, Balthasar tells Judah, "There are many paths to God. I hope that yours will not be too difficult." It's hard to tell if Balthasar meant that in the theological sense or in a more personal sense. If it was theological, then it's the same nonsense as Oprah's theology: "There are millions of ways to God." There's only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).

But Balthasar could also have meant that some people come to know the Lord soon and others go through more difficult trials before God delivers them up and shows them the error of their ways. Considering how much movie was left and that Judah would still go through an act of revenge and find himself unsatisfied, that's a plausible interpretation. I don't want to give the film too much credit though because the writers were biblically ignorant on a number of fronts.

When Judah finally returns to Esther after seeing Jesus crucified, he tells her he heard him say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Judah says of the experience, "I could feel the sword being taken from my hand," suggesting that he no longer feels the rage and the hate for what happened to him and his family. But next, Judah sees his cured mother and sister, and that's the end of the thought.

That was a great opportunity to conclude the film with repentance! The filmmakers really could have fleshed that out more. Christ had delivered Judah from his sins. But the "sword being taken from my hand" line was really as far as the movie took it. To find any gospel in Ben-Hur, you'd have to fill in the blanks yourself. It's not a gospel story.

Brace yourselves!

Ben-Hur (2016)

Let me first say that I will be really happy when this shakey-cam generation of making movies comes to an end. While Ben-Hur59 is bold and beautiful, Ben-Hur16 tries to cover up its short-comings by jostling the camera like a drunk with Parkinson's riding on a galloping horse.

Unlike Ben-Hur59 which began with the birth of Christ, Ben-Hur16 begins with a portion of the chariot race. The action then shifts to Judah and Messala racing one another as friends. Judah topples from his horse and is injured and Messala saves his life. The Judah and Messala of this story are brothers as Messala was adopted and grew up in the house of Hur.

Messala is trying to escape a dark mark on his past, one that involves his grandfather who was a traitor to the Romans. In order to make something of himself, he feels like he needs to leave and head for Rome, where through military accomplishment he becomes a Tribune. Judah, meanwhile, marries a servant girl named Esther.

When the Romans occupy Jerusalem, Messala comes back into Judah's company and the two brothers rekindle an old friendship. But Messala, now a Roman Tribune, wants Judah to assist him in outing the zealots that seek to stir up trouble, and Judah refuses to name names. This is the only meaningful and witty conversation between two characters in the entire film.

Toby Kebbell's Messala is significantly more compelling than Jack Huston's Judah, who's kind of a blank-slate of a man. But neither actor gives anywhere near the performance that Boyd and Heston did before them. Boyd gave Messala's character that truly sinister touch, and you can feel Heston's rage -- even when he's not talking, it's there in his eyes. But Kebbell and Huston give wooden performances that surely aren't helped by a shallow script.

According to Gore Vidal, Ben-Hur59 needed a reason for Messala to betray Judah so easily, so they presumably wrote in the whole homosexual undertone thing. Well, in this movie, it's a combination of Messala's dead grandfather and a nagging officer named Marcus that's always trying to get Judah to do the Roman thing lest he become a traitor like his grandfather. But there are enough elements happening in the movie that the story doesn't need Messala's dead grandfather and the annoying officer.

After Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt, he confesses to the crime so the guards would let his sister and mother go. At that point, the case is closed. There's no need for Messala to have a backstory for his anger. Judah's given him a reason. It would actually be merciful for Messala to not kill him on the spot and instead banish him to the galleys. That would be totally fitting for the character as he was created for this film. But whatever. Lazy writing.

As Judah is being taken away to the galleys, he stumbles on the road and that's when Jesus shows up to give him a drink. Jesus made an appearance earlier when Judah and Esther were in the market. While the Jesus in Ben-Hur59 is faceless, that's not the case in Ben-Hur16. Handsome Rodrigo Santoro's Jesus is the low point of the film. Everything he says is forced and senseless, and the other characters' reaction to him doesn't make any sense either.

There's a scene where a man is being stoned, and Jesus runs in and covers up the man to protect him. He tells the people to stop throwing stones because this man is "your neighbor" and you're supposed to love your neighbor. He says, "Hate and fear are lies that turn us against each other." Then he says, "Love is our true nature."

Uh, no. Jesus never said such a thing. He straight-up called men evil (Matthew 7:11, 12:34, 15:19, 16:4). That is our true nature. Jesus came to die for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God burning against our unrighteousness. For those who are in Christ, we who are evil are received by God as righteous because of what Christ has done. He covers our evil nature with his own good nature. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift (Romans 3:23-24).

The most beautiful part of the movie is when Judah is in the boat rowing and there's the war at sea. We see almost everything from Judah's perspective. It's so well done, I was going, "Man, this movie's turning out to be pretty good!" But that's the high-point. It's all down-hill from there. Judah never saves Quintus like he did in Ben-Hur59 which was odd because Quintus is played by James Cosmo of Braveheart fame. Cosmo is in the movie for like a blink, and then he's gone. What a waste of a good actor.

Judah washes up on a shore and is found by Morgan Freeman who mails in his part as Sheik Ilderim. Really, he's not even trying. He's just there to be Morgan Freeman. He had a better character voice for Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and that was a movie full of terrible accents.

And what's with the dreadlocks in Downey and Burnett's Bible stories?

Incredibly, Judah knows how to race chariot horses. In Ben-Hur59, it was established that he was an experienced and winning chariot racer. In Ben-Hur16, he's never raced a chariot one time, and suddenly he's going to take on the best in the world including the undefeated Messala. Like in Ben-Hur59, that race takes place in Jerusalem. But in Ben-Hur16, the chariot race takes place during the week between Palm Sunday and Jesus's crucifixion!

The race is pretty action-packed and climactic, but it's not as beautiful or as awesome as the chariot race in Ben-Hur59. The two don't even compare. Captain Shakey-Cam tries to cover up all the bad CGI and lack of grand scale. I won't say it's all bad. There were some good shots. The conclusion to the race was pretty awesome, too, with some foreshadowing leading up to it. Of course Judah wins, and what he thinks is Messala's corpse is paraded around as the loser.

The rest of the movie is rather rushed. Judah encounters Jesus on the road to Golgotha and tries to give him water. He weeps at the cross after hearing Jesus say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Esther weeps with him and they have an I'm-sorry-let's-be-romantic-again moment (the chemistry is never there -- they're just two good-looking actors). In muffled dialogue, Judah says, "My brother is dead," and Esther replies, "Just have faith."

Sure enough, Messala is still alive. He's laying on a bed with an amputated leg he lost in the chariot crash. Judah approaches him and Messala curses him, promising revenge and is ready to run him through with a knife he's holding. But instead the two embrace and hug and cry and forgive each other. Like, in about 5 seconds. Judah doesn't even break stride when approaching him. Just like that, Messala went from ready to kill Judah to hugging and crying.

The movie doesn't end there. There's an even cheesier moment where Judah and his mother and sister (who were cured of their leprosy in a random cut-scene, just to get that part in there) are riding on horses. Messala is there and Esther and Morgan Freeman. At one point Judah looks back, I guess to see if Morgan Freeman is still part of his company. Freeman says, "Don't look back, Judah. Look forward. You have your whole life ahead of you." Oh, boy. Like the other Ben-Hur movie, if you want to find any gospel in this movie, you need to fill in the blanks yourself.

In Conclusion

It would seem likely for me to end this review by saying that you need to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur instead of the 2016 Ben-Hur. But as I said, save for certain plot points, the movies are so vastly different they're almost incomparable. Just don't watch either movie expecting to see a Bible story. Jesus exists in both films as a gimmick. Don't be naive; this is to make money, not preach some kind of message and definitely not to preach anything biblically sound.

The Ben-Hur of 1959 is an iconic piece of movie history. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it an 8. The Ben-Hur of 2016 is even more of a cash-grab and a mediocre serving of the shakey-cam action films of our generation. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 5. The action saves the movie from being any less than that. The acting and the story keep it from being any more than that. The parts of the Bible that are butchered and wedged in there make it worth nothing.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Putting the Next 10 Popular Church Songs to the Test

According to Mark Dever's ministry 9 Marks, there is a distinct difference between a song that is written for the purpose of congregational worship, and a song that is written as a performance piece. "Performance music can focus our attention on the performers, or even the music, rather than God" and it can "wrongly encourage a culture of passivity and entertainment."

I've watched countless "worship" videos starring a young, stylish band illuminated by incredible lighting and set-design while the audience is shrouded in black with silhouetted hands in the air. If you were to mute the video, you would not be able to tell the difference between that and any secular band singing love ballads. Strictly by appearances, the attention is directed entirely on the performer. A certain atmosphere is being manufactured. And it's not perceived as an atmosphere for worshiping God as the people of God.

If those artists want to put on concerts that people pay money to go and attend, and they want to use their God-given talents to sing praises to our King, great! Buy their CDs and sing along if that's the music you like. Let it flow from a heart with a desire to praise God and you've got a great worship soundtrack. But that doesn't mean those songs belong in corporate worship. They were crafted with performance in mind or to fit the mold of what radio singles are supposed to sound like.

Some bands like Bethel Church and Jesus Culture should be avoided altogether -- whether we're talking about private or corporate worship or just being entertained. But there are sound musicians (no pun intended) who are going to write some genuinely meaningful worship songs. We must be as discerning with the music we sing in church and who's writing it as we should be with who's preaching the sermon, a point I've desired to direct hearts in understanding over the course of the last two blogs.

As 9 Marks goes on to say, "While it seems that some performed music is within the bounds of addressing one another in song (Ephesians 5:19), churches in the West today may do well to minimize performance and maximize congregational singing."

In the first blog, I reviewed CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise and worship songs sung in churches, then I responded to some comments received from that blog. This week, we're looking at the next ten songs on that list. The title of the song is a link to a video of the song if you'd like to hear it. As with that first article, we start this list with a song that has "Amazing Grace" in the title...

11) "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" by Chris Tomlin, John Newton, and Louie Giglio.
From his 2006 album See the Morning, Tomlin took John Newton's 1779 classic and added a chorus and closing verse. The song was used to promote the film Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, a student of Newton's, who successfully led the charge to abolish slavery in England.

Good Lyrics
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." Tomlin and Giglio's chorus is just an added compliment: "My chains are gone, I've been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns. Amazing love, amazing grace."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Why should it not? So long as a church is not replacing the Newton classic. As great as Tomlin and Giglio's version is, there are two verses of the classic hymn that are not in My Chains Are Gone. Let them not be forgotten. There's a reason why Amazing Grace is considered by many to be the greatest hymn of all time. It was the doctrines of grace that overwhelmed a former slave ship captain, in view of God's mercy, to write his famous song. By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, you should watch the film Amazing Grace.

12) "One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, and Jeremy Riddle.
Another from the Bethel Church catalog, the song was recorded in 2010 by Jesus Culture. It was also recorded by Passion, Louie Giglio's group, on a 2012 album entitled White Flag. It's a simple and very repetitive tune. And on and on and on and on it goes...

Good Lyrics
As with the tune Holy Spirit that I reviewed two weeks ago, there are lines that sound good, but given their context and realizing that the song is devoid of any sound theological substance, it's difficult to appreciate anything about the song.

Questionable Lyrics
Maybe not questionable, but that chorus is really obnoxious. It's 13 words repeated over and over and over again. The irony is that the song actually incorporates the line, "And on and on and on and on it goes" (hence my joke in the description of the song). There's no good reason for this song to go on for longer than 3 minutes. But there's a version that lasts for twelve.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Heavens, no. I've already said why Bethel Church and Jesus Culture songs should never be done in your church. It doesn't matter if you hear something godly in their songs -- what they're singing about isn't God. The Holy Spirit is to Jesus Culture what Jesus Christ is to Mormonism. Mormons worship a different Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, and Bethel Church sings about a different Holy Spirit. Shin-slapping worship pastor Jenn Johnson thinks he's like the Genie from Aladdin. Maybe he's voiced by Robin Williams, too.

13) "Revelation Song" by Jennie Lee Riddle.
The song made its debut in 2008 on a Gateway Worship recording, Wake Up the World, sung by Kari Jobe (I became familiar with both Jobe and Revelation Song at the same time). It received widespread acclaim when it was recorded by Phillips, Craig, and Dean in 2009, and became a hit radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first couple lines of the chorus are taken right from Revelation 4:8, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come." I also like the verse, "Filled with wonder, awestruck wonder, at the mention of Your name. Jesus Your name is power, breath, and living water, such a marvelous mystery." It's the same four-chord sequence repeated throughout and the lyrics never rhyme, but the song still manages to be powerful and catchy.

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
It's a good song. I've met Mrs. Riddle. She was a nice lady. I don't know much about her theology or what church she attends. It seems she writes songs for whoever will sing them. A song's worth can't always be measured by who's sung it. Though it was made famous by Phillips, Craig, and Dean, a trio of heretical pastors who deny the Trinity, they didn't write it. No Christian radio station should be playing PC&D. There are plenty of other versions of Revelation Song out there.

14) "Forever Reign" by Jason Ingram and Reuben Morgan.
The song made its debut in 2010 on three different albums by two different bands. Though it's most well-known as a Hillsong tune (Morgan is one of their worship pastors), it was first recorded and performed by Ingram's band, One Sonic Society.

Good Lyrics
The song opens, "You are good, You are good, and there's nothing good in me." Yeah, I love it. That's me. (Interesting to note that One Sonic Society's version is "and there's nothing good in me," while Hillsong's is, "when there's nothing good in me.") There are other good lines in the verses like, "You are truth, even in my wandering" and "You are life, in You death has lost its sting." The end of the second verse drives it home: "You are God, of all else I'm letting go." The bridge is one of the catchiest parts: "My heart will sing, no other name, Jesus, Jesus."

Questionable Lyrics
That chorus gets into romantic-Jesus-song territory: "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms, the riches of your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to your embrace." But I suppose it's resolved with the last part: "Light of the world, forever reign." Apart from the very opening line, the song doesn't have a lot of theological richness to it.

Should the song be sung in your church?
My honest opinion: No. I think the song falls more in the realm of performance piece rather than congregational worship. It's fine and it's worshipful. I've sung it in church before, though it's been a few years. I like the song. But it's a radio single. Stick to singing it in your car. Your church service will not be missing anything because you're not singing "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms" on Sunday morning.

15) "Blessed Be Your Name" by Matt and Beth Redman.
The song was first recorded in 2002 on Redman's album Where Angels Fear to Tread, but it was made famous by South African band Tree63 released on their 2003 album The Answer to the Question. It was from that album Blessed Be Your Name was made a radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first verse begins "Blessed be your name, in the land that is plentiful, where your streams of abundance flow, blessed be your name." That's contrasted with the next part: "Blessed be your name, when I'm found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name." The song does a masterful job of presenting times of blessing and times of struggle, and yet still being able to praise the name of the Lord. This is fully summarized in the bridge: "You give and take away, you give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
We do. It's an easy go-to for me when I need an opening song to get everyone in the sanctuary and into their seats. When I consider our modern worship era, if more songs were like Blessed Be Your Name, it would be a lot more difficult to argue that such songs aren't meaningful enough to fit in a church service. In a time when modern praise songs are thrown together more often than you're aware (consider the number of writers on the next song), this is a well-thought-out song. Whether you are in the greatest of moods or the deepest of dumps, Blessed Be Your Name is a heartfelt expression of worshiping God in all circumstances.

16) "Forever (We Sing Hallelujah)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Gabriel Wilson, Jenn Johnson, Joel Taylor, Kari Jobe.
A fairly recent tune, the song made its first appearance in 2014 on Jobe's live album Majestic. Because it's a Kari Jobe song, you can find versions of it that exceed twelve minutes. There are also versions of it recorded by Bethel Church and Hillsong.

Good Lyrics
In the first verse, I like the line, "His body on the cross, his blood poured out for us. The weight of every curse upon him." I think of Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is writen, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'" The song builds through the pre-chorus and breaks out in the chorus: "Forever He is glorified. Forever He is lifted high. Forever He is risen. He is alive, He is alive!" It's a triumphant song.

Questionable Lyrics
Edit: I previously said, "none," but someone brought this interview to my attention. Jobe says that for her, the focus of the song was Jesus's time in hell. So when the song goes, "A battle in the grave, the war on death was waged, the power of hell forever broken," it's not being merely poetic. The song is about Jesus going to hell. That never happened. When he said, "It is finished," he meant it (John 19:30). When he told the thief next to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise," that's what happened (Luke 23:43). He did not go to hell. It's a false teaching.

Should the song be sung in your church?
As I wrote about in the last blog, whom we worship with matters. Because I know something about the writers and their theology, I would not be able in good conscience to lead my congregation in this song. Kari Jobe is more a performance artist than a worship leader, though that's her title at Gateway Church. She has a beautiful voice and a great stage presence, but she's a performer. Jobe keeps associations with Bethel Church and Jesus Culture, and has also led worship at Joyce Meyer and Beth Moore conferences. She's not theologically sound. Following Jobe and whom she fellowships with would lead a person away from the word of Christ and into speculations and false teaching.

17) "Everlasting God" by Brenton Brown and Ken Riley.
The song is the title cut of the debut album by Brenton Brown, released in 2006. The song is more widely known as Lincoln Brewster's from his album Let the Praises Ring released that same year. It's also a well-known song in the libraries of Chris Tomlin and Jeremy Camp.

Good Lyrics
"You are the everlasting God," which is repeated multiple times. I also like, "Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer." Not a deep song, but its words are true.

Questionable Lyrics
The end of the chorus seems somewhat self-serving: "You're the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need, you lift us up on wings like eagles."

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure, if you can tolerate it being such a repetitive song. There's only one verse sung twice, and it contains 18 words repeated over and over again. Our God is a great God who is everlasting, doesn't faint or grow weary, and gives comfort and strength to those who wait on him. There's the whole song in one sentence. I think there are better songs you can pick from, but it's alright.

18) "Great Are You Lord" by Jason Ingram, David Leonard, and Leslie Jordan.
Wait, not Deb and Michael W. Smith? Oh, that would be Great Is the Lord. My bad. This song was written and recorded in 2013 by All Sons and Daughters (Lenoard, Jordan). There's also a version recorded by One Sonic Society (Ingram) which I prefer to the All Sons and Daughters version.

Good Lyrics
The very breath of God has been given to us who are created in his image. So I like the chorus, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise." All Sons and Daughters like to sing those two-phrase repetitive choruses, so you get to sing "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise" a lot. I'm not sure why the title of the song isn't, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. I don't have anything else to add, so let me throw in a random story. There's a band on this list I got to sit in on a writing session with in 2012 at a church in Franklin, TN. They didn't know me; I was just at a certain place at the right time. We started out by reading Psalm 13, and I even threw out a suggestion for a line, but I don't remember what song they were writing to know if they used it and if I need to demand residuals (joke).

19) "This I Believe (The Creed)" by Ben Fielding and Matt Crocker.
This is one of the newer songs in CCLI's Top 20, debuting in July 2014 on Hillsong's album No Other Name. The song was never released as a radio single, so it was only last year that it began to take off. It's since received airplay and therefore has been a hit with many churches.

Good Lyrics
Solid chorus: "I believe in God our Father, I believe in Christ the Son, I believe in the Holy Spirit, our God is three in one. I believe in the resurrection, that we will rise again, for I believe in the name of Jesus." The song continues with affirmations of basic doctrinal truths.

Questionable Lyrics

Should this song be sung in your church?
Nope. As I said the first time around, nothing from Hillsong or Bethel should be sung in your church. We might share some basic doctrinal beliefs, but everything else that Hillsong teaches is far from a biblical foundation. Furthermore, when their events include a sleazy version of Silent Night, an appearance by Austin Powers, and a youth pastor imitating the Naked Cowboy, they are very poor witnesses of whatever biblical beliefs they might hold.

20) "Here I Am to Worship" by Tim Hughes.
You know this song. This is one of the pioneer songs of the praise and worship movement that exploded at the turn of the millennium. It debuted in 2001 on Hughes's album of the same name. When he wrote the song, he was inspired by the hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11.

Good Lyrics
It's a solid song exalting of our Lord God, and humbly submits in the chorus, "Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you're my God. You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me."

Questionable Lyrics
In the second verse, we sing, "Humbly you came to the earth you created, all for love's sake became poor." Knowing that Hughes was inspired by Philippians 2, "all for love's sake" is rather vague. Philippians 2:11 specifically says Christ did all he did to the glory of God the Father. I'm being nit-picky because I know where the inspiration for the song came from.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. Hughes's theology is probably not great, as is the case of many of the modern praise and worship artists. But the song is alright. The lyrics direct the singer to the Lord, backed by a very simple melody that's easy to sing along with. Like How Great Is Our God, this is a song we'll probably be singing for a while.

Thank you for joining me for these reviews, and I hope they were beneficial to you. Later this week, I'll be reviewing Ben-Hur, the epic film from 1959 starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. I'll then follow that up with a review of the new Ben-Hur remake, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett of The Bible mini-series fame, hitting theaters this weekend.

Monday, August 8, 2016

In Response to Putting Popular Church Music to the Test

Last week I did a blog reviewing CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise songs sung in churches. I received some wonderful comments saying that the blog was very helpful. Most of the comments I read were in disagreement, though for the most part respectful (except for the guy who started "With all due respect" and then proceeded to bash his Southern Baptist stereotype).

The disagreement was largely due to my statements regarding Bethel Church and Hillsong, sacred cows in American evangelical music. In pursuit of holiness, this is an important topic that must be understood not according to personal tastes or styles, but according to Scripture. The following are some of the comments given in bold, and my response follows...

"Sounds like a church curmudgeon to me. I am not for dismissing church history and hymns, but I also don't want to dismiss everything that's not a hymn either. And I'm certainly not comfortable dismissing artists who have associations with Bethel or judging a song based on its number of writers, just like I follow Jesus even though he spent time with sinners and I read the Bible even though it was penned by a multitude of people."

Andrew, Tuscon, AZ

Giving the thumbs-up on four songs, thumbs-down on five, and leaving one kind of open-ended is being a church curmudgeon? Man, I wish I had that ratio of success with the curmudgeons I was dealing with when I first started leading worship!

First of all, I think it's clear the blog was not an endorsement of exclusively hymns. There are bad hymns, too, and feel-good hymns with no theological substance. Secondly, no songs were dismissed based on the number of writers. Such comments on my part were tongue-in-cheek. Cornerstone by Hillsong is Edward Mote's The Solid Rock with a different melody and added chorus made up of less than 20 words that took three more writers. Three writers are cashing royalty checks on the work done mostly by a dead guy. I think they can handle being made fun of a little bit.

I'm sorry you're not comfortable dismissing Bethel and those associated with them. Do you need a shoulder rub? A plush seat, Jen Hatmaker's blog, and a grande quad nonfat one-pump no-whip mocha? Do your ears itch? Do you need someone to scratch them for you? Because Bethel and their New Apostolic Reformation network of churches have a plethora of teachers willing to suit your passions (2 Timothy 4:3). Examine yourself to see if you're really in the faith -- unless you fail to meet the test (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Jesus loved sinners. Thank God, because I'm one of them. He hates false teaching (Revelation 2:6, 15). His most stern rebukes were reserved for the false teachers. He called them sons of hell who produced more sons of hell. "Beware the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves," he said in the Sermon On the Mount.

Bethel Church and Jesus Culture are con-artists. Don't sing their songs. You are repeating the words of liars whose hearts are far from God, no matter how great you think their music sounds. I referenced only one example of their false teaching -- the whole manipulative gag with the glory clouds (emphasis on "gag"). Would a person indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God conjure up such lies? That one example is enough, but here's another in this next comment...

"My son was being exposed to Jesus Culture and although there are some okay lyrics (he played the guitar in the youth band), some/most are questionable. That being said, after a few CDs and some research, I was confronted with some biblical questions like, 'Dad, what is soaking or grave sucking?' Upon some Google searches we found out what it is and who does it. Bethel and Jesus Culture come from there. We spent the next few hours in Scripture and getting rid of some CDs. How many teens are led down this road because there is no discernment? Thank you for your article."

Robert, Houston, TX

Thank you, Robert. For those who don't know, "grave sucking" (also known as grave soaking or mantle grabbing) is the hyper-charismatic practice of pulling Holy Spirit powers from the bones of someone's grave. Supposedly when the body of a Spirit-empowered person dies, they leave behind their "mantle," the calling that God had for them in life and the anointing of the Holy Spirit they were given. By laying on that person's grave or placing your hands on their tombstone and praying, you are able to absorb that leftover spiritual power.

Said Bethel Church pastor Bill Johnson, "I believe it's possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations." Ah, yes. The triumph of the sovereign human will. The power of the Spirit apparently just lies around going to waste until some faithful Christian comes along and chooses to revive it. Behold, the power of God.

This is pagan necromancy hiding behind a Christian veneer. The Bible calls these things an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 11:12). It's not a fun game or cute little spiritual fad. It will keep a person from the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). Bill Johnson has preached on it in his sermons, Bethel encourages the practice on their website and shares testimonials about it, and church members post pictures of themselves soaking up graves.

Bill Johnson's wife, Beni, soaking the spirit-powers of Charles Finney.

Bethel's ministry Jesus Culture specifically targets youth, and it's mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings who get into this sucking graves thing. You don't think that singing their songs -- which theologically are either lite fare or downright abusive -- will open a person up to some of their demonic teachings? It sounds like Robert and his son have a good relationship that they could talk about these things. I've heard stories that begin like Robert's but end much worse.

"I so appreciate the intention of this article. Though I believe our worship needs to line up with the Scripture, I find that this is a bit cynical. I know there are lots of preachers/teachers/worship leaders who have some less than doctrinally sound ideas, but I think God still can and still does use people in spite of their spiritually incorrect ideas. Just because a person's doctrine may be off-base does not mean that we should avoid a song they wrote -- if the song lines up with the Word of God. This article is good food for thought."

Melanie, Alberta, Canada

When a person misuses the name of God or they use it to benefit themselves, what is that called? That's called blasphemy, and it's a very serious sin (Exodus 20:7). God has placed his name above all things (Psalm 138:2), and the name of Jesus above every other name (Philippians 2:9). His name is to be revered as holy (Psalm 103:1). If we know that a person's doctrine is clearly wrong and they misuse the name of God, do you think that we should be making their words ours in the context of worship?

I'm not talking about speculating or questioning their motives, nor am I talking about secondary doctrinal issues like their views on the end-times or covenant or baptism. We're talking about music-producing churches and songwriters that have very public platforms. We know what they openly teach and believe, we can test them according to the Scriptures, and we know what they believe is contrary to the word of God. Should their words be repeated as genuine worship if their beliefs are demonic?

If a doctrinally sound minister -- John Piper, let's say -- were to favorably quote Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince, or T.D. Jakes in his sermon just because one of those false teachers can manage a theologically salvageable thought every once in a while, Piper would not go unchallenged. But for whatever reason we don't hold worship leaders to the same standard. If Bill Johnson is a grave-sucking false teacher, why is Jeremy Riddle not?

Let me ask another question: Is holiness important? I hope your answer is yes. Then pursue holiness. Desire what is pure. David said that the one who ascends the hill of the Lord is "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully" (Psalm 24:4). Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).

The Apostle Paul said, "Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). Let me repeat that again: "along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." Doesn't that include our worship leaders?

When I became the worship leader at my church, I had to be ordained as a pastor. I went through the ordination process and the testing for that ordination just like any pastor would. I'm grateful to the senior pastor at that time who cared enough about solid teaching that he wanted even his worship leader to be as sound and as tested as the teachers. I'm not arguing that all worship leaders should be ordained. But they should certainly be tested with greater scrutiny than just, "Ooh, they're talented and they sing songs I like!"

You call me cynical. As God is my witness, this is the desire of my heart: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). If the Spirit of God uses a false teacher to lead a person to Christ, it is in spite of that teacher, not because of them.

"The problem with analysis like this is that these songs were not written as sermons; they express a songwriter's spiritual connection to God, and the resulting emotions. If you take them for what they are intended to be, there is nothing wrong with them. If you're using them as a resource for a theology class, then no... it's not going to work. That said, there are contemporary Christian songs with lyrics that are flat-out stupid, and I avoid those when selecting songs for our band to play. Even stuff that's borderline I will avoid. I'm glad the author of this article isn't throwing the baby out with the bath water because there are some very good biblically-sound contemporary worship songs."

Michael, Winchester, VA

That comment was like making a sandwich with sourdough bread on top and coffee cake on the bottom. "Well that doesn't make sense." Yeah, exactly. If you're opening your mouth and talking about God, you are being theological. If what you are saying is not rooted in historical biblical orthodoxy, then you're probably being a heretic. The sermon is theology. The music is theology. Both are required to be good theology. Required.

Paul emphatically instructed Timothy not to let anyone teach any different doctrine, or to teach myths or speculations, but only that which flows from the gospel and produces godliness (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6:3). He told Titus to hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Not just correct false teaching -- rebuke those whose doctrine contradicts the true word of the Lord Christ.

The Apostle expressly said to the Ephesians and Colossians that we are to teach each other even in the songs we sing. Colossians 3:16 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." It is from a heart indwelt with the word of Christ that we sing acceptable praises to our God.

The Apostle Peter said it's the ignorant and unstable who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). That can be done in a song just as easily as it can be done in a sermon. The purpose of the music is not to stir the emotions. It can do that, but it's not the point. We sing to glorify God. Let the Spirit do His work. He doesn't need help. You be faithful to the Scriptures.

"Thank you so much for these reviews. I've often wondered about singing good songs which come out of bad or questionable churches or writers (eg: Bethel) and you cleared this up for me quite nicely. I'll be a bit more selective from now on. Any chance you could add a list of a few more good or sound modern songs? Any comments on Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)?"

Graham, Capetown, South Africa

Hey, Graham! You got it. Next week I'm planning on covering the next ten songs on CCLI's list. At number eleven is Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone). So not to keep you in suspense, I think it's a great song. Other praise choruses in that next set include Revelation Song, Forever Reign, and Blessed Be Your Name. I should have it up on Monday.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Putting Popular Church Music to the Test

When I first came on at First Southern Baptist Church, I was an associate pastor with an emphasis in worship. In other words, I was the worship pastor, which is a title I didn't much care for. Technically the head teaching pastor is a worship pastor. I still lead the music, leaning mostly toward hymns, but we sing some modern tunes as well.

I try to be as careful with the music as I am with the teaching. Regarding the songs we sing, I examine the lyrics but also the writers. Those addressing the church in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) should also be sound in their doctrine. Have you put much thought into what's being sung at your church and where it came from?

Every 6 months, CCLI releases the Top 100 praise songs sung in churches (CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International). The following is a list of the Top 10 most popular praise songs for the most recent reporting period. I'd like to offer a review of these songs, the artists who sing them, and whether or not it's a good idea for your church to be singing them. The title of the song is also a link to a video performance of the song if you'd like to hear it.

1) "This Is Amazing Grace" written by Jeremy Riddle, Josh Farro, and Phil Wickham.
The song first appeared in August of 2013 on Phil Wickham's album The Ascension. It was a number 1 hit on the Christian music charts in 2014. Another of its known performers is co-writer Jeremy Riddle who is the worship leader of Bethel Church in Redding, CA.

Good Lyrics
I like the way the song begins: "Who breaks the power of sin and darkness, whose love is mighty and so much stronger, the King of Glory, the King above all kings."

Questionable Lyrics
In the chorus is the line, "That You would take my place, that you would bear my cross." I get where the artist is coming from, another way of saying Jesus died for me. But the Bible doesn't say he bore our cross. It says that he bore our sins in his body on the cross (Isaiah 53:12, 1 Peter 2:24). Why am I being particular about that line? Because Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples, we must take up our cross daily and follow after him (Luke 9:23). There is still a cross to bear, though we have peace with God in knowing that Jesus has paid for our sins on the cross. And it's His cross, not ours (Galatians 6:14).

Another questionable line is in the second verse which begins, "Who brings our chaos back into order." I'm not real sure what that means. In Isaiah 45:7, God says, "I make well-being and create calamity. I am the Lord, who does all these things." In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says the Father "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

The line has the potential to set a person up for disappointment: "Why is my world a mess? Why is there chaos all around me? I thought following God would put everything back into order!" The Bible says that all things have been subjected to futility because of sin, and all of creation is groaning and awaiting deliverance (Romans 8:21-23). A day is coming when indeed God will restore all things, but that day is not yet. When Paul begged for his "chaos" to be taken from him, Jesus said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). We are told to rejoice in suffering (Romans 5:3).

Should the song be sung in your church?
No, it shouldn't. The lyrics are not necessarily what disqualifies the song. Bethel Church disqualifies the song. Bethel is a hodgepodge of false teaching and their gimmicks are outright lies. They pipe fog, feathers, and gold dust through their ventilation ducts and claim God is manifesting himself in their presence through "glory clouds." This is what they consider worship. Bethel should be given no credibility. There are much better songs to sing. This is not that great a song anyway, musically or lyrically. Personally I don't understand why it's number 1.

2) "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)" by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman.
More commonly known as Bless the Lord, O My Soul as sung in the chorus. There are several songs with that title, so it has the more original name 10,000 Reasons as sung in the second verse. It's the title cut from an album released by Matt Redman in 2011. The tune has been a top worship song ever since.

Good Lyrics
It's hard to get that chorus out of your head: "Bless the Lord O my soul, O my soul, Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul, I'll worship Your holy name." Redman has written several songs that contain lyrics about praising the Lord in any and all circumstances to the very end of life. This is one of those songs.

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. There are many songs written by Matt Redman that I really enjoy, particularly his most popular, Blessed Be Your Name. But I'm not crazy about some of his associations. You'll find his name on Steven Furtick's books giving them his endorsement, like the ironically entitled Unqualified. He's a great artist, but his theology needs some work.

3) "Holy Spirit" by Bryan and Katie Torwalt.
From what I can tell, the song was first introduced by the Torwalts of Jesus Culture in 2013. It is most famously sung by either Kim Walker-Smith or Kari Jobe. There's also a popular radio version performed by Francesca Battistelli.

Good Lyrics
That's complicated. I like the line "Your glory God is what our hearts long for." But the whole song is rather cryptic and contains no solid theology. When put in context, it's hard for me to appreciate anything about it. With every phrase, I'm left going, "What does this mean?" and never, "That's a good line."

Questionable Lyrics
The song begins, "There's nothing worth more that will ever come close. Nothing can compare, you're our living hope, your presence, Lord." Huh? What's not worth more or will ever come close? His presence? It goes on, "I've tasted and seen of the sweetest loves, where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone, your presence Lord." Again, is it his presence that's the sweetest love? I don't get what it's saying. When you actually listen to the song, it's no less confusing. Someone might say what the song means to them, but that doesn't make it a good song. It makes it ambiguous.

The chorus is catchy but theologically off: "Holy Spirit you are welcome here, Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere. Your glory God is what our hearts long for, to be overcome by Your presence Lord." This was written out of the mentality that the more we summon the Holy Spirit the more he fills a place. We invite the Holy Spirit into our presence. The Bible says nothing of the sort.

I happen to have been studying John 6 today. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me--not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life" (John 6:37, 45-47). It is to them are given the Holy Spirit (John 3:34). The Holy Spirit does not respond to invitation.

Should the song be sung in your church?
No. The lyrics contain nothing of any biblical value. But the song should also not be sung for the same reason This Is Amazing Grace shouldn't be. The song comes from Jesus Culture, a youth outreach ministry formed out of Bethel Church. When they sing about the presence of God, they're singing about "glory clouds" piped through the air ducts. Kim Walker-Smith is a mess theologically, claiming that Jesus appears to her and that she's seen God the Father, whom the Bible says no one but Christ has seen (John 1:18, 6:46).

4) "Lord I Need You" by Christy Nockels, Daniel Carson, Jesse Reeves, Kristian Stanfill, and Matt Maher.
The song is most famously performed by Matt Maher from his album All the People Said Amen released in 2013. Some of the song is clearly inspired by Annie Hawks and Robert Lowry's I Need Thee Every Hour. The first half of the chorus is almost exactly like the famous hymn. But they didn't get a writing credit. I guess five names was enough.

Good Lyrics
I really like the song. The chorus is very catchy, again reminiscent of Hawks and Lowry's old hymn. But I think the second verse is my favorite part: "Where sin runs deep your grace is more. Where grace is found is where you are. And where you are, Lord, I am free. Holiness is Christ in me."

Questionable Lyrics
None. Though if I really wanted to be nitpicky, it would be in the bridge where Maher sings, "And when I cannot stand I'll fall on you. Jesus, you're my hope and stay." We should be dependent upon Christ whether we stand or fall. But alright, I digress.

Should the song be sung in your church?
The song is solid, but you must know that Matt Maher is a Roman Catholic (also Audrey Assad, the female vocalist singing with him in the radio version). He comes from a completely different doctrinal base, one that is incompatible with the Scriptures. Not all of the song's writers are Catholic, but what's the point of being protestant if we can worship with the Catholic church? Just sing I Need Thee Every Hour instead.

5) "Cornerstone" by Edward Mote, Eric Liljero, Jonas Myrin, Reuben Morgan, William Batchelder Bradbury.
The song was recorded live in October of 2011 by Hillsong. It's basically the old hymn The Solid Rock (aka, My Hope Is Built) by Edward Mote and William Bradbury with a modern chorus thrown in. And for some reason, those four lines of that chorus took three more writers.

Good Lyrics
I love The Solid Rock. It's one of my favorite hymns: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but holy lean on Jesus's name." The next part you probably know as "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." That part isn't in Cornerstone, replaced with a chorus that isn't better.

Questionable Lyrics
None. Though the song loses points for removing the refrain of The Solid Rock and inserting its own chorus. That's not a good swap.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I've sung the song before, but I didn't know it was a Hillsong tune. And when I sang it, I rebelled and sang the refrain of The Solid Rock at the end. I've stopped singing Hillsong in our church. With gay worship performers, appearances by Austin Powers and the Naked Cowboy, and a scandalous rendition of Silent Night, they're just way too worldly to think of their worship music as genuine. Why not just sing The Solid Rock? It's a much better song. It's more up-tempo (unless you want to sing it slow) and available in the public domain. And it contains fewer writers.

6) "How Great is Our God" by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, and Jesse Reeves
Who doesn't know this song? It was first released in September of 2004 on Tomlin's album Arriving. It's a rather simple song lyrically and very easy to sing along with. Perhaps it's that simplicity in the lyrics combined with the hook in the melody that make it stand out.

Good Lyrics
I like the Trinitarian doctrine presented and sung about in the second verse: "The Godhead Three in One, Father Spirit Son." There aren't too many Trinitarian songs, particularly modern songs. As if the chorus "How great is our God" wasn't enough of a hook, there's also that great bridge: "Name above all names, you are worthy of our praise. My heart will sing how great is our God."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
I think it's a great song. I was a little annoyed with it when I was in Christian radio. The moment I heard it, I knew how popular it was going to become and I was going to hear it over and over again. But it's a solid song. When future generations examine the praise and worship era that we're in now and weed out all the terrible songs it produced, I think How Great Is Our God is a song that will continue to be sung.

7) "Our God" by Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Jonas Myrin, and Matt Redman.
The song has been around since 2010, the first track on Tomlin's album And If Our God Is for Us... Surprisingly there are only two Chris Tomlin songs in this Top 10 list. Jesse Reeves, the song's co-writer and a worship leader himself, appears on this list more than Tomlin does.

Good Lyrics
The bridge is definitely the best part: "And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us. And if our God is with us, then what can stand against?" Like How Great Is Our God, it's a pretty simple song.

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. It's not terribly deep, but it's fine. Jonas Myrin, one of the co-writers, used to sing with Hillsong, but he's primarily known for his work with Matt Redman. He was also the co-writer of 10,000 Reasons. The reason why you see a lot of the same names among the most popular church songs is because church music has become a lot like Christian radio. It's an industry, and these are the guys at the top.

8) "In Christ Alone" by Keith Getty and Stuwart Townend.
The song was first introduced in the UK in 2001, the first collaboration between Townend who wrote the lyrics and Getty who did the music. It has been recorded by many artists, but is perhaps best attributed to worship leaders Keith and Kristyn Getty.

Good Lyrics
It's all good, right from the beginning: "In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm." The lyric that perhaps stands out the most is in the second verse: "Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin on Him was laid. Here in the death of Christ I live."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
I think this is the one of the greatest modern hymns to come out of our era. I'd consider it the best song on this list, and has been disruptive in the modern church. The Presbyterian Church USA wanted to publish the song in their hymnal, but they wanted to change the line "the wrath of God was satisfied" to "the love of God was magnified." Getty and Townend refused the change. They gave up increased royalties to keep the doctrine of substitutionary atonement sung about in the second verse. Whenever the song is recorded and a verse gets omitted, that's usually the one that gets cut (as in Owl City's cover of the song).

9) "Mighty to Save" by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan.
Another from the Hillsong repertoire, the song was introduced in 2006 and has since been covered by many well-knowns including Michael W. Smith, Jeremy Camp, and the Newsboys. There was a time it was the most popular worship song in the world.

Good Lyrics
Isaiah 63:1 says that God speaks in righteousness and is mighty to save. So for me, the chorus is the best part: "Savior, he can move the mountains. My God is mighty to save, He is mighty to save forever, author of salvation. He rose and conquered the grave. Jesus conquered the grave."

Questionable Lyrics
The weakest part of the song is the second verse: "So take me as you find me, all my fears and failures. Fill my life again. I give my life to follow everything I believe in. Now I surrender." That's really soft and rather self-serving. Doesn't everyone give their lives to follow what they believe in, whether or not what they follow is God? There's no sense of confession in the song. Christ indeed is mighty to save us from the grave, but he also saves us from our sin and the wrath of God.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I must admit, I wept when I first heard the song. But I heard it while I was coming out of some false teaching and beginning to embrace more solid and gospel-centered doctrine. I was singing that God was mighty to save while I was examining my sin in light of his holiness. It wasn't until years later that I realized the song isn't really about that. That's what I was singing about even though it's not what the song is about. I'd consider that the song shouldn't be sung in your church for the same reasons I gave above regarding Hillsong.

10) "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm.
This is the third Hillsong tune in the Top 10. It was first released in 2013 and is sung at just about every Christian conference there is. Just about. I've heard the song referred to as the praise anthem for my generation. Meh.

Good Lyrics
The song never really grabs me until the second verse: "Your grace abounds in deepest waters. Your sovereign hand will be my guide. Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, you've never failed and you won't start now."

Questionable Lyrics
None. But the song is not terribly significant. It's not rich in theological truth or deep in meaning (ironic since it's called Oceans). It sounds like a CCM radio single, and that's probably where it should stay. It's a "sing it in your car" song. I don't think it really has a good place as a worship song in church.

Like Mighty to Save, this is another tune where "fears" are addressed. But Hillsong sings about fears as uncertainty. The Bible talks about fear another way: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18). Fear has to do with judgment, which we have no reason to fear if we are in Christ for he has taken our record of debt and nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14).

Should the song be sung in your church?
Man, Shane & Shane covered it, and I like Shane & Shane, so how can I tell you not to sing this song? Well, I think I've given my reasons. There are some really, really good songs out there -- from the history of the church to the present day. You can have some very deep teaching songs or very moving and heartfelt choruses without ever touching Hillsong or Jesus Culture. Be as discerning about the songs that you sing in church as you should be about the teaching. Test everything, the Scriptures tell us. That includes our worship music.

Read part 2, reviewing the next 10 songs on the CCLI list by clicking here!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What's So Bad About Christian Radio (a response to an article by Trevin Wax)

The last couple of weeks have seen a very crazy and often heart-breaking news cycle. So you probably missed a blog by Trevin Wax in which he listened to two hours of K-Love and offered his critique. His conclusion was that Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is not that bad, and that "the critique that there is little to no theological substance is unjustified."

His blog was titled Christian Music Radio Is More Theological Than You Think. I don't have any doubt that it's theological. If you're opening your mouth and talking about God, you are being theological. The problem is, if it's not grounded in biblical historical orthodoxy, it's probably pretty bad. I agree with Wax that it's not fair to say Christian radio has nothing theologically substantive to offer. But I disagree that it's more than "little."

Still, I will concede that listening to K-Love is much better for a person's brain than listening to secular Top 40 or even a country music station. That doesn't excuse the fact that K-Love would flunk out of any theology course higher than a flannel-board level Sunday school class and needs a major overhaul. More specifically, Christian radio needs reformation. It's dipped in Osteen, Warren, and Meyer's theology and savors nothing anywhere as lasting or as flavorful as Piper, MacArthur, or Sproul's.

The last time I listened to K-Love was in April. I confess that I turned it on specifically to hear how bad it still was. In that sense, I was not disappointed. The moment I tuned in, I heard  the afternoon DJ talking about the Loch Ness Monster. She ended the segment open, entertaining the notion the monster might actually be real. News flash: it's not.

This photo of the Loch Ness Monster is as authentic as a K-Love radio DJ.

The only Bible verse I heard was from the NLT, and the same verse was quoted three times in the hour, context never given (it was some kind of "verse of the day" sort of thing). The DJ also read a quote from C.S. Lewis, and apparently she didn't screen the quote before she read it. She got to a part where Lewis mentioned "hell," and she actually paused, changed the word "hell" to "hades," ad libbed "whatever," then continued with the quote.

See, it's not just the music that's bad. The entire Christian radio image is a great big mess. Ask a Christian radio DJ what words like theology, orthodoxy, and doctrine mean, and they probably wouldn't be able to tell you. I know that's a very general criticism, but the point is if they sound ignorant about the Bible and theology, they probably are.

A song or two might be able to hit the right theological notes, but it's incidental. The radio station itself likely doesn't have a doctrinally sound base. When you know something about how the behind-the-scenes stuff works, you'll realize just how far from missional Christian radio really is. I should know. I did it for over 20 years.

At the end of Wax's article, he furthered his critique by asking six insightful questions. There are answers to those questions, and I'd like to respond to them. I had thought about doing the same thing Wax did and listening to two hours of K-Love, but I don't think I need to bother (sigh of relief).

I have much respect for Wax as the editor of The Gospel Project, a Sunday school curriculum that we use at our church. I'm a semi-regular reader of his blog. So I offer this respectfully and also to provide insight into the cookie jar we know as Contemporary Christian Music radio. Wax's questions are in bold, and I'll answer them in the order he asked them:

Why is it that in a two-hour bloc there was only one (one!) female vocalist?
Because people connect with male vocalists more than they do female vocalists. Research has shown that both men and women are more likely to enjoy and sing along with a male voice than a female voice. Did you also notice they were almost all white?

Like most radio and television programming, Christian radio caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic is women between the ages of 20 and 50 (give or take). Whether or not Christian radio is doing it on purpose, that demographic is also mostly white.

It gets way more specific than that: this target woman lives in suburbia in a house with a mortgage, drives a mini-van, has three kids, a dog and a cat, a husband who works full-time, she also works but it's probably part-time, has a household income between $55 and $70K, vacations in July, doesn't have enough time to read her Bible but she has enough time to journal, loves Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and goes to church about 3 times a month. This woman even has a name -- Becky.

Some radio stations will put up a mock picture of this woman in the studio, and the DJs are told to look at it and know that's who they're talking to. I've attended seminars where this was the whole focus of each session: Becky, Becky, Becky. The entire radio station is programmed for her -- not her husband and not her kids. Giving glory to God is incidental, or it's presented like this: "By reaching Becky, you're giving glory to God." Becky's name is mentioned more often at these conferences than God's name is.

Becky: "Why couldn't you have made my name, like, Scarlett Johansson or Wonder Woman?"

This is unofficially referred to as Becky Programming or the Becky Mentality. The gospel-minded might recognize this as exactly how not to evangelize. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ, right (Galatians 3:28)? But rather than giving an audience what they need to hear, Christian radio sections out a particular audience and gives her what the research says she wants to hear.

The Becky mentality is inadvertently prejudiced and sexist. It's so common that every once in a while, you will hear Becky Radio made fun of in some Christian songs. Chris Rice has perhaps the most notable example, a song called Me and Becky from his album Run the Earth, Watch the Sky. This was the same album that contained a song about everyone singing the same song on the radio. I can't help but think that song was also rather tongue-in-cheek.

Hearing the Becky Mentality regurgitated at every conference for so many years apparently had an effect on me. The same year I left radio, I married a Becky (though she spells her name Beki and can't stand Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, and we don't have a cat).

Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
Because radio is about producing the least number of negatives. Technically a radio station is not actually trying to give you something that you like. They're trying to give you something you don't dislike. As long as they can remain as even as possible without too much variation or fluctuation, they're more likely to keep you on their radio station and not flipping to something else.

When the radio station maintains a continuous blend of sound, it just kind of melts into the background and you become oblivious that you're still listening to it. You know how when you drive the same route to work every day, sometimes entire stretches of the trip will go by, and you'll wonder where those miles went? Listening to the radio is kind of like that.

If your listening experience were to change drastically -- like a loud up-tempo song were to be followed by a soft, slow song, for example -- you come out of your trance, realize that something has changed, and so cognitively you're more likely to want to change as well and will turn the radio station to something else.

Even when it comes to production quality, songs have been equalized to be at the exact same volume level. Put on your headphones, find a song from the late 80s or early 90s, and give it a listen. Then pick a song from within the past decade and listen at the same volume. Notice the difference? The older song has more dynamics, highs and lows, crescendo and decrescendo, and the more current song is a lot louder and dynamically consistent throughout.

The reason why every single Christian recording artist sounds like they're recording the exact same song is because they know K-Love won't play it unless it sounds like every other song. Yes, Christian radio is the very reason every Christian artist sounds the same. It's not necessarily the artist's fault. They just have to play along (pun implied).

Where are the brilliant songwriters like Andrew Peterson and Audrey Assad?
Sorry, but the content of the song is less important than how it sounds. It's not that the lyrics aren't important at all -- obviously a song has to pass certain criteria in order to be a Christian song (and then sometimes, of course, there are songs that have no Christian content to them whatsoever). But the lyrics are less important than how catchy it is.

K-Love loves American idols.

See, there's this annoying little thing called auditorium testing. A focus group sits in a room (or an auditorium, hence the name) with a little device in their hand that has a dial on it. Fragments of songs are played for them -- not whole songs, just pieces of songs. The person will turn the dial one direction if they love the song, and the other direction if they don't like it. This is not how anyone listens to the radio, but this is how the research is done. Great songs don't get played because they tested poorly with a sample audience.

You've probably seen this method in action before. Have you ever been watching a political debate and noticed a moving line-graph at the bottom of the screen? As a candidate is making an argument, the line on that graph will either go up or start dropping. That line represents the candidate's favorability rating among a sample group. Each person in that group has a little knob in their hands which they turn to indicate how much they like or don't like what they're hearing a candidate say. That same method is used to pick songs for Christian radio.

Obama: "Too much Chris Tomlin puts me to sleep." Poll numbers rise.

Not every song is chosen this way. Some bands do manage to sneak through the system, though they don't often last if they don't follow the rules. There are also praise and worship songs that might gain popularity in certain churches and then they're picked up and recorded -- by artists and distributed on labels who know how to play according to the system. Getting a song on the radio costs a lot of money, too. There's the cost in producing and distributing the song, and then there's the marketing and the testing to get radio stations to play it.

Had an artist like Keith Green or Rich Mullins tried to make it in Christian music today, I'm convinced we'd have never heard of them. To call popular CCM "artistry" is a lot like calling Little Debbie a "chef." You're listening to mostly factory-made songs produced on a conveyor belt and shrink-wrapped, not made in the kitchen with love served fresh and piping hot.

Why do certain aspects of Christian theology get overlooked?
Again, lyrics aren't as important as how catchy the song is. Another reason deep songs get hardly any airplay is that they make a person think. Remember, we don't want a listener to think too much or they might change the station. A thought-provoking song also runs a higher risk of making a person disagree with what the artist is saying. That means, oohh, it might offend someone, and we just can't have that. The more widely appealing the song lyrics are, the better.

K-Love's sugar slogan is "Positive, encouraging," and they try as hard as they can to fulfill that mission statement. My dad started a Christian radio station in the 70s whose slogan was "Making Him Known." That's not K-Love's primary objective. It's not to preach Christ and share the gospel; it's just to be positive and encouraging. Their version of God is always positive and encouraging -- hence why their DJs avoid references to hell, and would rather talk about the Loch Ness Monster than sin and repentance and how Christ saves us from the wrath of God (John 3:36).

Contemporary Christian radio does not exist to teach. It exists to entertain with Christian-themed content. I'm sure there are people who work at K-Love or the Fish or Way-FM who care about people. But if they were truly genuine, they would know the gospel well and they would share it. They have the perfect opportunity to do it. But they don't.

I've said for years Christian radio doesn't care about teaching. The response I often heard was, "It's not the job of Christian radio to teach people. That's the job of the church!" You're right, it is the job of the church. It's also the job of Christian radio. Very plainly, Colossians 3:16 instructs, "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."

When it comes down to it, the problems in Christian radio are the result of the problems in the church. Why is it that Christian radio eschews sound doctrine and is driven by demographics and marketing strategies? Because many churches are that way. Until the church abandons this approach to ministry and becomes committed to sound doctrine, eating and serving the meat of God's word, Christian radio will continue to be Little Debbie (Little Becky?) and glass-of-milk theology.

When Rick Warren started Saddleback Church, he said he went door-to-door and asked everyone what they wanted in a church. He didn't share the gospel with them -- he asked them what they wanted their church to be like. Many other churches have followed that course, eating up the strategies of the "Purpose Driven Church."

This approach to ministry is not "gospel driven," which focuses entirely on Christ; it's "Purpose Driven" which focuses entirely on the consumer. Likewise, Christian radio is full of consumer-focused slogans like "Positive, Encouraging" or "Safe for the Whole Family" or "Uplifting, Upbeat, Real."

By the way, that station my dad started in the 70s was bought out by K-Love less than two years ago. "Making Him Known" has been replaced with "Positive, Encouraging."

And their sister-station, which changed their approach from "negative hits" to positive ones.

What do we do when aberrant theological affirmations make their way into a song?
If this is being asked of the radio station, nothing. Is the song up-beat? Did it test well? Does it mention God in a positive and encouraging way? Then it's fine. It fits the criteria.

You're talking about an industry (it's an industry before it's a ministry) where one of the top-played artists over the last twenty-five years is Phillips, Craig, and Dean -- three pastors from three different churches who are all oneness pentecostals in their theology. They reject that God is three persons in one. Rather, he manifests himself as a Father, or as a Son, or as the Holy Spirit.

To be blunt, Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean do not know God. They do not understand a fundamental tenet of Christianity that the Father sent the Son to die on the cross for our sins. The beliefs of Phillips, Craig, and Dean would prevent them from receiving baptism in almost any orthodox church throughout church history. But testing the theology of the artists doesn't matter. As long as their music tests well, they'll get airplay.

Now, that's if the question is being asked of Christian radio. If this question is being asked of the listener, well, we should hold Christian stations accountable for what they play and who they play. Call the station. Write them a letter. (Don't bother with e-mail. I ignored way more messages than I ever read.) If they ignore you, post on their Facebook wall. But don't be an obnoxious pest. Do this with gentleness and respect.

I will forewarn you that sometimes any feedback is positive, whether you like or don't like what a station is doing. Even if you're logging a complaint, the station is probably thinking, "Thanks for listening!" If you weren't listening, you wouldn't know what to complain about. They don't often care about the content of a comment -- just that they're getting comments.

Why does so much Christian art mimic other forms instead of innovating?
This non-gospel, non-evangelism approach to programming exploded in the early 2000s after 9/11. Christian radio programmers in the big cities began consulting secular media experts to help them capture larger audiences and higher ratings. The number was the goal. The whole method is an imitation of secular market tactics. Therefore, the music itself is an imitation of the secular.

I don't think the secular stuff is any better. It sounds just as pre-packaged and over-produced, and the lyrics are just as dumbed-down and mind-numbingly bad without any substance. Sometimes Christian music gets made fun of as a bad imitation of the secular stuff. Heh. No. Secular music has had the market cornered on "Same Thing, Different Day" for much longer.

Surely you've heard or made jokes about how Christian music is the same four chords over and over again? Well, it used to be that Christian music was miles away in terms of musical talent and artistry, and secular music was the perpetrator of the same four-chord scheme. This comedy band goes through more than 30 hits over the last 40 years in less than 4 minutes using only 4 chords. And secular songs are just as guilty of being overly-repetitive as praise songs.

The church used to be the purveyor of genuine musical artistry. Handle's "Messiah," one of the greatest musical works ever written, came out of the church written in praise to our great God. The same goes for composers like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who wrote music for the church. There's even a Wikipedia page for classical composers of church music.

"Verily." ~Beethoven

Consider also the great hymn-writers like Luther, Lowry, Watts, Wesley, Crosby, Bliss, Bonar, Gabriel, Mason, Havergal, and any other I can't think of off the top of my head. Not only are their hymns masterful musical pieces, they're theologically deep, rooted in the Scriptures, communicating rich truth. Even a more modern composer like Bill Gaither has been writing stuff way more challenging than the typical four-chord praise song. There's Something About that Name sounds like such a simple melody. Have you ever tried to play it?

I learned to read music through the church hymnal. I'm convinced that more public schools are having to fight to keep their orchestra and choir programs because fewer churches have them. There's less interest in learning an instrument or singing in the choir because there's less interest in the church. Music is no longer being sung out of hymnals in four-part harmony -- we're reading words on a screen following a band playing the same four chords (guilty as charged).

When I was in college majoring in music, my music theory teacher, who was agnostic, told us that church hymns were the most perfect pieces of music ever written. One of our assignments was to write a hymn-style choral piece for SATB. My piano theory teacher told me that if I ever wanted to master sight-reading, I should try to learn and play a hymn every single day.

As I'm talking here about the influence of Christian music on the culture, I'm deliberately avoiding saying something like, "The church used to be the trend-setter." It should not be about setting trends. It's about making music to God (Psalm 92:3, 101:1) and doing so skillfully because the Bible says so (Psalm 33:3). It's not about making music to compete with, impress, or impact the mainstream. In fact, the Psalmist says if that's our objective, "let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth!" (Psalm 137:5-6)

The music that comes from the church can influence the culture, but it's not our objective. Since today's church music is being made largely to attract the worldly before it's giving praise to God, so Christian radio is also suffering both in theology and artistry. Whether or not it's better for a person to listen to Christian radio rather than secular doesn't excuse the fact that Christian radio desperately needs reformation. Such a revival must first happen in the church.

So what can we do?
I'm asking that question, not Wax. How do we change how terrible Christian radio has become? Well, I've said it several times already -- the change has to come from within the church. First the church needs to love sound doctrine, teach it, and rebuke those who contradict it. The church must also be holy and set apart, not conforming to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-2).

But we also need to be willing to recognize that Christian radio is bad. If we make excuses like, "Well, it's better than secular radio," or, "Come on, it's not that bad," then it isn't going to get fixed. Christian radio is terrible, and that's a shame. But teaching in the American church is also terrible, and that also needs to change. I believe if the church has a sound approach to teaching the word of God, many other areas of ministry will be solid as well, including Christian radio.

What if the church was raising up sound orators, both men and women, who loved the word of God and knew how to communicate it well? Wouldn't such a person make a fine radio DJ or general manager? What if the church was training those who have an ear for good music to also be listening for sound lyrics? Would that person make a great programmer? What if the church was encouraging those who play skillfully or write beautiful lyrics and poetry?

What if a church started a Christian radio station for the purpose of beaming the gospel to their community? Now, that's not easy to do. It's a long process and requires quite a bit of legalities. It also needs to be done professionally or it could be another wasted opportunity.

These things have to be considered as long-term investments. Such changes are not going to happen overnight. But they definitely need to happen. Some churches take years to root out bad teaching and encourage people to fall in love with the sound words of the Lord Jesus Christ that leads to godliness. So it will also take a long time to see such a change occur in Christian radio.

Radio is such a fantastic medium for spreading the gospel. I still believe that. But it's a resource that has been squandered. Christian radio -- like many Americans and many American churches -- needs to turn away from worldliness and turn to the Lord, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and the gospel of Jesus Christ.