Likes / Dislikes of Future / Past, and other thoughts on worship music
As the cheering crowd are faded out, strings begin to twang, thumbed casually enough to sound like tuning. John Mark McMillan's voice, deep and resonant but with a singsong style, warms up: "When the night starts pushing up the day... You're what I'm counting on." A rush of guitars is followed by the boom of electro-toms that are a near-constant throughout the album, and Live At The Knight is up and marching.
This slow-to-quick start, followed by a full blast of Guns / Napoleon, has become familiar to me over the past few months, following a friend’s recommendation. I want to talk about what I really like about this album and what I don’t. I’m going to criticise it on my own terms rather than its own, which is perhaps unfair, and if the overall impression of this article is unfavourable then it needs to be restated that I have come back to Live At The Knight far more frequently than I have many other albums that I have fewer problems with. What I’ve found interesting and exciting is that McMillan writes worship music and music that is Christian. These are not mutually exclusive terms, of course, but there’s a lot less of the latter around. I’ve enjoyed it because it tells stories, shares experiences, has thoughts. They’re not all tightly tied up with “correct” conclusions, which is fine but also causes problems. We'll get on to that later.
With barely a pause for breath, Borderlands follows Guns / Napoleon. It's rare when listening to Christian music that Bruce Springsteen is the first reference to come to mind, but he's clearly a deep influence here. Borderlands could hardly be more obvious, musically and thematically. “Living in the borderlands, I don't feel like a boy, I don't feel like a man...You've got to take what you get just to get what you can.” The narrator may not be quite as blue collar as The Boss's creations but there's the same sense of people living in the gap between reality and expectation, and a coda that concedes the irony of them failing to achieve their dream by the very methods they've been encouraged to use: “You can't hold on to love and live by the law of the jungle.” A huge drop at the chorus to a half-time rhythm led by a pounding drum beat accompanied by keys is only missing a saxophone solo to be straight from the E-Street Band's playbook. I love Springsteen so I'm totally happy with this, and I like the idea of the showing how the gospel subverts our hopes whilst offering us something better.
McMillan acknowledges this debt when he gives a mini-lecture (one of three monologues called “Dialogues”) on what real love is like, describing Springsteen's Tougher Than The Rest as his current favourite love song. He somehow plays the hipster card with one of America's most famous songwriters, “It was a huge song in the 80s, most of you didn't experience that.” (McMillan was born in 1979.) This celebration of love that's not afraid of a fight is the introduction to his wife of eleven years, Sarah. Her clear style complements the resonant tone and deeper notes of his, a lovely combination of beauty and honesty for King of My Heart and Glorious Things. This climaxes with him singing a coda whilst she maintains the chorus in King of My Heart. This is polyphony at its most basic but it’s still more than you’re usually likely to get in this type of worship music, and it sounds wonderful. There should be more harmony and multilayering in our songs about the triune God.
Ironically, as that chorus and coda entwine I find two other things happening in my mind. I’m thrilled by the music but I’m troubled by the lyrics. “You are good,” declares the chorus: amen, I reply. “You’re never going to let me down,” proclaims the coda: hmm, I think. What I've come to enjoy most in listening to this album is that the lyrics are poetic, and that also makes it tricky. I fear becoming a Christian literalist at this moment, a tone-deaf believing Dawkins.
What you have to understand when this happens is that I’m listening as both a worshipper and a pastor: someone who has a responsibility to care for God’s people and help them know the truth. If they’re frequently singing, “You’re never going to let me down,” how will they respond when it seems like He has? If this line is essentially another way of saying that God is faithful (Romans 8:28) then that’s fine, but will it not also encourage the mind-set that everything in this life is going to go the way that we want it to? Many Christians certainly think this way – we’re encouraged to by the culture we live in, and too often by Christian teaching which essentially the same thing backed up by a couple of context-free Bible quotations (Romans 8:28 again?). Will God ultimately let any of His children down? No, because we’re going to be with Him forever in joy, when every wrong will have been dealt with. Does that mean that we’ll never feel let down in this life, that we’ll never have to learn that our expectations were faulty? Of course not. I can’t think of a single character in the Bible who didn’t have to deal with this. Even Jesus. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
That famous cry from the cross is a quotation from Psalm 22, a song whose first half is full of misery but which concludes with hope. Jesus knew this, of course. The Psalms contain expressions of all emotions: love, joy, anger, hope, sorrow, despair, celebration, awe, repentance. They legitimatise us coming to God whatever our mood, and give shape to how we should worship Him. There is a time for each and all. We shouldn't expect a single song to convey all truth, that's why the Bible has a songbook, and we should have one too. Blessed Be Your Name by Matt Redman may manage to hold a lot together in a single song but others will be more appropriate for certain times only and some will need others alongside them to give a full breadth of truth. And maybe some just shouldn't be used in public contexts because there’s just too much ambivalence.
That may seem like a lot of thinking about a single line in one song but these things matter. What we sing stays with us and even shapes us, so we should make sure that it’s good. I remember hearing Terry Virgo tell of his conversations with songwriter Stuart Townend, who laboured diligently over every word and idea in his songs, the most famous fruit of which is the mighty, joyful, and true In Christ Alone.
It used to be said that you only needed to know three chords to play in a punk band. Contemporary Christian Music hasn’t always required much more than that but our current obsession with novelty, the new mother of invention, bears some good fruit here. McMillan’s songs are at their best when his pitch leaps up several flights of stairs at once to hit high notes (and wave a flag whilst he does so, it seems to me) before returning to the lowlands, a juxtaposition that is also found in heavy rock beats contrasting with something lighter and ethereal.
I may sing more worship songs in 3/4 time than I realise, but it still seems wonderfully strange to hear a slow waltz as Death In His Grave proclaims the resurrection in triumph. Holy Ghost is melancholy but hopeful: the emotional sucker punch of piano and cello underneath lyrics that speak of confusion, and end without resolution. Here are many of the elements that have made me keep coming back to this album. Then comes my favourite.
Shimmering keys, with their hint of the stadium-filling singalong to come, introduce Future / Past. Its first line is one of the best I’ve ever heard. “You hold the reigns on the sun and the moon, like horses driven by kings.” Oh my, that’s a line to make me stop in my tracks, to snap my head up in attention to the Lord of all, to fall to my knees and see my life for what it is and my God for who He is. The album is worth that line alone. As promised, the chorus is hands-in-the-air huge, McMillan’s vocals leaping to falsetto heights, taking our hearts with them.
And yet. Oh no, another irritation.
This one happens mid-song, whilst I’m still reeling from Future / Past’s opening line and just before we sing of God’s timelessness in the chorus. It’s this: “In this fortunate turn of events You ask me to be Your friend.” I’m happy for “fortunate” to be sung with a wry smile, and it doesn’t have to mean “lucky”, but the next bit? Does Jesus ask me to be His friend?
Kim Walker-Smith is the guest vocalist on this song. She is part of Bethel Church in California and Jesus Culture, one of the most influential churches and worship bands around in charismatic circles. I think this lyric summarises one of my key concerns with what those guys are doing (much of which is amazing and God-glorifying, by the way, and the brevity of this acknowledgement shouldn’t be taken as that meaning less than what I’m going to write more about). As I said in the first interval when wondering what to think as I told God He was never going to let me down, telling Jesus that He asked me to be His friend feels like making the wrong person the centre of attention.
The Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century recovered and popularised many great truths about Christianity, including the reality of a personal relationship with God which needed no mediating priest on earth. The Pentecostal movement that began in the early Twentieth Century promoted the vital work of the Holy Spirit in the life of individual Christians. I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am for these things, and I live everyday with an awareness of God’s personal care for me. I see this in the Bible, I experience it in my own life. I also life in a culture that is incredibly self-centred, and I am therefore highly susceptible to believing that the universe and its Maker revolve around me. So to suggest that Jesus sent me a friend request, and by implication that I was the one on whom my salvation was contingent, is unhelpful.
This happens again in the encore song on Live At The Knight: McMillan’s most famous and controversial song, How He Loves. There’s enough poetry in me to cope with the metaphors, “[His] love’s like a hurricane: I am a tree”, and I somehow make it past the visceral “Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” but the chorus finishes me off with its repetition of “He loves us, oh how He loves us.” Why do I have such a problem with this? It is true, God does love us, better than any of us comprehend! Maybe if I belonged to a harsh and unloving “Christian” tradition this song would be like balm to my soul, a gift from God, even. But for me it feels like an issue of focus once more. The trouble with singing “He loves us” again and again is that it starts to suggests that we are entirely lovely, lovable. This is the affirmation, the validation all the world craves, so it's no surprise to find it in Christian songs, but you won't find it in the Christian Scriptures.
God’s words sometimes sting whilst being sweet. Here’s what He told Israel after He rescued them from Egypt.
“It was not because you were more in number than any other people [i.e. impressive in themselves] that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)Centuries later the Old Testament prophets remained emphatically theocentric:
“For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off… For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9, 11)The gospel preached in the New Testament is glorious news but it starts with what a terrible state we were in. We were alienated from Him (Colossians 1:21) and enemies of Him (Romans 5:10)…
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:1-5)So it isn’t surprising that when Jesus surprisingly calls us His friends, it is He who plays the active role, He who decides that this is going to happen and sets the terms:
“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:14-16)Verses like these smash my ego and force me to put all my confidence in God. I am not loved because I am lovely but because He is merciful. I can know with certainty that I am loved, celebrating it and singing it joyfully, but I also know that the story isn’t really about me. In fact, the more I think about Him, the less I think about myself at all. Timothy Keller calls this “the freedom of self-forgetfulness.” I will sing about God in relation to myself because that’s one of the primary biblical methods of understanding and appreciating God. But it is about Him much more than it is about me. Listening again to another favourite, Guardian by Ben Cantelon, I notice that personal pronouns abound but the focus throughout remains fixed on God. It's almost entirely about what He does for us but is ultimately all about Him.
In case you were wondering, I haven’t thought of an alternative line to sing instead of “You ask me to be Your friend” yet. Perhaps this is the tension between a poetry of passion and a pastor’s desire for precision.
Carbon Ribs is a song about Mephibosheth, and there aren’t enough of those! Heart Runs is another stadium rock hit packed with metaphors a crowd can sing together. Then we end (ignoring the encore) where we began, with Counting On. Not for the first time, the singer is choked. A stumbling, stumbled sinner can gasp, through tears, “You’re what I’m counting on.” Yes, He is.