Good God, Bad Music

Today, we could talk about a global pandemic or racism or why a virus doesn’t care how you vote or why there’s a shortage of cold brew tea(!), but instead, let’s talk about the most pressing issue of the day.

Worship music.

More specifically, bad worship music.

Some of you think that’s redundant. Why do you think so? Because there’s a lot of it. Why do you suppose that is? To examine that, let’s re-visit a movie from the last year of the 80’s. The movie is set in the most unlikely of places, a poetry classroom at an all-boy’s school. The casting of the lead actor was a bit baffling at the time but seems perfect in retrospect, and three of the teenage boys would go on to become stars in their own right.

About halfway through the movie, Keating, the poetry teacher1 takes the class out onto the school’s courtyard, picks three of the students and tells them to walk around. “No grade today, boys, just take a stroll,” he says. And the three boys start out walking normally, but within seconds have fallen behind each other into a march in unison, left-right-left, with the rest of the class clapping in time along with them.

After about thirty seconds, he stops them. He talks about how each started with their own unique way of walking. “But I didn’t bring them up to ridicule them”, he says, "I brought them up to talk about conformity, the difficulty of maintaining our own beliefs in the face of others. Now some of you, I see the look in your eyes, like, ‘I would have walked differently!’ But ask yourselves…

“Why were you clapping?”

The biggest message in that scene isn’t about the three boys who walked in step (yes, we all tend to conform). No, the biggest message is about the rest of the boys, laughing and singing and clapping in time with the steps. We are all those boys—we tend to love and reward people who conform. And, of course, as the movie demonstrates later, the opposite is true as well: we tend to either shun people who don’t, or try to force them to conform. With tragic consequences.

You would think the music industry, an entire industry of creative people, could not possibly fall victim to something as mundane as conformity. And you would be wrong. Listen to the airwaves: they’re the biggest group of copycats in the world. (Which is how we were inflicted with disco.) Bon Iver sells a few records? Suddenly there are a million Bon Iver clones.

You would also think that Christians in the music industry, who not only are creatives but know they were made uniquely by a Creator, would be absolutely immune to conformity. And you would, again, be completely and totally and in every other way, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

If anything, the “Christian music”2 industry is even worse. Someone makes a successful hymns record, suddenly we have a thousand different hymns records. Someone makes a successful live record, suddenly we have a thousand different live records. If someone made a successful record accompanied by their dogs tomorrow, I’m pretty sure we’d have a thousand different dog records next week.

Which brings us to bad worship music. Worship music has, of course, been around for quite a while; one or three thousand years, maybe. But a few years ago, it suddenly exploded, kind of like a whole tomato that’s been put in the microwave too long. And it’s made as big a mess.

Now we have all-worship radio stations. Nothing but worship music, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That’s 168 hours, or approximately 2500 song segments, a week. Do you know what it takes to fill 2500 song segments a week with worship songs?

A lot of bad worship music.

You know how you get a lot of bad worship music? You make a lot of people make worship music who weren’t made to make worship music. Wait a minute, you say—everyone’s made to make worship music! No, they aren’t.

Everyone’s made to worship.

Those aren’t the same thing at all. The latter is what Jesus calls us to, the former is what Conformity tells us. When it came time to make the tabernacle, God names two men to head the work: Bezalel and Oholiab. Here’s what God says about Bezalel:

“I have filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works…” (emphasis mine)

Bezalel and Oholiab were uniquely made to head the work of the tabernacle’s construction. What if they looked around and decided that they should be shepherds? What if their parents had looked around and decided their sons needed to be shepherds because all their friends were raising shepherds? What would it have looked like if a bunch of shepherds had made the tabernacle?

Worship is the expression of reverence and adoration for God. Bezalel and Oholiab worshipped by making things, excellent things, things that drew the attention of their Creator and caused Him to call them out to make something extraordinary. This is hard for a lot of us to understand. Eric Liddell’s sister didn’t—she told him that running was a waste of time, that he should be on the mission field. But Eric knew that worship happens even on a running track.

God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Eric’s father got it, at least the movie version of his father.

You can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil. Run in God’s name and let the world stand back and in wonder.

Replace “praise God” with “worship” and “compromise” with “conformity” there, and the meaning is the same.

Which brings us full circle. Why is there so much (bad) worship music out there right now? It’s not because so many musicians want to make worship music. It’s because we love and reward conformity. The three boys were the ones walking in step, but it was the crowd that influenced them to do so. We have to fight being conformed (Rom 12:1–2), absolutely, but, perhaps even more so, we also have to fight compelling others to conform.

God you made you to be… you. He didn’t make you to be your sibling, or your parent, or your best friend, or the popular kid/co-worker. God is most worshipped when you are most you that He made you to be. If He made you to make things, make things. If He made you to run, run. If He made you to make worship music, make worship music. If He made you to make rock-and-roll, make rock-and-roll.

But God also did not make your best friend to be you. He did not make your child to be you. He did not make your child to be like your best friend’s child. He did not make your pastor to be like your last pastor. He did not make your church to be like the church you loved in the former city in which you lived. He did not make this friend to be like those friends.

Our pastor, in a throwaway line at his brother Loyd’s Celebration of Life service last week, said he had tried a couple of times the previous week to “do it like Loyd”. The result, he said, was that he had scared a couple of ladies to death. “It didn’t work—no one could do Loyd but Loyd.”

And no one should try. If God had needed another Loyd He would have made one. What He needed was Ross, and you, and me, and that’s what we should be. You should be 100% you. I should be 100% me.3

The tragedy in Dead Poet’s Society was the loss of a young man as a result of the pressure of conforming. The real life tragedy is when we try to be someone else and the world gets a mediocre someone else instead of a fantastic us. Because when we seek God, when we worship Him, when we live the life He made us for, the results are always, forever, 100% of the time, fantastic.

Carpe diem.

  1. That’s right, Keating the poetry teacher. I didn’t say it was a subtle movie.
  2. I intensely dislike that term, and the reason for it.
  3. Some would argue I should be more like 75% me, but that’s a post for another time.

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