Good Taste and Common Sense

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

By appropriateness we mean good taste and common sense, not just spirituality. We don’t want to set the Lord’s Prayer or any other reverent expression of worship to a slick, frivolous dance beat. Some styles were never intended to carry the weight of  message—they’re simply dance music. Of course there’s a place for joyful expressions of praise in say, a happy reggae beat. The Bible tells us to dance before the Lord. David did it, with all his might, to wild and exuberant music. Just be careful that your music consistently fits your message. You don’t want to realize, suddenly, that you’ve turned a corner into solemn words of worship and find yourself boogying into the Throne Room, to the amazement of all the worshiping seraphim and saints. Oops! 

Another form of inappropriateness is overfamiliarity with the Lord, as in two imaginative titles submitted to a publisher we knew—“Curly Hair, Eyes of Blue—That’s My Jesus,” and “Holding Hands With Jesus on the Beach at Waikiki.” Perhaps the most insensitive kind of all is “Jesus died on Calvaree, Shed his blood to set me free”snap snap groove groove grin grin— a careless disregard for the gravity, pathos and meaning of the passion. Although there is a wealth of subject matter within our Christian experience to celebrate in “fun” music, Jesus’ agony on the cross is not a subject of fun for any thinking person. 

Many beginning writers try to start by writing scripture songs. That way, they think they won’t have to worry too much about the lyrics. But these are some of the hardest songs to write well. First, let’s list some common mistakes and see if we can give some constructive help: 

1. Trying to cram all the exact words of  scripture into too few beats, putting acCENTS on the wrong sylLAbles. Carol says, “Like a lady trying to squeeze into a girdle, something is usually left hanging over in the wrong place.” 

2. Starting a song with the word “for” or “therefore.” Both these words refer back to something previous, and if your song starts there and doesn’t refer back to anything, you raise questions that don’t get answered. 

3. Mixing King James English with modern English. Once you’ve addressed the Lord as “You,” don’t switch the form of address to “Thee” to make a rhyme. 

• On the positive side, keep several Bible translations handy so you can find various wordings of verses. Some are more lyrical than others and may fit your meter better. If none of them works, make your own paraphrase. Yes, it’s perfectly all right to do this. After all, you’re not claiming your version is scripture—only lyrics based on scripture. 

• But be careful. Don’t attempt a paraphrase on the strength of one translation. Unless you know Biblical Hebrew or Greek, stay very close to the consensus of several translations. The Amplified Bible can give you added insight into shades of meaning, and a thesaurus may help, too. If any interpretation of doctrine is involved, it’s a good idea to have your lyrics checked by someone who knows theology. A subtle shade of meaning might imply doctrinal error that could raise red flags in at least some parts of the church. 

• If you really want to set a scripture verse to music verbatim (perhaps as an aid to Bible memorization), here’s a starting place: In some translations, the translators have rendered the Psalms and a few other poetic passages into at least a type of free verse. They don’t rhyme, but by stretching words and syllables over several notes you might establish some meter with them, especially if you repeat some phrases. 

• Consider the sounds of the words in your scripture passage. Don’t expect to find much rhyme; but look for poetic qualities such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc. A verse such as “He walks on the wings of the wind” ( Psalm 104:3) might almost set itself to music. 

Ed Kerr and Paul were assigned to write a scripture memory song for a passage in Psalm 103, from the NIV Bible.Their first thought was,“Nothing rhymes. This is going to be impossible.” But as they carefully read the scriptures out loud and began singing the words with random melodies, they were pleasantly surprised to find their mouths delighting in all the yummy alliteration, assonance and inner rhymes that were coming out. Say it aloud to yourself, and notice all the devices there: 

Bless the Lord, O my soul 

(Two O’s and two el’s in that line)

 And forget not all His benefits. 

(Alliteration: three tees) 

Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases. 

(Assonance: two short i’s and two ee’s. And listen to the six zee sounds. There are seven esses, all but one pronounced as zees.) 

Who redeems your life from the pit 

(Nothing much in that line) 

and crowns you with love and compassion. 

(Two hard cees and two uh sounds) 

He satisfies your desires with good things 

(Two long i’s and three zees) 

So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. 

(Isn’t that lovely?) 

You may not notice all that just by looking at a passage, but if you read it aloud and sing it out, you may discover some real poetic beauty in the scriptures. 

• Look for obvious rhythm patterns in the passage. Sometimes the first phrase will establish a rhythm pattern you can develop. The rhythm of “You Shall Be Holy,” from If My People ... was suggested by the inner rhyme be and Me: 

You shall be 

Holy unto Me

 For I, the Lord, am holy. 

Jon Mohr’s touching scripture song, “He Who Began a Good Work in You” develops in the same way, emphasizing the alliteration between “He” and “who” and placing “who” and “you” in rhyming spots: 

He  who 

Began a good work in you 

Or maybe you can make the text fit the meter by stretching some syllables over two or more beats or notes, (called melisma) as in “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” 

• A time-honored way of making a scripture passage lyrical is to use the anthem form. A song may say, “The cows are in the corn,” while an anthem says, “The cows, the cows, the cows, are in the corn, the corn, the corn.” Rewind to page 129 and read the lyrics to Jimmy’s, “If  My People will Pray.”  The whole scripture passage is there, its meaning is intact, but the words have been converted from prose to lyrics.

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