The Importance of Craft

Featuring Robert Sterling Posted on July 4, 2012

For hundreds of years, Christian composers, painters, sculptors, and authors have proclaimed their faith with their art. The result has been some of the most awe-inspiring works of art ever created – the music of Bach, Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel, the novels of C. S. Lewis. But there has also been a great deal of bad religious art created along the way. (I know. I’ve contributed my fair share.) According to author Madeleine L’Engle, “Art is art; painting is painting; music is music. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”

But as we proclaim our faith with art, how great is our responsibility to see to it the art we make is actually good? Does it matter if our Christian art stands up to the accepted standards of a given art form? Is it not enough for the Christian songwriter to simply write songs that pour from the heart, inspired by a relationship with the Lord? Or should he understand the craft and rules of songwriting? Does the art form itself matter, or is the relationship with Jesus all that matters? Giovanni Palestrina, a 16th century composer, put it this way: “If people take great pains to compose beautiful music for profane (secular) songs, they should devote at least as much thought to sacred song, nay, even more than to mere worldly matters.” Well put, Giovanni.

The best answer I have for the question “Should craft and workmanship matter to the Christian songwriter?” is: “Jesus’ chairs.”

“Jesus’ chairs?” you ask.

Yes. “Jesus’ chairs.” Allow me to explain.

According to scripture, Jesus was a carpenter (Mk. 6:3) and the son of a carpenter (Mt. 13:55). Carpentry was the family business, and Jesus almost certainly learned the trade from his father, Joseph. I can even imagine the sign that hung outside the shop – “Joseph and Son: Quality Carpentry Since 45 BC.” Some very smart Bible scholars say a more accurate translation than “carpenter” would be “stonemason” or even “building contractor.” Regardless, I am going out on a limb to assume Jesus and his earthly father built things for a living. And for the purposes of this particular illustration, I am going to stick with “carpenter.”

Work with me here, and keep in mind that this is only a theory. But here goes: I believe that when the Creator of the Universe took the time to make a chair in his earthly father’s carpentry shop, it would have been the very best chair you could possible get anywhere in Galilee. Can you imagine Jesus building a chair with uneven legs that tilts annoyingly every time somebody sits on it? I can’t. What I can imagine is people coming from miles around Nazareth to buy furniture from Joseph and Son. Their furniture must have been unbeatable. Beautiful. Well-crafted. Built to last. I would have hated to be the competition across town.

So, as followers of Jesus, how should Christian songwriters write songs? We should write songs the way Jesus made chairs – beautiful, well crafted, and written to last. To do that, we definitely need to understand the craft of songwriting. We must master all the song forms, know the intricacies of rhyme and poetic devices, and harness the power of melody and harmony - because these are the tools required to write great songs. I am certain Jesus toiled long and hard to make his work excellent. We need to understand that writing is often hard work, and it’s worth the effort.

For centuries, whether in music or painting or sculpture, the Church was responsible for some of the most exquisite art this world has ever known. That is no longer the case. Instead, today most church music is blindly following the same path as the rest of American pop culture, the downward spiral toward the Lowest Common Denominator.

Consider pop music for a moment. The quality of the music is no longer the prime concern of the record company. The prime concern is “Will it sell a lot, and fast?” American pop culture worships success, so if something is successful then it is deemed good. In pop music, success always triumphs over substance.

If pop music has sacrificed substance for success, then Christian music has sacrificed substance for the appearance of substance. Today’s Christian songwriter has learned that if you string together enough spiritual catch phrases and repeat them enough times, you don’t have to say anything at all. Christian music, like the rest of American culture, is “dumbing down.”

The immediate effects of this trend are all negative. The first thing to go is craftsmanship. The use of imagery in many current Christian songs is non-existent. Rhyme schemes, if the song rhymes at all, are simplistic. The song form may have only one verse and a chorus, which are to be repeated ad nauseum. These songs are incomplete and musically malnourished. (I admit that I have written a couple of these “one-verse-repeat-chorus-forever” songs. Still, whenever I hear them they feel unfinished.) The emphasis in writing praise songs is often placed on “authenticity” and “inspiration,” so re-writing is out of the question – the idea being that working on the song after the first draft would somehow diminish its immediacy or its connection to God. This is nonsense, but I fear this is a prevailing myth influencing many sincere but misguided young Christian songwriters.

When the rules of craft and form no longer matter, song structure crumbles, and the creative process loses its discipline. Without discipline, standards evaporate, and we are left with songs that lack musical integrity, songs that are lyrically empty or, worse still, songs that are theologically unsound. We see the results of this debilitating trend in Sunday services where worshippers are led in song after song that say little more than “I love how I love You, Lord.”

There is an undeniable tendency to ascribe value and veracity to the songs we sing in church and that we hear on the radio. The great hymn writers knew that the typical churchgoer received as much knowledge of theology from the songs sung in worship as from the sermon or Bible study. Unfortunately, as we absorb many of these new songs, we drink in a theology that is the spiritual equivalent of a Diet Coke® - tasty, but empty calories.

Fortunately, from what I gather, young Christians who are the target audience for this music are growing tired of a steady diet of musical pabulum that offers no art and little, if any, theology. This is good news, because if Christian consumers are weary of three-chord-wonders content to incessantly drone, “God is awesome,” then perhaps there is hope for a return to Christian songs that are deeper both in music and in meaning.

I take encouragement from singer-songwriters such as Warren Barfield, Nicole Nordeman and Jason Gray, who write well-crafted songs that tackle the real issues of daily life from a Christian perspective. There is a growing resurgence of the use of traditional hymns in contemporary worship services. Writers like Fernando Ortega, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty are offering modern hymns that may well stand the test of time.

If there is to be such a return to better crafted, more meaningful songs in Christendom, then those of us who write songs for the sake of the Kingdom must be about the business of improving our craft. We should be studying the art of writing, enlarging our vocabulary, and expanding our musical horizons. Otherwise, we settle for giving God less than our best, and that is a shame. After all, how can we claim to know personally the Creator of All There Is and not strive to be the most creative of His children? Sadly, all too often when the Father entrusts us with a song we are tempted to settle for that brief moment of inspiration, proudly proclaiming, “God gave it to me,” and believe that’s the end of the process. Those who stop there are missing out on the best part - the joy of giving one’s best efforts, toiling hard with the Lord until the song is as good as it can be. You see - I believe that writing a song is not merely about penning another radio hit for the Kingdom or kicking out something that grooves well for the band in Sunday morning worship. The Lord of the Universe does not need our feeble help creating music. If God wanted, the rocks themselves would sing His praise. Instead, I believe, like all worthwhile creative endeavors, writing a song is an opportunity for the writer to get a little closer to God. It is as if the Lord of the Universe is inviting the songwriter to come out and play, join in the fun, and experience first-hand what a wonder it is to be truly creative.