Bren McLean


by on Mar.26, 2013, under Worship


There is such a need for clarity in the writing of our songs (and sermons). We have asked the songwriters at St Paul’s to think about their subject and means of expressing their subject in the clearest way possible. Questions regarding the legitimacy of this push probably stem from the idea that ‘thinking kills feeling’. In fact, I believe quite the opposite.

The following thoughts serve to show the benefits of clarity in writing and of thinking hard to achieve it. I hope that what we mean by clarity will also become evident as the list goes on.

1. CLARITY ‘leads to understanding’

You have probably heard this phrase or something similar, “That’s not clear, can you explain it further?” This kind of thing is said when a lack of clarity prevents proper understanding. An instruction has been spoken or written in a clumsy way and the concept cannot be properly understood. Understanding is assisted by the clarity of the instruction or, perhaps, the feeling.

Think of the possible dangers if the instructions are not clearly given to a doctor in an emergency room or a driver being directed by a policeman. Think of the greater dangers if our songs do not adequately explain what is written in the Bible. A song can offer a true and essential picture of God and of Christianity through its clarity. If a person is asked, “What was that song about?” and they answer, “I don’t know,” what have we done for their understanding of God? If they have no understanding of God, what do they have?

“They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of his hands.

Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding.”

Isaiah 5:12-13a

2. CLARITY ‘heightens emotional impact’

It has been said, wrongly, that ‘thinking kills feeling’. Instead, proper thinking serves to sharpen and intensify right emotional response.

Imagine a soldier in the trenches, thinking of his wife back at home. He may remember that she is pretty. This may be true and it offers him a vague connection to her reality. He may instead remember that the sides of her eyes moved when she smiled and that she threw her head back when she laughed. These concrete details tie the memory to a much stronger sense of her reality. I would think that his emotional state is helped by this detail and not hindered. Again, imagine a child remembering her father. She may remember that he was a kind man. This may be true and gives her a vague connection to him. She may then remember that he took her out to dinner every second Thursday when he was paid. This provides her with a concrete example of his kindness and ties the memory to a stronger sense of his reality.

One of the reasons the Bible is so practical is that it provides concrete facts to underpin and intensify our feelings towards God. Instead of saying “I think God will look after me,” the Bible gives us, “For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Instead of saying, “God is generous,” the Bible gives us, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all- how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”

These statements, in their clarity, do not kill the feeling but give a reason for it. Aim to create emotion with foundation.

3. CLARITY ‘in specificity honours the subject’

A wife may one day say to her husband, “Why do you love me?” If he responds with, “I don’t know,” she has a right to be hurt. His love for her appears to be based upon nothing and she feels it has little to do with her. If though, he begins to list the wonderful things she has done, the memories he has of her, her skills and talents, her natural beauty and even the way she treats other people, his love begins to honour her for who she is.

The second response is based on the husband’s good understanding of their relationship and not a vague feeling. I believe a person could also dishonour God by not thinking properly about the reasons why they love and serve Him. To ignore the specific things that God has done in history and the way He has shown Himself definitely in the Bible is to ignore the methods He has chosen to explain Himself.

We can offer this specificity in our songs. When we say that God is good or that we love Him, we should also aim to show why. He has certainly provided reason. If the reason is not explicitly stated in the line (for timing, length or aesthetic reasons), the writer must know themselves why such a thing has been written and, if possible, show reasons elsewhere in the song.

4. CLARITY ‘safeguards against emptiness’

When you sit down to write a song you have the option to write about anything. What fun! So you choose an idea because you must and it may be, for example, love. This, though, does not help you a great deal because love is an enormous topic and does not offer much of a starting point; you could still write about anything to do with love.

Here Ayn Rand is helpful, ‘[I]f something can be anything, it is actually nothing; if you feel, “Now I can write anything,” then you will write nothing. Only when you have some specific entry in mind- some germ of a plot- can you make something out of something and begin to build.’

A song about everything is a song about nothing.

It is not possible to write a book (or fifty books) that could adequately explain the love of God much less a song. The writer must be able to focus on something smaller, an aspect of God’s love or a phrase/picture that helps them to begin to see it. e.g.

‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.”

1 John 3:16

Do not aim for everything. It will end up amounting to nothing.

5. CLARITY ‘leaves a lasting impression’

As much as we want our songs to create ‘moments’ in a church service (for the purpose of feeling/seeing something in the moment), what do they offer Christians back out in the world? Do our songs die as soon as we leave the church? Do they only hold their power with the band, the lights and the crowd of voices? Songs that create a vague picture of God’s love or generosity or power may well create ‘moments’ in our church services and this is not inherently a problem. These vague ideas, though, offer little to sustain Christians outside the church service.

Compare the lines, “Humbly You [Jesus] came to the earth you created,” and “We’re giving it all to go your way.”

The first example explores the reality of Jesus’ incarnation and great humility. This fact will remain unchanged by any fleeting emotions that come to the Christian through their week. It offers a stable truth, unaffected by outside conditions. The second example may in fact be true at the time and create a terrific feeling of release in a church service. It does not, however, offer as lasting a truth. The feeling of release may be squashed by loneliness, depression, lust or any number of emotions that fight for control of the mind as days go by.

You may notice that it often takes a few lines to adequately (or stunningly, please) convey a thought. A typical verse, for example, has four lines. The writer may choose to connect one, two or three of these lines to form a single thought. On the other hand, a writer may choose for their verse to consist of four unconnected (but implicitly or vaguely related) statements. The strength of connected statements, though, becomes apparent when a verse conveys a single thought so powerfully that the idea/truth cannot be easily forgotten or misunderstood.

Here is an example:

“See from His head, His hands His feet

Sorrow and love flow mingled down

Did ever such love and sorrow meet

Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

Instead of one line making a statement we have four lines working together to expand and clarify the statement. The effect is cumulative.

Line 2 connects to Line 1 when it describes the ‘sorrow and love’ flowing down the ‘head…hands…feet’ of Jesus.

Line 3 connects to Line 2 as ‘such love and sorrow’ are referred to again, this time in question form.

Line 4 connects to Line 3 when the question is heightened with an ‘or’ and moves to describe the crown of thorns, still contributing to the picture of Jesus up on the Cross.

The writer offers the Christian the idea of Jesus’ love on the Cross and uses the full four lines to create one clear picture. The truth of Jesus’ sorrow and love will remain unchanged by the day’s circumstances. This creates a lasting impression and something that remains after the singing in church.

6. CLARITY ‘assists in mediation’

The Psalms promote meditation on God and the Bible. It is very difficult, though, to meditate (or think deeply) about a vague concept. It is tricky to think about love or goodness or forgiveness or truth since these ideas are abstractions or concepts and do not represent actual instances or examples.

“I meditate on Your precepts and consider Your ways.”

Psalm 119:15

“Oh, how I love Your law! I meditate on it all day long.”

Psalm 119:97

“I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on Your statutes.”

Psalm 119:99

Ayn Rand explores the idea of abstractions: “For instance, the word table is an abstraction; it stands for any table you have ever seen or will see. If you try and project what you mean by ‘table’, you can easily visualize any number of concrete examples. But in regard to abstractions like individualism, freedom or rationality, most people are unable to name a single concrete.”

To fill a song with words like love or goodness or forgiveness or truth does not help a congregation to know precisely what is being sung about. Some songs throw multiple abstractions into a single line! If a congregation sits down at the end of your song and thinks, ‘I wonder what that was about,’ or, ‘I don’t know what that was about,’ then how will any further meditation take place!

Once the topic is clear (for example, forgiveness), the concept must be actualised (or made real) with examples. A song about forgiveness (the vague concept) could be clarified with a line like,

“The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives!”

Here a concrete example is given and the idea of forgiveness has been crystalised into a sentence which can be thought about further. Another song using the concept of forgiveness becomes real and meditation-ready with a line like,

“Oh, praise the one who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead!”

Some songs use the full four lines of the verse to explain one abstraction. Here the idea of love (God’s love) is explored over the full four lines:

“How deep the Father’ s love for us

How vast beyond all measure

That He should give His only Son

To make a wretch His treasure!”

The writer is trying to explain the abstract concept of love. He gives the concrete example of God’s offering through Jesus’ death to turn sinners into His precious treasure. The concept is also described as ‘deep,’ ‘vast’ and ‘beyond all measure.’ Meditation on this concrete example is possible.

Further, instead of multiple abstract concepts in one line, the writer uses multiple lines to explain one abstract concept!

The church can continue to think through this and be helped by it.

7. CLARITY ‘promotes unity’

When the Christian church begins in Acts, there is a remarkable time of fellowship and generosity and growth. Acts 4:32 says,

“All the believers were one in heart and mind.”

For a church to be one in heart and mind is no small thing. The harmony of (right) desires, gratitude, confession and praise blesses God and blesses the church. In the context of corporate singing we are able to promote unity with songs. If a song is clear (topically and lyrically) there is a higher chance that the people are understanding and singing the same thing.

For the four minutes that the song is being sung there could be an extraordinary unity of heart and mind. You will all know the sound of this taking place. Think of the moment when a congregation experiences this kind of song and the volume and intensity increases dramatically. It can be felt almost physically. The less the clear the song, the less chance there is of this.

Write songs that offer a high chance of unity of heart and mind.

8. CLARITY ‘safeguards against hollow enthusiasm’

Paul writes,

“Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”

Romans 10:1-2

Hollow enthusiasm negatively impacts herd mentality and promotes false zeal.

Herd mentality occurs when large numbers of people act in the same way at the same time. The church could function here as the large group. A song could be the common activity or action. How dangerous and dishonorable it will be if we allow vague and lazy songs to be swept up by the larger group (here, church) and begin to influence corporate thinking about God and experience of fellowship. There is a good and real energy that comes from large crowds unified in their passion for and support of a cause.

In the same way, though, herd mentality can be dangerous. This happens when the enthusiasm builds over something less worthy but equally influential due to the large gathering.

If your songs are not clear and true, what are the people getting excited about when they sing them? The sound of many voices? That is not enough. A general feeling of happiness? That is not enough. Singing the same thing? That is not enough.

The corporate enjoyment of singing can include these things but cannot be built on them. The corporate enjoyment of singing must be fueled by proper understanding of the truth which leads to an appreciation of and passion for the truth. Without this, the enthusiasm may quickly become false zeal.

“Desire without knowledge is not good.”

Proverbs 19:2a

False zeal could boil down to a phrase something like, “It does not matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.”

You may replace the word ‘sincere’ with ‘passionate’ or ‘joyful’ or ‘faithful.’ Many problems arise from this kind of thinking. Religious fanatics are often very zealous but can believe terrible things. What true follower of Jesus would condone harming unbelievers as long as you were enthusiastic about it! It always, always matters what a person is zealous for. Zeal without proper knowledge is harmful. Zeal for God’s word is good. Zeal for murder is not. The presence of zeal does not miraculously transform an action or a belief into a good one.

The writer must fight hollow enthusiasm and the slippery path to false zeal by making it very clear what we are zealous for. Your songs will make it clear.

A note here may be added on spontaneity and inspiration. Sometimes a song or an idea will come about very quickly and over-thinking seems like it would spoil some of the natural freedom.

First we may apply a phrase from the previous paragraph to see that spontaneity is not immune from revision: ‘It does not matter what you believe, as long as it is spontaneous’ or ‘It does not matter what you write, as long as it is spontaneous.’ This is clearly untrue. Spontaneity and inspiration do not miraculously transform any song into a true one any more than zeal transforms any action into a good one. So, thank God for any inspiration and spontaneity that comes to you, it is a great gift and should be used wherever possible. But do not think that this means you have written the inerrant truth. Be ready to think and revise.

‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.”

1 Corinthians 14:29

Prophecy is tested against Scripture. So should your writing be.

I hope that you will fight for clarity in your songs. At a broad level this will mean knowing what the song is about and why it should be written. Smaller details may include carefully choosing your conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns. Fight for clarity and good understanding. This will be the foundation for feeling.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”Colossians 3:16

Guest post by Assistant Music Minister, Jonny Robinson



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