The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?

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Weekly Worship Thought – Hurricane Liturgy

hurricane liturgy

As a resident of the Houston area, Hurricane Harvey has made an impression on me. We take storms of this caliber very seriously. So seriously that schools close for multiple days and churches cancel Sunday worship services. We are better safe than sorry. Flooding and dangerous roadways are the biggest concern.

With so many churches canceling worship services on Sunday, there have been several devotions made available for home use. Here is a list of litanies, prayers, and devotions I found for use in times of inclement weather. Feel free to share others that you may know.

Weekly Worship Thought – #ELCAontheWay

This week I am at the Rostered Ministers Gathering in Atlanta. I am helping with the audio/video logistics as well as sharing a couple of workshops. It has been a great week. Here are some pics:

This was the “10 Ways to Use Video Technology in Worship” workshop.

We had some great discussion in the “Curating Worship for a Cross-Cultural Context” workshop.

This was my spot in the booth for the week. I used two MacBook laptops to display all the video content during worship, plenary, Bible Study, etc.

A really wonderful ballroom space with a huge piece of art as the backdrop.

Good folks from the Gulf Coast Synod.

This was a slide from Chad Fothergill’s presentation on “Singing the Church’s Song in iCulture.”

 

Weekly Worship Thought – 5 Good Reasons to Sing in Church

Why do you like to sing? There is something transformative that happens when our soul and body connect to the melody and text of a song. Here are what I consider to be the top 5 reasons why we should be singing in church. These ideas are adapted from Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages. Augsburg Fortress, 2008. p. 55.

  1. Singing is communal. Singing in church is meant to be more than a bunch of solo voices forming notes at the same time in one space. When an assembly breathes together at the same time, creating the same pitches and harmonies, something unites all our solo voices into one. We become connected to everyone in the space. This connection seeps out of the current time and place and touches all believers from past and future and across the world.
  2. Singing nurtures faith. You are what you eat. In the same fashion, you believe what you sing. The story of God’s creation, reconciliation, and new creation is best learned in the psalms, songs, and hymns that have sustained generations before as well as those yet to come.
  3. Singing shapes memory. The songs that nurture our faith also give us the handlebars to hold onto our faith when crisis and frailty arrives. The songs of our brothers and sisters can lift us up and remind us of God’s faithfulness when we need it. Sometimes we need to sing for others. There will be times when others need to sing for us.
  4. Singing opens us to the Spirit. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation, God makes a home amidst our praises. When we sing in community the hardened parts of our heart are broken open. We become open and receptive to how God is moving around us.
  5. Singing builds trust. When I open my mouth and sing in church I am instantly vulnerable. What if I stick out? What if I sing out of tune? What if I sing the wrong word? What if people think my voice is ugly? There is nothing like vulnerability that provides a place for trust to grow. And church is the one place where we should be able to trust that we are loved.

Weekly Worship Thought – Disney Don’t’s

Earlier in the week I scrolled across a video on Facebook. It was a recording of a pastor leading his Sunday assembly in the singing of a song from a popular Disney movie.

This is a big no-no. Here are a couple of reasons why:

Legality – Disney songs are not covered by your standard church music licenses. You need special permission to use their songs in a live performance. To publish a video of you using their song you would also need a mechanical license. Disney is very protective of their content. Our church made the mistake of publishing the title of one of their movies in an announcement. They quickly let us know about what licensing was needed to host a public gathering that featured one of their films. Don’t steal their content. You can’t afford the legal consequences.

Assembly song – Disney songs are not written to be sung by a worshiping assembly. As sentimental and charming as they are, their music wasn’t designed to be sung by average Joe parishioner. The range of notes and rhythmic complexity don’t translate to a large group of non-musically trained singers. They are meant for soloists and small ensembles.

So my advice – leave the Disney songs for the movies. There is plenty of good stuff to sing!

Weekly Worship Thought – Worship Leader FOMO

Do you know what FOMO is?

Wikipedia says, “Fear of missing out or FoMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. This social angst is characterized by “a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”.

I think worship leaders can get weighed down with FoMO. There is this subtle voice in the back of the worship leader’s mind that suggests there is new music and it needs to be sung this week. There is a fear of missing out on the most current worship songs. “If I don’t use this song that (popular Christian artist) released this week, then people are going to leave and go to the church that did.” Or, “If I don’t use this song that (mega church) used last week then people are going to feel like we aren’t relevant anymore.”

Or perhaps the actual fear is not being able to post to social media that you were on the cutting edge of using that song first?

Instead, I feel our call is to select songs pastorally. What does that mean? That means that songs are selected for worship that will reflect and meet the needs of the people who are actually assembled with you. Which is different than selecting songs for the sake of staying ahead of a trend. Our call is to lay down our preferences and lift up others preferences for the sake of the church being the embodied hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

Weekly Worship Thought – Every Table is An Altar

This is a new worship song I came across called, “Every Table is An Altar.”

If I were going to use this song, I might arrange it leaving the Bridge section out. An 11 minute ballad isn’t for every church. I think the song is lyrically strong enough without the Bridge. Especially if you use the Pre-Chorus in place of the building Bridge section.

The lyrics are striking. I’m drawn to them because they connect the tables of our everyday lives to Jesus’ radical table fellowship. They remind me of the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts…Let us give thanks…”). They also recall the Emmaus Road story:

Verse 1:
Every table is an altar
Every breath is a gift from you
Every moment is a treasure
Every day is a kiss from you

Pre-Chorus:
So let our hearts
Be awake, be awake

Chorus:
Break the bread, pour the wine
Let our hearts, come alive
In your presence, in your presence
Let our fear, fall away
Let our faith, rise today
In your presence, in your presence
Jesus

Verse 2:
Every stranger has a story
Every story’s being told by you
We’re all children on a journey
Jesus only you can lead us through

Chord chart can be downloaded here.

Weekly Worship Thought – The Crisis of Worship

In his book, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative, Robert Webber identifies three crises facing worship today (p. 90-91):

  1. The crisis of content
  2. The crisis of structure
  3. The crisis of style

The crisis of content has to do with the story we tell in worship. His point is that worship should both remember and anticipate. Worship leads us to remember the mighty acts of God’s salvation in history as well as anticipate a new creation. The content of worship often falls short in providing the full breadth of God’s action in creation, incarnation, and re-creation.

The crisis of structure has to do with how the story is narrated. If worship is to remember and anticipate God’s story, it is best accented in the Four Fold historical model of worship that hinges on word and table. God’s word helps us remember, God’s table helps us anticipate. This is not to say that readings and preaching can’t cause anticipation, and that the Eucharist can’t cause remembrance. Word and table are less a rigid framework that stifles and more an acknowledgment of how God comes to us in worship (and in examples throughout the Bible, such as the Emmaus Road story).

The crisis of style has to do with how the content and structure of worship are communicated. Webber suggests that the content and structure of worship should be made indigenous to the local setting. I would use the word contextual. Style is less important than content and structure. Appropriate use of style makes God’s story more readily heard in any given culture.

Weekly Worship Thought – Taxonomy of Contemporary Worship

I’m convinced that labeling worship isn’t helpful. It puts our gatherings in boxes that they aren’t meant to be in. It creates the illusion that our assemblies are homogenized and that we can get away with using one genre or style that reaches and represents everyone. We should be able to design and implement any order of service with a full, robust toolbox of resources that draw from the best the church has to offer from all time and traditions.

This is why I have issues with labeling worship “contemporary.” It suggests a genre of music, and perhaps a philosophical approach, but is too vague. I’m growing to appreciate the work of C. Michael Hawn in identifying different streams of song in the church today. You can go knee-deep in this idea in his article from The Hymn, “Streams of song: An overview of congregational song in the twenty-first century.”

Here are the seven streams he identifies:

Stream 1—Roman Catholic Liturgical Renewal Song

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Roman Catholics have been finding their voice. This voice is diverse ranging from folk and classical song to African American gospel and various Latino styles. Many of these songs may be found in most Protestant hymnals, adding vitality to liturgy. Some of the key names include David Haas, Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, James Moore, Cesáreo Gabaréin, Omer Westendorf, Delores Dufner and many more.

Stream 2—Contemporary Classical Hymnody

These are the hymns that follow in the tradition of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Their themes range from creation, ecology, mission of the church, social issues, to worship and the arts. Some of the most important names include Fred Pratt Green, Timothy Dudley Smith, Brian Wren, Carl Daw, Jr., Tom Troeger, Ruth Duck, Shirley Erena Murray, Mary Louise Bringle, and many more.

Stream 3—African American Gospel Song

This streams includes major African American voices including Andraé Crouch, Doris Akers, Margaret Douroux, Edwin Hawkins, James Cleveland, Kirk Franklin, and more.

Stream 4—Urban Gospel Song

Urban Gospel Song writers are represented by the Gaithers, John W. Peterson, and extensions of this song in the UK, Graham Kendrick, Stuart Townend, and Keith Getty.

Stream 5—Folk Hymnody

These songs use an acoustic musical idiom grounded in the folk and protest movements of the 1960s. The theological focus of these songs is on direct language, unvarnished frankness, a social consciousness, and a simple singability that allows everyone to participate.

Stream 6—Pentecostal Song

The roots of CCM/CWM may be found in the Pentecostal movement that began with the Azusa Street Revival (1906) on the west coast. Vineyard, Hillsong, and others.

Stream 7—Ecumenical Global Song

The twenty-first century church is the recipient of songs from the world church—signs that the overseas mission efforts of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries have born much fruit. The former mission fields are sending their songs back to the church in the West. More than two-thirds of Christians now live outside North America and Europe. They have been singing our songs for nearly two centuries and now we have the opportunity to reciprocate by singing the songs of the world church.

Weekly Worship Thought – Three Leadership Tips

I think a leader is someone who does three things very well:

  1. Listens well – Leading is about relationships. If no one is following you, then you’re not a leader. In order for people to follow you, you have to be a listener. You have to know what people care about, what motivates them, what concerns them, and what will be best for them. That all comes by listening.
  2. Loves well – Because leading is about relationships, leading is also about love. You cannot lead well if you don’t love the people you are leading. A leader has to be motivated by love. The ability to do what is best for someone else is rooted in your love for them.
  3. Serves well – Jesus is our model for servant leadership. Jesus takes the towel and basin and lowers himself to the servant’s role. Jesus tells us that in God’s way of structuring the world, the last will be first and the first will be last. Anyone that wants to lead has to put themselves underneath everyone else.