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Biblical Criticism: An Analogy?

June 14, 2010

I would like you to imagine a world in which a certain group of songs came to be canonized by a religious group. These songs were canonized because they were written and performed by respected leaders and charismatic figures. The songs were authoritative, reflected the beliefs of the community, and people sang them with deep, deep meaning. Over time as these songs continued to be sung by different generations they came to be studied by later groups of academics, and certain forms of analyzing the songs began to rise.

There arose sheet music criticism, drum criticism, guitar criticism, worship leader criticism, and many more approaches related to the field of studying The Worship Song Bible. Classes were given in many Universities where professors instructed students on worshiping in verse and meter, and how to write music notes on lines. In understanding the methodologies, the questions, and answers offered by the highly trained and skilled academics within the discipline of worship studies it is beneficial to review the scholarship on one of their favorite songs to research and study: “How Great is Our God”.

In considering this song one worship critic argues that, “Clearly, the context of the proceeding verse proves that the bridge was sung very loudly in an ecstatic frenzy.” A different worship critic counters, “Obviously, the bridge was sung very quietly to convey the serious tenor of the notes selected.” A drum critic posits, “The alliteration of the double bass drum used throughout (bump, bump) drives the very song and is its most important aspect.” A dissenting drum critic concludes, after counting how many times each part of the instrument is struck, “When one sees the amount of times the hi-hat is beat (784 times) surely there could be no better indication that what is clearly important to the singer and audience of this song is the one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four rhythm of the hi-hat.”

A respected professor of producer criticism argues that the unusual tone of reverb on the guitar expresses a desire to “Hear the very voice of God through the instrument in ways never imagined before.” Another Dr., this one a form critic, suggests, “It is in the song’s expected structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) along with its unexpected rhyme scheme by which the real meaning of the author is to be found.” A conservative worship leader critic in considering the male vocal concludes that it was not proper for women to lead worship. A more liberal critic believes that women did lead worship, and were equal in leadership as emphasized by their backing-up the male during the chorus.

In universities across the world that teach bright young minds worship studies students are taught to write five lines in a row and parse a c# from an A minor. They are taught to write everything concerning notation: accidentals, diatonics, sharps, flats, octaves, frequencies, duration, position. They are taught when the songs were written, what was going on in the context of the world when they were written, who the author of the songs were, how to follow the etymologies of certain words in the songs, and other songs that are similar to the songs being studied.

But there is a problem: None of these students can play an instrument, or can compose a song using these skills, and even with all of the things they are being taught: none of the students know how the song sounds. The persons in the analogy have missed a very important aspect of the song: the intentionality of the author and the function of the song in any worshiping community is much, much more than the song’s mere parts. The author creates a worship song for people to sing as praise: this may be the most important aspect of intentionality. Songs are sung in communities as worship. They create meaning. The importance of “How Great is Our God” is not in the hi-hat, or the structure, or how it looks on a music sheet, but the meaning it conveys when sung with a worshipful attitude.

I am not unconvinced that the wrong assumptions the above imaginary academics had about the function of worship music in their religious communities might not be similar to the ideas that some forms of biblical criticism have towards the texts of religious communities. The meaning in a song is not whether there are more G notes than D notes, or pick bass instead of slap bass, or a guitar solo, or backup singers or no backup singers, or a thousand other things, but in how they function in communities. Similarly, counting vavs, parsing verbs, and searching for the original form may not only be missing the forest for the trees, but the forest for the bark on the trees as well!

This too could raise a variety of analogical questions from the intentionality of the composer knowing the function of songs in communities to how different communities interpret the same song differently.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2010 7:35 am

    It’s an interesting analogy. Certainly, biblical studies can get off-track, concentrating attention on minor details and reaching unwarranted conclusions. All of us who have read commentaries have encountered this kind of thing. But, of course, it need not get off-course. Sometimes I think Biblical critics just have too much time on their hands and too little to go on.

  2. Jake permalink
    June 15, 2010 6:50 am

    You’ve kind of just described an undergrad program in the performing arts to a tee…


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