I was recently struck by Gerald Bray’s description of the influential power that artists have possessed over biblical interpretation:
Artists, writers and musicians through the ages have borrowed themes from the Bible without always submitting their imaginative powers to the control of the text. Sometimes this has had a great impact on the collective consciousness of the church, as for example, in the portrayal of hell by Dante, or of the fall of man and Satan by Milton. Many people implicitly accept the Old Testament Christology of Handel’s Messiah without ever bothering to consider the context of the verses being used in that way, and allegorical interpretation, which has been rejected by the scholarly world since the early nineteenth century, is alive and well in hymnody, especially in negro spirituals. However much it may go against the grain, scholars must accept that the Bible speaks to people in ways which escape the control of systematic exegesis, and that this unsophisticated approach may do far more to shape the collective consciousness of subsequent generations than a mountain of PhD theses.*
Even these brief illustrations (Dante, Milton, Handel, African-American spirituals) show how artists play an overwhelmingly important role in the life of the Church. When we quickly funnel down to one very specific field of artistry–namely, worship songwriting–we’re immediately struck by the gravity of the sacred trust we possess as we seek to weave faithful words with compelling melodies and harmonies for congregations to sing. As Andrew Fletcher said, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”**
As I’ve said before, worship songs often allow people to drink theology before truly assenting to it. So, the question of the hour is: What “theology” are we giving them? Songwriters, take heed.