Where have all the dark themes of sin, death, struggle, suffering, and pain gone? You cannot find them in most pop Christian music or in the contemporary songs used by evangelicals (and others) in worship. Listen to the Christian music of radio and praise bands and you will soon notice how light and fluffy popular Christian music has become. It does not echo the deep wrestling with sin, struggle, and death like the great hymns of old and it surely represents a disconnect between the Biblical song/hymn book of the Psalms.
One author has called pop Christian music the cotton candy of modern Christian piety and worship. He is not far off. Too many make the worship wars over music a matter of style or of the instruments used to accompany this music. That is not the case. It is surely and strictly a matter of content -- do the joyful love songs of pop Christian singers and praise band worship show any connection to the hymns of old that dealt with pain, feeling distance from God, struggles and doubt, and even death? Do the modern hymns wrestle with the dark side of mortal life as do the Psalms? Does this present a false or distorted view and expectation of Christian faith and life?
A few weeks ago we sang "Be Still My Soul" and on the way out so many were dabbing tears from their eyes and bolstering themselves in the face of words that speak to the wounds and worries of authentic Christian life and to the power of the Gospel to speak peace when there is no peace. That is not the only hymn to do so -- indeed the Lutheran Service Book is filled with them. But this is not a mere contrast of pop Gospel songs with the sturdy hymns of old. This is also about the disconnect between what many Christians listen to on their Ipods and phones and what they experience on Sunday morning with the Psalms, with Scripture itself.
Last month I had a couple of funerals and used in one Psalm 106 and in another Psalm 90. Psalm 106 includes the urgent prayer for the Lord to remember the wounded, those who grieve the struggles of this mortal life and the loss of those whom they love. Psalm 90 speaks not only of our hope but of the wrath of God, of the reality of sin, and of the God who would not only rescue us from our struggles but teach us to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom. Unless you limit yourself to Psalm 23 alone, the Psalms must be edited to prevent them from admitting and confessing the burdens of this mortal life, the reality of our daily and life-long struggles, and the sin that would surely condemn us for an eternity were it not for the mercy of God.
The problem with most pop Gospel music is not how it sounds (though the sensuality of the sound can indeed be an issue) nor is it with the instruments used to accompany it (though the lack of melodic instrument does condemn some of this music to hearing and not to singing). The problem with most pop Gospel music is that it gives a completely false picture of our lives in Christ. To put it in terms of CS Lewis books, where is the problem of pain, where is grief observed. . . Brahms Requiem is certainly not the typical requiem in form or text and yet it is blunt, painfully blunt, about the we who have gone astray, about the flower that fades, about the number of days with which the Lord has afflicted us. Read through the great hymns of old and they are certainly not Disney fantasy like so much of pop Christian music has become.
Our people need to sing with the Psalmist and with the great hymn writers of old -- sing through the suffering, sing through the pain, sing in the longing for comfort, sing the plea for God to remember and deliver, and sing the promise of relief which we yearn to know. Life in Christ is not easy. It is not a cake walk. When everything is going well, it often seems like we need God very little but when life comes crashing down upon us, when we know not how to pray or praise or what to say, then we need to hear from the Psalmist and from the hymns of old: