Matt Redman’s doxological theology

There is a well-established tradition as to how academic theologians deal with contemporary worship music. You first decry the theological poverty of the music, then point to the traditional liturgy as the perfection of doxological theology, then express a wish that the music was more like the liturgy.

Allow me to dissent from the tradition somewhat.

Starting at the end, ‘the traditional liturgy’ strikes me as a deeply problematic concept. There are many different liturgical traditions, each instantiating different theological concerns. For some reason, theologians from a broadly evangelical background (who tend to be the ones decrying contemporary worship music, on account of the fact that they have encountered it) tend to point to Anglican liturgies for proper doxological theology. With all due respect, every Anglican liturgy ever promulgated is, as far as I can see, a theologically-incoherent political compromise between Catholic and Reformed traditions (not excluding the Book of Common Prayer, which when published offered a liturgy judged so poor that something like a third of Anglican clergy resigned their ministries rather than use it – OK, I know it wasn’t quite that simple, but…)

At the other end, is there any serious theological vision in contemporary worship music? Let me take an example, Matt Redman’s FaceDown album. I choose this partly because I know it quite well, and partly because it is, more or less, a live recording of a worship event, and so might be expected to display whatever coherence can be found in this tradition.

The CD begins with ‘Praise Awaits You,’ a song of approach addressed to God, asserting the people are gathered with the intention of worshiping, and are now ready to worship. Already, however, worship is understood as a response to God’s action, a continual theme of the album. Thus, the gathered, ready people cannot yet worship: they come and wait for God’s initiative (‘O Lord open our lips / And our mouths shall proclaim your praise’ – if you must).

The next two songs then acknowledge and name the divine action that makes worship possible. First, atonement (‘Nothing but the blood’: ‘Your cross testifies to grace, tells of the Father’s heart, to make a way for us…’), and then revelation (‘Seeing You’: ‘No one can sing of things they have not seen – open our eyes towards a greater glimpse, the glory of you…’). Worship is now possible, but only as a response to God’s initiative, so the next track, ‘Gifted Response,’ acknowledges this explicitly: ‘This is a gifted response, Father we cannot come to you by our own merit. We will come in the name of your Son…’ The first song of explicit worship, ‘Dancing Generation,’ echoes the gifts of God that enable worship: atonement (‘Your mercy taught us how to dance…’) and revelation (‘Your glory taught us how to shout…’), both re-affirmed in the bridge (‘It’s the overflow of a forgiven soul, and now we’ve seen you Lord, our hearts cannot stay silent…’)

In the narrative of the music, the experience of worship immediately leads to a desire for the deepening of the experience of God. In language strangely reminiscent of accounts of the ascent of the soul in the medieval mystical tradition, there is prayer for a more comprehensive sight of God (‘Pure Light’: ‘And through grace untold to see you, with this heart unveiled to know you, Lord in your pure light…’). The granting of this prayer leads to a further response of worship (‘Worthy, you are Worthy’) and to the central moment of the CD, the title track:

Welcomed in to the courts of the King
I’ve been ushered in to Your presence
Lord, I stand on Your merciful ground
Yet with every step tread with reverence
And I’ll fall facedown
As your glory shines around…

This is followed by a further reminder that all worship depends on God’s prevenient action, ‘Breathing the Breath’: ‘We have nothing to give that didn’t first come from your hands. We have nothing to offer you which you did not provide.’ Then the music moves into a pair of songs that serve as dismissal: an affirmation (‘Mission’s Flame’) that worship must result in action: ‘Let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame. We’re going with a passion for your name…’ and also can provide a motive for mission: ‘Let worship be the heart of mission’s aim – to see the nations recognise your fame, till every tribe and tongue voices your praise, send us out.’ Finally, ‘If I have not love’ borrows from 1 Cor 13:1-3 to affirm that the ultimate result of a vision of God must be an increase of love, for God and for God’s creatures: ‘the overflow of hearts as we gaze upon your beauty…’

We might criticise this for a lack of any account of the Trinitarian shape of worship, but I think that would be unfair. It happens it is there, albeit in passing: ‘We will come in the name of your Son, as He glorifies You, and in the power of Your Spirit’ (‘Gifted Response,’ v. 1); more significantly, however, it is not clear to me that good worship needs an explicit account of its theological underpinnings.

What is there here? There is a very strong and constantly-repeated stress that approach to God is possible only because of God’s prevenient action, spelt out here as atonement and revelation. The experience of worship is understood through a journey metaphor, a journey of approach towards God, an experience of God which leads to transformation, and then dismissal to do God’s work in the world. The most distinctive aspect of the doxological theology here is the emphasis on sight: seeing God, experiencing God’s glory, is at the heart of this movement of worship. As I noted above, this is very reminiscent of a particular mystical tradition (I suppose unconsciously; it may be that Matt and Beth Redman are reading the medieval mystics and/or the Eastern hesychasts, but I doubt it).

I’m not going to claim that this is theologically brilliant or perfect; but you could go a long way and find much worse. Academic sneering is, I contest, foolish and misplaced.

14 Comments

  1. andygoodliff
    Jun 15, 2009

    Steve, you might have expected a comment from me. Matt Redman is by far the best songwriter of his generation (i.e. the one after kendrick and townend) and the others that have followed, by in large, are not producing the same kind of quality … consistently producing good and helpful songs that have a theological content … my response is to say thank you, but lets go further … redman himself has commented that the hymnwriters wrote on every and all subjects, of course to differing degress of success … I guess that what’s i’m hoping and looking for … songs for advent, songs for pentecost, songs that aid confession, intercession, songs that draw us to God’s word and to the Lord’s table … i want to see him branch out, give worship a greater breath … i see signs, but then beautiful news (the album after facedown), was not the development i had hoped for … it must be time for another album soon.

    on another note, what i have encountered since moving to oxford, is that there are many people who don’t get this type of music, who think the songs are often unsingable (to which reply that my feeling often about many hymns) and is too dependent on a worship leader and band.

    I hope I’m not into academic sneering, because in the main i love the music, i just want to see it become even better … i want to some signs that serious theology is an important part in developing as a songwriter (which increasingly i believe about redman) and that its not just a matter of picking up a guitar and strings some over-used phrases together.

    • roger flyer
      Aug 30, 2009

      Hi andy-
      I am an admirer of Matt Redman’s work, too. I have a couple songs at my website I’d be interested in getting your feedback on. The Kingdom of God and We will Trust.
      Thanks! Roger

  2. Ben Sternke
    Jun 15, 2009

    Thank you for noticing Redman’s theological thoughtfulness. It’s for this reason that our church’s worship repertoire contains a LOT of his songs.

    • Steve H
      Jun 15, 2009

      @Ben: Welcome to the blog, & thanks for your comment. The avatar generator seems to have taken a real dislike to you – sorry.

      • Ben Sternke
        Jun 15, 2009

        Hah. No problem. I guess I’ve been “lurking” for awhile and thought I’d comment. Thanks.

  3. Chris E
    Jun 15, 2009

    I agree with a lot of what you say – and of course it isn’t as simple an equation as liturgical = good, contemporary = bad.

    Having said that; whilst it’s true that the BCP was controversial – it was controversial around the margins, most of those protesting against it weren’t critiquing the overall shape of the service, so much as certain parts of it. Not that those parts are not important, but they of necessity take second place to the overall emphasis of the service. Secondly, any BCP service will always contain a certain amount of Scripture – with the repeating elements (Magnificat etc) majoring on grace and by extension proclaiming the Gospel. Lastly, the emphasis on confession first sends the message that we first receive from God, before offering our praises back to him. Of course liturgy can become brainless – I know, I went to a CofE school where we tracked the progress of the communion services by how many pages we had left to read.

    As Andy says above, Matt Redman is one of the better song writers around. His Anglican background may also explain the consciously doxological progression of the album. The problem is that many churches will take the 4-5 subjective songs in the middle of the album and use that as the bulk of their worship – with an occasional foray elsewhere.


    chris

  4. Chris E
    Jun 15, 2009

    On the point of being hard to sing; most modern songwriters appear to be tenors, whereas the majority of men are baritones, so the original pitch of the song is generally easier for women to sing than men.

    Syncopation doesn’t help either – we don’t need to stick with common meter – but straying too far from it can make songs difficult to sing unless rhythmic accompaniment of some sort is available.

  5. Steve H
    Jun 15, 2009

    @Andy: I take your points at one level, although I wonder how much responsibility an individual songwriter has, or can have, for filling the gaps in the worship diet of the church. (I chatted briefly to Graham Kendrick recently – told him how much I hated name-droppers – and one of the comments he made was that he didn’t have any clear sense at all of the range of hymnody currently being produced. If even he doesn’t know the spread, how can anybody be expected to correct the imbalances?)

    I love the first two tracks on Beautiful News, but find it disappointing beyond that. (Although it’s a good one for your Christology project: ‘there’s a God who came down to save…’)

    It is strange that songwriters who are based in local churches don’t write Eucharistic songs, or Christmas songs – they must be programming worship around such events repeatedly, or at least annually.

    I confess that I struggle to believe people can’t sing some of this music. There are bad examples, although fewer than 20 years ago in my estimation (the key is almost always scansion – if there are the same number of words as notes in every verse, it is easy to sing); I have more time for the banality complaint – the music is sometimes tedious to the extreme in its basic melody, and needs a large band and an elaborate arrangement to make it interesting.

  6. Steve H
    Jun 15, 2009

    @Chris: I think you are a little rosy about the BCP: the Westminster Assembly produced Common Order, after all, which was completely different, and presumably much preferred by the Presbyterians. At the same time, the Baptists and Independents were still just a little wary of any set prayers or orders, as restricting the Spirit’s inspiration.
    Zwingli argued that confession should follow sermon – only when we have heard the gospel can we have the courage to confess our sins. The ASB followed this line, as I recall.
    I agree about the saturation with Scripture, of course – a point I’ve recently made in a paper entitled ‘Baptists and the Bible,’ that our services have far less Scripture than any liturgical church’s.
    I’m not sure Redman is responsible for how his songs are used in ocngregations, particularly. All he can do is model good practice, which I think he does well; if others misuse the raw materials he supplies, that is their fault, not his. To take an analogous example, I used to go to a choral Anglican Eucharist in London fairly regularly, where the priest routinely asked the choir to sing the Ave Verum Corpus before the Eucharistic prayer – that particular bit of theological incoherence was not the fault of the songwriter!

  7. Steve H
    Jun 15, 2009

    @Chris again. I’ll take your word for it on the voices – but of course routinely 66% of our congregations are female, so perhaps having songs women can sing is just appropriate? Trying to sing anything modern without rhythmic accompaniment is probably a mistake – but you can get rhythm from a solo piano or solo guitar very easily, so this is not perhaps a big limitation.

  8. Chris E
    Jun 15, 2009

    @Steve

    Matt Redman shouldn’t be held responsible for how his materials are used, but that particular album doesn’t necessarily reflect current worship practice.

    I take your point on the confession, though there are ways around that. My concern is that in the absence of grace being proclaimed first, ‘worship’ can become a work, where we work ourselves up trying to get God down here.

    [It's perfectly possibly to pitch a song so that both women and men can sing it - it's just that many contemporary songs stretch this range upwards - so it's a case of aiming the pitch for the comfort of one sex or the other.]

  9. Kevin Davis
    Jun 16, 2009

    I really enjoyed this post. I first came to consider the great value of contemporary hymnody (praise & worship) when I was invited, a few years back, to a Passion event at my college in Charlotte, NC. That got me into the music of David Crowder, Charlie Hall, Chris Tomlin, and others. There is a lot of depth, even in the simplest refrains, in a lot of these songs. Theologians can and should be about the task of promoting what is good herein, weeding out the bad, and proposing directives for new material.

    And this may sound odd, but I found that listening to Passion albums while reading Emil Brunner went well together.

  10. Andy Goodliff
    Jun 24, 2009

    Matt Redman has a new album out in early september … when perhaps the conversation can continue

  11. James
    Dec 15, 2011

    “Once again, I look upon the Cross where You died,
    I’m humbled by your mercy, I’m broken inside.
    Once again, I thank You; Once again, I pour out my life…”

    I do not know you and I do not care to know you, but you must know that your critiques on Matt Redman are an utter waste of your time. The quote above is a chorus from one of his songs (which you are likely familiar with). If you cannot invision the richness of Christ’s sacrfice dripping from these lyrics, then you clearly do not understand the Gospel. Frankly, you need to get a life. The words of this song engage us in act that should take place with every believe, for all time. This also goes for songs like “Facedown”. Let me tell you my friend, when leave this world, I will not be standing before our Holy Creator, but rather I will be face down!

    Matt Redman is extremely gifted in pointing worships to the true message of Jesus. Like the quote above, we should be pointed to the cross daily, and when we look upon what Christ did, knowing that He paid for the sins of those that were already chosen before the foundation of the world, we should be humbled by His Great and Awesome mercy, and broken inside.

    I have been on worship teams for over a decade, and I am here to tell you that your time would be much better spent on groups that sing about ecstatic, romantic relationships with Jesus. Believe me, the world is full of them. Seriously my friend, consider spending your time on something more fruitful.

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