Book Review: God's Lyrics, by Douglas Sean O'Donnell
There are many books available on the specific question of music in worship, some focusing on lyrical content and others on musical style, with positions ranging from psalter-only, a capella singing to arguments for the superiority of the modern praise and worship genre to classic hymnody; but I'm not aware of any of them that do precisely what O'Donnell's new book, God's Lyrics, has done. He has not touched upon many of the pertinent issues: the application of the Regulative Principle of Worship, the question of musical style, and so on, are left untouched. But what he has put together is certainly an important contribution to the discussion, which may prove to be eye-opening at least, and even paradigm-shifting in some respects.
The basic concept of the book is simple enough: before we can properly evaluate the lyrics we sing in church, we must know what appropriate lyrics should look like. And if we would know what fitting lyrics should look like, we can do no better than to examine the inspired lyrics of God's people throughout the whole course of their history, see what they have sung about, and compare our songs against that standard. When we do so, however, the conclusion may be a little unexpected, whether we prefer classic hymnody or contemporary praise and worship!
In order to provide this evaluation, O'Donnell has done two things: first, he has given an exposition of the songs of God's people at the key junctures in their redemptive history â€“ the two songs of Moses and the songs of Deborah, Hannah, David and Habakkuk (with some additional thoughts on Mary's Magnificat, Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, and the songs of Revelation). Second, he has drawn out all the major themes from those songs, and made a scientific comparison between those themes and the themes both of the most popular classic hymns and the most popular contemporary praise songs.
What O'Donnell has discovered, in this process, is a definite disconnect between biblical emphases and the emphases in our own singing, both in contemporary worship songs (unsurprisingly!) and also, to a lesser extent, in much classic hymnody. Although in a generally winsome way, he is very direct in pointing out our widespread failure to make our own singing thematically similar to the singing of God's people in scripture. Speaking of the Song of Moses, for instance, he suggests, â€œWe can sing verses 13 and 17 and 18, which speak of the Lord's leading his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land: 'You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode' (v. 13). But can we sing what falls between those verses, of the 'terror and dread' that will fall upon 'the inhabitants of Canaan'...?â€
O'Donnell continues, â€œMaybe we should cut and paste our bibles, making them a collage of our culture, a mirror of our worldly minds and its conceptions of God and justice and salvation.... Or maybe we should just cut out all this cutting out and hear what God has to sayâ€!
Hearing what God has to say is in fact what O'Donnell has striven to do in the first part of his book; and in the second part, he has compared what we customarily sing against that standard. His careful comparison of the fifty most popular modern praise songs has discovered several problems, the most serious of which is an overwhelming emphasis on the experiential, subjective element of the one worshiping, and a corresponding de-emphasis on the objective truths of the great works of God in history. Even the â€œGod-centered languageâ€ of these songs â€œis often confused, if not nullified, by the language of selfâ€.
But classic hymnody, as well, although not to the same degree, has some disparity of emphasis. Of the twenty-five most commonly sung pre-1800 hymns, the major discrepancy is the lack of rejoicing in God's righteous judgment against his enemies, which is such a dominant theme in biblical songs of redemption.
So where does all this leave us? Some would say, â€œpsalter only (or inspired-text only) singing is the answer, of course!â€ I certainly wouldn't argue against drastically increasing the amount of divinely-inspired songs that the modern church sings in worship â€“ and O'Donnell's appendix, in which he has put the six key songs of redemptive history in meter, and set them to some common hymn tunes, may prove a very valuable way to do that very thing. But without getting into Regulative Principle arguments (as that was not the burden of the book anyway), it must be admitted, even by those of us who believe that there is good warrant for composing and singing songs that accord with the scriptures, that what we present to our congregations to lift up to the Almighty God in worship is of utmost importance. If we do not give the matter serious attention â€“ just as serious as the evaluation that O'Donnell has provided for us â€“ then we are derelict. Without over-reacting and expelling good, biblically-sound songs, we need to ensure that we are only singing songs that fully agree with the biblical example and testimony; and also, that we are not singing a repertoire of songs which, when considered as a whole, fails to evince the balance and range of doctrines that the inspired text of scriptures portrays the church as singing. It is that latter principle that was eye-opening to me; and for providing ample evidence to work with in addressing the widespread failure in that regard, I am very grateful for O'Donnell's work.