Thinking About Worship Lyrics – Detail And Action
I want to continue on from something something I alluded to recently, the use and nature of detail in worship lyrics. Let’s take a look at a classic example, the opening verse of When I Survey… When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died; my richest gain I count but […]
I want to continue on from something something I alluded to recently, the use and nature of detail in worship lyrics. Let’s take a look at a classic example, the opening verse of When I Survey…
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
The first thing that stands out is the pattern of verbs in each line.
1a- survey (personal)
1b – died (divine)
1c – count (personal)
1d – pour (personal)
There’s one divine action and three human responses. Although the image of death is obvious and alluded to in the first line, the three human responses are worded in non-generic and evocative ways. Interestingly, given the solidly objective theology in the divine action, the human responses are quite reflective and contemporary.
One of the ways we can more sharply evaluate worship songs and work towards writing better ones is in terms of the actions portrayed in the lyrics. Part of the reason this hymn resonates with me is that the verbs connect with my spirituality. Perhaps most importantly, this connects with what I try to do spiritually outside the worship time, in my day to day life. If the hymn had said, “when I survey the wondrous cross i leap around like a lamb in sping” that would resonate less because I’m not a lamb in spring kinda guy, but also, because I’m not sure that kind of leaping is an essential spiritual discipline.
Now, let’s take a look at the detail in the lyric,
the wondrous cross
the Prince of Glory
When I survey
I count but loss
The external details are things that conjure images in our head, wheras the internal details are thoughts and emotions. In four lines, there is quite a bit of detail. The two details about Jesus on the cross are not generic and really quite provocative. They are also theologically laden.
Just looking at this one verse we see a lot of interesting features. Non-generic language, a mix of human and divine actions, interesting internal and external detail, theologically provocative description and a template for spirituality.