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Blog // Thoughts
October 10, 2006

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.

Verbs
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,

External Detail
the wondrous cross
the Prince of Glory
richest gain

Internal Detail
When I survey
I count but loss
my pride

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.

Responses
Michael L. Moore 16 years ago

Thanks for your further analysis of internal and external detail in hymns. I attempted a response to your earlier post, which seems never to have made it to the Web. Have a look at this hymns by Watts:

It’s a poetic treatment of the Jesus as High Priest section of Hebrews. One would expect a basically theological passage to be hard to make striking poetically, but Watts–whether one thinks he writes doggerel or not–often comes up with concrete images to illustrate abstract ideas which resonate with readers–and singers–on many levels. It’s normal for him to begin a hymn or Psalm paraphrase with a very striking picture/comparison–as

The true Messiah now appears,

The types are all withdrawn;

So fly the shadows and the stars

Before the rising dawn.

And he then follows up with additional supporting images in the rest of a hymn that build on or add to that initial challenging image. Watts isn’t infallible–he committed his share of bathos and sometimes stretched comparisons out very tenuously. His late 17th century diction has sometimes had to be changed to reflect changes in how we think about our minds and emotions–we no longer locate the center of our emotions in our bowels, for instance–although discuss that with someone suffering from IBS!–and the unexpurgated Watts includes texts openly anti-Catholic, and some that could be interpreted as passingly anti-Semitic. But in spite of his antiquity, much of what he wrote–all before 1719–could still move hearts in the 21st century. The same is true of Charles Wesley, John Newton and William Cowper, John Cennick, among other writers of the 18th century. The 18th century Baptists–Joseph Hart, John Fawcett, Benjamin Beddome, Anne Steele, Samuel Medley and the Stennetts, to name a few–contributed their own unique, sometimes very moving body of texts that also pass your internal/exterior criteria very well.

RUF has done good work picking up some of these ancient texts and setting them to contemporary music. It’s up to the Baptists, Methodists and others to follow suit, and expand the work of reviving texts too good to lose.

Rodd Jefferson 16 years ago

Nice one.

I think that part of the ‘discipline’ in our giving God our worship through song is a pretty simple model:

God->Man->God->God.

First, we consider who God is, then our own position by comparison. We acknowledge our sin and our need of Him. God gave us His love amazingly, and in response we desire to focus wholeheartedly on Him and what He wants.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Michael – thanks for your comment. You are inspiring me to look deeper in the hymns for this sort of detail. I agree there are some texts that are so good they really merit

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