Friday, 20 March 2015

Singing in the first person: on “I” and “we” in worship

Recently I went along with a friend to a Hillsong worship service. I was reminded again that one of the distinctive marks of Pentecostal worship isn’t just the style of music but also the prominence of the first person singular. In mainline Protestant worship, the prevailing trend has been to replace the worshipping “I” with the communal “we.” The “I believe” of the creed is changed to “we believe.” The newer hymns are all about “our” needs, “our” lives, “our” relationship to God and one another. When older choruses are sung, the pronouns are often updated to reflect the plural preference. I have been in a service where the deeply personal Geoff Bullock song, “The Power of Your Love,” was amended, from:
Lord, I come to You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that I’ve found in You
And Lord I’ve come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Lord, we come to You
Let our hearts be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that we found in You
And Lord we’ve come to know
The weaknesses we see in us
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Now in principle there’s nothing wrong with either “I” or “we” as far as singing to God is concerned. And the good Lord is probably long-suffering enough to figure out what we mean when we sing a line as daft as “the weaknesses we see in us.” Let’s face it, where hymnody is concerned, the Christian church will only be saved (if it is saved at all) as though through fire.

But I’m sceptical of the assumption that “we” is somehow the more Liturgically Correct word to use – as if the believers who turn up to church on Sunday morning cannot be trusted to remember that they are worshipping in a community. The whole thing smacks (if you’ll pardon the dirty language) of socialism. Are the clergy anxious to make us ever-mindful of our communal loyalties, as if they knew deep down that we would all rather be worshipping on our own at home?

Interestingly, St Augustine’s view of the worshipping “I” was exactly the opposite. In his exposition of Psalm 121, Augustine argued that the “I” is the proper symbol of corporate worship, while the “we” is too individualistic:
Let [the psalmist] sing from the heart of each one of you like a single person. Indeed, let each of you be this one person. Each one prays the psalm individually, but because you are all one in Christ, it is the voice of a single person that is heard in the psalm [Cum enim dicitis illud singuli, quia omnes unum estis in Christo, unus homo illud dicit]. That is why you do not say, ‘To you, Lord, have we lifted up our eyes,’ but ‘To you, Lord, I have lifted up my eyes.’ Certainly you must think of this as a prayer offered by each of you on his or her own account, but even more you should think of it as the prayer of the one person present throughout the whole world. (Expositions of the Psalms, 122.2).
Augustine’s point is that the language of “we” can easily give the impression that the congregation is a collection of atomistic individuals. But when believers sing to God in the first-person singular, it is as if the whole body of Christ were crying to God with one voice. The “I” is intensely personal: I sing as if the song applied to me alone. But it is also mystical and communal: beneath and above and around my own individual “I,” I hear the surge of a greater voice, a corporate “I” of which my own voice is a part. In Augustine’s view, this corporate voice is the voice of Christ. It is Christ himself who sings the psalms and who cries out to God in one voice from one body through the Spirit.

I implore you, my liberal Protestant comrades, don’t be too proud to admit that the Pentecostals might actually have got something right! And don’t be afraid to confront the question whether the experience of community in those ostensibly oh-so-individualistic Pentecostal churches is less intense and meaningful, or more, than what is found in our mainline churches with our theological propriety, our liturgical spit and polish, and all our earnest bluster and blather about we, us, and our.


Kim Fabricius said...

You’re right. “I” or “we” is neither here nor there. The quality of the poetry and the music are obviously more critical considerations, but even these at their most banal and repetitive need not be finally fatal. C.S. Lewis, reflecting on his experience of gospel hall hymns and hymn-singing, is often quoted -- “fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music” -- but it is equally often forgotten that Lewis went on to say that “the hymns … were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots."

Lewis, however, doesn’t mention the theology of the hymns, for which I turn to -- yes -- the wise old Bishop of Hippo (in the Confessions): “Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”

Terry Wright said...

This is an interesting post, Ben; thanks for writing it. I've often felt that singing 'I' hymns (or, in these Apple-sheened days, should that be iHymns?) corporately betrays the assumption that 'the congregation is a collection of atomistic individuals'. I'm still inclined to think this, too, because I'm just not sure how many in our pews are aware of the corporate 'I' - something that should be communicated through the celebrating the Eucharist, of course. But how many churches celebrate this week in, week out?

Steve Wright said...

A good friend a mine--a Wesleyan minister--was proudly critical of the individualism of those "charismatic choruses" until someone pointed out that Charles Wesley employed the language of the individual as much as any Spirit-led Pentecostal.

Kim Fabricius said...

I've just done a quick (er, when I) survey of the Zac Watts and Chuck Wesley hymns in the URC's hymnbook Rejoice and Sing. Though a few were judgment calls, Watts clocks in at c. 60% "we" hymns, while Wesley clocks in at a whopping c. 72% "we" hymns -- just the opposite of what I expected, but there you go. In any case, the "I's" clearly don't have it.

Steve Wright said...

Thanks for the solid statistical research, Kim. It would be interesting to see how many of Wesley's most popular hymns eschew the "we".

"And can it be?", "Jesus, lover of my soul", and "O for a thousand tongues" all employ the "I", the "me", and the "my".

John said...

Thanks for raising this issue. What the author failed to do is to look at this through the historical and social context. Today, we are a very hyper individualistic society and singing 'I' songs tend to reinforce that my relationship with God is just between Jesus and me. We need to balance it with communal reminders. In Wesley's time, the social view was highly communal. Salvation was through the 'church'. So it was deeply transformative and refreshing to know that I can have a personal relationship with God. Therefore, if we understand theology in historical and social context, we should probably sing 75% 'we' songs and 25% 'I" songs ... no footnote on those numbers, just an opinion.

Anonymous said...

This is an important conversation but we also need to consider what else is happening during the service when discussing the nature of communal worship becoming individuated (or vice versa!). We have to take into account the fact that oftentimes the houselights are down (creating a sense of separation from fellow worshipers), the musicians and singers are distanced from the congregation by space (elevated stages) and atmosphere (bright stage lights that make meaningful contact with the congregation difficult), and an unspoken assumption that eyes must be closed in order to really be worshiping. This assumption also carries over into the congregation which results in a greater separation one from another. What seems to result is a group of individuals worshiping in the same space, but not necessarily together - simultaneous individual worship I would advocate for more of a balance of I and We song lyrics, but would also submit that body language, worship environment, and the assumption what an engaged worshiper looks like (eyes closed, arms raised) are all elements that should be discussed when broaching the wider topic of worship that is truly communal. We can sing as the "we" songs we want, but unless we are engaged with both God AND each other in worship, our "we" will always be diminished.

Terry Wright said...

I agree with your comments when these apply to, say, a charismatic-style environment, Anonymous, but how far do you think your comments apply to a traditional (or stereotyped) Anglican setting, with congregation members singing from hymn books and gazing reverently towards the table (or staring vacantly into space)?

Scott Kohler said...

My suggested solution to the debate is to watch any of the concert films of Bruce Springsteen. Look at those masses of people singing along with the Boss and tell me they aren't having a corporate experience quite far removed from belting it out in the shower or behind the wheel. Concertgoers' mindsets aside, these individualistic heathens wind up with a communal experience despite themselves.

Scott said...

perhaps even more important, at least to me, is whether God/Jesus is spoken of in the third person, or addressed in the second person, implying his presence in the worshipping assembly

Anonymous said...

Terry - I would say that the trappings are obviously different in a so-called traditional church, but the principle is the same (I am an Anglican priest, so I know the challenges of that particular tradition! Getting people to look up from the prayer book that they practically know off by heart and see each other is just as difficult as getting people to open up their eyes when singing praise and worship and see each other). I was only addressing the context of the post - music in charismatic 'style' services. The challenge of entering into communal worship that balances "I" and "we" (and "He") exists in all traditions. Lack of engagement with each other comes in many forms, we simply need to recognise it in our own contexts and find ways to help our congregations engage with God and each other in worship.

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben, please don't blame us clergy for changes in the lines of hymns. We clergy are the victims, not the perpetrators. (Well, actually, of course what I mean is that I feel I am the victim, only my angst becomes more acceptable if I project it onto my clergy colleagues too!) Yours in the Lord - JOHN HARTLEY

Terry Wright said...

Thanks, Anonymous. How do you, as a priest, get people to look up from their books? I'm not a priest, but I'm very interested in liturgical dynamics.

P. Thompson said...

Really good comments, and I appreciate the major points made throughout. I would add a couple things.

First, I was reminded by a similar point made by Scott Cairns throughout his splendid (and risky) little book, _The End of Suffering_. On p.46, with reference to the Jesus Prayer, he writes:

"I am now thinking that even if one were to initially being one's practice of the prayer by repeating 'have mercy on _us_,' the purpose at the very heart of our matter is to realize how utterly we are connected to those we love, to those for whom we pray. Their well-being and our own should be so inextricably connected that we apprehend how they are all - every one of them - included in our saying 'have mercy on _me_.' Thereafter (though one surely cannot rush this sort of thing) we may begin to suspect next how all of Christ's body, all of humanity, and - ultimately - all of creation are invoked in our petition as well."

I think, though the comment made that our frame of reference now is so much inclined toward individualism, this is something that may be so counterintuitive in many ecclesial bodies that it cannot be heard. In my own Baptist tradition, there are writings on worship that insist that though we are gathered together, we pray individually. (I don't have my reference ready at hand for that.)

Second, I think the use of "I" language is not the primary issue. Several point out that there is a fair amount of first person singular in some of the great hymn writers. Certainly, we need not look past the Psalms for the language of "I" used often.

The difference, I have come to suspect, is what we "hymn" in our singing. In the Psalms, there is often the turn from "me/us" to God and the people of God through the ages, to take Psalm 22 as an example,

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

This is the contextualizing dynamic. Likewise, in Wesley's "Come, O Though Traveler Unknown," the "I" is for the sake of turning focus to "the Stranger," and this encounter embeds the "I" in the Scripture-shaped narrative.

In many contemporary songs, even when Christ is mentioned, or when the language is first person plural, the focus remains on "me/us." We hymn ourselves, declare what we do before and to and even for God. This isn't entirely absent from the earlier hymns, etc. but I don't think it was a major theme, and now it seems to dominate the consciousness of the one singing:

"Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you're my God. You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether beautiful _to me_" (my inner cynic thinks God must certainly appreciate our holding such a good opinion)

In various songs, "we" fall down and crown Jesus (which doesn't seem to be our place in the grand drama of heaven). Everything seems to be based upon what "we" do in reference to the Father, to the Son, sometimes to the Holy Spirit, or perhaps the effect on us of God and the mighty acts of God (which are not often rehearsed).

All that said, what I wrestle with is whether this may be the only language in which people today can "hear" these affirmations at all. Still, it seems to perpetuate a kind of "ego-centrism" that, if nothing else, is at odds with the most potent insights of a reformational theology of the cross.

This was hastily composed and interrupted a few times. It seems that the precision flagged in the later portions. If so, I apologize.

Terry Wright said...

The idea about what we "hymn" when we sing makes sense to me, P. Thompson. It's helping me to think through more what I see as the difference between the "I" psalms and many (not all) modern "I" hymns. Thanks.

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