The Biblical Songbook, the American Songbook and the Church
OK, I am about to be controversial — at least to some people. But here goes. I believe that Jesus digs the Great American Songbook — with all its syncopation, predictability, relevancy and sentimentality.
And let me tell you why I think that. If we look at Creation as the center point of our worldview — the idea that God created all that there is with design and purpose — we will come to appreciate the Great American Songbook as a largely wholesome contribution to human beings around the world.
In his insightful book, Imagine, Steve Turner talks about how creation and common grace should inform our understanding of artistic endeavor, including popular music. He gives us worldview circles which can help us understand the value of the Great American Songbook.
Turner’s outside and most inclusive circle is made up of songs that don’t suggest an obvious worldview. For instance, think of nonsense songs written for children. I use here as an example, “The Monkey Song” by the great Hoagy Carmichael from the 1952 movie The Las Vegas Story.
(“The Monkey Song performed by Hoagy Carmichael) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1DJFBGjK_Q
Nothing deep there, nothing profound, no promotion of a world view. Just silly fun for kids — and adults, too.
The next circle is a song that dignifies human life and experience and introduces a sense of awe. This could be exemplified by a wonderfully played musical instrument or clever lyrics. Think of the artistry of the clarinetist Artie Shaw as he plays the 1933 Irving Mills/Eddie DeLange love song, “Moonglow.”
(Opening notes of “Moonglow” by Artie Shaw)
The third Turner circle is a song whose lyrics carry an imprint of clear Bible teaching, lyrics which we know are not uniquely Christian, but lyrics which exalt God’s heart, such as peace, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and truth. Think of the musical poetry of Ira Gershwin.
(“How Long Has This Been Going On:””Oh, I feel that I could melt; Into heaven I’m hurled. I know how Columbus felt, finding another world. Kiss me once, then once more. What I dunce I was before! What a break – for heaven’s sake! How long has this been going on.”)
The fourth ring is a song which has the lyrics which are inspired by some of the Bible’s primary theological themes, but not necessarily uniquely Christian. For instance, the effects of the Fall, moral freedom, personal yearning, guilt and spirituality. For this one, I’ll take you back to the Gus Kahn/Richard Whiting l931 ballad called “Guilty.”
(“Guilty” – Johnny Desmond)
The fifth Turner circle is the smallest and is at the center of Christian Art and it contains the unique Christian gospel, that is, the life, miracles, substitutionary death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Now, it is at that this point that the Great American Songbook clearly gives way and usually fails to communicate the biblical message.
But, that doesn’t mean that American popular music is without merit for the serious Christian.
More on that next time.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”