Review of God’s Lyrics by Douglas Sean O’Donnell

godslyricsA few weeks ago I finished God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs. O’Donnell “draws out the historical, exegetical, and theological significance of the songs of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, David, and Habakkuk. He then shows, in the light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, how the lyrics of God’s Word apply to contemporary congregational singing.” (from the back cover)

In other words, he’s seeking to answer the question, “What can Old Testament songs teach us about the songs we use for corporate worship today?” His answer? A lot.

O’Donnell chose this method for two reasons. First, these songs provide “unique poetic summaries of and reflections upon, many of the key points of Old Testament salvation history.” Second, these songs are valuable “because they underscore important, yet often neglected, theological truths.”

In the past, I’ve studied the Psalms for indicators on themes and proportion in our songs, but haven’t invested much time in looking at other songs in the Old Testament. Reading this book helped me see what I was missing.

O’Donnell devotes the first half of the book to unpacking six songs from the Old Testament. He comments on their similarities, differences, and progression, including the way they point to Christ.

In chapter 6 he specifies four themes found in each of the six songs:

1. The Lord is at the center (God is addressed, adored, and “enlarged”)
2. God’s mighty acts in salvation are recounted
3. God’s acts of judgment are rejoiced in
4. God’s ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged

He spends the rest of the book illustrating those themes from each song and showing how often today’s popular Christian choruses and hymns include the same themes. He uses the top 50 CCLI songs from 2000-2008 and the top 25 contemporary hymns for his research. While not exhaustive, those songs are probably a good indicator of what many churches have been singing in the past decade. The results are not encouraging.

We tend to sing worship songs that focus on the greatness of God and the intensity of our devotion. But few of our songs speak of God judging the wicked and humbling the proud. The repeated emphasis in these Scriptural songs of praise is unmistakeable (Ex. 15:3-4; Deut. 32:43; Judg. 5:31; 1Sam. 2:3-4; Hab. 3:6).

Specifically, O’Donnell argues for more descriptions of the Lord and his greatness (more emphasis on his attributes less on how they affect me), clearer references to and unpacking of God’s salvation in Christ (60% of the top 50 songs say nothing about Jesus’ birth, life, passion, death, burial, or resurrection), more references to God judging the wicked (could this be one way the Spirit convicts unbelievers in our midst of sin, righteousness, and judgment?), and more songs that call us to live righteously.

It’s unfortunate that O’Donnell limited his research to the top 50 CCLI songs, as he didn’t spend much time on many recent song and hymns that are seeking to address these areas of weakness (Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, David Ward, Indelible Grace, and dare I mention Sovereign Grace Music?) While one could disagree with some of his song assessments and the broad brush he uses to critique contemporary music, most of us have a long way to go before our songs reflect some of the Scriptural emphases O’Donnell highlights. A few quotes:

We have a hard time worshipping God as a wrathful warrior who wars against the wicked because we have a hard time viewing ourselves as the man—the one who stands sinful before him, deserving to die. (59)
The problem is not the use of the first person pronoun, as many music critics claim. Rather, it is self-love lyrics! There is a subtle but significant difference between “the Lord exults in my heart” and “My heart exults in the Lord.” (73)
We tend to have an ahistorical understanding of our faith. That is, our faith is based not so much upon God’s work in the past as it is upon God’s work in the present. (93)

Occasionally the author gets a little snarky:

“The way these top choruses radically neuter any and all scriptural negatives—wrath, judgment, etc.—is sickening.”  (p. 153)
“God, God, God, It’s all about us—, Me, me, and you; You, you, and me; Oh, me, me, me.”  (p. 175)
“There are a lot of silly churches which have a lot of silly pastors who allow a lot of silly worship leaders to selects a lot of silly songs from a lot of silly songwriters.” (p. 173)
“It is time we remove the Twinkies and Ding Dongs, and replace them with the milk and meat of the Word.” (p. 176)

But I don’t believe those occasional outbursts take away from the message O’Donnell is bringing to the contemporary church. It’s a message we need to hear.

Bottom line, do the songs we sing reflect God’s priorities or ours?

In the near future I hope to post songs that fit into the categories mentioned above. In the mean time, you can pick up God’s Lyrics from Amazon.

27 Responses to Review of God’s Lyrics by Douglas Sean O’Donnell

  1. David October 14, 2010 at 6:17 PM #

    I, too, found O’Donnell’s book helpful in providing a rubric to consider the songs we choose for corporate gatherings. I found it particularly helpful that he identifies rejoicing in God’s righteous judgements as something the saints should do—even as it is connected to our deliverance.

    I’m interested to see the list of songs you provide. Might there be a dearth of modern songs that sing of God’s judgement of the wicked and humbling of the proud in lyrically fresh ways that fit our vernacular (without sacrificing truth?

    While O’Donnell was only seeking to engage with songs themselves, when planning corporate gatherings, I think there is a place for us to use Scripture and explanation between songs to fill some of the gaps that songs may not make explicit.

    If we sing a hymn of coronation or exaltation (such as “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns”), we can draw out what Jesus’ return means (in that case, that “right triumphs over wrong”).

  2. Aaron October 14, 2010 at 6:45 PM #

    Bob,
    I appreciate your gracious critique of this book. As I read it, I found it to perhaps be more snarky and reactive than you did. . .but I agree with the first half of the book on the important nature of the OT songs.

    I separated from him when I felt like he was mandating that every song touch on every theme that those old OT songs did (which many Psalms and other songs in the OT do not). So, his evaluation of the modern worship music, hymns and choruses, was to me. . . unfair, exaggerated, and at times, unfounded. I realize that’s a big assertion, I don’t think I have time here to go case-by-case . .but I thought there were a few times where he was wrong about a modern song.

    I don’t think every song we sing in worship has to hit every one of his major themes. The Cross of Christ should be central, of course (which it isn’t in many of the OT songs).

    To me, it was a good encouragement for a broader theme set in our songs. . . . with an evaluation of our modern songs that was lacking

  3. Heather October 15, 2010 at 9:25 AM #

    Wait a sec. Isn’t the gospel the “Good News”? Shouldn’t our corporate worship reflect that? Do we want people focusing on God’s wrath as they sing and hum the songs we bring to them in our worship on Sundays throughout the week? Or rather, that we are saved from it by the redemptive work at the cross? “Just as I am without ONE plea…BUT that Thy blood was shed for me, “Take me as you find me, all my fears and failures, fill my life again…because YOU are mighty to SAVE!!!!

    • Bob Kauflin October 15, 2010 at 2:41 PM #

      Heather, thanks for the comment. One of the things that makes the good news so “good” is a realization of what God saved us from, as well as the understanding that on the final day he truly will judge all wickedness that wasn’t paid for by the cross of Christ. God’s justice and judgment of sin shouldn’t form the bulk of our lyrics, but at the same time it shouldn’t be completely absent.

  4. Darren October 15, 2010 at 10:20 AM #

    I agree with Aaron. I found the book mostly helpful, but I think his conclusions went too far. I think the most important item that I came away with was an increased focus on intentional balance, especially in the area of songs that focus on the specific acts of God.

    With this in mind, I have begun assigning these categories to my song database in Planning Center Online, so that I can make sure that I’m choosing a mix that accurately portrays the God we’re worshiping.

  5. Janet October 15, 2010 at 10:34 AM #

    Thanks for what I found to be a very fair review of God’s Lyrics, which I recently read. Just one thought–O’Donnell does recognize the work of Keith and Kristyn Getty, specifically mentioning that “In Christ Alone” “does what Christian songs should do.” (p. 138)
    However, it seems he may not yet be aware of the other fine sources you mentioned in your review.

    I look forward to your list of songs!

    • Bob Kauflin October 15, 2010 at 2:44 PM #

      Janet, thanks for the heads up. I’ll change it in the post.

  6. Ben October 15, 2010 at 11:13 AM #

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “snarky” used so many times in one place :-) (Bob’s blog and Aaron’s comment).

    Anyway, I find it hard to know exactly how we should be singing about God’s judgement. It is obviously a theme used in scripture’s songs, but isn’t our singing of the gospel referencing God’s judgment of our sin that was placed on Christ? If we the church are about the edification of gathered believers in our meetings, wouldn’t this be the judgment about which we should sing most often… judgment taken in full by Christ? There is no denying that Christ will come again, and this time to judge, but exactly how do we sing about that in a way that remembers the gospel as well? That’s a genuine question… not one to which I propose to know the answer…

    • Bob Kauflin October 15, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

      Ben, thanks for the comment. I can see three kinds of judgment we could sing about. One is the judgment we deserved and will never receive because Christ took it for us. Second is the judgment God meted out on people in Scripture as a sign of his justice against the wicked and mercy towards his people. Third, the judgment that will take place on the final day when God judges the wicked who have not placed their trust in Christ. Also, see my response to Heather’s comment.

  7. Jonathan October 15, 2010 at 4:33 PM #

    I also agree with Aaron.. and Darren… (although my name doesn’t rhyme with theirs…) Bob, you are a gracious individual! I read this book a couple of months ago, and came away with a similar outlook. I did find the Biblical principles that he outlined extremely helpful in framing a better thought process in song selection. While I feel that O’Donnell was extreme in criticism at times, I find it helpful to hear from a different perspective now and then, rather than insulate myself with what I feel most comfortable with. The book definitely kept my attention and fostered profitable discussion with fellow ministers.

  8. Geoffrey Dennis October 15, 2010 at 5:18 PM #

    I know for a fact that Doug O’Donnell knew about songs by Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, David Ward, Indelible Grace, and Sovereign Grace Music as I was the music leader at the church where he was the associate pastor and I sought to integrate music from each of these people/ministries into our worship service.

    • Bob Kauflin October 15, 2010 at 5:26 PM #

      Geoff, I stand corrected! Thanks for letting me know. I’ll rephrase what I posted.

  9. David October 15, 2010 at 5:44 PM #

    Heather,

    A nuanace O’Donnell sees in the theme of judgment in Scripture is that the reason the saints rejoice in seeing God’s judgment is that it is the sign of their deliverance. So, when the Egyptians are swallowed in the seas, it is only through that the Israelites are saved. When God brings final judgment, it is through that that we will be brought into the New Creation. And, as other have pointed out, in the chief example of our salvation being rooted in judgment, in the cross God show that he is both just and justifier by putting the wrath and judgment we deserved on Christ.

    • Bob Kauflin October 15, 2010 at 5:51 PM #

      David, thanks for making that point. Well said.

  10. Heather October 16, 2010 at 8:14 AM #

    I appreciate the insight Bob and David. I absolutely do not think that we should ignore God’s acts of judgment/wrath in the past or to come. However, I DO tend to think that the gospel (the good news message) should be predominant in our songs and that God’s wrath and judgment are better emphasized in sermons and discussion because I believe these themes would be difficult to elaborate on properly in songs. Although I am anxious to see the list, Bob!

  11. Matt Blick October 16, 2010 at 8:16 AM #

    A couple of thoughts

    1) A gracious review – thanks Bob.

    2) If Mr O’Donnell is critiqueing what the church at large is singing it’s totally understandable that he would look at the top 50/25 exclusively. Other writers (inc SG) are bucking the trend but sadly most churches aren’t singing those songs. Yet. Here’s hoping right?

    3) Looking forward to your list – the only way to turn the tide is for all of us to write and recommend songs that are more biblical in content.

    4) I get nervous when people keep running to the OT to teach us all about the content of worship songs

    “60% of the top 50 songs say nothing about Jesus’ birth, life, passion, death, burial, or resurrection”?

    In that case we’re doing better than the examples Douglas is holding up in this book.

    “That Moses guy? He doesn’t even mention the name of Jesus in his songs – let alone the cross! What a lousy writer!”

    anything wrong with this picture?

  12. Chris Castaldo October 16, 2010 at 10:33 AM #

    Thankfully, O’Donnell always smiles when he’s snarky, which makes being snarked nearly pleasurable.

  13. Doug O'Donnell (the author) October 16, 2010 at 1:07 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank you for reviewing my book. That is gracious of you to do.

    It’s hard to read anything negative about oneself and one’s work and not want to write some snarky, exaggerated outburst!

    Three clarifications that I think might help the discussion.

    First, as the book makes clear, my research was not exhaustive (how could it be?). Now, perhaps my own critical voice covered the clear data, but that was not my intention. I hoped my “outbursts” would put an exclamation point on the facts. And the facts about what many (not all!) evangelicals sing today are not encouraging. Bob, you summarized it perfectly: “While not exhaustive, those songs [the top songs we sing today] are probably a good indicator of what many churches have been singing in the past decade.”

    Second, the theme of judgment in song is difficult to get our heads and hearts around. I understand and I wrestle with that myself. But I come to Scripture, as all of us should, with humility—“Teach me, Lord, your servant is listening.” And some of the songs of both the Old and New Testament (not all, but enough) have as their melodic line “rejoicing over God’s just judgments.” Therefore, I submit to God’s voice, and seek to attune my voice to His. I have taken my best stab as to how a Christ-centered, cross-focused, songwriter goes about doing that (see my original lyrics at the close of the book, or listen to them on line at http://www.prpbooks.com/inventory.html?target=indiv_title&id=2014), and I encourage all poets to do the same.

    Third, regarding how Moses’ two ancient songs reflect Christ’s cross is explained in chapters 1-2 (and also modeled in my lyrics). So it’s important that a quote like “60% of the top 50 songs say nothing about Jesus’ birth, life, passion, death, burial, or resurrection” or any other quote on the blog not be taken out of context. In context, that remark, as well as all the others, should make some sense.

    P. S. Bob—my favorite Kauflin/SG songs are: O Great God, You Have Been Given, I Will Glory in My Redeemer, Glorious and Mighty, I Have a Shelter, O the Deep, and The Gospel Song.

    Thank you for those!

    • Bob Kauflin October 16, 2010 at 2:10 PM #

      Doug, thanks for stopping by and for your helpful and clarifying comments. I try to write reviews with the mindset that the author might read it. He actually did in this case!

      Your book really did get me thinking more about why so many songs in both Old and New Testaments express rejoicing over God’s righteous judgments. It’s a theme that shows up unexpectedly in places like Ps. 104:35 and Ps. 139:19-22. But your careful work helped me identify it morer clearly in other OT songs.

      I plan to do a followup post on “Should We Sing About God’s Judgments?” and suggest some songs/hymns that might help us do that in a way that is helpful.

      Thanks for your encouraging comments on our music. I don’t know if it will make it on our next album, but you inspired me to write a song that celebrates God’s judgments over evil and the wicked. So, thanks!

  14. Bruce Johnson October 17, 2010 at 1:00 AM #

    Perhaps it is of use to repeat part of my post to your Facebook request for songs related to judgment.

    … Our need isn’t simply for songs that have ‘some sort of reference’ to judgment, but for ones that explain & respond to God’s judgment in a way that is clearly rooted in Scriptural models & concerns.

    Thus they ought to tell us what judgment looks like, the basis for it, and WHY we rejoice in it, as well as calling us to the PROPER sort of fear! They need to support the ‘bigger picture’/storyline — that God the King overcomes all ‘rebel kingdoms’ as part of establishing (restoring) his own good and gracious reign, purifying hearts from idols (part of overcoming rebellion!), bringing down the pride of men AS he graciously rescues & lifts up the weak and lowly!

    It appears that *God’s Lyrics* attempts to call us to just such reflection and celebration of God’s judgments (justice!). David (#13)’s comments on this are especially apt. I’d say that judgment is not ‘primary’ (it wouldn’t have been necessary apart for the Fall/rebellion), but is part of the MEANS by which God delivers and blesses.

    This is woven through the first great biblical redemption story, which is foundational to the rest: the plagues of the Exodus (culminating in the Red Sea) are all about God OVERCOMING a false/rebel kingdom and reasserting his kingship. The central story is that of the triumph of God the King over all that opposes him & his gracious rule. Inextricably bound to that is his deliverance of his people FROM the ‘kingdom of man/darkness’ BY defeating the the rebel kingdom and its gods.

    A gospel echo of all this is in the early summaries of Jesus’ ministry. He comes “preaching the kingdom”, healing diseases [echoes of the exodus?], forgiving sin AND casting out demons (defeating the REBEL kingdom).

    __________

    One quick key I try to use – the godly DESIRE (and prayer) for God’s judgment is simply the “negative” side of our great heartcry, “Let your kingdom come!”

    • Bob Kauflin October 17, 2010 at 7:07 AM #

      Bruce, thanks for the clarifying thoughts. You described what I’m looking for, only it was a little long to put in a Tweet. Very helpful!

  15. Darren October 18, 2010 at 10:41 AM #

    Two concrete changes that I made for Sunday’s music after reading “God’s Lyrics”:

    (1) I hadn’t realized that “Come, Thou Almighty King” actually had 5 verses, not 4. Verse 2 (not in my normal hymnal) contains the lyrics “Jesus, our Lord, arise,
    Scatter our enemies, and make them fall.” See http://smallchurchmusic.com/Lyrics/D01/S01982.php.

    (2) We often use Donald Fishel’s “Alleluia No. 1” (CCLI 32376) for our gradual. I wrote a new verse: “Jesus has crushed our enemies, trampling down death and the devil.”

  16. Kito Espiritu December 22, 2010 at 9:27 AM #

    I don’t think this book is available in my country (the Philippines), but thanks for outlining it for me. I’ll definitely try to keep the four points you mentioned in mind when I’m selecting songs for worship.

  17. Jamie Hughes April 14, 2011 at 3:52 PM #

    Thank you both–for the writing of and the succinct review of this book. It sounds exactly like what I need to be reading. I play in a church orchestra and was raised on classic hymns and Southern Gospel music. What we’re being asked to play now actually hurts me at times because it is so vapid and soulless. Most of our church simply stands still like livestock, and only those performing actually sing. It’s as if the worship is now something, like the sermon, they are meant to passivley absorb rather than participate in.

    We need to understand the whole God, the God that loves truth enough to punish wickness without compromise but also loved us enough to rescue us from that judgement. Both must be seen, understood, and praised from our souls.

    I plan on blogging about this myself soon, and this will surely be a part of my argument. Again, thank you both!

  18. Jenni March 20, 2012 at 4:45 AM #

    Thanks for this! This is the first real lead I’ve had in my pursuit for books addressing the topic of, basically: if people leave our churches (or their cars) singing their theology, then what kinds of Christians is our music making? There are blogs GALORE, but professors aren’t too keen on papers sourcing blogs…and even I’ve grown a little weary just reading opinions. Is there any empirical data out there on this topic?! I’ve found some older books, but they seem to be outdated since many of them are criticizing “modern” music of the early 90s before Chris Tomlin and Brenton Brown were even out of high school! So I don’t think “modern” is necessarily the best way to describe music pre-Passion/One Day. I’ve got volumes on the heart of leading worship, and tips on how to put together a worship set and the use of style/instrumentation…but I’m looking for literature more along the scope of the theology of modern music, comparing and contrasting it to the Bible and other older songs, ie hymns. Not the old worn out “worship war” debate, but a real look at the theology of our lyrics–old and new. Are we are more or less theological today than 100 years ago, 1000 years ago? If so, or if not, do we have our lyrics to blame/praise? Are our modern songs too feelings-oriented/first-person; is this a modern phenomenon or is it present in every generation, from psalmist David through Fanny Crosby to us today? How responsible are song writers, worship leaders, radio stations/record labels, etc. in discipling believers? What place do instrumental pieces have in the teaching/theological aspect of the music service? What makes a song “Christian” (as in, the tune to I Have Decided to Follow Jesus is an old Hindu folk tune…so is the “tune” now Christian?) or “deeply theological”…is the chorus I Love You Lord not “theological” enough? If not, why not?

    I’ve always respected you Mr. Kauflin in your pursuit to better equip the church. If you have any more suggested readings, especially the kind appropriate for academic writing, please share. (I especially appreciate books that are available to download b/c I’m currently serving in a CAN nation, and it isn’t wise to have books like this shipped here.)

    My Kindle edition is downloading now. I look forward to diving in. Thanks! And thanks to the other readers’ comments. Gives me a balanced approach as I read. :)

  19. Jenni April 3, 2012 at 7:14 AM #

    Just finished the book. Food for thought, for sure. In regards to its “snarkiness” the only paragraph that I think went a little overboard was the “silly” one. If you’re not willing to stand face to face with Chris Tomlin or Paul Baloche or Tim Hughes or Matt Redman or Darlene Zschech or Lincoln Brewster or Reuban Morgan and call their art silly to their face, then don’t write that. But hey, if you’re willing to do that, then what more can I say?! Just seemed a little harsh to me. But then again so did Jeremiah in his day…what do I know.

    I’m not convinced that the OT songs give us a prescription for songwriting (or choosing congregational songs) to the extent O’Donnell would argue, but honestly, if you use his 4 criteria rubric, you won’t go wrong. I would just caution not to throw the baby out with the bathwater…which I think he would agree with. (He mentions his favorite chorus: I Love You, Lord, which he uses often in church.)

    One suggestion, just another chapter I would have liked to have seen was a more practical guideline for implementing the kind of changes he proposes. I can GUARANTEE you that if this Sunday you did 0 of the top 100 CCC songs and instead introduced 40 minutes of new music and kept this up for a month, the congregation would revolt! Or come to church late on purpose! I agree as worship leaders we should do more to ensure our people are singing the whole gospel (including wrath), but if our main goal is to teach deeper songs, we might neglect the fact that our congregation didn’t just read this book and aren’t too keen on a complete 180 overnight. This kind of change should probably be gradual (though I’d argue yanking songs right away that are theologically INCORRECT is most appropriate…oh how I seeth every time I hear Above All). Maybe an additional chapter on how to get from here to there would be helpful.

    I just download Worship Matters…how have I not read this yet?! So looking forward to it. And I also “asked the publisher” to make Engaging with God available on Kindle! :) Thanks!!!

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