Christian song writers can certainly have a knack for finding the most bewildering and cringeworthy song lyrics. Sometimes, it ends up being silly and amusing. Sometimes, context just makes a hymn inappropriate and sometimes we suffer from the way that words and phrases have changed meaning and usage over time. For example, a few centuries back, no-one would have batted an eyelid at the description of clinging to Jesus’ breast or laying against his bosom. However, those words and phrases have specific connotations now. Even to describe Jesus as the “lover of my soul” had a more innocent meaning when Charles Wesley wrote
“Jesus lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.”
However, quite what Paul Oakley was thinking when he resurrected the lyrics for “It’s all about you Jesus” or Hillsong, even later in 2017. Similarly, there’s something jarring about “By your side I would stay, in your arms I would lay” by Noel Richards.
Now, as I said, those kinds of song lyrics may just seem a bit funny, a bit embarrassing for most people. However, consider the propensity for quite a few modern worship songs to use phraseology that talks about God “having his way” with us. The language is simply meant to convey the point that God’s will must be fulfilled. Yet, the phrase “have your way” is in common secular usage to describe sex and implies non-consensual sex. For victims of sexual abuse, PTSD means that words, phrases, mental associations can trigger deep emotional and even physical distress within them. That’s why a number of Christians have been asking that we are careful about the impact of such lyrics.
It’s not exclusively a contemporary phenomenon. This last Sunday, our worship team looked at the lyrics to the slightly older, classic revivalist hymn “All to Jesus I surrender” and expressed concern at the line “take me Jesus, take me now” (which could also imply imminent death too). As the hymn is in the public domain and no longer under copyright restrictions a simple modification to “all my life is for you now” fitted the rhyme and scan pattern of the original. I think it also adequately conveyed the originally intended meaning.
On a slightly different note, Hillsong’s Everlasting has the lyric “consume me from the inside out.” The line is troubling because ancient idols would be expected to seek to consume sacrifices, including human sacrifices for their own satiation. God instead of coming to consume us for his won satisfaction offers us living bread and living water that satisfies.
There is a risk of course that we become overzealous about policing lyrics. Sometimes I think that people are over pernickety when finding doctrinal fault in hymns and songs, sometimes we need to allow for a little poetic licence. However, I don’t think we should go to the other extreme either. There’s a pastoral responsibility to consider carefully the words we are asking congregations to sing and how those joining in might react to specific words and phrases.