My church has decided to introduce the song "God of Wonders" by Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong. Here's what writer Steve Hindalong (from 80's Christian rock band "The Choir" says about the song:
When Marc played the chord progression and melody, it felt really big. I kind of got a chill-I got goose bumps on my arms. I just thought, 'This song needs to be big, with really vast language.' So 'God of wonders beyond our galaxy' was as big as I could think.
You can read the story of the song at http://www.integritymusic.com/worship/story/0903.html
While this song is one of the most recorded "worship" songs in modern history (around 100 versions), when I first heard it, it rang alarm bells for me. Having sat down and analysed it carefully, the concerns remain. But I also have to admit I like playing it. I'm not the only one. Award winning Aussie writer Colin Buchanan (who is normally VERY careful) has recorded a version - while changing a few words. So does it matter? Am I being a Pharisee? Read on and decide for yourself. I have included the lyrics for your reference:
Lord of all creation
Of the water, earth and sky
The Heavens are your Tabernacle
Glory To the Lord on high
God of wonders beyond our galaxy
You are holy, holy
The universe declares your majesty
You are holy, holy
Early in the morning
I will celebrate the light
And when I stumble into darkness
I will call your name by night
Hallelujah (to the lord of heaven and earth) 3X
Holy, holy, Holy, holy
God of wonders
Beyond our galaxy
You are holy, holy
Reveal your heart to me
Father hold me, hold me
Declares your majesty
You are Holy, Holy
Hallelujah (to the lord of heaven and earth) etc....
(c) 2000 (Unable to locate full copyright details)
The Good Stuff
First of all, what is great about this song? To be so popular it must have a lot going for it. Here's what I think:
1) It has that great, ubiquitous, slightly jumpy nineties beat. That's always fun, and gives bands a lot of rhythmic scope.
2) The verse chords use the "modern" device of a two-note drone. In the key of G, the notes are G and D, with a varied bass note. That's why there is a wide range of chord descriptions. The technically correct version is G5/D, G5/E, Cadd9. Drones add a haunting, evocative feel to a song, because you have a sense of stability (the notes that don't change) overlaid with movement (the bass line) and harmonic tension (notes that don't exactly fit)
3) It has a wonderful singable melody that fits well with the words.
4) The lyrics evoke the bigness and mercy of God
So what's not to like?
This song contains a number of the flaws that mark a significant departure from "orthodox" Christianity, but are increasingly common (though not necessarily "modern". These are:
1) Careless use of jargon
2) Inaccurate ideas about the presence of God
3) Confusion about God's promises
4) Inappropriate use of romantic language
Careless use of Jargon
A really common problem with modern writing is the stringing together of Christian sounding words and jargon without respect for their Biblical (or even literal) meaning.
Consider "The Heavens are your Tabernacle" - They clearly are not! In the Bible "tabernacle" means "tent" - i.e. where someone dwells. It has a particularly "temporary" flavour to it. The Jewish Tabernacle was a "place of worship" while they were on the move, symbolising where God and man meet. You can read a dictionary version at http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=tabernacle. This is consistent with the way the tabernacle is described in HEB 8-9 and REV 21:1-4. Creation is NOT where we meet God. It may make you feel good to sing it, but it is not true. What's more, tabernacle is an anachronism that is not used outside of Christian circles. Why use it - it's not even needed to rhyme?
Also consider the lines:
The universe declares your majesty
You are holy, holy
Both lines are true, but one does not flow from the other. The universe declares God's eternal power and his divine nature. (Romans 1:18), They declare His glory (Psalm 19:1). They do not declare His holiness - that requires His spoken and written word. While each line above is true, it's sloppy - and we buy it because it sings well. In terms of meaning, the lines are not connected.
Inaccurate ideas about the presence of God
The line: "God of wonders, beyond our galaxy" raises several important questions, "Where does God dwell? Is he in creation? Is He outside creation? Is "dwelling" even appropriate language? Where do we meet Him? These are crucial questions, because the spiritual hunger we (and unbelievers) feel can only be truly fed by meeting the Living God.
Let's look first at the line, and then the questions that arise from it. In what way is God beyond our Galaxy? Let's turn to a dictionary.
1. On the far side of; past: Just beyond the fence.
2. Later than; after: beyond midnight.
3. To a degree that is past the understanding, reach, or scope of: an evil beyond remedy.
4. To a degree or amount greater than: rich beyond his wildest dreams.
5. In addition to: asked for nothing beyond peace and quiet.
Definition 3 is the only one that comes close. In one sense God is beyond our galaxy. Galaxies are so big that they dwarf our minds, ambitions and importance. God is even more expansive. God is beyond our galaxy in that sense. The question is "how do we respond to God's 'bigness'? Psalm 8 shows a Christian response:
PS 8:3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
PS 8:4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
PS 8:5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
While Hebrews applies this to Christ, it also applies to us. Jesus is the perfect expression, yet God is mindful of us, and made in the very image of God. We are not to be dwarfed by the cosmos, but inspired that though we are small, we are great in God's eyes (in spite of our sin and failings).
What about the geographical implications? Where is God in time and space? Psalm 139 shows how we cannot escape God's presence - he is not "beyond" our galaxy - he is present - everywhere:
PS 139:7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
PS 139:8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
PS 139:9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
PS 139:10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
PS 139:11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
PS 139:12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
We cannot escape Him.
The theological word for this is "omnipresence" http://www.carm.org/dictionary/dic_l-o.htm#_1_121
God is beyond the heavens in the sense He is bigger and greater, but He is also all around us. Part of the reason we have this paradox is because we try and describe God's presence (which is spiritual) in the language of physics. This is a paradox that the song actually exploits, but in my opinion could do with far more accuracy.
If God is "everywhere", then where does He dwell, if He dwells at all? Fortunately the Bible speaks of where and how God dwells with us.
EPH 3:14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
There can be no doubt that the ultimate expression of God's presence with us is Jesus. As John says, "The word became flesh and dwelt among us." His name Emmanuel means "God with us". Christ dwells in our hearts by faith. Does any one of us really know how to clearly explain what this means? Yet it is true. And while this is absolutely true, our appreciation and experience of it grows as we come to understand the enormity (not of creation, but) of how much Jesus loves us. What's more, this "dwelling" is not purely individualistic. It finds fuller expression in the Christian community. Christ dwells in His people (plural).
EPH 2:19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Your local church or body of believers is where God dwells. Not the building, but the people. As we love one another, we truly understand and experience God's presence (1 John 4:9). This is why I have such a problem with songs full of "temple" imagery and theology that speak of worshiping God in His holy temple. Emphasising a place, or a posture misses the point of what real worship is all about.
Also like many ideas in Scripture, God's promise has a "now" and a "not yet" component. God does indeed dwell in us individually and as a group of believers, right here, right now. But it is somehow incomplete. We will only experience the full expression of this reality in heaven.
REV 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
The Spirit gives us a foretaste of what it means for God to truly dwell within us, and for us to be His people, but we will only experience the complete reality of that when this flawed creation passes away, and is replaced by the new creation.
The heavens are God's tabernacle? No way - we are. God of wonders beyond our galaxy? No he is right here, right now. Should we be dwarfed and humbled by creation? No, we should be thrilled to bits that small as we are, we occupy a very special place in God's creation, and be overwhelmed by His LOVE for us.
This is my single biggest bugbear about modern songwriting. Countless songs (and utterances of "worship leaders") sell us a big lie about how and where we meet the Living God. They pander to the selfish notion that we can somehow call down the presence of God by our actions, and that we can keep Him away by our actions (or inaction). It's a lie. God is with us (Psalm 46:7, Mt 1:23). His Spirit dwells within us (2 Tim 1:14). He is with us when we gather together in His name (Mt 18:20). We can be absolutely certain about this.
Confusion about God's promises
The song (in the original version) has a refrain at the end - "precious Lord, reveal your heart to me" and "hold me".
Another common trend in songs (and modern preaching) is to call on God to do what He has promised to do (often coupled with claiming promises God never made). This is easier to see in a real life example of "decision making and the will of God".
Jim has strong emotions whenever he is around Julie. Jim calls on God in prayer to reveal His will to him about the girl he will marry. In other words, Jim wants a name, and usually the name of the girl he has on his mind. He then confidently claims by faith that Julie is that girl. Jim marches up to Julie and says, "God told me that I am to marry you". Julie says, "Push off buddy, He hasn't told me!"
This is the opposite of Biblical reality. God has revealed his will. Jim is to marry a believer (if he is to marry at all) and be concerned about his character, godliness and commitment to stand by them no matter what. It is unlikely that God has specifically promised Julie to Jim (though God is God and could do so). It is usually arrogant to assume He has. In God's eyes Jim really could marry ANY believing person of the opposite sex. Julie's subtle refusal is probably a sign that God has other plans (though it could be Satan testing him?)
Now it is not wrong to call on God to keep His promises. This is good for us and does sometimes happen in scripture, particularly the Psalms. What is missing in modern songwriting is the confidence in the Psalms. Psalmists often express their worries and concerns. It's OK for them to tell God we have doubts and fears, but almost every time they finish their plea, with a reassertion of God's promises.
PS 27:9 Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
O God my Savior.
PS 27:10 Though my father and mother forsake me,
The LORD will receive me.
In 2 Samuel, David calls on God to keep his promise, but the reason is clear - that God's name will be glorified before the watching world. The focus was on God, not David's desires.
2SA 7:25 "And now, LORD God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, 26 so that your name will be great forever. Then men will say, `The LORD Almighty is God over Israel!' And the house of your servant David will be established before you.
Other examples of this are 1 Chronicles 17:23 and Psalm 119:38, 41. Now David in many places does often call on God to save him. This sounds like he is calling on God to keep His promise - but a closer look reveals that what David is calling on is God's protection from physical harm. God never promises us absolute physical safety. I have no problem with someone asking God for things they:
b) That God hasn't promised, and
c) Are outside their personal control.
These are exactly the things we ought to pray for. These calls for help and deliverance are far more in line with Meshach and co:
DA 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
This is the way Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. "If it be your will" is not a cop out, but the ultimate statement of faith and trust in God's goodness. It recognises the distinction between God's ability, and God's plan. It recognises the distinction between our responsibility and God's.
As for "holding", God has plainly promised to hold us (Ps 73:23) and he has quite clearly revealed His heart to us (Gen. 1:1-Rev.22:21). This continued expression "hold me" and "show me" in the song seems to me more the spiritual equivalent of teen angst than the mark of maturity in Christ. It is also...
Inappropriate use of romantic language
The last great bugbear is the borrowing of romantic language to describe God. A friend of mine calls this the "Jesus is my boyfriend" syndrome. The repeated singing of "hold me" is clearly designed to evoke an emotional response.
As a man, I find some of the sooky "hold me, love me..." stuff quite off putting. I wonder if many unbelieving men feel the same way on the rare occasions they stumble into our gatherings? Even some of my emotional female friends tell me they have a problem with this language. Do I need to discover my feminine side, or is there a real problem here?
I have no problem expressing my love for God, but as another famous song says:
I'll bring you more than a song,
For a song in itself is not what you have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear,
You're looking into my heart
I question much modern romantic language in songs. Is it a helpful and valid expression of our love for Jesus? Is it simply emotional manipulation? What is troubling is that the emotion of "hold me" is disconnected from the rational content of the song. In real life, emotion is connected to events by how we think. Appropriate emotion is connected to ideas. When it is disconnected, it is closer to emotional manipulation than the honest and heartfelt expression of genuine emotion.
Even more troubling is that I do know that the real measure of our love for Jesus is the way we love each other, and the way we obey God's commands. I see very few songs that actually inspire us to do those two things, and a lot that are simply "expressions of emotion". This seems terribly unbalanced to me. Every great human romance is backed up by substance and action. Emotional expression on it own is simply that. When the music is over, what is left?
Stop making sense
As I see it, this popular song has some theological and pragmatic flaws. Would I ban it? To be honest I haven't reached a firm conclusion yet. Perhaps like Douglas Adams I would describe it as "mostly harmless". In spite of its logical and theological problems, its major impact is at an emotional level, to leave us with a sense of wonder about God. There is much good in that. , Some people experience a gushy sense of "love" disconnected (or vaguely connected) to that sense of wonder. It's not a deadly sin, but it is a sign of the times.
Whatever you think about the song and the issues, it's worth restating my call to songwriters and "worship leaders" around the world to:
1) Strive for theological accuracy, particularly about the presence of God and where we REALLY meet Him.
2) Strive for songs with a coherent theme and story, not just words strung together that sound good.
3) Use emotional language appropriately being careful of manipulation and simply trying to stir feelings.
4) Let's get confident in our songs - stop pleading and whining for God to do what He promises and rather claim those promises and tell the world!
5) Write and use songs that encourage us to love one another practically and remind us of the way of life that Jesus calls us to.
Is it really that hard? This song could be simply rewritten to correct all those flaws. Would it lose something special in doing that? It's impossible to tell. Human emotions are fickle.