Songwriting and Theology

This is not a joke. I am actually taking a class at Duke this fall called “Songwriting and Theology.”  Dr. Lester Ruth, a new professor to Duke, is teaching this course which he crafted while a professor at Asbury Seminary.  To address what he felt was a severe deficiency on the part of seminaries and the church as a whole to theologically instruct its poets. See his article on Songwriters and the Trinity.

One quote worth mentioning from the class reflecting the current state of affairs in the church.  Do you think this is true?

“The Church has no theological expectations of her musicians”

The course will have a focus in Wesleyan verse but will also examine hymnody from the whole scope of church song.  Evidently we are even examining the sermon-songs of Romanus the Melodist. Now THAT should be interesting!

Among the historical material to be reviewed will be worship songs by Charles Wesley (British, 18th century), Prudentius (a Western poet from the late patristic period), Ephrem the Syrian (an Eastern poet from the late patristic period), Romanos the Melodist (an Eastern poet from the early Byzantine period), Isaac Watts (British, 18th century), as well as a sampling of other Western and Eastern texts for Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

One of our main assignments each week is to write verse instructed by the historical study of the day.  This week’s assignment looks at the hymns of Isaac Watts.  We need to write at lease two stanza’s that reflect on a psalm and offer up a Christian twist.

I’m thinking a lot about the Lord’s Supper and have been reading through Psalms 113-118 (Great Hallel) – psalms that were used as part of the passover liturgy.

Psalm 113:4-9

O, who is like the Lord our God?
His name the heavens round
While nations echo his chavod
The earth repeats the sound

He raises men from all their debts
And women from their fears
He rescues them for princely courts
Anoints their blessed tears

He lifts the worker from his toil
Shines light in barren wombs
He gives a harvest of the years
And leads us from the tomb!

(c) 2011 Bruce Benedict

3 thoughts on “Songwriting and Theology

Add yours

  1. That looks like an exciting course.

    I think that quote is dead on. Conversely it seems that most modern day song writers (thinking CCM here) do not expect to have any theological chops either. I was perusing CCLI yesterday and cannot believe the number of vapid songs. It seems the subject matter may be moving from a “me” centered approach but even the songs extolling God’s virtues are short on substance and heavy on immediate emotional appeal. Nothing wrong with emotional engagement but when do I get some truth to anchor and help me sort through my emotions which vacillate all day long.

  2. Bruce- thanks for sharing with us what you’re learning. I’ve linked the first two weeks at my blog ( and took some time considering the statement “The Church has no theological expectations from her musicians”. I wanted to put my thoughts here to hopefully futher the conversation. About the statement, I wrote:

    This such a sad statement that at first I had a hard time agreeing with it. But after thinking about it and pondering the putrid wasteland of music that has been produced (and peddled, and packaged, and sold) by the American Church, I have to agree for the most part. It is certainly true that this is an accurate reflection of the status quo.

    I would also take that expression and turn it on it’s head a bit and say that, “The Church has no poetical or musical expectations of her pastors and theologians.”

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