Singing What We Believe – Calvin Seminar

In June I traveled up to Grand Rapids, MI to participate in the summer seminar series that Calvin College sponsors each summer.  The particular seminar that I contributed to was called “Singing What We Believe” and was directed by Bert Polman, the head of the music department at Calvin and a Senior Research Fellow for Calvin’s Institute of Christian Worship (Worship Renewal Grants, Worship Symposium, et al).  You can read the seminar description below…

Here is the Seminar Description:

Congregational songs have often been called the lay persons’ “handbook of theology” as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” have a unique mix of doxa (worship) and logia (teaching) which shape and express the life of Christians. This seminar will  explore initially the theology of hymn texts, based on an analysis of some 250 classic hymn lyrics and a similar number of contemporary Praise-Worship texts. Then the seminar participants will discuss the relationship between the theological themes of such texts and the prevalence of what sociologists of religion (Christian Smith, et al) have termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In other words, this interdisciplinary seminar will focus not only on doxa and logia but also on praxis, and is expected to raise issues about current religious convictions and practices of Christians.

Reading on Hymnody and CWM:

Our reading focused primarily on the following books, articles, and a collection of 250 classic hymn texts (largely from the “Hymns for Worship” collection) and 289 of the most popular CCLI songs from August 1997 through Feb 2012.  The collection of writings focused around hymnody and CWM was brought into conversation with the books and articles streaming from Christian Smith’s research on the state of adolescent religion in American and MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism).

1. S. Paul Schilling: The Faith We Sing, How the Message of Hymns Can Enhance Christian Belief (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983) (out of print)
2. Robert Woods & Brian Walrath, eds.: The Message in the Music, Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), esp. chapters 1-7
3. Edward Lee Steele: Theological Themes in Contemporary Hymnody (PDF)

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

1. Christian Smith & Melina Lundquist Denton: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
2. Christian Smith & Patricia Snell: Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
3. Al Mohler: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – Our New Religion (2005)
4.  Christian Smith, On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith. (2005)
5. Michael Horton, (video) What is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? @ The Resurgence


In setting up this class Dr. Polman had a hunch that through a broad textual analysis of the most popular CWM (CCLI) songs from the past decade or two (in comparison with classic hymnody) he might be able to draw some corollaries between the trends that Christian Smith has found in his research on MTD and themes prevalent in CWM music.  And while there are certainly some similarities it is very difficult to draw any broad conclusions about the state of orthodoxy in the church simply from CCLI results. (Which don’t speak to the broader teaching of the church, the framing of songs in their context, etc).   Many of the hymn texts have issues just as well as the CCLI song lyrics when it comes to clearly communicating orthodox views on God, sin, humanity, salvation, etc.  In two followup posts we will look at MTD more closely and provide some suggestions on how to address each of the  theological fallacies of MTD with wise and discerning song choices, or at least how to mitigate many of the CWM lyrics with thoughtful song ‘framing.’

The class was incredibly challenging with the intensity in which we examined songs texts.  Because worship songs function for us as wholistic units of text, music and context it felt at times like we were exposing the songs…laying out the texts as naked uncovered entities.  I’ve certainly never devoted as much time as I did during the week to analyzing song texts – and that with a very diverse group of scholar/practitioners. For this privilege I am extremely grateful as I now have a whole new set of skills and eyes to use when thinking about the texts that we sing and how they shape our faith.

It was particularly fantastic to share conversation with Kevin Twit (RUF/Indelible Grace), Steve Guthrie (Colleague of Jeremy Begbie and Prof at Belmont College), and Paul Richardson (noted Baptist hymnologist).

The work of the class will eventually show up in a paper to be presented at the Hymn Society’s annual meeting, and I will certainly link to that when it gets published.

5 thoughts on “Singing What We Believe – Calvin Seminar

Add yours

  1. Fascinating. Though it’s probably a bit unfair to compare 15 years of CCLI hits with 250 years of hymnody, I think this would be a shocking and eye-opening endeavor. I try to encourage my sold out modern worship friends to engage in analyzing lyrics through a biblical-theological grid, and there usually are some big time fireworks that go off when they do. Thanks for the post!

    1. That’s a good reflection. We used the hymn texts primarily to lay a foundation for how music texts have covered the theological basis of scripture in centuries past…and then compared the CCLI texts against that foundation. All in all the scope was so grand that not much conclusively could be said. It was certainly wisdom inducing though.

  2. Now that sounds like a proper seminar to geek-out over! Please post a link to the final report when that is published. Are any materials from the course available – the songs/hymns studied, syllabus, etc.?

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