One of the highlights of this summer’s New Wine was Martin Smith leading us in singing his own song, “God’s great dance floor” – an exuberant song that was brilliant to sing along with five thousand others. The video (here) is even better than the live worship – because it shows more clearly how the song is a reflection on the story of the Prodigal Son. There is a long build-up at the start where the errant son contemplates his hopelessness, before running back to his father – whereupon the song changes tempo to being an incredibly upbeat and catchy anthem.
However, the theologian in me needed to check the actual text. I was pleasantly surprised to see that ‘dancing’ is explicitly mentioned in the parable (here)! Thus the song led me into a deeper understanding of the story itself.
All too often there are songs written that are sloppy in their theology – a catchy tune seems to outweigh the need to think through what is being written. There are a few which tend to get me into a theological huff, at least for a line or two. One of these happens to be another Martin Smith song, which begins, “If faith can move the mountains, let the mountains move!” – the words are wonderfully easy to sing with faithful ardour, but the Malvern Hills still won’t shift to the M5.
But the song that really bugs me, which was also popular at New Wine, is one which includes the recurring line, addressed to God, “Your mercy is a miracle”. This is a category error, like saying that a chocolate is intelligent, or that a parsnip is left-footed.
I was refreshed to find a modern worship leader, Stuart Townend, expressing similar thoughts. He writes,
a significant minority of new songs… are little more than a re-ordering of stock phrases in circulation among existing songs, just married to a new tune. It feels to me like the energy and skill has gone into creating a dynamic, memorable melody, and the words are something of an afterthought, which sound ‘right’ but say little. [full article here]
The problem here is that ‘your mercy is a miracle’ may sound right, but fails to understand ‘mercy’ or ‘miracle’.
‘Miracle’ is one of the most abused words in the English language. The OED defines ‘miracle’ as “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency”. This would apply to Jesus feeding the five thousand, or people being healed through prayer today (for example here).
Too often, unusual events with entirely natural causes are described as miracles: for example, Wigan’s FA cup win last May attracted plenty of ‘miracle’ accolades (see for example here in the Daily Mirror and here on Channel 4 – where the goalkeeper is even credited with working miracles ‘time and again’!) It is depressing when Christians are equally sloppy in using the word. If we want to communicate the reality of God’s power revealed in miracles, we must not start by degrading the actual word.
God’s mercy is a characteristic of his, like his grace, or love, or holiness: it describes his compassion and forgiveness when justice demands punishment. As such, his mercy inspires gratitude, worship and awe of God. However, it remains a characteristic, unlike a miracle, which is an event.
What makes “God’s great dance floor” such a good song is that not only is it musically compelling, but it is evidently the product of deep reflection on scripture: it is theologically sound. This is why I have used the video a couple of times in worship at meetings, and will probably continue to do so.
The hymns and songs which last are those for which both the words and the music are carefully crafted. Charles Wesley’s hymns have become classics because he aimed to use the musical idiom of the day to teach about the Christian faith. Some of the ones being written today equally deserve to become classics. Those that fall by the wayside are likely to be those which are catchy but haven’t been thought through properly.
Emerging song writers would do well to craft their lyrics as carefully as their music – otherwise their work will do little more than entertain for a short while.
Here is Martin Smith’s video of God’s great dance floor…