I tried to like Christian music.
I really did.
When I was a new believer, I got a whole bunch of Christian CDs from the “if you’re a fan of [insert band name here]” section of the Christian bookstore. I listened to a whole bunch of stuff… but, outside of a few songs here and there, and the odd album, nothing really clicked.
Perhaps it’s helpful to understand my general opinion of the music geared toward Christians (please assume the appropriate caveats are in place):
- Much music intended for personal enjoyment tends to try too hard to sound “Christian,” and thus feels dishonest.
- The music we sing in many of our churches is even worse. Far too much church music tends to be simplistic, emotionally manipulative, and triumphalist—at best including a few disconnected statements about God, without actually encouraging us to truly know him better.
This is probably the strangest way to start a review of an album by a Christian worship leader, isn’t it?
Now, before you write me off as a “good church music stopped in the 1800s” guy who thinks every song should be a systematic theology lesson, that’s not what I’m advocating here (tho’ I do love me some hymns). As has often been said, the answer to bad church music is not to go back to older songs, but to write better ones. That’s what I love about The Modern Post and Citizens and Saints, The Sing Team and the Gettys. It’s also what I really dig about what Stephen Miller’s doing on his latest album, Liberating King.
Praise music that’s praiseworthy
From track one, it’s pretty clear this is not going to be what you’d hear from, say, Hillsong or even the Vertical Church Band.1 The songs featured on Liberating King teach us about God, even as they direct our praise to him.
This is harder than it sounds. It’s really easy to swing too far, in trying to correct from where much of modern praise music has gone. But Miller doesn’t overcorrect; instead, he maintains a strong balance between the head and the heart. Consider “You Complete All You Begin”, which is probably the standout song of all the original material on the album. Here, Miller takes listeners (and, ideally, congregations) through the story of redemption, from the first glimpse of the gospel to the end:
Completely just and holy God
Who from age to age forbeared
All the blatant acts of evil hearts
Unrelenting in despair
While promising a Son would come
The Messiah from of old
And his bruised heel would crush the head
Of the serpent, cursed and cold
This is powerful stuff. When was the last time you can recall singing about the fact that God promised to send Jesus and that he would triumph over evil? When was the last time you sung something like “When the blood of bulls could not suffice / Christ absorbed it all in him”? This is the kind of gospel rich, hope-inciting words we need to sing more often. These are songs that are directing our starting points and our responses away from us. Our emotions obviously play a role in what we’re singing, but Miller helps us to recognize that while we “could sing of [God’s] love forever”,2 it’s more helpful to do so when we understand what God has done in his love for us.
“It is well”
My favorite song on the album, though, is Miller’s arrangement of Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well.” This is probably one of the greatest songs ever written for the benefit of the Church—not because it is terribly complicated, but because it communicates profound truth. Spafford wrote the song out of adversity, following the great Chicago fire of 1871, financial ruin, and finally, the death of all four of his daughters in a shipwreck. In other words, this isn’t an ivory tower hymn, written from a place of privilege; it is written from the same place David wrote so many of his psalms—one of grief and trial. And this is what makes it so honest, and enduring. Miller honors the original: the new arrangement “fits”, and he sings with noticeable conviction. Were I to hear this arrangement in our church’s worship gathering, I would be elated.
Songs worth singing
Liberating King did something that hasn’t happened in quite a while with any praise songs—it actually made me want to sing. And with good reason: this is an album that is worth singing because it’s an album that is clearly about Jesus, our Lord and King. And if he’s not worth singing about, what is? Definitely check out the album; I have no doubt you will be blessed in your hearing of it.
Title: Liberating King
Artist: Stephen Miller
Today, I’m giving away three copies of Liberating King. To enter, all you’ve got to do is tell me about your favorite church music. What’s the song you really love to sing at church (or wish you did), and why? I’ll choose the winners at random on Wednesday, and they’ll be notified by email (followed by an announcement in the comments on this post).