Lost in translation?

So I once went to a church in Italy. The service was all in Italian. I don’t speak Italian. But it made me wonder, what if you don’t speak ‘church’?

There were a few words that sounded vaguely familiar and I could guess the rest but it made me realise just how alienating it can be when you’re in a crowd and don’t understand the language being used.  How applicable is that to how we speak in our churches. We often say and sing things in churches like ‘Jesus is Lord’ but what do we actually mean by that phrase? What do other people think we mean when they hear us saying ‘Jesus is Lord’?

Alan Sugar is a Lord. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a Lord. Is Jesus going to fire us and then write a song about it?

A lot has been said and written about the content of the songs* we use in times of sung-worship, and I think the content is hugely important – we are, after all, called to worship in Spirit and in truth, and to love God with all our heart and mind – but it seems to me just as important to consider how we say what we say.

There are many Christian phrases and jargon that just seem absurd to anyone outside the church or people new to the church. These phrases may well be biblically based, but to someone with minimal bible knowledge or experience singing ‘worthy’ to a baby sheep sitting on a throne just seems plain weird!

But it’s not just the more obscure Jewish imagery that can hinder people expressing their love of God, to God with their fellow worshippers. What about ‘Lord, I’m lifting your name high’? What do we mean by ‘shouting out his praise’?

The book of Revelation is loaded with vivid montages of weird creatures and glorious throne rooms full of words and actions and rituals that express honour and passion for God. The Psalms are full of ancient everyday-Hebrew imagery we’ve stolen and put into modern songs. But I feel there is a ‘lost in translation’ aspect occurring.

The culture in which David wrote the Psalms is very different to the culture we write songs in today. The vision John had of heaven and the end times in Revelation was full of cultural references and symbolism for first century Palestine. The language they used was effective then for that audience, but may not be as effective for our contexts. I’m not for one minute suggesting that the Bible is irrelevant today. But I am proposing we delve a little deeper into the underlying meaning of what David and the other songwriters were trying to express rather than just nicking their lyrics.

“Taking the Bible literally is not the same as taking the Bible seriously.”

Let’s not just consider what we’re saying. Let’s be creative in how we are saying it. Let’s be like the inventive God we love and worship and come up with more imaginative ways of saying ‘God, you’re brilliant. We love you’. Be poetic, be relevant, be fresh, be different, and be original. Avoid those warn-out clichés and predictable rhymes. Find the gaps in our repertoires and fill them with songs that express something in a new way.

That of course is much harder work than pinching lines straight from the Bible and playing a chord progression behind them. Just the other day I was sitting at home writing a song and found myself struggling trying to find good, meaningful lyrics to a new melody. I found a few verses that I could’ve just chucked into the song and it would’ve sounded half-decent but it felt like compromise and didn’t say want I wanted to say.

Song writing is about craftsmanship.

Song writing isn’t lazy or doing just enough to churn out another album.

Song writing is about art and finesse and skill.

I believe the phrase That’ll do” should be banned from art! Ultimately I believe our churches will benefit from the investment and effort in writing and singing songs that express today’s worship experience, in contemporary language and that make sense.

I’m still looking for those fresh lyrics for the new tune I wrote; still pondering, still experimenting, crafting and tweaking. It takes time. It takes discipline. It takes hard work and patience. But I believe that good things are worth waiting for, and working for.

*This is by no means limited to songs. How about our sermons, prayers, liturgies, notices…?

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