my choice for worst christian song ever: ancient words

Rod of Alexandria has begun a meme asking different bloggers to choose the worst Christian song in existence and describe why it is so abhorrent to them. Those who know me know that I have been no fan of much of what passes as “Christian music” for many years, be it what we today call contemporary worship or “praise” music, ridiculous, out-of-date hymns (especially those particular hymns with “Christian soldier” themes, or those that employ the use of the word “yonder”), or the newest fad, wannabe Christian rock songs, which (imho) were they any good would be able to cut it with the big boys and girls on the “mainstream” charts like U2. The fact that so many Christian musicians and bands choose to flee to the safety of the “Contemporary Christian” minor leagues to have any chance at “success” is quite telling.

And let not a Christian song’s widespread presence in churches across the country fool you; the fact that a “praise song” gets played repeatedly in many worship settings is usually more of an indication that the song’s instrumentation is easy to play, or that the congregants mindlessly singing along lack any theological training or inquisitiveness than it is an indicator of a well-written song. Let us also not neglect the possibility that many crappy Christian songs survive only because individuals in worship settings are often too polite to look to the person standing next to him/her and say, “This song really, really sucks!” For some reason, we’re told we’re not supposed to criticize bad Christian songs, because it may have edifying qualities to another listener no matter how theologically unstable the song’s lyrics may be. This phenomenon tells us much about the state of Christian music (and Christian knowledge of the actual text of the Bible) today. But I digress…

Contemporary worship or “praise” music bugs me the most. With their theologically vapid lyrics, I have just about had it with what passes for worship music today. The theological complexity of many of these songs today often sounds like little more than: “Jeeezussss, I sooo freakin’ loooove youuuuu, you are my all in all, fill me with your presence, help me feeeeel you inside me, me me me me me me me me.”

It seems “worship” is quickly taking the place of doctrine/dogma as that which stands in the way of what ought to be at the center of the Christian life: service to others. But, service to others is hard (read: “haaarrrrd,” like a whiny child), and takes a lot of time, as does forgiveness, kindness, making do with what you have, and educating oneself about precisely what one believes (and, for that matter, what one does not believe, as well as what can be proved and what cannot be proved, what is outdated, and what no longer belongs as part of a modern Christian life!). It’s much easier and much more fun to see church as a divine therapy session, where self-righteous, self-absorbed doctrine helps us feel superior, and “meaningful worship” helps us recharge for another dreary week of actually having to interact with others outside of the gated communities and guard booths, and make a difference in the unsterilized, unsanitary world Christians are supposed to be affecting. But again, I digress…

Being raised in the Restoration Movement in an a cappella tradition, song lyrics are all the more important, especially when there is no instrumental accompaniment to cover up poorly written, theologically defunct, or grammatically incorrect words.

Speaking of theologically lacking, grammatically incorrect music, let me introduce Lynn DeShazo and perhaps one of the worst offerings of grammatical nonsense of the past few decades. About five years ago, the University Church of Christ in Malibu introduced a song entitled Ancient Words into the repertoire. This group of thrown-together words that some call a “song” has got to be one of the most ill-conceived songs in the recent history of the English language. And yet, it gets passed along from one church to another like a joint at a reggae concert, often without anyone ever pausing to ask, “but is this really any good for us?” If you succeed in getting past the fact that Michael W. Smith is performing it (above), you are then left with the unavoidable reality that the song is a complete butchery of the English language.

Here are the lyrics:

Holy words long preserved
for our walk in this world,
They resound with God’s own heart.
Oh let the ancient words impart.

Words of Life, words of Hope
Give us strength, help us cope
In this world, where e’er we roam
Ancient words will guide us Home.

Ancient words ever true
Changing me and changing you,
We have come with open hearts
Oh let the ancient words impart.

Holy words of our Faith
Handed down to this age
Came to us through sacrifice
Oh heed the faithful words of Christ.

Holy words long preserved
For our walk in this world.
They resound with God’s own heart
Oh let the ancient words impart.

We have come with open hearts
Oh let the ancient words impart.

Please allow me for a second to explain the grammatical concept of a transitive verb.

Intransitive verbs do not need an object. I run. The dog eats. He dies. These verbs are intransitive; they don’t require direct or indirect objects. One cannot die something. You die. In this sentence, “die” is an intransitive verb. However, transitive verbs are verbs that require objects. For instance, were I to say, “Tomorrow, I am bringing,” you would think me an idiot, because “bringing” is a transitive verb and requires a direct object. What, precisely, am I bringing? (Answer: I’m bringing the smackdown on this disgrace of a song.)

Now re-read the lyrics to Ancient Words above and pay special attention to the chorus. “Oh let the ancient words impart.” Period. Impart what exactly? Impart direction? Impart wisdom? Impart love? Joy? Happiness? What are the ancient words imparting? Nothing! We don’t know what the ancient words are imparting because the song’s author never tells us! She just wrote some pretty sounding ancient words together, but forgot the ancient rules of grammar!

Here’s a Christian lyric for you: Of what good are open hearts if we know not what the words impart? (See, this stuff is easy.)

It’s a sixth grade grammatical song for an increasingly sixth grade Christian consumer market, willing to recite anything – including theological and grammatical nonsense – just to have their ears tickled and feel good. In many contemporary worship services, words mean nothing, but, if we sing them with heart and passion, perhaps we can overlook the fact that the lyrics are fundamentally ridiculous.

So add Ancient Words to Ha-la-la-la-la-la-la lei-lu-jah (whose second verse, ‘Jesus is a friend,’ sounds like a bunch of snakes hissing at each other), Blue Skies and Rainbows, Shine Jesus Shine, Onward Christian Soldiers, I Come to the Garden Alone, and anything written and/or arranged for a cappella by Ken Young as songs that should never be sung in corporate worship settings. And, as I have the unfortunate experience being reminded of others, I shall add them to this list.

Until such a time as this, allow me to offer this challenge to songwriters: focus on the lyrics. Good lyrics make good songs. But, don’t just write pretty sounding lyrics. Show your lyrics to others, preferably, to those with a theological education and at least a sixth grade education in English grammar. Use poetic license, but check for glaring grammatical errors. And, for the love of all that is good and holy, write lyrics that have meaning beyond simply fitting alliteratively into a fixed syllabic space.

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