March 2, 2009

Why I Exegete Songs

After the long winded Sara Groves post, I thought it might be a good idea of why I do exegesis of new Christian music.

Pathfinder Lodge

When I was a kid, I went to an American Baptist camp named Pathfinder. I absolutely loved it there. One year, one of the counselors, John Malone, told us to write down our top ten favorite songs and turn the lists in. From those, he chose the top 2 songs listed, researched the lyrics, got the CDs, and the next day took us through the lyrics. The two songs that were picked were Gangster's Paradise by Coolio and Um Bop by Hansen (neither of these was on my list). I was surprised by the depth of the Coolio song, and the irony of the lyrics to Um Bop (which are really depressing). This lesson still sticks with me today, for it taught me the importance of lyrics.

Many of the kids (we were 15 and 16) there could sing along with the song, but couldn't tell you what the song was about. It was interesting how well they knew the songs without knowing them at all. Indeed, Um Bop was mostly added as a joke, but we all got a deeper lesson out of it because the ironic lyrics.

But Why Be So Exegetical About It?

I'll tell you why. Primarily because I am enough of a dork to find it fun. Ever since that first lyrical exegetical experience at camp, I have been fascinated by lyrics.

However, to that, I think there is a great advantage to exegeting songs for a Christian. This is because Christianity, especially Protestantism, is a religon of the book. Because so much of our understanding of who we are and who God is comes from how we understand Scripture, much of our epistemology and general philosophy is based upon how well we can read a text. Thus, learning how to exegete in general can help us in exegeting Scripture itself.

In other words, exegeting songs makes good practice. The reason for using modern songs is that they are an excellent thing to practice on. First of all, they are modern, which means that they are written in our language and our dialect. We are not dealing with a translation, and we are not dealing with any obsolete or archaic word usages.

The second is that a song, or any kind of poem for that matter, is a very small and self-contained literary work. Let's face it, it is easier to deal with 4 paragraphs than it is to deal with than even a two page article.

The third is that songs use stricter and more identifiable structures. This isn't just the tendency in American music to use a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, but also just the overall use of stanzas in general. The song has very identifiable units, with a rhythm and, usually, a clear connection to the whole. The main theme is usually most succinctly or emotionally expressed in the chorus. The verses usually taking the most time to treat the subject serving as either emotional set up or thematic elucidation. In either case, our exposure to not only this basic structure, but other common structures gives us a good sense of where to look for the theme of the song.

Thus, exegeting modern songs is much easier than Scripture itself. It therefore makes an excellent training tool, and, like I said, good practice. I hope to teach hermeneutics one day using song, and this practice is not only is hermeneutics in general but all in explaining how analysis works. So please enjoy my former exegeses, as well as any future ones, and I encourage for you to do this yourself. I believe you will find it quite beneficial.


Mason said...

JC, you make a really good point here. I think it is unfortunate how little attention most people pay to the lyrics of the songs they listen to. Sometimes knowing the lyrics makes the song suddenly not as enjoyable, or downright annoying, but for truly great music knowing and studying the lyrics adds so much to the experience of listening to it.

Though any type of exegesis is indeed good practice, sharpening our minds for the study of the Word, I think that there is another angle here.
We should indeed be ‘people of the book’, the Bible is central and to be valued and studied, but I think there is a tendency to go from placing the Bible as central, to playing down how we can develop and learn from other sources.

Not that I think this is what you are doing, but be it Dostoevsky’s novels or U2’s music engaging with the way these mediums engage life, joy, pain, faith, sin, etc can have much value even if they provided no practice at all.
Maybe I’m a bit too tired to be totally coherent in what I’m trying to say here, because I’m not actually disagreeing with what you said even though it might read that way. I just think we Protestants have to be wary of the common practice in our tradition of passing by the richness of things that are not ‘academic’ in the way a theological text or commentary is… hopefully that makes sense lol.

Jc_Freak: said...

I understand you fine. I'm reminded of Justin Martyr's logos theology. He taught that all men have been exposed to the logos of God, and thus all philosophy contains portions of it. So one can learn from all perspectives.

However, only Christianity possesses the fullness of the logos, is it was incarnate in Christ. Therefore, any philosophy which contradicts Christianity is wrong, but there still are things to gain from it.

How I take things is when dealing with secular influences, one must be careful. One must constantly examine one's reaction to things, watch the fruit so to speak. You need to cut out what currupts you, but enjoy what benefits you. As long as you remain saturated by the Word of God and the tradition of the Church, you are free to engage with the culture around you. To some degree, you need to if you are going to reach anybody. There are things that you can gain a learn that way. But there are also things that can distract and hinder. Do not act in fear of the former, but do not act recklessly either. Discernment is the key.

Pizza Man said...

You convinced me to buy the song. ;) It is very good.