W. David O. Taylor on Scholars and Songwriters
Scholars and songwriters don’t normally talk together. But wonderful music for Christian worship can result when they share insights.
W. David O. Taylor is an author and Anglican priest who teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. As director of Brehm Texas at Fuller’s Houston campus, he leads projects to revitalize the church through the arts for the common good—such as his 2016 short film on the Psalms with Bono and Eugene Peterson. In this edited conversation, he talks about how conversations between Christian scholars and songwriters can enrich music written for worship.
Based on your experiences at 2018 Christmas songwriting retreats in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Houston, Texas, what’s one way that scholars can contribute to the songwriting process?
Scholars can provide historical context for the church’s practice of song. For example, how did the organ get introduced to corporate worship after centuries of all musical instruments being excluded? How did it get used originally? How did it become God’s so-called ‘preferred musical instrument’? And why did the organ get kicked out again?
If songwriters today can understand the answers to questions like these, it will help them, I think, to know where they fit within the larger dynamics of church history and its relation to music in worship. It will help them to know they’re not alone in their joys and struggles. The wisdom of those who have gone before them might become a source of encouragement and practical help as they discern how to faithfully lead the people of God in worship.
What biblical insights from scholars might affect how musicians write Christmas songs?
Scholars can help songwriters discover the intertextual and canonical patterns in scripture. These discoveries help songwriters perceive scripture as a three-dimensional, multi-literary text, rather than a one-dimensional, flat, homogeneous text. Seeing these things might offer songwriters an opportunity to experience the biblical text in a fresh way.
It might help them to perceive, for instance, echoes of Isaiah in Luke, and Exodus in Matthew. This would open songwriters to noticing a richer, more compelling, more terrific, and, perhaps, even terrifying birth narrative than they might otherwise see in the Christmas story.
What else can scholars do to help songwriters create songs for worship?
Scholars can help songwriters to connect the dots theologically: to see how the beginning of all things, whether in Genesis or the Gospel of John, informs the end of all things, and how eschatology [study of the last things] can become a starting point to make sense of everything today.
Think about how Christology and pneumatology go together. There is no birth of Christ without the Holy Spirit, no Spirit-energized life apart from the model of Christ’s true humanity. Consider how a fully orbed theological anthropology might inform writing songs about the tragedy and glory of being human. It would demonstrate that God’s salvific work on the cross involves not just one model of atonement but a kaleidoscopic vision of rescue. Imagine how a sound Trinitarian theology might inform our care of the earth, our pursuit of justice, our service to our neighbors and enemies, and our mission to the ends of the earth.
How have songwriters—or “artistic approaches” more generally—influenced your scholarship?
I’m lucky to be married to a professional visual artist. That means I get to witness up close the life of an artist, the mind and heart of an artist, along with the process and final product of an artist. And that helps me, I feel, to become a better teacher, scholar, thinker, researcher, and Christian. The arts remind me how interesting and complicated and wonderful God’s world is. Reading novels and poems, visiting galleries, watching movies, and watching modern or hip hop dance performances—all remind me of what human beings love and fear. The arts reveal our common lot and what makes us unique, and I always try to pull these things into my theology lectures.
How else do the arts inform your scholarship?
They remind me of the fundamentally aesthetic nature of human life. By this I mean that the arts engender a way to grasp the world through our physical bodies. They give us a feel for things that we might not be able otherwise to articulate. They enable us to imagine what, at first glance, may seem improbable or even impossible. The arts immerse us in a sphere of metaphors by which human beings make sense of their personal and social lives.
In worship we could preach about baptized imaginations. But we could also give our eyes something to look at, such as Matthias Grünewald’s painting “The Crucifixion” or He Qi’s “The Risen Lord.” And we could trust that this experience of seeing will enable the worshiper to imagine the depths of Christ’s agony on the cross and the singular power of his resurrection. A standard sermon, of course, performs a necessary service. Preachers, at their best, exposit texts, illustrate ideas, articulate and apply them to our lives. Yet, when the imagination is directly exercised through an immediate experience of a work of art, it acquires an increased capacity to “see” the world rightly, as Christ sees it.
Given that the arts appeal to all senses, how might using more senses shape Christian worship and faithful living?
When bodies are allowed to do the work of knowing in liturgical contexts, through postures of kneeling or prostration, they acquire instinctual capacities to serve as the humble Christ serves. When people are given a chance to feel rightly, for example, by praying Psalm 22 in lament, on days when they might feel the exact opposite, they acquire muscles for feeling rightly beyond the liturgy, to feel for one’s neighbor with the sympathy of Christ. In all these ways, our practices of art can attune us to the triune God, one another, and the world. How we think about and use art within corporate worship really matters.
More concretely, artists like my wife remind me that looking, listening, touching, smelling, and tasting expand our knowledge of God and how we learn about the world. Artists know that senses are important and that the process, not just the product, matters. The Bible, ethics, and neighborliness become more dynamically meaningful when they are sung and seen. Artists and the arts show me that the Christian faith is more like art than like math, more like an embodied, kinesthetic thing than like theoretical science. That is a good reminder for an INTJ like me; I tend to stay in my head and think my way through life, rather than commit or choose to experience or be present with my whole being to things, people, and, ultimately, God.
Why do you care so much about producing better worship songs for congregational singing?
Gordon Fee used to say to his students, “Let me hear you pray, let me hear you sing, and I will write your theology.” It’s what I tell my theology students every week as we explore Trinitarian theology, soteriology, or eschatology. I also remind them that most Christians will learn about God (and therefore get theologically educated) by the prayers that get prayed and the sermons that get preached and the songs that get sung at church on Sunday (or whenever they meet).
I start every class with a close reading of worship songs that congregations across the denominational spectrum might be singing. We listen to music by Lauren Daigle and St. Romanos the Melodist, Kari Jobe and Rabanus Maurus, Bianco da Siena and Fanny Crosby, and music from the global church. I try not to ruin these songs for students. But I do want them to see how theological formation is happening through the one thing that virtually all Christians do in worship: sing.
What makes a worship song “better” than another?
For a song about the Trinity, for example, the goal is not merely to name the three persons of the Trinity. That’s relatively easy—and says quite little about God. It simply says 1, 2, 3. What’s so interesting about that? That could be modalist (that God is like an actor who wears three masks in order to perform three roles) or polytheist (three gods for the price of one!) for all I know. It doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about each person of the triune Godhead, or how they’re related to one another, or how they cooperate in their mission to heal this world. This is where I think Chris Tomlin’s song, “How Great Is Our God,” is less helpful to people in their knowledge of the Father, Son, and Spirit, than, say, the rapper Shai Linne, or, of course, Charles Wesley.
Do you think people who write music for worship need certain education credentials?
I have no interest in stressing out songwriters or placing impossibly oppressive burdens on worship leaders. They don’t need to go to seminary. They don’t need to read Augustine or Calvin or Wesley. But like pastors and preachers, songwriters and worship leaders are teachers of the church and as James 3 reminds us, they will be judged accordingly.
We need to remember that we are not the first to arrive on the liturgical art scene. Others have come before us, and we are much the poorer for refusing their wisdom. Others will follow us, and we get to hand over what has been entrusted to us. This includes our insights into language, our musical discoveries, our investments in architecture and institutions of patronage, our leaps of faith, our stories, and our faithful acts of worship on the stage of history. As musicians and worship leaders, we do our theological homework and trust that our hard work of study will result in nutrient-rich, life-giving musical and artistic food for the body of Christ.
W. David O. Taylor was part of scholar-songwriter retreats that produced new Christmas songs “What Glory!” by Josh Lavender and “Glory Be to God on High” by A Beautiful Liturgy. Watch Bono & Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. Read books that W. David O. Taylor has edited or written, such as For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts and The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts. His book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts is due out with Eerdmans in summer 2019. Follow him on Twitter or on his blog Diary of an Arts Pastor.