You might remember scrolling through social media in mid-2016 and stumbling upon some fascinating comments from U2’s Bono about the need for more authenticity in worship music. In this short film from Fuller Seminary called The Psalms, Bono shared: “The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion. It’s that that sets the Psalms apart for me. I often think, “Gosh, why isn’t church music more like that?” …I’m suspicious of Christians because of this lack of realism, and I’d love to see more of that in art and in life and in music.”
Worship music seems most inauthentic when it is overly cliché, formulaic, thrown-together, and/or made for commercial consumption. One of the common adjectives among the most honest and authentic art being made by the Church is beautiful. That led me to want to know the answer to this question: As a songwriter, why is it important to pursue beauty in your craft?
I asked this question to some critically-acclaimed songwriters of faith-inspired music, and here are their thoughtful responses.
I believe beauty to be one of the three great transcendental qualities of God – the nature of God and how He reveals Himself to the world. So as an artist, regardless of the field that I’m in – whether I’m singing to Christians or people outside my own faith tradition, I believe it very important for me to lean into and pursue beauty as something I can immerse myself in and learn from. I often look at making a record as chipping away at a block of marble. In order to find the beautiful sculpture underneath, you have to spend the time and do the work in pursuit of that by taking your chisel and knocking away at all the raw material. Sometimes, as a songwriter, that means a lot of inner exploration and self-care – seeking to understand the places that you’ve built up walls inside yourself so that those can be torn down. The process of being in the music industry or a painter, for example, it involves a lot of personal work to make beautiful things. Because of that, in the pursuit of beauty, we are made more like God. That’s why I believe beauty to be so important – not only because it will make my work better, but because in seeing and encountering the beauty of God, I will myself become a more whole and healed person.
For me, if it’s not beautiful, then there’s no point in writing. Let me explain why: I primarily write music to get people to sing. My vision as a songwriter is to see people singing the psalms in worship and in their lives because I believe that will lead us all to be more honest, authentic humans. But here’s the deal: we are heart-driven people, and we have to want to sing a song before anything else is going to happen. If my theology is right but the song isn’t beautiful, nobody’s going to want to sing it. If my translation of the Psalm is accurate, but the song doesn’t grab people’s hearts, nobody’s going to want to sing it. Beauty evokes desire, and if my music is going to accomplish what I want it to do, it has to be beautiful, people have to first and foremost want to sing it.
Beauty in worship starts out of the honesty of your heart through the lyrics, chords, and melodies. Seeing God’s light shining through all your cracks and filling the empty spaces, and in turn, he gives us beauty for ashes, joy in our sadness. There’s power and beauty in that exchange, being honest about our brokenness in worship that points people to the wholeness in Christ.
There are a lot of things you need in a good song: Truth, relatable characters or narrator, rhymes that don’t feel forced, melodic hooks and interesting harmonies. Those are all essential. But beauty is the essential non-essential. It’s that mystical element that makes a song inviting. It draws people in and makes them want to stay there. It gives them a reason to lean in, to look more closely, and most importantly, to believe that hope exists when it doesn’t feel real anymore. Like a peaceful mountain lake or muddy little kids laughing their heads off, beauty is the part of God’s creation that doesn’t need to be there, but it’s there all the same. And it whispers the truth “All shall be well.”
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Dave Trout is the founder and president of UTR Media, a non-profit media ministry that produces podcasts, videos, albums, and articles that cultivate community around well-crafted, faith-inspired music. UTRmedia.org