Monday, June 19, 2017

In Defense of "Oceans"

Yesterday my church introduced a new song to our congregation - "new" being a very relative term. "Oceans (Where My Feet May Fail)" was written by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston & Salomon Ligthelm of the band Hillsong United in 2013. It's been a popular Christian tune over the past four years; it took this long for someone in my church's worship team to suggest performing it.

The song was already on my mind because of an article I had seen on a Christian blog: "Hillsong's "Oceans" (Where This Song Fails)" by Jonathan Aigner. I did not agree with his conclusions about the song and with "Oceans" entering my church's repertoire, the time seems right to respond.

The tone of Aigner's article is very troubling for a Christian blogger speaking to a Christian audience about Christian worship. The opening paragraphs are full of snark and presume the audience already shares the blogger's opinion of the song ("If you’ve been in contemporary worship circles, you already get what I’m talking about"). He then relates an anecdote about how he first learned of the song from a teacher, including as many dismissive and condescending remarks as he can ("...I said, wanting to be supportive..." "...she probably didn't know the difference").

But then he gets into his criticisms, beginning by complaining that the song doesn't rhyme. He states "on the most basic level, this is terrible poetry," having no apparent appreciation for free verse - it is a valid form of poetry and common to contemporary worship. I understand that he doesn't like it but he presents his opinion of contemporary worship as though it were something quantifiable or canonical. His distaste for the song is evident in the anecdote about the teacher, as is the relish he takes in tearing down something he knows other people enjoy.

He goes into some lyrical analysis which is astoundingly off-base. He complains that "I thought we were trying to walk on water, which will fail of course, because we aren’t Jesus." I don't know what denomination he belongs to but it is not impossible for us to do perform the miracles of Jesus for we "can do all things through Him who strengthens." (Philippians 4:13). Further, the phrasing is "let me walk upon the waters," which is a prayer, something we want to see accomplished. He also complains about following this lyric with the phrase "take me deeper," suggesting that this indicates drowning. "Deep" is referring to a more profound understanding of Christ, not a vertical direction.

He complains next about the word "I" being too common. Amazingly, his next section complains about the use of the Spirit which is pretty important to the context of the "I"s: "Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders." As well, throughout the song are the "yous" - "I will call upon Your name," "I am Yours and You are mine," "Your sovereign hand will be my guide," etc. This doesn't seem to be bad theology to me - I am not a singer, songwriter, musician or theologian but the song is talking about setting out under the direction of the Holy Spirit and that we have no borders - that the titular oceans need not impede us. As someone who has stepped out into the world (across the ocean, in fact) on mission work and has had his trust in God strengthened through those experiences I think I could pray to this song.

The blogger closes his post by noting Hillsong Church isn't currently playing "Oceans" (or another popular song of theirs "Shout to the Lord"). He presents this as some proof of the song's irrelevancy. He ignores that the reason the song has left rotation there is that the band is constantly writing new material. Songs fade in and out at churches across the world; my church does not perform the hymn "Lift High the Cross," but that's not a slight against that old ditty - it's a great hymn, but it's not quite right for the current environment of my church. It is right for other churches. One can only fit so many songs into the set lists in the course of a year!

Above all, I have to return to the tone of this blog post. Christ left us instructions for how to love each other (John 15:9-17) and to deal with those among us who sin (Matthew 18:15-20). Unfortunately, he did not address those occasions when we will wish to write snarky criticisms of our brothers and the way in which they worship. Again, I am not a theologian but I will suggest Jesus wouldn't care for it.

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