In 2017, I began a series of blogs entitled, “Theology in a New Key.” The series was designed to highlight modern songs which treat timeless theological, ethical, or spiritual issues from a Christian perspective.
I have written blogs in this series on at least three different occasions, but it has been a while since I have engaged this topic. During that time, there have been some important developments in the Christian music scene.
For one thing, long-standing producers of worship music like Hillsong have come under increased scrutiny, both for the ecclesial atmospheres these powerhouse religious institutions cultivated and for the methods they used to develop their music. For another, there has been a noticeable shift in the style and content of worship music—one which reflects the increasing ethnic diversity of the North American church (an undeniably good thing) but which also reflects the concerns of an active and vocal charismatic movement.
Much could be written about the negative impact of these developments on modern, Christian music. But I want to focus on some of the good work done in the last few years. And, in this blog, I will begin by focusing on two songs which tell the gospel story in fresh and powerful ways.
Phil Wickham’s smash hit “Living Hope” takes an intensely personal look at salvation. The first verse stares unblinkingly into the “great chasm” that “lay between us” and God, and it finds there mercy that can hardly be imagined. The second verse focuses the worshiper’s attention on the cross, reminding us both “sin” and “shame” were Christ’s burdens. It is because he bore our burdens that we can be forgiven; it is because he bore that burden that “the King of Kings calls me His own.”
The third verse carries the worshiper out of this present world of sin and death, depositing her or him outside Christ’s empty tomb. In good biblical fashion, Wickham reminds us death no longer has any hold on us; the “roaring lion” has set us free.
“Living Hope” does not plow new theological ground. It isn’t supposed to. It reminds the church of the gospel on which it depends for its very existence. and it reminds worshipers that the gospel still has power (cf. Romans 1:16-17).
“King of Kings”
Hillsong Worship’s appropriately titled “King of Kings” did not get the airplay on Christian radio it deserved. But that does not lessen the achievement of this song, and I am gratified to see some churches, at least, have recognized its value as a cornerstone for their own life of worship.
One of the most endearing aspects of “king of Kings” is its grand vision of God’s work in the world. It is explicitly Trinitarian without losing the Christological focus which makes “Living Hope” so powerful. It traces the gospel story from the birth of Jesus through his ministry, death, and resurrection to the giving of the Spirit and the birth of the church. Like Audrey Assad’s magnificent “New Every Morning,” it begins with a Johannine framework, but it seamlessly interweaves elements from Luke, Matthew, and elsewhere to form a panoramic view of the gospel story.
One of the complaints I have heard about Hillsong’s music is it is hard to do if you don’t have Hillsong’s budget. But, as Chandler Moore has ably demonstrated, “King of Kings” can work with simple instrumentation (in his case, with piano and strings). And it is a song nearly every congregation can sing.
Memory and Unity
One of the recurring themes in Mike Cosper’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is the role novelty played in the church’s self-understanding. One of Mars Hill’s worship leaders reportedly said something to the effect, “You wouldn’t preach someone else’s sermons. Why would you sing someone else’s songs?” But that sentiment emphatically misses the point of worship.
Our songs and our liturgies bind us together with believers who are separated from us by wide expanses of time, space, and culture. And for those of us who do not conform to a particular liturgy, songs are even more important as we seek to bind ourselves each week to the universal church.
“Living Hope” and “King of Kings” remind us of the truths which make us all Christians. As we sing these songs—at home and in our churches—we proclaim until our Lord comes our devotion to him and our fidelity to one another. And if there is anything modern Christians need, it is more memory and more unity.