Silly Songs and the Second Commandment

praise There is a fascination among our youth and those who engage in youth ministry to wed meal time prayers—grace—with tunes from society’s pop culture and songs. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard meal prayers sung to the tune of: 1) Superman, 2) Gilligan’s Island, 3) Rock Around the Clock, 4) Adam’s Family, 5) Row, Row, Row Your Boat. I could list many more examples but I prefer not. For different reasons mealtime prayers are wedded to these secular tunes; “prayer tunes,” I call them. This wedding of secular tunes to pious words has a technical name. It is called a contrafacta.

Defenders of such a wedding between secular tunes and pious words say that since Martin Luther did so we are free as well to follow his example. But not so fast.

“Of the melodies to Luther’s 37 chorales, 15 were composed by Luther himself, 13 came from Latin hymns of Latin service music, 4 were derived from German religious folk songs, 2 had originally been religious pilgrims’ songs, 2 are of unknown origin, and one came directly from a secular folk song.”[1] Luther’s use of one melody that came from a secular folk song is instructive for those who desire to take a secular tune or melody and apply a Christian message to it. There are those who claim that since Luther used tavern tunes for his hymns, we should have the liberty to do so. To this assertion Richard Resch responds:

 Claims that he used tavern tunes for his hymns are used in defense of a music practice that freely accepts worldly associations. Such conclusions bear no resemblance to Luther’s writings on the subjects of worship and music. In fact, Luther’s actions teach us quite a different lesson. In his search for the right tune for his text Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her, Luther learned about the power of worldly associations. According to the Luther scholar Markus Jenny, Luther’s first wedding of this text with a tune was “a classic example of the failure of a contrafacta.” He set it to a secular dance song that begins, “I step eagerly to this dance.” The dance and tune were closely associated with a Christmas wreath ceremony that was often held in taverns. Luther found the secular associations to be so strong that he eventually wrote a fresh tune that was free of worldly associations. He then indicated on the manuscript that this new melody was to be used in the Sunday service and with children. Luther’s modification of this beloved hymn is indication of his sensitivity to the harmful power of worldly associations in the worship practice of the church.[2]

Luther, like all of us, learned from his mistakes. The worldly association of the tune was too strong and this worldly association brought with it a different spirit. The associated message of the tune overrode the message of the words. The spirit of the tune should be one that does not draw attention to itself but one that undergirds the message of the text.

What message is sent when mealtime prayers are sung to 1) Superman, 2) Gilligan’s Island, 3) Rock Around the Clock, etc.? Do such prayer tunes engender a respect of awe and holiness befitting the one true and Triune God? Or does the wedding of such prayer tunes addressing Father, X Son, and Holy Spirit convey an attitude of silliness? What I have observed is that when these songs are used for prayers the children act silly, and goofy, as the children take their cue from the tunes.

There is nothing silly, cute, or entertaining about Christ’s innocent, bitter, suffering and death on the cross. It was horrific in its cruelty. The pain from Roman beatings and physical punishment on the cross is exceeded by the tortures of hell the Son of God endured for us on the cross as our holy Substitute. Prayer tunes from 1) Superman, 2) Gilligan’s Island, etc., do not convey an attitude of reverence. There is nothing silly about Christ’s suffering for our sins whatsoever. Picture a crucifix on your mind’s eye. It is not silly and nor is it pretty. But it is the most beautiful expression of God’s love for us sinners.

The chief priests, scribes and elders (Mt 27:41, Mk 15:20), with Herod and his Temple soldiers (Lk 23:11), as well as Roman soldiers (Lk 23:35, 36) mocked and sneered at Jesus. Mockery is defined by Webster as “… an insincere, contemptible, or impertinent imitation”[3]. Does it not seem frighteningly odd that the singing of pop-culture’s silly songs with sacred words might be a little too close to the chief priests, etc., Herod and his soldiers as well as the Roman soldiers who mocked and sneered at Jesus?

I rather suspect the Coptic Christians who are being slaughtered in Egypt, or the members of All Saints Church in the old quarter of the regional capital, Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan where seventy-eight of their congregants were killed by two suicide bombs on Sunday, September 22, 2013, might forego the singing of silly songs. Their hymns and mealtime prayers to our resurrected Lord Jesus would no doubt be reverent and devout mixed with plenty of heartfelt tears as they cry out to Jesus in their anguish for deliverance.

Is it because we in the West have become weary of pleasure that we wed sacred words to secular tunes? When the pleasure button is pressed repeatedly it can no longer deliver or sustain the “high” and so new measures or gimmicks are developed to engender new highs. Ravi Zacharias has written that “blindness to the sacred is the cause of all evil.”[4] I would change just one word in what Zacharias has written to more accurately reflect what is going on: “blindness to the sacred is the cause of all silliness.”

Our Syndical Catechism addresses this silliness in regards to the Second Commandment.

 27 How is God’s Name Misused?

God’s name is misused when people

A.  speak God’s name uselessly or carelessly (see Ex. 20:7).[5]

Unless I am totally missing something, to speak of God in silly ways with the above mentioned prayer tunes is to speak God’s name uselessly and carelessly, and this has no place among the baptized. Youth may enjoy this type of silliness for holiness and reverence do not reside in the old sinful Adam. Holiness and reverence need to be taught. “What is God’s name? God, as He has revealed Himself to us, His essence and His attributes.”[6]

When non-Christians hear us call on God’s name in a silly manner what is the non-Christian to believe? Do silly songs indicate to the lost that what we are about is important and life-changing for eternity or, does it show that we are having just a little “fun”? If we in our actions and prayers do not give respect and reverence to Jesus is it any wonder that the world follows suit?

Holiness and reverence of God’s name have nothing to do with physical location such as a brick and mortar building occupied by the baptized on Sunday morning. Whether in a church sanctuary or on a baseball diamond, we have the privilege of calling upon the thrice holy God in prayer. At his name demons flee and that name was placed upon us in Holy Baptism saving us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. There is everything holy about God’s name.

In his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul instructs that in our speech “… no filthiness nor foolish [or silly] talk nor crude joking, …” (Eph 5:4) be found on our lips but rather thanksgiving. Let us speak, pray to, and worship Father, X Son, and Holy Spirit “… with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29) who loves us more than we can begin to imagine.

In Christ,

Pastor Weber

[1] Robert Harrell, Martin Luther: His Music His Message (Greenville, SC: Musical Ministries, 1980), 19.

[2] Richard Resch, “Music: Gift of God or Tool of the Devil,” Logia 3 (April 1994): 36.

[3] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., Pub., 1989), 762.

[4] Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (Nashville: W. Publishing Group, 2000), 137.

[5] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis, Concordia, 1991), question 27.

[6] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis, Concordia, 1991), question 25.

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