what are our tropes?

I listen to a local Christian chain radio station (K-LOVE), for spiritual inspiration as well as for musical inspiration. I have found several really good songs that not only rock out, but also express an aspect of our UU theology. Thus, they’re just right for our worship band.

But, to be honest, the vast majority are songs I consider simply unusable for UUs. The reasons for this are the flip side: they’re musically and/or spiritually unexciting.

But I have learned something interesting from even the songs I’d consider “filler”: just like secular pop music, most contemporary Christian music relies heavily on tropes. Tropes are recurring motifs, that is, phrases or images that concisely express a common concept. They are shorthand words or phrases that capture a central aspect of the faith. If you know the “moon-June-croon” stereotype, or the Beatles’ “Love Me Do”, you have heard a trope-driven pop song.

The tropes in contemporary Christian music are familiar to anyone who knows traditional Protestant hymnody: the Cross, Jesus’ blood, the Name of Jesus, etc. They seem to make it pretty easy to whack together a song that will get radio play. And, obviously, they also carry deep meaning for lots of people. In many such songs, no story or lyrical progression is necessary. Just use “I turn to the Cross” in your chorus and you have a song — perhaps not a great song, but a song that gets the job done, reaffirming a core principle of the faith.

Now, what if you wanted to crank out a large body of UU inspirational music in a short time? You’d want to use tropes to help the job along. But what are our tropes?

If you page through our hymnals, you see very little of this kind of writing. Maybe our hymn lyricists hold themselves to a higher literary standard. Or maybe our theology is too vague to elicit these shorthand phrases that sum up a key theological point. Perhaps the closest we have is “Spirit of Life”, which has become a common circumlocution for God (i.e., a trope), and which has found expression as “spirit of life”, “source of all” (“Doxology”), the “oneness of everything” (Jim Scott), etc. All the rest of our theology — our principles, the fundamentals of Unitarianism or Universalism, our heritage — are pretty hard to find as commonly used and repeated phrases in our hymnody. How could those concepts be expressed as tropes, as pithy words or phrases that will elicit a deeper understanding of the song?

In fact, both “Singing the Living Tradition” and “Singing the Journey” are explicitly organized around our “sources of faith”. But I don’t see anything that could be repeated as a commonly recognized trope. (Except Spirit of Life, maybe.) Ignoring the vast field of our influences, what’s a commonly understood sound bite that encapsulates “Unitarianism” or “Universalism”?

The point of all this rumination is that we could be writing songs – a lot more songs – that reaffirm or promote our beliefs, if we had the words to make it easier. Is this possible? Do we have the theological depth and the accumulated language to identify our UU tropes?

So, I pose a challenge: what tropes can you find in our sacred music (i.e., how have past hymns succinctly expressed our core UU values in a pithy word or phrase)? Or, what concepts could we be using as tropes (what words or phrases can we identify that the next wave of UU hymn writers could use as shorthand to express a core value in worship)? Certainly, there must be vibrant language or images from our writings that will do the trick.

What are they, then?

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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15 Responses to what are our tropes?

  1. Leslie Backus of Cedarland UU Church, MD says:

    seach for truth popped into my head. Will think more on this. Anything about love, trust, find your own way/path, wholeness, not exactly tropes but words that can simply be said and repeated without elaboration. les

  2. Lane Tracy says:

    Here’s one you might not be aware of: There is no God… but Big Bang. This trope is used in my anthem “Big Bang” and it expresses a religious naturalist point of view. You can find “Big Bang” at http://www.tracymuusic.org The rhythm isn’t stodgy either.

  3. Tess Baumberger says:

    There are ideas from the Commission on Appraisal’s report, “Engaging Our Theological Diversity.” A couple include the images or metaphors of the journey and the circle.

  4. I was mildly distracted by your use of “trope,” looked it up to find (AH 3rd ed.) a “figure of speech using words in nonliteral ways, such as a metaphor.” (And a second meaning specific to music, but it doesn’t seem what you intend: “A word or phrase interpolated as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain medieval liturgies.”) You’re finding recurring motifs absent in our hymnody? Just cracking Singing the Journey I see light, breath, mystery, soul… and many more.

  5. fjheath says:

    I agree that our music doesn’t have enough strong visual motifs. I find the symbol of the chalice compelling – holding the light of life, encompassing the spirit – and would love to see it explored in music. I think images such as lighting the chalice, carrying the chalice, tending the chalice could be very powerful in song. I’d love to see songs tied to water, fire and flowers for our communion services too.

    • Lane Tracy says:

      The Trap of Tropes

      This is a cautionary tale. Our prior Minister had a bell that he rang at the start and end of meditation. I decided to write an anthem based on the bell trope called “Unring the Bell.” The anthem was about a congregant who was not ready to stop meditating. The anthem used the trick of the choir repeatedly singing the ringing of a bell in reverse. Guess what. Our minister left and the anthem was never sung. The lesson: If you are going to base your music on a trope be sure that it is a lasting one.

    • I believe you (and Lane Tracy) have hit on the thing that works with Christian tropes: visual content. When we think of The Cross, we don’t think of a couple of chunks of timber, or a Roman torture device – we think of the gift of redemption through self-sacrifice. Same with The Blood, The Name, etc. They have all come to evoke that core tenet of Christian faith.
      Angela Herrera (below) notes that we don’t have that same core story. What DO we have that our music can evoke in simple, powerful imagery? (I ask this provacatively – it may be that we have nothing similar.)

  6. Having done contemporary worship with you for years, now, Vance, I totally agree. We UU’s are a very wordy bunch, indeed, and it doesn’t serve us well in worship. We spend all our energy reading things when we sing, and not enough energy going inward. I think that “My Own Two Hands” fits the bill you are talking about. It is simple to sing, devotional in tone, deeply spiritual with a UU Message. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEnfy9qfdaU. is the original version. They way Vance and the band does it is a little smoother and quieter. .

    • The mellower version, arranged to be more singable, is here:

    • “Wordiness” is certainly a weakness in many of our hymns. We all know that joke about UUs singing badly because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words — I am convinced that some of the problem is that reading the words of many of these songs takes some real-time literary analysis, something that overrides good singing and, more important, experiencing and expressing joy in the music.

      That’s one of the major features of “contemporary worship music”, by the way: dropping overwrought language in favor of straightforward modern communication style. This is not to say it can’t be powerfully evocative. I’m thinking right now of Big Daddy Weave’s “Love Come Alive”: “why don’t you break my heart so it moves my hands and feet?” That’s powerful, evocative language that is deep but instantly understandable.

      But, even with clean, uncomplicated language, you have to have something to express. We have a two-fold challenge: identify evocative images, and determine what it is that we can powerfully evoke.

  7. Angela Herrera says:

    These are good questions. I love this post, Vance. However, I also think that if we keep searching for just the right words and metaphors… well, we’re just repeating the pattern that led to so much wordiness in the first place. We need some simple, beautiful poetry–it doesn’t have to be perfect, or lifted from the pages of our history–through which we can go deeper. We don’t have one core story to evoke like the Christians do. Rather, we evoke parts of a larger, multi layered story (the story of being, and being human). If ministers and parishioners are doing their jobs (going deeper instead of arguing over words), then the congregation will be ready to enter through the doorways to depth that are offered in the music. And vice versa– the music will help the congregation engage with the preached message. I think “Let your little light shine,” “Holy Now,” and “Blue Boat Home” also do this well.

  8. Rocky Sandy says:

    I would suggest that our UU communities benefit less from the “trope” than its cousin, the “meme”. I see a meme as a trope that evolves (a lovely UU concept) and self-replicates (one might say it catches on). I have been observing that memes are a little better than tropes at identifying the personality of little communities such as a UU congregation. As such, they are more powerful forces but less universal by nature. I had not thought about memes in our music, yet. Perhaps this is because the music (in my church) is coming from the hymnal and is thus more universal. (Although, I am not considering the choir music and the rich musical programming outside of our hymn singing.) I will start looking at hymns that individual congregations have that aren’t in the “Beacon Street” hymnals but are self-published. Maybe we will get to understand what makes them compelling enough and why.

  9. uurevdave says:

    Possible tropes, if I understand the challenge, could include: love – God is love – love is God – beloved community – all souls – saints of humanity – fire (of compassion, wisdom, hearth, warmth) – work & pray – the Cross and the Bodhi Tree – river of life – family of the Earth – quest for truth – open mind – open book – open hands, open minds, open hearts – wisdom of the ages – creative love – stronger together – rowing together – moving forward – (bringing or bearing) more light & understanding – web of life – creative love – all in this together God beyond naming –

  10. @Rev. Dave: those are all worthy themes, but they’re broader than what I am talking about. I see tropes as a more concrete category, expressing an aspect of one of those topics, usually in a visual way..
    For example, what shorthand do we have for “beloved community”? How could we express that complex concept in a couple of evocative words? “Our sacred circle”? “_______ hands”? (Insert evocative adjective.)
    The danger here, of course, is falling into cliches. That seems to be enough of a problem in Xian music that it has been parodied at least twice.

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