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?