Contemporary Christian pop music might be taking Psalm 100’s command to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” a little too far. Jamie Grace’s “Beautiful Day” was one of the top 10 Christian songs of 2014 and has a typically peppy chorus: “This feeling can’t be wrong / I’m about to get my worship on / Take me away / It’s a beautiful day.” Switch it out for Pharrell’s “Happy,” and a congregation might not be able to tell the difference.
The upbeat lyrics of “Beautiful Day” aren’t exceptional. I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.
There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.” (For the record, 1 John 4:18 — “perfect love casts out fear” — is advice for spiritual formation, not lyrics writing.) Parishioners may find too much positive language dispiriting. When Christian pop songs and hymns are “excessively positive or wholly positive,” they often “come across as cotton candy and inauthentic,” said Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and the author of several books on the intersection between theology and psychology.
But Christian music hasn’t always been so one-note. I wanted to compare the sentiments of modern songs with those of an earlier tradition of American Christian music: shape note. Shape note was the popular music of its day, according to filmmaker Matt Hinton, a former religion professor at Morehouse College and the co-creator of “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp,” a documentary about modern shape-note singers. Shape note is named for the way the sheet music is written, using shapes to make sight-reading easier. It was commonly sung across the American South in the mid-1800s and is still sung today by a mix of Christians and folk-music enthusiasts.5
For most of the pairs of concepts, the shape-note hymns also had more positively associated words than negative ones, but the shape-note songs aren’t as unremittingly positive as the contemporary songs.
Click here to read more.