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John Mortensen on Triumphalistic Worship


Responding to the “Other Significant Article” review of John Mortensen’s “How Then Shall We Write?”

Editor’s Note: that link to the full issue is [updated Dec 11, 2104]


I followed the link included at the end of the brief review for the article: John Mortensen, “How Then Shall We Write? A Guide to Composing Better Music for Worship” Cutting Edge (Spring, 2006), pages 6-9. The whole issue looks great. I am reading the article by Matt Redman and I was blessed by both, but wanted to ask some questions.

John Mortensen wrote: “These days a sense of self-congratulation seems to pervade many songs. We seem to be impressed, not with our works (because that would be heresy) but at least with the admirable way we’ve responded to grace. This trend is also evident in the many songs of outrageous promise: Forever I’ll love You, Forever I’ll stand, I will sing of Your love forever, Over oceans deep I will follow, and so on. That last promise sounds like the one Peter made. One wonders whether we might be singing in praise of our own competence” (page 7).

I would like you to clarify for me a little about the “word thing.” I think that some of these songs with an “outrageous promise” are also actually expressing a personal hope and spiritual goal that they are reaching for.

I was thinking about what you said about ingredients in writing new music. There are some huge, beautiful pieces of music out there that change time signature and meter—almost like many songs blended into one—but yet are single songs. These are spectacular to listen to, even though the lyrics are secular. A couple of examples I can think of are by the band Genesis: “Behind the Lines” from the album Duke; “Los Endos” from Trick of the Tail. Would something like this be ‘too much’ to put into a worship set, if written with scriptural lyrics?”

— Skip


Response from John Mortensen

1. Yes, it is always possible to construe or interpret “self-congratulatory” songs as hopeful rather than arrogant, and certainly most songs will be received and understood by the people with a variety of interpretations. Nevertheless I stick with my point for two reasons: First, the American church is in danger of too much triumphalism, but not in danger of too much humility. Second, we live in a culture that is overwhelmed with the exaggerated claims of advertising and marketing. Our own song lyrics should be remarkably different from that: poetic, beautiful, honest, proportional, humane.

2. I do remember Genesis, but not so much the particular songs you mention. This seems like a discussion that could become technical, and perhaps a piano and manuscript paper are needed before we can go much further.

Thanks for sending in these remarks.

— John


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Category: Ministry, Spring 2007

About the Author: John Mortensen, D.M.A. (University of Maryland), is Professor of Music at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. A teacher of classical and jazz piano, he frequently appears as a concert artist and masterclass teacher at colleges and universities across the USA. Dr. Mortensen also performs and teaches Irish and American roots music, playing mandolin, octave mandolin, Irish flute, Irish button accordion, five-string banjo, Uilleann pipes, and Irish whistle. He created America’s only college-level traditional Irish music session class.

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