August 21st, 2007
CHRIS TOMLIN’S “GLORY IN THE HIGHEST,” REVIEWED.
There are probably enough Chris Tomlin lyrics out there—no idea, really, I’m just guessing—that if I wanted, I would never have to write about anything else. I’m sure if I dug into it just a little, I would be blown away. But so far, the course has been to only deal with Chris Tomlin when he is flung into my path. Such an approach, I think, makes our occasional run-ins a lot more surprising and, hopefully, amusing. Everything in moderation is the way to go.
Anyone who’s ever seen Chris Tomlin live knows that the experience is virtually indistinguishable from a rock concert. Walls of amplifiers, colored lights, smoke, moshing teenagers. Not to suggest that the elements of arena rock shows indicate an absence of God— I’ve come closer to feeling God at Muse or Coldplay shows than at anything featuring Chris Tomlin—it just that it says something about Tomlin’s idea of worship: big, loud, and flash-ay. With a lot of kids (and girls) who are most certainly not thinking much about worshipping anyone but Chris Tomlin or, more forgivably, the rock experience itself.
Fine, I’ll accept that. The problem isn’t the staging, it’s good, old-fashioned Chicken-Soup-Christianity irreverence: exploring the glory of God via inane metaphors that self-consciously reference pop culture. If while singing along to a worship song, you catch yourself going “whaahh?” or worse “wowwww,” its probably because the pop-ifying of God has gone just a little bit too far.
This was the case when I recently encountered Chris Tomlin’s “Glory in the Highest.” The song is deceptively titled, sounding, as it were, much more like a Catholic chant or a chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Check out the first little “stanza”:
You are the first
You go before
You are the last
Lord, You’re the encore
First we have an appearance of the classic “first/last” image in three lines that could be just as easily be the outspewings of an automatic cliché generator on the training setting. Then we call God an “encore” (for the uninitiated, the part at the end of rock concerts where everyone screams “one more song!” or, curses and curses upon them, “Freebird!”) At its most classy, an encore might consist of a virtuoso violinist returning to the stage to play a final selection. Its technical definition is “a demand”—demand—“for a performance.”
But Chris Tomlin isn’t suggesting that we have an encore in honor of the Almighty; the Almighty is the encore. He’s first and last, the opening band and “Fix You” all in one.
So it’s time to play the wonderful little game called What Does That Even Mean, the most expedient method for determining whether or not a lyric should be showing up on your church’s JumboTron. Encores are inherently part of performances, and strongly connote stages and adoring audiences. There may indeed be a stage at your church or at a Chris Tomlin performance, but God is certainly not on it, and chances are he might be miffed by our asking him to please, if he doesn’t mind, do come back and tap-dance for us once more before we retire to Red Lobster. Being at a loss as I still am, I’ll put it this way: without mind-numbing mental gymnastics, there’s no way in heaven and earth that God can be meaningfully referred to as an “encore.”
Reinforcing the connotations of this “encore” business is the later line “your name’s in lights/for all to see.” I’m not sure whether that was inspired by luminous heavenly bodies or by those $19.95 ballpark lithographs that were all the rage in the 90s, but I can conclude that sounds just about as silly as “you’re the encore.” The stars may serve as a beautiful reminder of God’s majesty, but they’re tired of hearing about it and, meaning or no meaning, “you’re name’s in lights” is about as clumsy a lyric as one can possibly imagine.
Not that I’m worried about you ever taking this song seriously again, but, as an exercise in dead-horse abuse, let me bring up the chronic weather metaphors, rhymed in the usual fashion (“All the earth will sing Your praise/The moon and stars, the sun and rain”). The rest of the song just says “Glory in the highest” over and over (and over and over). The Chris Tomlin formula has proven its worth once again: inane “invented” metaphors + weather metaphors + banal theology = coming immediately to “positive radio” and your congregation’s JumboTron.