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Lost in Translation, Part 1
By Jon Nicol - 02/20/2004 - 01:39 PM EST

Someone handed me a “songbook” the other day. From the looks of it, it probably was a pretty hip worship tool in the late 70s or early 80s. The well-meaning person thought I might want to use it for worship in our church. I said I’d look it over and made sure that I didn’t promise anything other than that. You know the drill.

At first peek, the book’s table of contents intrigued me. There were very few song titles—mostly scripture references. As I perused through it, that’s exactly what I found. 90% of the 114 songs were Bible verses written verbatim from a relatively modern translation at that time. Someone put in some serious hours writing music to all these verses. I was interested in hearing some of the writer’s musical interpretations, but the book contained only hand-written chords over the words. It got me thinking about how we, as songwriters, adapt the Bible's words for praise & worship.

Using a specific scripture for song fodder can be broken down into two basic approaches: verbatim and paraphrase. Our circa 1980 songwriter chose the former. His lyrics were word-for-word scripture. The argument for writing praise & worship this way is this: you can’t go wrong—it’s scripture. The problem against it is this: the lyric is usually awkward and lacks good structure.

Before someone sends me a searing e-mail that will leave my eyebrows smoking, know this: there are some great “word-for-word” songs in worship music. Often these kinds of songs work better in the liturgical style of worship. But for every one of these songs that have mass appeal, there are 100 more that just plain stink. If you have an interest in setting scripture text to music, seek out what you feel are good examples of this and study these songs. Find out why they work.

What I want to look at this month (and next) is the second approach: paraphrasing. How do we craft a lyric that can still be recognized as coming from a particular scripture, yet have a flow and structure that lends itself to culturally relevant music? (That’s a fancy way of saying “pop music,” by the way…)

A great tool for worship songwriters is a full shelf of different translations of the Bible. Get your hands on every version from the old KJV to the Message and everything in between. When you’ve got a passage or verse upon which you’re basing your song, spend time reading it in several translations. Take time to write down key words from each of those translations. Spend some time digging into the passage by using a commentary or a word study.

As you’re studying the passage, think of the hook. What word or short phrase jumps out? Looking at Chris Tomlin and Jesse Reeves’ song “Forever,” it was clearly written from Psalm 136. For the verses they used the same hook the psalmist used: the repetitive “His love endures forever.” Each call that elicits this response is a thought or idea from the psalm, reworded to fit into the structure flow. For the chorus, they simplify the hook even more and focus on the word “forever.” This is a great example of lyrics that are a paraphrase of scripture.

We’re going to continue this conversation next month as we rip into a couple of my songs that fit this topic. Until then, I’d like to hear from you, either via e-mail or the message board. It’d be great to see some of your songs based on specific passages of scripture.

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