I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

By Joel Hess


Last week we lost a great poet, Maya Angelou.  Well, not really.  She did live a fascinating life worth reading about.   However, she was a so so poet. Then again, I submit that every man, woman, and child who can write is a so so poet. I know that I am not alone regarding this opinion, but I’ll bear the cross while the rest of you scatter.

As I was frothing with anger over the sad state of affairs of literary criticism, I turned my attention to my scheduled search for signs of life in Christian music.  For some reason once in a while I dig through the global record store on my laptop hoping to find a great tune with great lyrics to add to my church’s canon of sacred music.  I suppose my search is akin to a NASA scientist searching for signs of life in the universe.


My congregation mostly sings our synod’s approved hymnody simply because it’s easier to let trusted others do the work of providing good theologically sound songs.  I have better things to do.  Unfortunately, I love music.  And I have very good taste.  So I can’t stand junk.  I am a music snob but not on purpose. Therefore I cannot be accused of hipsterism (someone probably just threw a tomato at her screen).

I despise most of Christian contemporary music, but not because its usually theologically ambiguous or shallow, it’s just cheesy music.  I would not enter heaven if I heard it being played while I stood in line outside the club. Yes, its better than Stryper in the 80’s.  Well, maybe not.  Most of the tunes are boring. They almost get there, but never really do.  They are like rejects of top 40 bands.  And of course I hate top 40 bands to begin with.

No its not all a failure.  There are a FEW songs that seemed to have accidentally fell out of the mouths of babes.

Right now I’m listening to Parquet Courts.  Its real.  Christian contemporary artistry will never do that.  I don’t know why not.  But it hasn’t.  I have no hope.  Take down the satellite dishes. Stop sending signals into the cold dark expanse.


While I was predictably annoyed by all this Christian crap on my Spotify, I turned to our Lutheran hymnal.  I used to automatically tell everyone who wanted ‘contemporary music’ (whatever that is) – “our hymns in the hymnal are rich and deep and the tunes are more sophisticated and have earned a longstanding appreciation.” Lately I have realized I don’t really care for a lot of the tunes in there! Some of them are downright blah. Many are mediocre. They are also frequently just as predictable as contemporary stuff because they too followed a common fad in songwriting. You can tell a song was written in the 19th century, early 20th, 17th, etc.  Yes I know we got some Bach and Vaughn Williams mixed in there.

Here is a shocker, as I honestly reread through many of the hymns, I must admit a good number of them are not that deep.  Again – some are for sure! But most, nah.  I appreciate them more than contemporary stuff because they deal with scriptural themes besides the three contemporary Dove Award themes of- Jesus loves me,  I really love Jesus,  and I love God because He will kick your god’s butt.


Amidst my artistic depression, I tripped over this quote from the so overly quoted author C.S. Lewis as he discussed his new life in the church:

“I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

Our songs don’t need to be brilliant, just true, and sung by the factory worker and the rich young man, the fisher-woman and the orphan.  Paul couldn’t find a period, John’s vocabulary seems to have been no more than 27 words and the most beautiful thing in the Bible is a bloodied beaten common looking guy on a hastily constructed device used for torture.

I know why the caged bird sings.

It is the not the gorgeous tune nor even the masterly crafted words that causes me to sing loudly our songs – it is the Gospel, the Word made flesh – the Divine intertwined in our busted ordinary bodies and blood.

And that is beautiful.