Thursday, October 31, 2013

Matt Redman and the theology of '10,000 Reasons'

We are preparing to introduce Matt Redman’s song “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” to our congregation this Sunday. This song is number one in the CCLI charts which means it is currently being sung in more churches than any other contemporary praise song (it also won two Grammies back in February)--so we are a little behind the times here a Ashland First United Methodist!
"10,000 Reasons" has a satisfyingly singable chorus echoing the familiar and often sung opening words of Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul." The verses are less singable: the melody is not as strong as the chorus and contains irregular syncopation to accommodate the lyrics. This will not be a problem for Redman fans as they will have it memorized from the recording but it will be tricky for the uninitiated.
Redman and his Swedish co-writer Jonas Myrin, as Redman explained, have written a song “about the many, many reasons there are to worship God.” The second verse, drawing inspiration from Psalm 30, claims there are “ten thousand reasons” to sing God’s praises.  The number ten thousand is familiar to practically anyone who has ever drawn breath to sing in church. It is from the "ten thousand years" in the last verse of “Amazing Grace” (a verse not in John Newton’s original hymn) and Redman explicitly quotes it in his final verse. He acknowledges giving “a nod to the old hymn” in an interview about the hit song.
So my first impression was that here is a singable song with some familiar words: this is a good formula for congregational singing.
There is, however, something much more theologically profound going on in this hymn than Redman alludes to in his interviews or in his downloadable devotional guide to the song.
Consider the opening lines of the first verse:  
The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
The singer is not claiming it is time to sing my song of praise to God again: the singer is addressing God and declaring his or her intention to sing "Your song."  What is God’s song that we are supposed to be singing?
I have been reading Eastern Orthodox theologies of church, liturgy, and singing for the last few weeks and this question seems a familiar one.
There is a very old Christian understanding--still alive in the Eastern Orthodox tradition--that creation is constantly sung into existence by God. Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his Commentary on the Inscriptions on the Psalms (1999.28) that the cosmos “is a kind of musical harmony whose musician is God.” The whole of creation is God’s song.
In his book The Beauty of the Infinite, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, Triune polyphony.” The song of Creation is the song of the Trinity.
Theologian Vigen Guroian, in his lyrical book The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, declares “Creation is a Trinitarian love song.” This love song is a song of wholeness and righteousness, a song of creation and recreation, a song of justice and reconciliation. Gurion explains that it is our lives that are (or should be) part of God’s song:
Doing God’s will is not merely morality. . . it is joining in song to sing God’s hymn of Creation so that all things may be perfect. Short of this participation in God’s Trinitarian love song, we cannot hope to comprehend the deep, deep meaning of Creation and our common destiny with it (15).
So this is the song that--according to Redman and Myrin--we should wake up every morning determined to sing.
But we live in a world that rarely seems like a great harmonious love song. Guroian writes, “The constant cacophony of a fallen Creation interrupts the melody of faith and drowns it out almost everywhere.” It was the Incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14), that restored the melody. Guroian explains, “In Christ, in his perfect humanity, the church, the temple of Creation, is rebuilt and the song is renewed.”
I found a similar stream of theology in contemporary Roman Catholic thought. In a paper delivered at the Vatican on the fortieth anniversary of the changes brought to music in Catholic churches by Vatican II, Giordano Monzio Compagnoni explained the centrality of Christ to the singing of the Church:
Christ [is] the real singer in the hymn of praise to the Father; he who through his Incarnation not only introduced on earth the hymn of praise that is offered in heaven but, most importantly, associates with him in this song the Church, which in this way becomes a continuation of him and is called to preserve and enrich that hymn. Therefore within the Church that “prays and sings”, Christ is present.
This is where we come in. Jesus taught the disciples this love song of the Trinity (Jn 13:34) and the Holy Spirit continues to remind the Church of the tune (Jn 14:26).
A mental image of Jesus as the great song leader springs to mind. Before I know it, my brain has Sydney Carter’s hymn playing in heavy rotation--only instead of dancing we are singing:
Sing then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Song, said He.
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Song, said He.
Of course, for the Church to sing Jesus’ song with our lives is no easy task. To be able to sing this love song of the Trinity anticipating the New Creation is beyond our strength: it requires God’s grace. And so in Redman and Myrin’s song, the disciple’s intention “to sing Your song” is followed by the prayer:
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
Redman and Myrin, by embracing the old Protestant hymnic tradition of anticipating their own demise in the last verse (And on that day when my strength is failing/ The end draws near and my time has come), show us that the disciple's call is to sing God's song not just to the end of the day but for the rest of our lives. The Song does not end there: death does not silence it. This is our great (eschatological) hope, that God will sustain us until the New Jerusalem. Then all Creation will be made new and (for ten thousand years and then for evermore) we will continue singing the hymn of praise “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.”


  1. Reminds me of the image that CS Lewis paints as the world comes into being in Narmia. I will think of your words when I sing 10,000 Reasons again. Grace to you.

    1. Thanks JoAnn -- Tolkien (Lewis's friend) also has the idea of God singing creation into being in the opening chapter of the Silmarillion.