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Michael Card’s Imaginative Use of Scripture in Song

August 27, 2010
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For my final post as a weekly contributor to Transpositions, I have decided to examine the work of an artist who has effectively deepened my understanding of the connectedness of all of Scripture and its layers of meaning. Michael Card is a musician and songwriter who has been working since the 1980s, and is probably best known for his song “El Shaddai.” Ironically, that song, though good, displays one of his particular talents rather less than some of his other work. So instead I will focus on “Scribbling in the Sand,” his song based on John’s story of the woman caught in adultery.

The talent I refer to is this: Card rarely quotes Scripture directly. Instead, he frequently alludes to several passages, juxtaposing them in a way that provokes thought and new insights. At the same time, he looks at particular passages in a new way, so that the listener hears the message as if for the first time. His defamiliarization freshens the Scriptures, while his references and allusions show the unity and connectedness of Scripture.

“Scribbling in the Sand” portrays Jesus’ writing on the ground in response to the Pharisees’ accusations as an act of art, the creation of a space of peace. In the words of the song,

It was silence. It was music

It was art. It was absurd

He stooped and shouted volumes

Without saying a single word.

The song goes on to connect Jesus’ finger to the finger of God that wrote the Ten Commandments, and to remind the listeners that they are responsible for driving the nails into that hand that made the space for mercy. The very finger that made the law also deals mercifully with those who fail to keep it, even (and particularly) when those whom it blesses try to destroy the finger in an act of savagery.

It seems that Card’s songs are able to be effective both for those who are far advanced in their knowledge and spiritual growth, and those who are less advanced. The former may sometimes have already made the connections Card makes, but will find fresh perspectives on familiar passages. The latter may be making these connections for the first time through these songs. Much modern worship music, whether it attempts to sound like rock, pop, or traditional hymns, and whether its lyrics draw heavily on Biblical text or not, seems lacking in some way. I think failure to digest, freshen, and connect the Biblical material may be one reason for the weakness of some of those songs.

To argue that this is the only way religious songs should be written would eliminate simply singing Psalms or other Biblical texts, so this should not be taken to extremes. But it does provide a place of critique for clumsy and unthoughtful transfers of Biblical texts into modern song forms. Perhaps someone can work out how the use of original texts and imaginative engagements would best mesh.

Image credit: Michaelcard.com

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