Allow me the privilege of introducing you to Cody Curtis, a composer and the Worship Arts Director at Union University. A few weeks ago, he sent me an advance copy of a 23-track album based on Paul’s letter to the Romans. I’ve listened to The Romans Project straight through several times already, and I love what he has created.
Imagine Paul’s most famous letter set to music in a way that lyrically mines the depth of this letter’s theology, and through music that helps you experience the flow of Paul’s thought. Today, I’ve asked Cody to join me here at the blog to answer a few questions about this project.
Trevin Wax: Romans is the best-known of Paul’s letters and is generally considered to be the most important. How does setting the major themes of this letter to music help us understand the flow of Paul’s argument and purpose in writing?
Cody Curtis: In setting Romans to music, one of my goals was to reflect the seamlessness of Paul’s argument. Although the letter addresses many and diverse topics, he streams them together in such a way that each point flows smoothly into the next. I recognized that if I were able to preserve Paul’s writing style, the listener would benefit much more greatly in their understanding of the text than if I had instead presented the album as an assortment of unrelated tracks that happened to be based on the same book.
Having carefully outlined Romans, I wanted to show clearly the larger sections and themes of the letter, such as 1:18-5:11 on justification, 5:12-8:39 on sanctification, 9:1-11:36 on God’s relationship with Israel and the Church, and 12:1-15:13 on Christian living. Though there is certainly a great amount of overlap in these sections and some disagreement on the particulars, the big picture of the narrative needed to be evident. One way I hopefully achieved this was in dividing chapters 1-8 and 9-16 into two discs (even though all of the music could fit on one disc). Because the end of chapter 8 marks a significant shift of focus in Paul’s thought, I wanted to the listener to recognize this visually and tangibly.
To achieve a seamless flow and interconnectivity from song to song, I utilized several lyrical and musical devices. One instance occurs at the end of “What Shall We Say, pt. 1” where I conclude the track with the question, “Why do I still sin?”. This phrase, along with a “sermon clip” that immediately follows, helps transition to the next song in which Paul wrestles with the remaining presence of his sinful flesh. Musically speaking, most of the songs flow seamlessly and directly into the other, even when there is a difference in musical key. I also bring back musical motives at times when I want the listener to remember a previous song.
Trevin Wax: Ever since Steve Jobs gave us iTunes and the iPod, the album as a piece of art has fallen on hard times. But this is a project that isn’t just a collection of stand-alone songs. It’s an experience. It’s meant to be listened to straight through. This makes me wonder if, perhaps, we treat Bible passages the same way we do iTunes songs. That is, we pull them out of context rather than read letters or Gospels straight through, the way they were intended to be experienced. What are the benefits of listening to this album and hearing the whole sweep of Romans in one sitting?
Cody Curtis: There is a real danger in taking verses in the Bible out of context, and many problems in the church today derive from negligence in this area. As you said, books of the Bible like Romans were intended to be read or heard from beginning to end. While there is nothing wrong with reading or meditating on a single verse or passage from this letter (in fact, that is a very healthy exercise), each part of Scripture is best understood in relation to the whole.
The same is true of our album. I designed the songs in such a way that they can easily be listened to as individual tracks, each maintaining a completeness and distinct integrity. However, the listening experience is amplified exponentially when songs are heard in the context of other songs. One example of this is the paired sequence of “No Excuse” and “He Came to Die.” “No Excuse” is a pointed declaration of the condemned state of every human. To isolate this song from its subsequent track, “He Came to Die,” could result in an unhealthy focus on only one part of the gospel, instead of seeing the former song as a necessary backdrop for the good news of the latter.
Trevin Wax: I am amazed at how you were able to put together an album that is simultaneously cohesive and eclectic. So, out of curiosity, let me ask how you decided what styles to employ as you did the album.
Cody Curtis: Every musical decision for this album was based on the text from Paul’s letter: selections of instrumentation, overall tone, scale, and even musical style. While most albums maintain a fixed or limited range of musical style, having a flexibility and fluidity in this area allowed me to express each passage in the clearest yet most imaginative way.
For example, when I was setting to music Paul’s lengthy discourse on the sinful state of every man in 1:18-3:20, I decided I needed a style that could accommodate a quick lyrical pace and convey the unapologetic tone of the message, which then led me to borrow elements from the style of rap. For songs and sections that were more anthemic in nature, the energy of rock-and-roll proved to be a fitting accompaniment (e.g. “A Sure Hope,” parts 1 and 2). The mournful lament of 9:1-5 demanded the evocative voice of a string quartet in the neo-romantic style of Western art music, while the doxology at the end of chapter 11 required a sweeping, more orchestral sound to capture the overflow of Paul’s emotion.
This diversity of musical styles, of course, does put the album at risk of discontinuity, but hopefully I was able to maintain cohesiveness through recurring motivic material, reprisals, and the fact that all of the songs derive from the same literary source.
Trevin Wax: The lyrics here are unapologetically theological. You are hoping to capture the depth of Paul’s theology in music. What role does music play in strengthening our faith and our understanding of Christian theology?
Cody Curtis: Many Christians do not realize how strong of an influence music has over our understanding of God and salvation. Music has a way taking an objective message from the lyrics and speeding it straight to our minds and heart, oftentimes with more permanence than other formats of communication. This being the case, songwriters who compose music for the church need to tread carefully, asking questions like “Are the words I am writing consistent with what Scripture reveals to be true?”; and “Are the lyrics intelligible for the sake of edification, or do they stem more from self-indulgence? (1 Cor. 14)”. This call to caution for songwriters is, I believe, substantiated by James 3:1, which states, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James probably did not have songwriters in mind when he penned this, but it is true that when someone sings a song in a public sphere, the lyrics are typically functioning as a form of teaching, whether intentional or not.
Recognizing the power of music to either strengthen or weaken our faith and doctrine, I labored slowly over the lyrics for the Romans album. I was careful to sift every word and phrase through the filter of biblical consistency and intelligibility to make sure these songs pointed directly to God’s words, and not my own. Ray Van Neste was an invaluable sounding board to me throughout the writing process. He graciously read through and edited my poetry to help keep me on course.
In addition to making sure that the words were reflective of Scripture, it was also important that I set these words to music that properly complemented the message of the lyrics. It would not have been helpful, for instance, if I set 9:1-5 in a light-hearted, frivolous, and jubilant musical environment. This text requires a more sorrowful and solemn setting to lead the listener in understanding the extent of Paul’s heartbreak for his kinsmen.
Trevin Wax: Your musical interludes and refrains are structured around the outline of Paul’s letter (such as “A Sure Hope” opening and closing the Romans 5-8 section). How much study of Romans did you do in order to “get into” the structure and flow of the letter?
Cody Curtis: This project required a massive amount of study. While Romans was a book of the Bible I knew decently well going into the writing process, there was a lot I needed to learn, both through personal study and the consultation of works by various scholars. I read the letter countless times, paying close attention to how each piece fit together. Certain links became clear over time, like, as you alluded to, the similarities between 5:1-11 and 8:31-39, two passages that both emphasize the assurance of our salvation. Paul’s use of the repeated rhetorical phrase, “What shall we say,” gave structure to the album, as did the fact that the texts from which “No Excuse” and “No Shame” were based could be viewed as counterparts of one another, one expressing the universal effects of sin and one articulating the wideness of God’s saving grace – to everyone who calls on the Lord’s name.