Urban myths create unsuspecting perpetrators. Recently I became aware of my own myth-propagating sin. As I prepared a sermon on the place of music in Christian praise it became apparent that one of my favourite pieces of music history trivia was, in fact, music history make-believe. Despite what I’d been told in that undergrad class at that respectable tertiary institution, Palestrina didn’t write his famous mass Missa Papae Marcelli to prove to the “Counter-Reformation polyphony haters” that polyphonic music could be intelligible. I’d learnt that the piece’s beauty and lyrical clarity so swayed the minds of the major players in the discussion of appropriate church music after the Council of Trent, that Palestrina single-handedly saved polyphony in the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s a great story. But it’s not true.
Google “seven Hebrew words for praise” and you’ll find hundreds of sermon outlines, talk recordings and blog posts. Each contains an elucidating listicle of semantic insights. The core message: There are seven Hebrew words translated “praise” in the Bible and understanding the nuance of each will expand our sadly limited expressions of praise. This message has been passed down with high-fidelity; after its birth some time around 2001 the content and shape remain relatively unchanged up to today. Through infancy and childhood the meme underwent steady replication until it finally hit the big-time in October 2017. This teaching-package now finds itself in a bona fide paper-and-ink book. In Holy Roar: 7 Words That Will Change the Way You Worship Darren Whitehead and Chris Tomlin aim to reveal the diverse richness of Old Testament language for praise which modern English translations unfortunately conflate and obscure.
It’s a great story. But it’s not true.
The Story of a Story
I heard Holy Roar’s serendipitous origin-story three times before reading the book itself. Once in the trailer on the book’s website, then in a recorded interview from the release celebration, and finally once more in a radio interview with the authors and Eric Metaxas. (And then again in the book’s preface.) It goes like this: Chris Tomlin heard Pastor Darren Whitehead preach on the seven biblical Hebrew words for praise; a sermon that would, in his words, “change the way I led worship from that day forward.” It was a game changer. Tomlin texted Whitehead immediately afterwards. “Your message was amazing. Everyone needs to know these words. It needs to be everywhere. Maybe even a book!” Whitehead texted back saying they should write it together. They did just that over the summer of 2017. Right around the time of the book’s release in October, Whitehead joined Tomlin on his “Good Good Father Tour”, delivering the seven-words message as a powerful exhortation on each night of the tour.
The result is a book which is neatly structured and very easy to read. Whitehead and Tomlin’s writing is skilfully efficient; big on impact but not on word count. At 128 pages of relatively large print one can easily read the whole thing in an hour or two. Each chapter forms a consistent triptych. Panel 1: A well-crafted retelling of an event in Darren’s life. Panel 2: An explanation of a Hebrew word and its implications for Christian praise, with genuine attempts to evidence conclusions using some Bible passages. Panel 3: Tomlin telling the story of a song he’s written that captures the chapter’s theme.
The stories that bookend each chapter are gripping. Two excited sixty-year-olds dragging Whitehead into the festivities at a rowdy Jewish wedding; the spiritual potency of the Christian music played during his wife’s labour; crying over the phone with a father whose son was on life-support after a motorcycle accident . . . and suddenly woke up. They’re emotive. They’re sharp. And they illustrate their chapter’s theme precisely. Here the content’s sermonic history brings with it a persuasive rhetoric which works in the book’s favour.
Each chapter also has a section of quotes and questions for reflection and discussion. These excerpts from historical voices may be the best part of the book. Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Luther, Tozer, Spurgeon—each lends a short and sweet sound bite. Martin Luther King Jr. introduces the final reflection with a profoundly rich quote on the social experience of worship as a realisation of unity that transects all levels of life. Hear King’s penetrating words: “Whenever the church, consciously or unconsciously, caters to one class it loses the spiritual force of the ‘whosoever will, let him come’ doctrine, and is in danger of becoming little more than a social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.” It glimmers as a nugget of wise edification on an unfortunately dim backdrop.
The seven Hebrew words simply do not mean what Whitehead tells us they mean.
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
It’s a shame that these positive aspects are the book’s periphery. By contrast, the core content fails decidedly. How so? The seven Hebrew words simply do not mean what Whitehead tells us they mean. The myth of the seven words is not that they don’t exist. It’s that they’ve been semantically mishandled. Whitehead hasn’t read his dictionary properly.
He missteps by taking his definitions out of a concordance-turned-dictionary written in 1890 which doesn’t delineate homonyms (rather than a modern dictionary which makes it clear when two words with the same spelling have different meanings). With the sense of these words conflated, he then points to the now apparent subtleties to try to show how each one of these words for praise is unique. We’re told, for example, that yadah—which basically means “praise” or (rarely) “shoot/throw”—means “To revere or worship with extended hands. To hold out the hands.” The concept of shooting has meshed with that of praise to form a definition which bears no reality to the way the words actually function. He gets six out the seven words wrong in a significant way, and four times it’s because of conjoined homonyms.
The error demonstrates one of the “classic blunders” well-known to New and Old Testament scholars alike. The “root” or “etymological fallacy” draws conclusions for the meaning of a word based on the meaning of cognate words, whether they be ancient ancestors or contemporaneous cousins. The mistake is equivalent to suggesting that when a poker player folds, it carries the notion of creasing and bending his cards. Or, because “clue” derives from the Middle English “clewe” (a ball of yarn which could be used to guide one out of a labyrinth), modern usage of the word clue therefore contains a “deeper meaning” related to balls of string. The words certainly have a “genetic resemblance”, but they are different words. We know sometimes words have two meanings, but (excepting cases of puns or double entendre) they don’t mean two things at the same time.
Not all the misdefining results from root fallacies. In one case he expands a word which means “thanksgiving” to include “Thanksgiving for things not yet received.” The dictionary citation he provides says nothing of this additional nuance, despite the footnote making it appear to have been found there. At some point late in the myth’s spread a comment about the use sometimes applying to things not received wriggled into the definition itself.
While this and other linguistic gaffes are the primary fault, there’s more that’s just flatly mistaken in the book. He says the word for “bless” occurs in the Psalms 289 times; a simple search shows it’s actually 74 times. In the few places he uses Hebrew script it’s written in the wrong direction i.e. left-to-right. Examples of words as they’re used in laments end up generating conclusions about singing in contexts of enthusiastic celebration, which leads to speculative historical reconstructions. He appeals to “Scholars of the ancient Hebrew” at one point to make an ungrounded claim about the word barak. The word means “bless”, but according to these experts it means “bending low while keeping one’s eyes fixed on the king.” (I would be surprised if any Hebrew scholar says that.) Considering the density of errors not caught in the editing process, I naturally wondered who the publisher was. Bowyer and Bow is a publishing house you won’t find much about because it’s Tomlin’s new imprint record label.
What’s My Bible Been Hiding From Me?
Search for reviews of this book about praise, and praise is pretty much all you’ll find. When I first checked in April it was the number one bestseller in Christian Music on Amazon. As I write it’s still in prime position.
The last thing I want to do is pour cold water on the book’s call for exuberant and embodied praise. The conclusions are often admirable. Music does touch the affections in profound ways. We should praise God for the things he has promised he will do. Our focus in praise should be King Jesus. I especially like where the final chapter lands: All nations are called to join in praise of the one true God; our voices can combine in powerfully united anthems; and we praise God for the sake of the next generation. These are all welcome theological landing points, and Whitehead and Tomlin ought to be commended for their desire to help the church praise in a way that is consistent with the Bible’s teaching.
One of the strangest things about the seven words is that there are perfectly clear Hebrew words that do mean all of the things Whitehead tries to make other words mean. Some of the chapters land in reasonably good places, but the vehicle that gets us there is dangerously unstable. And that matters because a whole host of subordinate conclusions are drawn along the way that miss the mark. Plus, every act of biblical teaching also teaches a method of interpretation, and the method here is full of holes.
As a fellow Australian, I feel for Whitehead. He didn’t start this fable. To learn anything we place our trust in authorities and unfortunately his sources have fed him something sour. I believe his aim—teaching the theology of music—is good and necessary. As a musician and pastor I’m passionately for it. But as expected readership increases so too must the care taken in research. A poorly researched blog post is one thing; putting a hardcover on the seven words and using existing platforms for promotion is quite another.
One reviewer writes: “I believe this book will help the greater church become rich in understanding.” Sadly, the inaccuracies in Holy Roar mean it impoverishes our understanding of praise. Instead its instructive value relates to remembering the importance of reputable publishers; the value of even a little bit of fact-checking; and the need for extra care with any teaching that sounds new to our ears. Such theology has a habit of forming itself on shoddy foundations.
Tomlin says he truly believes from the bottom of his heart this book will change the way you worship. It might. But it won’t be because you’ve learnt anything about Hebrew. Most of what you’ll learn about ancient worship practices and the translation of Hebrew words in this book is unintentional make believe. Instead of reading Holy Roar with the hope of finding out what’s hidden behind the words in your English Bible, read your Bible confident that the translation committees know more than a little about the meaning of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words.
Or go learn some Biblical Hebrew. You may just enjoy it!
(Please note, we attempted to contact the authors before publishing this review.)