History of Hymns: “Lamb of God”
By C. Michael Hawn
Lamb of God
by Twila Paris
The Faith We Sing, No. 2113
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, KJV).
“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh
away the sin of the world ” (John 1:29, KJV).
“Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,
grant us your peace.” (Agnus Dei, from the Ordinary of the Mass)
Fort Worth native Twila Paris (b. 1958) has been one of the leading contemporary Christian artists for three decades. As of 2014, according to her website, Paris has released twenty-three albums. Thirty-two of her singles have reached the number one position on Christian radio charts. She has received ten Gospel Music Association Dove Awards in various categories, and three American Songwriter Awards. For three years in a row, Paris was named the Gospel Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in May 2015.
Over the span of her career, it has been noted by those in the recording industry that Paris' sound has evolved from a more classic Contemporary Christian music approach to incorporate current elements of rock and other musical influences usually associated with "secular" popular music. To a lesser extent than her fellow contemporary artist Amy Grant (b. 1960), Paris has not aimed for a secular crossover audience, but has focused on becoming a praise and worship artist.
Baylor church music professor, Monique M. Ingalls, however, includes Paris among other artists in her generation who blurred the boundaries between Christian and secular audiences, as well as solo and congregational songs:
“The boundaries between entertainment and worship music continued to be porous in the 1980s and early 1990s, with artists including Keith Green (1953-1982), Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith (b 1957), and Twila Paris . . . writing or recording songs that were adopted for congregational singing. More frequently, however, these songs were performed in churches by soloists or choirs rather than used for congregational singing” (“Ingalls, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, accessed March 10, 2017).
Many of Twila Paris’s songs are used as worship music in evangelical Christian churches. According to www.hymnary.org, several have been included in many hymnals, including “He Is Exalted” (1985), “We Will Glorify” (1982), and “Lamb of God” (1985).
Paris comes from a family of ministers and musicians. Her great-grandparents were revival preachers in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and her grandmother composed sacred songs. She was encouraged to sing in church from a young age by her father, who was also a minister and songwriter. Following graduation from high school and a year of study in a Bible school, Paris focused on singing and Christian composition. She and her husband Jack Wright have one child, born in 2001. They live in northwest Arkansas.
Paris’s text stresses a sinless Christ with “no sin to hide” who was sent by God “to walk upon this guilty sod.” Christ’s sacrificial atonement is emphasized as “they laughed and scorned him as he died.”
As is a longstanding tradition, hymns on this theme often take a personal tone; in other words, they move from third person to first person. For example, in James Alexander’s (1804-1859) translation of Paul Gerhardt’s (1607-1676) paraphrase of the Latin poem “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the hymn moves from a third-person description in stanza one to first-person reflection in later stanzas—“What language shall I borrow/to thank thee, dearest friend…?”
Noting the importance of the refrain, hymnologist Carl P. Daw, Jr. connects “Lamb of God” with the pietistic tradition: “The combination of emotional language (“sweet,” “love,” “precious blood”) and the first-person pronouns aligns this repeated portion with the traditional features of Pietism, especially its characteristic emphasis on personal spirituality centered on feeling” (Daw, 2016, 517).
Paris achieves the first-person perspective on the refrain, “O Lamb of God…, I love the holy Lamb of God.” This reference to the Lamb of God not only recalls Isaiah 53 and John 1, but also the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass cited at the beginning of this article. The third stanza, beginning with the text, “I was so lost I should have died,” focuses on Christ’s substitutionary atonement.
Carl P. Daw, Jr. makes an interesting observation about the text as prayer: “It is important to note that the text is not a prayer to the Lamb of God, as the liturgical text is. Instead it is directed to the First Person of the Trinity, the one who sent the Son (John 3:16)” (Daw, 2016, 517).
Recently, Twila Paris has emphasized on her website the relationship between her faith and patriotism. A recent album God Shed His Grace: Songs of Truth and Freedom (2012) reflects this interest, as does her official Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/twilaparis.
For this writer, “Lamb of God” has a haunting melody that is at once effective as a solo and as a congregational song. Played on an acoustic guitar with a flute, it almost has a Celtic quality. The pairing of the tune with this text reflects the work of a sensitive composer who understands her craft well.
While composed in the late twentieth century, this song’s theological and biblical roots run deep in Christian tradition and experience.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.
For Further Reading:
Monique M. Ingalls, Andrew Mall, Anna E. Nekola. "Christian popular music, USA." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/christian-popular-music,-usa.
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion. Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.