The Great Worship Music Question, Part One: Wonkatania

August 23, 2023 | Kevin Perry

One can’t help but notice that most classic children’s movies have some creepy and bizarre elements in them. For example, The Wizard of Oz had those freaky flying monkeys. I remember glossing over the fact that the story kicks off with a house being dropped on a woman, because I was completely creeped out by monkeys with wings who could carry you off like a hawk snatching up a mouse. Another classic, Pinnochio, was and still is one big dark nightmare fuel from beginning to end. On the more modern side, Polar Express has some trippy visuals and characters—including every single child looking unintentionally creepy thanks to early computer graphics.

But in my mind, there is one king of children’s movie creepiness: Willy Wonka.

“Ladies and gentlemen, now we're going to take a big little boat trip. Do you want to enter the Wonkatania?”

These are words of invitation spoken (in French) by Willy Wonka. The Wonkatania is the name of the boat that families board to continue touring Wonka’s chocolate factory. You probably know the scene—the boat takes off and speeds along a nightmarish tunnel with larger-than-life creepy images flashing all around them. Spooky music and lighting paints the scene while the Oompa-Loompas (a whole other layer of bizarre unto themselves) row the boat frantically faster and faster while the paddle wheel turns BACKWARDS.

But the cherry on top is Gene Wilder as Wonka…who in a feverish fury recites a song/poem/chant/sermon that even freaked out the other actors when they originally filmed the scene. It’s absolutely as brilliant as it is unsettling. Only moments before in the film we are being treated to Pure Imagination—one of cinema's most beautiful and complex songs ever—and the next thing we know we are on the Wonkatania listening to a maniacal man rave while watching a chicken get its head cut off. Sheesh. Cover your eyes kids. This boat accelerates from delightful to gruesome in under 10 seconds.

Ladies and gentleman, we are going to take a big little boat trip…into a different tunnel. I’m writing this time around about something going on in worship music. I dare say it is the number one issue and concern I've heard over and over in 19 years of being a worship pastor. It sometimes is creepy. Sometimes bizarre. Scary even. Seems like we need to cover our eyes in a sense…and it all revolves around one big worship music question: 

How can we sing songs from sources that appear to be off the boat theologically?

When I say sources, I mean individuals, songwriters, churches, organizations, bands and such that create music that modern day Christian churches sing.

How can we sing songs from sources that:

  • believe things we don’t 
  • do things in their worship services we wouldn’t 
  • practice spiritual gifts in ways we don’t 
  • label themselves in unbiblical ways 
  • come from churches we wouldn’t advise people to attend
  • have significant moral issues in their ranks
  • are heretical 

I’m sure I’ve missed something…but that’s a pretty good starting point.

And just to clarify, when I say "source," I’m not just speaking of modern sources that contribute to the song diet of the church. I imagine that is where our minds go first, but the truth is that writers of some of our most beloved hymns suffer from all the same "source afflictions." Heretics…racists…toxic theology…it’s all there. Modern songwriters don’t have a monopoly on these issues over older hymn writers.

But wait…we aren’t done. Let’s go a little deeper into the Wonkatania tunnel here and not let the creepy songwriters get all the attention. What about the following sources? 

  • authors 
  • bloggers
  • podcasters
  • popular Christian speakers
  • bible commentators and scholars 

These sources often suffer the same exact issues. These are sources we use and enjoy…that have helped us grow in faith…that countless pastors glean insight from week in and week out to preach.

What do we do with this? How do we navigate this? I mean, one day you are swimming in a chocolate river and then suddenly you look upstream and see a river of mud. How do we sort all this out with wisdom, grace, humility and discernment?

It is a big question. And while it’s one I have wanted to dive into…it’s too big to cover in one newsletter blog. This part 1 was intended to be provocative and paddle fast down the tunnel looking at the scary sites. The next time I write will be part 2, and I’ll offer some things that I and the leadership of our church consider with these questions.

We know a life of faith is sometimes beautiful and sometimes messy…and mostly beautifully messy. Let’s not cover our eyes though. We won’t settle every single question or concern, but I do pray it will be helpful and faith stirring. Until then I’m sorry about the cliffhanger. Perhaps Willy Wonka said it best:

The suspense is terrible….I hope it will last.