Notes on Keith Green’s “Create in Me a Clean Heart”

There is an understandable, but completely misguided, animosity/ambivalence among Catholic liturgical musicians when it comes to contemporary Protestant music. Sure, we’ll sing some good ol’ hymn tunes, and maybe throw in a piece of Gospel music from time to time (played with the accent on the wrong beat, of course). But contemporary “Praise and Worship” music is strictly for the suckers: the LifeTeen mass.

This is sad. It deprives the regular congregation of the gifts that these contemporary styles can bring, separates the youth from the adults, and alienates the occasional Protestant visitor.

Which brings me to suggesting “Create in Me a Clean Heart” by Keith Green for Ash Wednesday. If you’re going to dip your foot in the ecumenical waters, this is a good place to do it.

First of all, check out the song:

First of all, try to get over the (somewhat annoying) lining out he does in the last section. Now…

This song is a good entry-point for Catholic musicians getting into contemporary Christian Praise and Worship styles. First of all, because it isn’t all that contemporary. It was written in the late 70s (or early 80s), about the time that a lot of the standards in contemporary Catholic music were written. Which also means it has a similar folk-style, which should make it blend in well with the the usual Haugen/Haas/Schutte diet you probably have at your parish.

Beyond that, it is imminently singable and very appropriate for a congregation. Many Catholics complain about the performative nature of Praise and Worship music, claiming that it isn’t good for a congregation. That is true of a lot of Praise and Worship songs you hear on the radio (and a lot of Catholic songs you find in the hymnal), but this is not one of them. In fact, I originally learned this song in a house church, where we sang it (and everything else) unaccompanied. For Ash Wednesday, I would highly recommend singing it that way- accapella, with simple vocal harmonies.

Another charge often levied against the Praise and Worship band music is that the songs aren’t particularly scriptural, meaningful, or liturgical. No space here for a complete refutation of that (sort-of true, sort-of not) accusation. I only say, then, that this song is all of those things. The text is taken directly from Psalm 51, the responsorial of Ash Wednesday. What could be more meaningful than the most heart-wrenching passage in the entire Psalter? What could be more liturgical than a simple, singable melody taken from the text of today’s readings?

Keith Green’s “Create in Me a Clean Heart” is an amazing piece of music- one of my favorite pieces from the contemporary Protestant musical culture. I fell in love with it as a simple, unaccompanied group song. If you’re going to try it, I suggest replicating that simplicity. Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in the church year, is a good day to tryout unaccompanied congregational song (scary, I know). If you’ve never done it, you may be surprised at how good your people will sing when you give them the chance.

And if that doesn’t work, you can always try out this version of the song.

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