Janet Denison talks with Dr. Mark Turman about her Advent devotional, The Songs Tell the Story, why she wrote it, and shares her favorite hymn and how to make Christmas about Jesus.
Janet Denison and Dr. Mark Turman discuss Janet Denison’s book, The Songs Tell the Story (along with the children’s version), an Advent devotional that explores the meaning and origin of our favorite holiday songs. They talk about how Janet wrote the devotional study and the history of Advent (1:02). Janet especially loves “O Holy Night” and was surprised to discover its origins (6:10). They discuss why hymns were so important in history for the layperson to understand theology and their own most profound experiences with hymns (14:42). They give insiders perspective on Christmas in the lives of ministers (20:58). They close by talking about how to use The Songs Tell the Story and how to make the busy season focused on Jesus (28:47).
Resources and further reading:
- Foundations with Janet – brand of Denison Ministries
- The Songs Tell the Story – Janet Denison
- The Songs Tell the Story (Children’s Edition) – Janet Denison
- Content to Be Good, Called to Be Godly – Janet Denison
About the hosts
Mark Turman, DMin, is the executive director of Denison Forum. He received his DMin from Truett at Baylor and previously served as lead pastor of Crosspoint Church.
About the guest
Janet Denison teaches others to live an authentic faith through her writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. She blogs weekly at FoundationsWithJanet.org and leads virtual and in-person Bible studies. She is also the author of The Songs Tell the Story and Content to Be Good, Called to Be Godly, among other books. Janet and her husband, Dr. Jim Denison, live in Dallas, Texas. When they’re not writing or ministering to others, they enjoy spending time with their grown children and their four still-growing grandchildren.
Transcribed by Otter.Ai
Mark Turman 00:10
Welcome back to the Denison Forum Podcast. I’m Dr. Mark Turman, the host, and we’re glad to have you joining us for this episode. As we look forward a little bit to the season of Christmas and the season of Advent. our very special guest today is Janet Denison, the wife of Dr. Jim Denison. Janet, welcome to the podcast.
Janet Denison 00:30
Thank you glad to be here.
Mark Turman 00:33
We’re glad that you’re taking time to be a part of this conversation and to tell us a little bit about the work that you’ve done a book that we’re going to encourage people to check out that you wrote a devotional for Advent called the songs tell the story. Before we get into that conversation a little bit, I would, would you just tell us a little bit about some of your background, not only doing this book, but doing other teaching and writing as well? How long have you been doing this kind of work?
Janet Denison 01:02
Well, we started Denison ministries about 12 years ago, or 13, I guess. And I came in about three years into it, and began to just invest my time there. I’m a Bible teacher, for the most part, but I also really enjoy writing. And Christmas has always been a favorite season of mine. And we just wanted to help do something that would help our people stay focused on Jesus during the Christmas season. And so an Advent books seemed like a good idea. And I began writing them, then.
Mark Turman 01:39
Okay, fantastic Advent. For those who may be less familiar is a word taken from the Latin word that means a rival or coming. And in the Christian tradition, has the idea of preparing a season that may be 25 days long, and some traditions, particularly in the Eastern Church, is a 40 day period of preparing for Christmas. We see some evidence of that commercially, where store start putting things out seeming like Labor Day is when their Christmas decorations come out. So we know at least from the retail side that people start preparing early. But in the Christian tradition, the idea or a season of Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Jesus’s birth. And music is obviously a very big part of that. So tell us a little bit of the background story about the idea of doing a devotional around the song some of the best known and most beloved songs of Christmas. How did that end up coming to you? Where did that idea start to germinate?
Janet Denison 02:48
I have always listen to Christmas music ever since I had my first car, and I bought my first cassette back in those days. I just love Christmas music. And there’s something about the music of the holiday that kind of links the current holiday with all of the ones that preceded it. Music is one of those things that just carries you back in time. And it amazes me that one of the things that’s been consistent about our Christmas holiday is the music. We still sing so many of those same songs that generations of people have sung. Yeah, I just liked the fact it’s a tradition that links us to Christmas Past.
Mark Turman 03:33
Yeah, absolutely. So what’s the approach of the devotional book, it’s it’s a unique tool. Tell us how the book is set up. Tell us how, how you want people to take this resource and engage with it as we move into the Christmas season. What How’s it supposed to work?
Janet Denison 03:54
Well, it’s not a traditional Advent book, and that I don’t have 40 entries. I used to do that. But that seemed sometimes too long. And it made it hard to get it to people on time. So what I’ve gone now to do is to take the 25 days of December December 1, up until Christmas day itself, and I write an entry for each of those days. And I chose this subject of the music, just because there’s so much about the music we’re so used to singing, that we don’t really know the background of where those songs came from and why they’re so important to our holiday season. And I just thought it was interesting when I started learning the background of some of our favorite songs, how much it applied to making this season important and focusing it on Jesus during the Russian that and the bustle of it all. It’s good to take a few minutes each day and just stop and remember okay, this is what Christmas is truly about. out.
Mark Turman 05:01
Yeah, that’s, that’s awesome people can, we’ll put this in our show notes people can find on our website under the store tab, this resource called the songs tell the story. And we’re going to do a couple of unique things this season. One of those is is that there is a Spotify playlist available. So we’ll we’ll send people the songs that are connected to the book in order so they can have those readily available. But there’s also a children’s version available. Tell us a little bit about the children’s version.
Janet Denison 05:36
As I worked with Christian parenting, our brand Christian parenting for a time, and Cynthia Yan off and I worked closely together, she took this book, and she created a children’s edition of it, taking my words and applying them more in our vocabulary are a way that parents could then use those stories with their kids at night. Because it was really interesting for the children to know the background of the songs and why they matter to the Christmas season.
Mark Turman 06:10
Yeah, it’s just I know, with my own kids that they remember things like this when they were young and learning about Christmas, we had a little wooden advent calendar that had different figurines that we took out each day that told them something different about Christmas, and they still now as adult children, you know, in their 30s, they remember that calendar and they remember, everyday running to be the opera had the opportunity to open those little doors and pull out those little figurines and learn something else. It was a big part of the tradition of their childhood. And being able to do that with music and with story is just a powerful way to be able to teach children about what Christmas is all about. I think that’s just a beautiful way of doing that. You obviously have researched the stories, tell us one of your favorite stories that people will read in this book, the background of how one of these songs has come to us and stays with us. What’s one of your favorite stories that’s in the book?
Janet Denison 07:17
Well, one of my favorite stories is actually associated with one of my favorite hands. I’ve always thought that the hymn Oh, holy night, was just powerful. It’s one of those that when it is sung, especially as it’s so low, it is just powerful. And so I always thought, Oh, I wish I knew whoever wrote this because they must have been such a deep and devoted Christian person to have written these words that just touch my heart so much. And I can’t tell you how surprised I was to find out how this song actually came about. There was a church that wanted to commission a solo piece of music for their Christmas program. And so they commissioned a poet in town, even though he wasn’t really part of the church and admittedly wasn’t really strong in the faith. And they commissioned him to write the lyrics to Oh, holy night, he said he didn’t really know that much about the Christmas story and hadn’t really been involved in the faith. So one night, he took Luke chapter two and read it. And he said that the way he wrote the lyrics was to imagine what it would have been like, for Mary and Joseph that night. And to kind of put, he put himself into their shoes, so to speak. And that’s how the lyrics of Oh, Holy Knight, actually came to pass. And then he commissioned a Jewish man to write the lyrics for this Christmas hymn. And I just found it so interesting that one of the most powerful hymns we sing during the Christmas season was written and composed by people who really didn’t have that close connection with the spiritual side of Christmas. And it just, it made me realize that there’s something powerful about the Christmas season and the music that we sing that even those who may not have a close spiritual connection to the Christmas season, still have a fascination with it, and still can understand the story as we know it from Scripture. I just think it’s a reminder that Christmas is a time when everyone can be joined in this story, and it’s such an important time And to be reaching out to others, to bring them to a closer walk with the Lord, if at all we can.
Mark Turman 10:07
Yeah, I think that’s great. I love that story from the stance of just somebody with fresh eyes coming to the story of the story of Christmas in the Gospel of Luke, and how, even in you know, their tasks that had been assigned to them, they, they found real meaning and they found such a beautiful way to bring an approach to the story musically that has stayed with us now for so long. And is like you said, it’s so powerful to us. Even today, in in researching these stories, you always find fun things, trivial things. Strange things. Was there one or two things that just stood out? Like, okay, that’s well, that’s just kind of amazing, or strange or weird, that, that that’s connected to how we got this him? Did you find some trivial things like that?
Janet Denison 11:04
Well, I was I was excited to find a story behind the him. Do you hear what I hear? I was born in 1958. And the song Do You Hear What I Hear was actually written and published in 1962. And I thought the story behind that song was especially interesting. I remember singing that song and in children’s choir as a child, but I never knew the story behind it. The man that wrote that song, wrote it, after he had taken a walk in Manhattan. It was the winter, it was December of 1962, in November of that month, or that year, excuse me, in November of that year, the Cuban missile crisis had occurred October, November. And by the time they had reached the end of November, Russia had removed the missiles from Cuba. But people were still afraid, they were still worried about the threat of nuclear war and how close they came to nuclear war or the threat of it. And so this man said he was walking down the sidewalks in Manhattan. And he noticed two young mothers pushing their children in strollers down the sidewalk. And they were discussing their fears over the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he said, he was surprised and just kind of transfixed, by looking at the contrast between their worried concerned faces, their obvious angst and concern. And then he compared their faces to the faces of their children, oblivious to all of that, and just grinning and smiling and enjoying the lights and the sounds of the holiday season. And so he said, he went home that day, and couldn’t get that picture out of his mind. And that’s where the words for the song Do You Hear What I Hear came from his wife actually wrote the music to go with it. And he wanted to write a song that really taught that we should look at the season, not as those moms with all the concern and the angst, but instead to approach the season with that same innocent, reverent, ah, enjoy of the holiday season. And that’s why the last verse of that him, do you hear what I hear? Says, said the King, to the people everywhere, listen to what I say, Pray for peace, people everywhere, listen to what I say. And then he goes on to say, the child sleeping in in the night will bring us goodness and light. And he said that that was the message he wanted people to have that particular year. And it’s really been a message we’ve needed every year since.
Mark Turman 14:24
Well, it is what a great example of how we learned so much about God, not only through the Scripture, which is obviously primary, but really our second biggest source of, of understanding and theology and belief about God really comes through the songs that we sing and especially the songs at Christmas, right?
Janet Denison 14:47
Yes, you know, back in history, a lot of different countries and a lot of different cultures did not really have a school system that taught everyone to read In many of our hymns, the especially the oldest ones, go back to a time when much of a person’s theology came to them through singing these hymns. They didn’t own a Bible. And if they had, they couldn’t read what was in it. Stained glass windows are also the same thing. They were put in churches originally, in order to remind people of the stories. They couldn’t read the words of Scripture, but they could look at the stained glass window and remember the truth of the story that scripture taught. And so many of the hymns, the old Christmas hymns, were really the closest thing that people had to reading or knowing the Christmas story.
Mark Turman 15:54
Yeah, that’s so so powerful. I remember, I had an opportunity a few years ago to go to the little town of Wittenberg where Martin Luther did his ministry. And this was when the days when the Gutenberg Press was just just coming into its own. And still, many of the people were illiterate. And they took the teachings of Martin Luther and they put them into woodcarvings, kind of like what you were talking about with the stained glass. They put them into woodcarving. So people could remember the story through the images that were found in the woodcarvings. And whether it’s that kind of art or the art of music, it’s just so powerful, how we connect our faith and our understanding of biblical truth into different aspects of art. And certainly music is a part of that. One of the things that that these songs do for us is they not only take us back to the biblical story, but they can take us back to some of the most significant moments in our own lives. And so I want to ask you about that in a minute about some of your favorite memories that maybe one or two of these songs take you back to but let me give you an example. The song What child is this is one of my favorite songs. And here’s part of the reason why. When I was a new Christian, I got involved in the church choir. And that enabled me allowed me to be involved in Christmas presentations where Christmas music was was offered to the church, from the church choir in a big way. One day, one season, we did a big celebration that we did for the whole town. And so there was a lot of props and a lot of, of complexity that went to that. But in the middle of the program, I still remember this very vividly. In the middle of this very elaborate program. We just stopped everything. We had one person from the church come out with a guitar and sing a solo, using this hymn what child is this? And every time I hear that song, I’m taken back to that moment I’m taking take it, it takes me back to the simplicity of what Christmas is all about through the simple words and the simple sound of a guitar playing that song with a friend of mine who’s saying the words, do you have some memories like that were one or two of the songs take you back to a special moment, a special time, either with the Lord or with your family or with friends or maybe all the above.
Janet Denison 18:30
I love that story you told because it’s so true. We so use the power of music to bring up these great memories of our past Christmases. For me, I was a pastor’s wife. And at as you were a pastor, you know that the Christmas season was busy. I’m trying to find good words for that. Yes, it was. I still remember one night when I had three different Sunday school parties to attend. And I could not find a babysitter to save me. And I mean, Christmas season for us was work. And it was I loved it. I loved the excitement of it. But by the time I reached Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve service, I was really, really tired. And there was a moment Jim always did. That’s my husband. He always did Christmas Eve services. And most of the time we had to do three. We did an early one for the kids. And then we did two that ended with a candlelight service where the very last thing we did in every Christmas Eve service was to begin singing Silent Night and while we sang, we passed the candles one to another to lie The next person’s candle delight the next person’s candle, as we think Silent night, and I can always remember tearing up on tear and remembering it. Because for me, when I sang that song, and we lit the candles, there was just such a warmth, the fellowship, and maybe the hustle and bustle of the season was over. And what was left was about family, and about joy and about celebration. And that’s what I think about every time I hear Silent Night force. It’s that moment when all of the rest of it fades away. And it’s really just about the simple, most profound things of the holiday season, faith and family. And I still love a candlelight service today.
Mark Turman 20:58
Yeah, but it is a little better when you and your husband don’t have to be at the center of leading that service, right?
Janet Denison 21:04
So much better. He really does miss it. And I’ll always miss I loved being a pastor’s wife. And I loved that connection. But yes, life is a little more simple and a little more lived on our terms now. So it is nice.
Mark Turman 21:23
Yeah, I’m like you, I was honored to get to be a part of leading those services and some very, very powerful and special memories. I remember the time that the Advent wreath at our church caught on fire during the Christmas Eve service. And, you know, you just you can’t make some of this stuff up. And you just you love remembering those kinds of things. But it’s also great to be on the side of where you just you get to be a part of the congregation and to worship along with the people. But that would be something we could encourage our listeners to think about that, hey, if you are having a great experience at your church, this Christmas season, the music is great, and the teaching is great. Remember that there are people working really hard to make that happen. And be grateful for that and show your appreciation for that. We want to do that because we’ve been on that side. But I know that your passion is so much about teaching the Bible and helping people understand the things of God. And one of the things that comes through this book is you get a little bit more of a corrective understanding by reading the background stories. One of the things we talked about in this book is that the title We Three Kings may not be exactly accurate. So if we’re learning theology, through our music, as well as through our Bible, there are some corrective things that we might need to consider, right?
Janet Denison 22:49
Absolutely. We, everybody always thinks there’s three wisemen. And because that’s all that will fit on our coffee table at the scene. And because there were three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so we have narrowed down and we’ve even named these three kings in some traditions where they have actual names. But the truth is, this band of Persian kings was probably much larger in number. And you know, and they did not arrive until Jesus was a child, the word used for Jesus with the Magi is child, he wasn’t a baby. So technically, you should take your, your three wise men that come with your nativity set, and put them down the hall somewhere, to be actually accurate. But it’s just I always think that’s interesting. We have developed theology sometimes, from places we ought not develop a theology from. And anyway, that’s why it’s so important to study God’s word as opposed to assuming everything you’ve always brought up hearing is exactly correct.
Mark Turman 24:01
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, sometimes there’s a little bit of poetic license that gets taken. And we can understand that, but we also need to always kind of bring it back around to the Scriptures, and to a good clear understanding and interpretation of what the Scriptures are trying to tell us because it’s the scriptures that inspire are are inspired by God, and they do inspire our music, but our music is not, is not inspired in the same way that the scripture is. And we always need to come back to that foundation. And this, this book helps us to do that in various ways. Tell us a little bit about in your mind’s eye Genet. Somebody would take this book, either they or a couple or a family, and they would just in your mind’s eye, how would you hope that somebody would engage with this tool and with the songs through them? December how, how would you hope that would happen?
Janet Denison 25:03
Well, I think it’s important to take a time throughout the holiday season every day, to just center your life and your mind and your focus back onto what the real meaning of Christmas is. It’s the spiritual aspects of Christmas, that will keep us joyful, that will keep us in with right priorities. I wanted this, but just to be a few moments with the Lord every single day, to thank him for leaving heaven and stepping into our planet, as he did as this innocent baby, and becoming for us what we could never have become ourselves. And that is the one the sacrificial lamb. But the other thing I would love for people to do with this particular edition, and I say this carefully, but I wrote this particular Advent book with something else in mind as well. Everyone is interested in the stories behind these Christmas songs, they all know, if there’s someone in a in your life that is marginal, or maybe disconnected from the spiritual side of Christmas, they’ll find this particular Advent devotional interesting. This is a really good way to give some of those that aren’t deeply rooted in the faith a chance to know the Lord, and to think about Christmas with a new perspective. And so this particular edition of the advocate book was really designed to be used as a gift, if you have a secret santa or just a friend or neighbor that you’re close to. This one is a good one to give away. Because it’s interesting to pretty much everyone, even if they’re not closely connected to the faith.
Mark Turman 27:14
So it in that way could be a tool of outreach to somebody who doesn’t know the story of Christmas.
Janet Denison 27:22
Yes, people who are in our lives we see every day. And maybe they pick the mail up for us a neighbor that pick the Mail app, or somebody who’s worked at our house, doing work, or somebody we see at the cleaners every day or something like that this particular edition is a nice, thank you for being a friend being in their lives. So a co worker, perhaps,
Mark Turman 27:53
yeah, that’s a great idea. It reminds me, Judy and I at our home over the years, a couple of times have done this, we we would host a neighborhood open house and just have people come and you know, have Christmas desserts and, and get to know each other as neighbors. And then we would give them a book like this going out the door just as a Christmas present. And something that whether they knew a lot about the Christmas story, or they knew nothing about Jesus, that that would be kind of a friendly way of just pointing them to the revelation of Christ and the story of Christmas in a gentle way. And that might be another way to use it as well.
Janet Denison 28:35
I love that idea. It’s a great teacher gift. It’s a great friend gift. It’s a great way to send a Christmas greeting to a family member that’s maybe a little outside the faith.
Mark Turman 28:47
Right? Yeah. And this, this tool does that in a very, very clear and like said, Just wonderful way because pretty much everybody loves the songs of Christmas, regardless of how much they know about the rest of the story. And it’s and it’s kind of unavoidable from going into a store or turning on or, you know, a lot of times your favorite radio station converts to a Christmas station during the month of December. And so the music is kind of always around you during the season. And that’s that’s just a fabulous way to help them connect to what Jesus is all about. Yes, exactly. So do you have a final blessing or word of encouragement that you’d like to give to folks as we move into the Christmas season and as they hopefully engage with both this devotional and with the songs, you have a blessing for them?
Janet Denison 29:40
Well, I would just, I guess, remember that Christmas is an effort. It’s an effort to decorate It’s an effort to shop. It’s an effort to attend all the parties. It’s an effort to get down the freeway. It takes at least twice as long. There are so many things about the Christmas season that are an effort. And I would say, The reason that’s true is because pretty much most of what’s most worthwhile in life takes an effort. And so I would give this verse as one to kind of pray over your holiday season, because it can’t help but to get a little stressed and a little tired, but I like to use the verse from Colossians, three verses 23 and 24. That says, Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving, when it gets to be an effort. Remember to make that effort for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at the effort he made in order to be with us. And so yes, when the holiday gets a little heightened, just remember what the holiday really means. And put the Christmas music on and sit in the traffic. And remember that Christmas is about that baby that stepped off his throne to be our lamb. And then it kind of puts all of the busyness into a right perspective, make every effort to live this holiday season for the glory. And in thanksgiving for that baby.
Mark Turman 31:38
Well, what a good word, he is worth it in every way. He is worth it. He is Janet, thanks for sharing with us. And even more thanks for writing this book and telling the story about the songs that then tell us about the big big story. And for those of you who are interested, you can find this resource on our website Dennison forum.org. In the store, it is called the songs tell the story. And remember, there is both an adult version and a children’s version. And if you order this resource for your Christmas season, we will also send you by email, the Spotify playlist so that you will have easy access to each of the songs as you work your way through the 25 days leading up to Christmas. And we hope that this in every way enriches and expands the beauty of your holiday celebration as you anticipate and prepare for the birthday celebration of Jesus. That also prepares us for the second coming of Jesus, which is the other other use of the word adventure. His key came once so that he could come again in glory. And we’re looking forward to that. Janet, thank you for being a part of the conversation today. And thank you for the ministry that you’re doing.
Janet Denison 32:58
Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Mark Turman 33:01
Thank you for being a part of the Denson Forum Podcast. We look forward to seeing you again. God bless you