Friday, April 20, 2007

Sing psalms

I've been encouraged to post the following piece, which I wrote several years ago.

The answer to the “worship wars” is in the back of the pew in front of you. There, languishing between the storied suffering of Job and the royal wisdom of Proverbs, lies the Book of Psalms – one hundred and fifty of the greatest praise and worship songs ever.

How many churches squabbling over music have sung even one, first verse to last? How many have even considered it?

Christians these days are rethinking what they sing. Not all that’s old is good. Not all that’s new is bad. But the Psalms and biblical canticles are the measure of both. Any congregation that rallied around that point would eventually find its musical taste transformed. The best would drive out the pretty good, regardless of age. Almost miraculously, water would be displaced by wine.

Our songs shape our piety. More than most preaching, they’re the things that stick with us after we’ve exited the pew and passed through the back door. If we wallow in schlock and schmaltz, our devotion grows schlocky and schmaltzy. Our faith becomes long on sentiment, short on substance.

It is one thing to sing a line such as “now I am happy all the day,” to quote a traditional old hymn with a lie in its refrain; it is another to sing, with the author of Psalm 119, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” We can (and should) outgrow ditties and bad hymns. We cannot outgrow the Psalms. Psalms mature us.

Biblical music is a gift of God. Scripture is full of songs – those of Miriam, Moses, and Hannah, of Zechariah, the Virgin Mary, and Simeon. The letters of St. Paul contain hymns, and so does the Revelation. The Bible doesn’t come to us first as a theology textbook but as a storybook and songbook. We’re invited to put ourselves into the story (by faith and baptism) and then to join the songs.

That singing them never occurs to many “Bible-believing” Christians uncovers a baffling irony: The churches that claim to make the most of the Bible in their theology make the least of the Bible in their worship. For all their emphasis on the authority and God-givenness of Scripture, evangelicals have the least biblical worship in Christendom.

There are churches – even some that bear the name “Bible” – in which the Scriptures are a closed book, liturgically speaking. They aren’t sung. They aren’t prayed. They often aren’t even read, save as an aperitif before the sermon.

By contrast, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches abound in biblical song. They sing Psalms and canticles. They sing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. They sing songs full of biblical language and imagery.

The point of comparison isn’t to vilify one tradition while idealizing others. It has to be admitted that some churches that sing Psalms often settle for truncated versions and intone them with little relish. Every tradition has its liabilities. But Christians wrangling over worship would do well to learn from their brothers and sisters who have not forgotten that the Psalms are the church’s first and finest hymnbook.

The Psalms have always held a cherished place in private devotion. St. Jerome, the great fourth-century Bible translator, reports hearing them sung by people in the fields and in their gardens. But the Psalms were also central to public worship, and Psalm-singing churches perpetuate a tradition rooted in the Bible itself.

What is the Book of Psalms about?

Many things, of course. Praise and lament, wisdom and wickedness, secret sins and tender mercies. But the deepest Christian conviction about the Psalms is that ultimately they speak of the suffering and glory of Jesus. It is a conviction that springs from words attributed to the risen Lord himself, who opened his disciples’ minds to the things concerning him “written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were twice on his lips when he was dying. To sing them after him is to join his prayer. What stronger incentive do churches need?

One stumbling block is obvious. Many churchgoers aren’t accustomed to chanting, which is the kind of singing that best suits the shape of the Psalms. But the success of chart-topping chant CDs proves that such music retains its appeal. Of course Gregorian chant isn’t the only way to sing Psalms. But the key thing is that chant, in all its various forms, adopts a posture of humility before the text. It seeks only to give the inspired word pre-eminence, to be conformed to it, and to glorify it. Ideally, it bends the singer to do the same.

If churches limit themselves to an hour of gathered prayer each week, shouldn’t they apply their voices to the best, most profound songs they’ve got? Wouldn’t biblical songs top the list? Many congregations sing so little as it is. Four hymns take as little as five minutes. The rest is talk.

Churches can do better than that, and they’ll have to if they hope to acquire the mind of Scripture, which is the mind of Christ. Doing better will require moving beyond skirmishes over “choruses versus hymns.” It will require a long look back at the patrimony they have lost and a resolve to reclaim it.

By all means sing the words of Wesley and Watts. And sing the best words of writers today. But sing, above all, the words with which Jesus made his prayer to the Father.

A postscript: When this was published in a newspaper, it drew a varied response. Evangelicals who wrote letters tended to take umbrage. No church, one of them wrote, sings all the psalms. (He was wrong.) Another said chant was unrealistic. (I think he was wrong, too.) A Methodist worship director challenged my assertion that four hymns can take as little as five minutes. Anyone who plans worship, she said, knows that you allot five minutes per hymn. Maybe so, but I stand by my stats. I took a few well-known hymns -- "Holy, Holy, Holy," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," etc. -- and timed them. When worship leaders in a rush shave a verse off a hymn at the end of a service, they're often not saving more than 25 seconds or so.

A Lutheran or two were full of thanks. One Anglican said: Keep on, but evangelicals are not going to listen.

Since the piece was published, I've done a number of psalm-chant workshops at several Presbyterian churches and twice at Dallas Baptist University. The Baptists have been the most enthusiastic. The first time I was on their campus, several of them hung out around the piano for an hour afterward, expressing their weariness with contemporary Christian music. The second time, a student came to me afterward and said, "I like this music because it doesn't call attention to itself. It calls attention to the text."


Blogger Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

We were sent this before you preached at CREC a few weeks ago. Good stuff...and interesting responses. It was surprising to hear that the Baptists were most enthusiastic. To what do you attribute that?

11:30 AM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...

Greetings, Valerie!

About the Baptists and their enthusiasm: Oh, you know, maybe it has nothing to do with being Baptist and everything to do with being young and meeting something new and different. It's also probably worth noting that most of them had been taught by someone at the university who's known for opening students' minds to the wider Christian world and the riches on offer. The pump was primed when I showed up.


8:12 PM  
Blogger Dawn said...

Paul, are there any resources online that would be good for listening to the chant/psalms style you're referring to? I'm intrigued.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Yeah, I guess your data isn't exactly the result of highly controlled experimentation. But there's still some irony in there!

12:24 PM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...


Yes, I reckon there's still irony. The Baptists were friendly, while I've talked with a few Presbyterian types who were defensive.


Welcome! And I'll try to respond soon.


2:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Vendsel said...

Hi Paul,

Glad you posted this here, since I hadn't ever seen it before.

I couldn't agree with you more. I think on this and many other aspects of worship, evangelical churches stand to gain enormously by learning from Anglican and even Catholic liturgical traditions. And saying that does not mean that evangelicals of any particular stripe need compromise their doctrinal distinctives. That's important to stress, I think, because those who disagree with the theology of those traditions may tend to see their liturgies as guilty by association (perhaps that's even behind the umbrage taken by some of your evangelical readers?). That tendency might also come from having seen people convert away from evangelicalism out of liturgical dissatisfaction. But I think it's possible for evangelical liturgy to reform itself without altering its theological identity.

I also appreciate the fact that you are balanced here. Exclusive Psalmody has always seemed unconvincing to me, and I have enormous appreciation for the great hymns of the faith, particularly those of ancient or medieval origin (isn't Be Thou My Vision from the 8th century?). I hope people will also heed your encouragement to continue singing the words of Wesley and Watts!

5:54 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

I'm interested in these psalm-chant workshops you speak of. How would i go about having you come do one at our church?
--Justin (your seat-neighbor from Counseling in the Local Church)

11:26 AM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...

"How would i go about having you come do one at our church?"

Say pretty please and I'm there. :-)

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Chuck @ Mission Lawrence said...

I was referred to this post from another site. I'm interested in Psalm singing and would like to ask about a psalm workshop. My email is missionlawrence @ (remove the spaces before "sending"). I didn't know how else to contact you. Thanks.

6:46 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

As an adherent of exclusive psalmody I rejoice to see your call for the Church to make use of God's Hymnal.

I would also point out that the Magnificat was said by Mary (Luke 1:46) not sung and nor did Simeon sing for "Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said," (Luke 2:28).

7:01 AM  

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