Drifting from the Psalter

Our church has recently been discussing life in the Spirit, focusing upon the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. We found that pursuing this subject led us to the way Paul portrays the corporate reality of life in the Spirit: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”[1] While we were doing this study, I read an article on weaving the Psalter into our corporate worship by James Jordan. Jordan gave me the uncomfortable sensation that I was ignoring plain inferences that I should be making from the quite descriptive Pauline passage quoted above.

Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. When asked to describe what ‘walking in the Spirit’ objectively looks like, I never heard anyone from my small group answer with this description.  I was curious about the distinction between psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Jordan replied:

We don’t need even to discuss what “hymns and spiritual songs” are, because we have not yet mastered the psalms. Once we know all 150 psalms, we can then decide what are appropriate hymns and spiritual songs.

The argument is that the evangelical church has slowly left off the historic practice of singing the Psalter in corporate and private worship. And Jordan isn’t referring to dynamic paraphrases of the Psalms put into song, but the actual texts of Scripture themselves:

Text psalms preserve the poetic parallelism of the Scripture, and thus accentuate the dialogical and antiphonal theology of the psalter. Moreover, metrical psalms must of necessity be “dynamically equivalent,” rephrasing ideas, omitting certain words, emphasizing others, substituting other names for God in order to make the rhyme come out, etc. Metrical psalms are like Biblical paraphrases – useful, but no substitute. Metrical psalms are one application of the psalter, but they are not a substitute for the psalter.

It’s an arresting article, but it doesn’t provide suggestions on where to learn more. I’m grateful that our church has a weekly practice of responsively reading portions of Scripture together in between singing and the sermon. Many of these readings come from the Psalms. However, it does seem that we could experience them more fully if we sang them together as well.

In order to give you an idea of what Jordan says we’re missing, and to demonstrate how seriously he takes this subject, allow me to quote one more segment:

[I]f we drift from the psalms – the war chants of the Prince of peace – we shall drift into an easy and lax piety. The inner warfare will be de-emphasized, and the warfare for the world will disappear. The focus of hymns tends to be on matters easier for us to talk about, such as suffering and happiness. How many hymns, etc., do you know of that ask God to judge the enemy? I can think of one, by Luther, and it is psalm-based. In the face of abortion, pornography, rape, drug addiction, Islam… nothing less than psalms will do. The fact of the matter is that the present generation of American Christians will either learn to sing psalms, or it will die.

I hope you have a chance to read the article. I’ll be discussing this with my brothers and sisters at church. If you have any experience or information about how churches would begin this sort of practice, please let me know.

[1] Ephesians 5:19

[Un]Acquired Tastes

_20150808_133920Why do we put up with developing ‘acquired tastes’? What acquired tastes have you come to enjoy? Coffee, wine, diet soda- lutefisk?  The first time that you tried it and found it wanting, what gave you the desire to give it another try? Acquiring a taste for something reminds me of a recurring difficulty I had as I began my flailing efforts at a liberal arts education. I was asked to read all sorts of things. So many times I was told to expect grandeur only to find a bore, or worse, a wall of esoteric inaccessibility. Take an example I’m not terribly proud of- I hated reading through my first two Charles Dickens novels. I can’t remember which novels they were, but something clicked with David Copperfield. I finally saw the light.

For other books, the ‘click’ took longer to arrive.  My perennial question became how do you tell a dud before you spend time with it? There are so many books worth reading, surely, so how do you know when you’ve been given jug wine instead of a classic vintage? Starting out, it is sometimes hard to tell. Charlotte is still my only Bronte, and I can only read T.S. Eliot with Google close by. I have, however, stumbled onto a principle that has assisted me in trusting the annals of time with something I don’t immediately appreciate that I probably should.

Imagine writing that seemingly obtuse opening chapter, composing that quirky score, or creating that set for the initial scene. I remember recognizing the usefulness of this principle by remembering my baptism into the art of saxophone. I was immersed in the world of middle school symphonic band, back when it was ok that your saxophone sounded like a lawnmower. I wanted to play everything that came across my path. After a gloriously short stint in a jazz band (we did manage to play in a coffee shop), I came to appreciate the complexities that accomplished players would display in all sorts of performances. The hours of grueling practice across a variety of genres made it easy to imagine myself in this band, producing that tone. My experience made awe a possibility.

Imagine writing the piece that you are trying to appreciate. What would you do differently?  Would you be able create the same intrigue that the author has? Listen to Bethoven’s 5th, imagining that you are the composer- beginning with that smallest initial motif that continues throughout the piece. Many times- not every time- you’ll get a glimpse of excellence that bids you plod along.

Unless you’ve tried to harmonize a choral in the style of Bach, you haven’t a clue how perfect this music is- how subtle are the inner voices, how wonderful the harmonic choices, how superb the baseline! It’s great art! ~ Robert Greenberg

The Mistress and Governess of Human Emotion- Martin Luther on Music

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I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the history and development of music in Western Civilization and Martin Luther surprisingly came up. In keeping with the changing commitments in his time, Luther seemed almost Socratic in his attitude about the powerful influence of music on our lives. Socrates, recognizing the extreme power of music, thought the poets should be banned from the state. Luther agrees about its power, but argues that music can be a resource for soul-enhancing change:

Greetings in Christ! I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone. But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither the beginning nor end or method for my discourse… We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions- to pass over the animals- which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found- at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate- and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honours her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3.15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16.23]. Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words.

Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids: MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 145.

Many of us regularly listen to music with an almost religious fervor. I wonder how this music affects our emotions, and how we are using music as a tool to challenge and to elevate our minds? Another question comes to mind- if all music is a form of meditation- how much do you think singing should be incorporated into the rhythms of our lives- both communal and solitary?