Rediscovering the Psalms: A Revival of the Bible’s Prayer Book

As an undergraduate at a low-church evangelical school, singing psalms was not on my radar. So, when Sons of Korah showed up to chapel and played an array of psaPlms that they had set to music, I was pleasantly surprised. At the time, I thought it was a neat, if quirky, way to honor the Bible’s role in our worship. Only later did I discover the church’s long history of praying the psalter through song and chant.

Nowadays, there’s a revival happening. The Psalms are being sung everywhere. And, thank goodness, there is a swell of new literature happening on the Psalms, too. In my mind, this may well be the most important development in American liturgical and congregational life that is currently happening. So, I thought I’d put together a list of resources for people growing interested in the Psalms, and specifically in singing the Psalms together.

Poor Bishop Hooper’s “Psalm 1”

Singing Resources: Artists & Publications to Help You Sing the Psalms

  • Poor Bishop Hooper: EveryPsalm – Jesse and Leah Roberts release one psalm set to music a week, intending to set every Psalm to music. They’re almost to Psalm 40 at the time of writing this blog. The songs I’ve listened to are outstanding, especially for reflective purposes. However, most of them would be singable in a congregational setting, if with a few slight adjustments. I listen to their Psalm 1 rendition regularly at the beginning of my day, getting the line “like trees by the river / with leaves that never wither” stuck in my head.
  • Sandra McCracken – Sandra McCracken, a Nashville-based songwriter, worked up a Psalms album some years ago. It is stunning. My church sings a couple songs from it. The songs challenge the congregation musically but once familiar they are incredibly catchy and singable. She also did a really nice conversation with Ellen Davis which appeared on the Road to Now Theology podcast. Dr. Davis is currently writing a book on the Psalms (with Makoto Fujimura during art for it!), so the conversation revolves around the Psalms, prayer, and music.
  • Wendell Kimbrough – Wendell Kimbrough has released a couple of albums fully made up of Psalms set to folksy, easy-to-sing songs. I cannot read or hear “O give thanks” without his melody dancing through my mind.
  • Seedbed Psalter – During Eastertide, my congregation used this incredibly accessible psalter to explore singing the psalms regularly. Julie and Timothy Tennent, of Asbury Seminary, set all of the Psalms into meters of familiar hymns. This makes it simple for congregants, who know songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Immortal, Invisible,” to begin singing the prayers of Scripture.

As for the burgeoning field of publications on the Psalms, I’m not even sure where to start. Jason Byassee offers reflections on five new books, each with their own unique contribution to the study of the psalter. I am also very eager for Ellen Davis and Makoto Fujimura’s book (though I’ve only come to know that it is underway because of Fujimura’s tweets). I imagine Jerome Creach’s book Discovering Psalms will be a gift to the church.

I still have much to learn but I am thankful that I do not have to learn on my own. After all, the Psalms are meant to be sang together.

Have resources or books to add? Comment below!

Easter Worship for Everyone

Easter Worship for Everyone

Hi all:

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. I’m hopeful your church communities are creating opportunities for communal worship and that you are participating. If you’d like an additional opportunity, I am including links to my church’s morning at-home guided worship and to a hymn sing my church is hosting via live stream.

May resurrection light shine deeply into your hearts today.

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Music and Emotion in Worship

Jeremy Begbie is a joy to read. A Peculiar Orthodoxy is a thoughtfully compiled series of lectures and essays that Begbie had created over the span of a decade and wished to share with a wider readership. These essays deserve to be widely read. Yet, most laity and many undergraduate students would find the essays difficult and, perhaps, irrelevant. This is precisely why pastors and professors should engage with Begbie’s work, inviting their congregations and classrooms into conversations around the “peculiar orthodoxy” Begbie finds through the theology of the arts.

In the chapter “Faithful Feelings,” for example, Begbie addresses worship, music, and emotions. It can be difficult, as a pastor, to grasp the fullness of worship, the place of music in worship, and the role emotions should play in leading and participating in worship. Advent highlights this difficulty well. What is a pastor to do when many folks in the congregation think Advent is simply “Christmas preseason,” and feel frustrated when the pastor preaches lectionary texts that are not filled with the holly jolly sentimentalities? What is worship for, they might ask, if it is not meant solely to cover the harshness of life with warm fuzzy feelings? What has worship to do with actually addressing our complex emotional lives? Continue reading

Hymns of Resistance?

What are we doing when we worship? The answer to that question is multifaceted. According to Matthew Gordley, the New Testament hymns indicate one facet of Christian worship is to resist grand narratives, other than the Gospel, that “may have a claim on the lives of community members.” Read Colossians 1, Philippians 2, and John 1 as someone who is part of a fledgling community in the middle of a vast, tribalistic empire. They take on a slightly different tone, don’t they?

You can read my review of Gordley’s book over on Christian Century’s website. I’d be interested to know what hymns or songs your church sings that could be categorized, like the hymns found in the New Testament, as “resistance poetry.” Comment below!

Nothing and Everything: Sacrifice, God, and Worship

In a long list detailing who gets what following the Israelites’ conquest throughout Canaan, there is an unexpected piece of information. “Only to the tribe of Levi he did not give an inheritance; the offerings by fire to the LORD, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as He spoke to him” (Joshua 13:14). It would be hard, for me, to not feel like I got the short end of the stick. Did you hear all of the lands Judah received? The Simeonites received a part of Judah’s territory “for the share of the sons of Judah was too large for them” (19:19). But the Levites get nothing except the task of preparing burnt offerings on behalf of all the other Israelites.

Or maybe they’ve received everything. The sacrificial system is so unknown to most of us that we might not quite grasp the gravity of what it means for the Levites to receive “the offerings by fire to the LORD.” Thankfully, the author of Joshua clarifies the point a few paragraphs later: “But to the tribe of Levi, Moses did not give an inheritance; the LORD, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as He had promised to them” (Joshua 13:33). The call to make burnt offerings is not simply an inherited career; somehow, the call to make burnt offerings is God’s way of offering Godself to the Levites. In a way, the sentence is antithetical. Did God give them nothing for an inheritance? Or did God give them the ground of all being? Continue reading

The Church and The Arts: Some Queries

It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.).  Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts.  A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource.  We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.  We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).

I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art.  None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God.  It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.

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A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality.  Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive.  Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.

A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices.  For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister.  Murray relates the Doctor’s response:

‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).

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Schism and Spiritual Unity

In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity.  As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.

For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith.  However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land.  This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity.  Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this.  Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism.  Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):

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Sabbath and Lord’s Day

I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.

For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9).  In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’.  However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17).  By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.  Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31).  In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).

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Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

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Christian, your flag, race, & gender do not define you!: Ben Witherington III on Social Identity

I have been scarce around TF lately due to heavy commitments at Huntington and an upcoming conference paper (which is still dreadfully unformed!), but we recently hosted Ben Witherington III  and his paper on social identity deserves comment.

Unrelated to the paper, I found Ben a delightful guest. After dinner and beforeben-witherington his presentations we chatted about recent films, debates on the doctrine of justification, the first of his two-volume ethical theology of the New Testament, and what he believes might characterize “responsible” theological interpretation of scripture. On this later point Ben was passionate and will be posting something here in January on the topic.

In his paper on social identity, E Pluribus Unum: The One and the Many in Luke-Acts,” Ben leverages social identity theory to draw conclusions about conversion and Christian identity. “The problem of social identity formation in the church is a pressing one,” he explains, “not least because all too often a person’s Christian identity is their secondary identity, and their national or ethnic identity is de facto their primary identity.” He goes on,

Crises tend to bring to the surface what our real defaults are, what our real primary commitments and identities are. And this leads to some painful revelations. All too many church goers seem to have been inoculated with a slight case of Christian identity, and in some cases it is preventing them from getting the real thing.

We have pressed this point before on TF, and it is a critical one for Christians to get straight – especially American evangelicals for whom God and country can become dreadfully disordered. Continue reading

Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

How do hymns display and express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition? And how does this sung theology shape and form our faith (belief, affection, and action)?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s focus on evangelical hymns. In American Evangelical Christianity, Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, attempts to probe the message of evangelical Christianity through the medium of its hymns. In doing so, he identifies three distinct layers of hymnody that define the modern evangelical movement at its best. For our purposes we will consider just two: Christ-centered picture of redemption and social vision (the other is ecumenism). Even if you don’t identify with the evangelicalism Noll expounds, consider how the sung theology of your tradition shapes your beliefs – your credo.

The Scandal of the Cross Is the Scandal of My Forgiveness

“And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused such pain? For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That thou my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley)

The first thing to notice about this hymn is its characteristically evangelical focus on the individual person’s salvation. It casts the scandal of the cross primarily in terms of how the love and forgiveness therein could be for “me.” Wesley wonders over the radicality of Christ’s death and asks: “For me?” Continue reading