Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Psalms for all seasons: a contemporary psalter

At the opening worship service of the Romans conference, it was a joy to use the wonderful new psalter, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Brazos Press 2012). It has multiple versions of each of the 150 psalms (sometimes as many as ten versions of a single psalm), with musical styles ranging from chant and classical hymnody to African American spirituals and contemporary urban music. There are also spoken word and responsorial settings for each psalm. In our service, there was a psalm reading with part of a Wesleyan hymn for the response – it was very well done, and I've been singing it in my head all week. The book also includes brief theological-practical notes on how each psalm can be used in Christian worship.

I sometimes worry that our hymnbooks – where you have a more or less arbitrary selection of songs, arranged by various doctrinal and liturgical themes – create the impression that worship is a matter of human choice. You choose your Sunday hymns as you might choose a dessert from the menu at a restaurant; and you choose them on the basis of thematic relevance (this week, let's sing about love; this week, let's sing about forgiveness), so that entire dimensions of human experience might never once enter into the singing of a congregation.

But with psalmody as an overarching structure, the congregation is invited to share in experiences that might seem quite remote from their own everyday concerns. That is why we find some of the psalms so offensive: we simply cannot conceive of such experiences, even though they are – manifestly – genuine human possibilities. Instead of criticising such psalms, we need to learn how to sing them.

Our own private griefs are, often enough, quite paltry: but we are invited to join in the gigantic earth-shaking laments of the psalms. Our own criteria for happiness are selfish and small: but we are allowed to share in the magnificent heaven-rending joys of the psalmist. Our own love for God is so feeble that we might forget all about God for days at a time: but our hearts are torn wide open as we join our voices to the enormous lovesick longing of the psalmist's praise. We are safe, affluent, protected, untroubled by enemies or oppression: but we learn to join our voices to the psalmist's indignant cries for the catastrophic appearance of justice on the earth.

If your congregation sings only Hillsong choruses, then their emotional repertoire will be limited to about two different feelings (God-you-make-me-happy, and God-I'm-infatuated-with-you) – considerably less even than the emotional range of a normal adult person. It is why entire congregations sometimes seem strangely adolescent, or even infantile: they lack a proper emotional range, as well as a suitable adult vocabulary. But in the psalter one finds the entire range of human emotion and experience – a range that is vastly wider than the emotional capacity of any single human life.

Just to stick with Hillsong as an example: for a congregation to go from singing Hillsong to singing the psalter would be like seeing Shakespeare's plays after you've only ever watched sitcoms – it would be a shock to discover that human beings can be so large, and that they come in so many different varieties. Nobody has ever felt the way Hamlet feels, or felt so much: that's exactly what makes Hamlet important.

To enter into the singing of the psalms is to participate in a pattern of worship that transcends any private experience. As though worship were really worship, not just the expression of private thoughts and feelings. As though the voice that really sings in the psalms were a universal voice, the voice of fallen and redeemed humanity gathered together in one lump – which is to say, Christ's voice.

When the church's singing is structured around Israel's psalms, there is a constant reminder that worship is not primarily a matter of personal choice; that the experience of worship is not primarily my own private experience; that the voice in worship is not even primarily my voice, but the voice of Israel, the voice of Christ, the voice of Christ's people gathered across time and space, learning together how to transmute all the varied raw materials of human experience into the praise of God through the alchemy of Jesus Christ.

1 Comment:

Greg the Explorer said...

I loved this. Thank you. So much singing and song choice of a Sunday has left me quite depressed at times; this is a refreshing look at worship and in particular, sung worship. I'm going to get a copy of this psalter and introduce it to our congregation.

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