Archive for June, 2016

Time for a Second Edition!

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Timing can be a funny thing. Two weeks ago came the news that the OPC’s General Assembly and the URCNA’s synod had both approved the Trinity Psalter Hymnal for publication—less than two weeks after Reformed Fellowship’s announcement that their stock of blue Psalter Hymnals had run out. At the very least, we can be sure the URCNA won’t be left without a book to sing from!

Of course, this historic decision means much more than that we have a book of our own. Several readers and friends have asked me: “Are you excited?” or “Are you relieved?” A few have even said something along the lines of, “Just think! Your Psalter Hymnal got approved by the synod!” And yes, I am excited—though it’s not my Psalter Hymnal by any stretch of the imagination.

See, that’s just the point: the fact that we’ve adopted the Trinity Psalter Hymnal means that as a federation we’ve been able to move past the substantial differences between “my” ideal songbook and “your” ideal songbook. It proves that by God’s grace, to some limited extent, we can work together—imperfectly, yet sincerely. The new book won’t provide the final answers to what we should sing or how we should sing in worship. It may be an excellent collection, or it may be only a reasonably good one. It may be forgotten in 100 years, or even 50. But it is a step forward.

As demotivational as it may sound, I’ll add this: The time to start preparing for a second edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal is now. If the URCNA and OPC have adopted this songbook out of a desire to worship God in greater truth and greater unity, we need to set our minds on long-term investments to improve this unity. I hope the Songbook Committees are already noting what might be done differently in compiling future editions, what recently-composed songs might be worth including someday, or even what other favorite songs from our old books ought to be reconsidered. As individuals and churches, we can take ownership of the new book by immediately noting which songs gain the widest acceptance and which problems need to be addressed most urgently. This could be as involved as an Excel spreadsheet or as simple as a tally mark placed above a psalm or hymn every time it is sung.

All of these are simple examples, but the central purpose is the same: to be thankful for the very good work that’s been done so far, while continuing to propel it forward so that future generations will benefit from the thoughtful investments in worship we are making today.

In short, I’m excited—not because we’ve yet reached the pinnacle of united worship in the URCNA and OPC, but because we’ve set our faces in that direction. And I’m excited for what God will do, as he has done in the past, when his people unite with a humble heart to seek the good of Zion.

–MRK

How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

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It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

How Literal Is Literal Enough?

I greatly appreciated Rev. Nick Smith’s guest post last week on why Christians need to learn to “sing the whole psalm.” As he points out, we need to fill our hearts and mouths with the complete message of the Psalter, even when it feels strange or unseemly to us, because this is how we learn to speak and act like Jesus. We ought not to be afraid of texts that call for God’s judgment, especially with the benefit of New Testament passages such as Revelation that assure us this judgment will one day take place. When the psalms we sing in worship have been paraphrased, or their sharper edges have been sanded off, they rob the church of the “bold prayer” that God would utterly destroy the wicked.

Rev. Smith’s response reminded me of the topic of “psalm-hymns,” or psalm paraphrases, that we’ve talked about before. Every Christian ought to care about Scriptural faithfulness in the words they sing as well as the words they read. Consistories and congregations, especially, should carefully consider the question of Biblical accuracy before purchasing a new psalter. But if you’re not a Hebrew scholar (and most of us aren’t), is there any way to tell how accurate the psalm settings you’re singing are?

Although unfamiliarity with Biblical languages may be a hindrance, I don’t think it should stop us from at least beginning to think in terms of Scriptural accuracy. So here’s a rule of thumb that has proved for me to be a great starting point: Get a pencil and mark all the verse numbers in the song. If this sounds strange, allow me to give an example.

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A few months ago I was thinking about settings of Psalm 46 and decided to sit down with this version from the blue Psalter Hymnal to find out how closely it matched the prose psalm from the ESV. My goal, as mentioned above, was to identify all the verses from the prose psalm in this setting. You can see that it passed the test—Psalm 46 has eleven verses and I was able to locate all of them here (even though v. 11 is unmarked for some reason).

While this is a helpful way to establish that this psalm setting does in fact follow the pattern and flow of the original text, I went a step further. As you can see from this scan (click to enlarge it), I’ve developed a kind of shorthand to efficiently note weaknesses in the translation.

Parentheses ( ) designate words that roughly summarize the original text. You can see at the bottom of the second stanza I highlighted the word “fathers’,” which is close to the original term “Jacob’s,” but not quite the same thing. Whatever their reason may have been, the editors of this psalm setting decided to use a more generalized ancestral reference than one that named the nation of Israel directly. As far as Biblical accuracy, that’s a point against them.

Brackets [ ] designate phrases and concepts that definitely do not appear at that point in the prose psalm. For example, the third stanza contains references to “His wrath” and “His grace” which are not found anywhere in Psalm 46. In this particular passage we are not told whether God’s intervention to make wars cease to the ends of the earth is wrathful or gracious. An argument could be made for either. But in this case, it seems presumptive to incorporate these interpretive components into a psalm setting.

Finally, parallel vertical lines || appear where the versification has left out a concept or phrase from the original psalm. I combine most of these with a brief note in the margin as to what has been left out. In the middle of the second stanza, you can see that the portion of vv. 5-6 that mentions “when morning dawns” and “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter” is missing. These are vivid word pictures that bring Psalm 46 to light in the believer’s mind, like Rev. Smith suggested with Psalm 110.

All things considered, I could argue that this setting of Psalm 46 passes this simple inspection, though maybe not with flying colors. (In case you’re interested, I’ve since revised this text for Psalm 46, and the new setting is available here.) Unfortunately, if you apply this test to other songs in the Psalter Hymnal, some will fail miserably. If I tried to use the same principle to evaluate number 306 from Psalm 149, it would look more like this:

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As you can see, in the last two stanzas of this psalm setting, which are clearly intended to represent Psalm 149:5-9, I was only able to locate v. 5, part of v. 6, and an elaborated version of v. 9 that includes pieces of vv. 6-8 within it. These lyrics fail to mention anything resembling the “judgment,” “vengeance,” “punishments,” “chains,” and “fetters” of the psalm. That’s a tremendous loss for us as psalm-singers, and because this is the only complete setting of Psalm 149 in the Psalter Hymnal, it’s even more lamentable.

The point here is not to emphasize God’s wrath and judgment simply to gloat in gory language. Rather, we must understand that the Christian life is one of constant warfare against “the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127). As one hymnwriter put it, we must be able to see “how the powers of darkness/Compass thee around” (Psalter Hymnal #464), and how those powers of darkness are overcome in the victory of Christ. It takes lifelong practice to recognize this battle for what it is. All the more reason for the songs we sing to portray this reality fully.

–MRK


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