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A Psalm-Singing App-etizer

I’ve come to know the perils of collecting psalters in a house (or a dorm room) with limited shelf space. How many layers deep can the books go before they either warp the bookcase or pose a health hazard? How can you protect the oldest and most fragile psalters from being torn, dropped, or otherwise abused? And just how many blue Psalter Hymnals should you have on hand for impromptu hymn-sings?

While I’ll always prefer holding a physical book in my hand, I’m (reluctantly) supportive of efforts to digitize psalters and hymnals, especially for the sake of portability and space-saving. For years the Reformed Presbyterians have led the industry in this area with their Android and iOS apps for The Book of Psalms for Worship. I’ve seen these apps in action and can attest that they work well and come in handy when carrying a psalter around just isn’t practical.

I’d certainly given up hope for any digitized version of the 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal. But, as it turns out, a new resource has partially filled that gap! Recently, a reader from Singapore informed me that the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter is now available in an app format. The Android version has been out for a few years already, but an iOS version did not exist until just a few months ago. Both versions include the text of the 400+ psalm settings in the 1912 Psalter. But the iOS version also includes some fun and useful add-ons such as the Three Forms of Unity, a search function, and an audio feature. (It seems like similar functionality is included in the “Pro” version of the Android app, available here.)

1912 Psalter app

The biggest drawback to both versions of the United Presbyterian Psalter app is that neither one currently includes sheet music. Happily, the developer of the iOS app tells me that adding that capability is a goal for the future.

Even with just the text, these apps are a very useful tool for psalm-singing enthusiasts! The 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter was briefly used by the CRC and formed the basis for its later Psalter Hymnals. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal draws probably 70 to 80 percent of its psalm settings from the UP book. That means if you’re willing to get used to some changes in numbering, these apps can be helpful for URC folk who use the blue Psalter Hymnal as well.

With overhead projection supplanting traditional songbooks in many churches today, I think there are important advantages to maintaining a tradition of printed psalters in Reformed churches. That being said, it’s also encouraging to see digital resources popping up to help spread the love of psalm-singing in the 21st century!

–MRK

Solace (Review)

My friends at Crown & Covenant are aware of one of every niche blogger’s Achilles’ heels: free review copies. Over the past two years they’ve sent me several books and CDs to feature on URC Psalmody, and I’m always more than happy to do so. The only problem is that they’re the only publishing company that currently offers me this incentive, which means my reviews are not as well-balanced as they could be! Nonetheless, since I may be waiting a long time for Reformation Heritage or P&R to add their contributions, I’ll happily continue to review C&C resources.

Solace: Selections from the Book of Psalms for WorshipOver the past several years Crown & Covenant has published a series of albums with simple recordings of psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Currently twelve such albums exist (if my count is correct), and more are expected to appear in the coming months. The most recent is Solace, a collection of twenty psalm settings that focus on the Lord as a source of protection and strength in times of trouble. Utilizing multi-track recording technology, Solace was produced by three members of a very musical Reformed Presbyterian family in California who recorded over their own voices to create the auditory illusion of a small choir.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this family a little bit and can attest to their love for psalm-singing, as well as their skill in doing it. Recording twenty psalm settings at professional quality for commercial distribution is no easy task! And overall, this is a recording worthy of the long heritage of psalm-singing that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have enjoyed.

The primary use I would have in mind for this album would be a reference recording. That is, I would go to Solace mostly to find out how an unfamiliar tune goes or to explore possible tempi, arrangements, etc. Because most of the arrangements are very simple, Solace would be especially helpful for those seeking familiarity with The Book of Psalms for Worship or a cappella psalm-singing in general. But the recording quality is generally good enough that the album could make for enjoyable listening music as well, particularly in the area of personal devotions. Again, the simple singing style makes it almost impossible not to meditate on the words as they are sung.

Some aspects of Solace are not as aesthetically pleasing as they could be. The multi-track recording can sound too manipulated at times, especially the female vocals. And, to return to one of my typical complaints about many kinds of psalm-singing, I would love to hear a little more variety in the pacing and dynamics of some of the psalms. In general, I always prefer real-time recordings like those of the Syracuse RP Church, also in this series, which are excellent.

Still, Solace and this series in general set a high standard for psalm-singing albums of all kinds. The closest comparison I can make to a series from the CRC/URC tradition would be Dordt College’s Be Thou Exalted, LORD! series from the 1980’s. As we look ahead to the publication of a new Psalter Hymnal, the OPC and URC’s talented musicians and singers ought to give careful thought to producing a similar set of recordings. Singing the psalms does not need to be beautiful in order to be worshipful, but it certainly deserves our best effort!

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

Let the Reader Understand (Review)

This fall I had the privilege of taking an independent-study course on the Psalms with Geneva College’s Old Testament professor Dr. Byron Curtis. My first reading assignment was Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton’s Let the Reader Understand (P&R, 2002). This helpful book defined the categories for some of the interpretive problems that arise when considering the Psalms or any other book of Scripture. The review below is a course paper I wrote to summarize the book and connect it to the study of the Psalms.

prpbooks2fimages2fcovers2fmd2f9780875525167One of the most persistent problems in biblical hermeneutics, at least from a layman’s perspective, is positing that a problem exists. Many Christians are content to consider the question of scriptural interpretation only in regard to particularly difficult books such as Daniel or Revelation, while leaving the more “obvious” passages of the Bible to the interpretation that comes most naturally, whether obtained from private study, homiletic application, or current Christian literature. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton begin their book Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 2002) by establishing the central problem of hermeneutics: “Does the Bible teach something in particular, or is the meaning of a text simply ‘what I get out of it’?” (p. 1). How can we be sure our interpretation is accurate? How can we affirm with certainty what God’s revealed will for us is? “If we regard the Bible as the fountainhead of our faith, it is crucial that we resolve this problem. If we are to obey God, we must first understand what he said. If we are to believe, there must be something there for us to believe” (p. 2).

McCartney and Clayton begin with a study of presuppositions, which immediately challenges schools of “higher criticism” of the Bible. The most basic of the Bible’s presuppositions is “that submission to the God who speaks in his Word is the first step in understanding him” (p. 9). This is true not just because of sin, which darkens our perception of the ways of God, but simply because of our finite capacity of understanding. The fact that this Word is expressed in ordinary human language denies us access (for now) to a comprehensive, absolute knowledge of God. Yet the Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for life and godliness, and the authors make the case that the ambiguity of human language is the Bible’s asset rather than its deficiency: “[I]f language were totally unambiguous, precise, and exhaustive, then words about God would be sufficiently inadequate to make them idolatrous. The flexibility of the elements of language is what enables sentences to be perfectly, though not exhaustively, true” (p. 20). The Bible’s nature as both the inspired Word of God and a book in ordinary human language should drive us to place ourselves under its authority while also exercising every effort to understand its true meaning.

Central to McCartney and Clayton’s presentation of hermeneutics is the role of the Holy Spirit, who “convicts and assures us of the truthfulness and trustworthiness [of the Bible] as we find it in Scripture” (p. 74). Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the original authors of the text, he also continues to illumine the hearts of believers as they seek to understand the will of God. While there is “an accomplished, objective, definitive, and unrepeatable dimension,” through the Spirit “the Word is also applied continuously to individuals, who subjectively experience it coming alive to them, meeting their needs in special situations” (p. 75). Reinforcing the authors’ earlier presupposition about ultimate submission to the Word of God, interpreters of the Bible must recognize that it is only the Holy Spirit who can confront us with the divine authority of its texts.

From this starting point, the authors proceed to explain the history of biblical interpretation through the church, beginning with the early interpretations of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and continuing through the influence of Derrida’s poststructuralism in contemporary scholarship. McCartney and Clayton then introduce the grammatical-historical method, which places the words and phrases of Scripture into a linguistic and cultural framework in order to reveal the authors’ original meaning. Building on this foundation, the authors introduce four principles to derive a present meaning from grammatical-historical analysis: the meaning must be organically related to the human author’s meaning; the meaning must be consistent with the total revelation in the Bible; the meaning must point to God’s redemption; and the interpretation must remain subject to the Holy Spirit’s directing of the church (pp. 173, 174). Putting these principles into practice, McCartney and Clayton outline a plan for studying God’s Word: preparing spiritually, consulting multiple Bible translations, considering discourses rather than just words and sentences, and discovering the historical and cultural background of the text. In closing, Let the Reader Understand discusses the various literary genres within the Bible and suggests how proper exegesis should shape Christian worship and witness.

What distinguishes Let the Reader Understand from many contemporary works on biblical exegesis, both popular and scholarly, is the humility with which it approaches the Word of God. The author’s statement that “genuine understanding occurs to the degree that our basic presuppositions and operating assumptions are in line with those of the Bible” (p. 289) roots hermeneutics in a realization of the authority of the Word of God, not an arrogant demand for the Bible to prove its worth. Related to this perspective is an acknowledgment of both the perspicuity (clarity or simplicity) of Scripture and its unfathomable depths. A solid exegesis of many Bible passages can begin with a very simple, literal interpretation, which accumulates significance in the “hermeneutical spiral” of contextual and historical analysis (p. 40). In this way, Let the Reader Understand encourages careful study of the Scriptures while undermining critical scholarship’s claims to self-sufficiency.

Let the Reader Understand is a uniquely valuable introduction to hermeneutics, deftly explaining difficult philosophical concepts and navigating complex interpretive arguments while remaining readable. One of the book’s notable features its extensive crossover to questions of philosophy and communication, some of which seem unrelated at first to Biblical interpretation. For example, Chapter 4 delves into the ideas of F. de Saussure, C. Levi-Strauss, and J. Derrida, while Appendix A provides a ten-page discussion of the question “Where is meaning?” However, such conversations are key to appreciating the rest of the book—not only because of their relevance to communication studies, but because they interact with the philosophies that have consciously or unconsciously shaped much of the debate over biblical interpretation in recent years.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning the special value of Let the Reader Understand for a study of the Book of Psalms. Although it may not be debated as hotly as prophetic or apocalyptic literature, the genre of biblical poetry can present significant problems of interpretation for the thoughtful Christian. While popular views of the Psalms may treat them as collections of inspirational sayings for a faith-based life, the organization of this collection (Why five books? How are the Psalms laid out?) and their historical nature as the songbook of ancient Israel challenge us to reconsider this common perception. The Psalms have often fallen victim to hermeneutical crimes like quoting Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” without recognizing the object of this command (the warring nations on earth) or the context of the surrounding Psalm. In addition, the difficult themes of lament and imprecation throughout the Book of Psalms present a challenge to any modern reader. How are Christians to understand vindictive statements such as “May they be…like a stillborn child that never sees the sun” (Psalm 58:8 NIV) or “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Psalm 109:8)?

Let the Reader Understand offers a way toward greater understanding of the Psalms by affirming their divine inspiration, not just their historical or cultural value. The authors describe several modern theories of interpretation such as the autonomous text theory, the reader-response theory, and the sociolinguistic-community theory (p. 24). Yet all of these drain the psalms of the spiritual value that makes them much more than interesting artifacts of ancient Israel. Studying how the Psalms are referenced by New Testament authors, recognizing the redemptive-historical context of these songs of the saints, and understanding the genre of poetry are a few of the applications that can be made from this book to a study of the Psalms, each of which will yield rich rewards in individual or corporate hermeneutical efforts.

Of course, to return to the central message of Let the Reader Understand, the most important factor in understanding the Book of Psalms is the recognition that these songs, like the rest of Scripture, point to the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. McCartney and Clayton quote the church father Irenaeus in regard to the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: “And therefore when the Law is read by Jews at the present time, it is like a myth; for they do not have the explanation of everything, which is the coming of the Son of God as man. But when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hidden in the field but revealed by the cross of Christ” (qtd. p. 85). Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Book of Psalms will be just another record of the worship practices of an ancient nation. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, this collection of songs will inspire us with newfound praise when we discover in them “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (I Peter 1:11).

–MRK

Unity in Indiana

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Keynote speaker Rev. Barry York

Well, since last month I can now cross a significant item off my bucket list. Unexpectedly, I got to attend the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference (RPIC) in Marion, IN!

Held every four years, the RP International Conference is a longstanding favorite event within the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and beyond. It’s when about 2,000 members of the RPCNA and its sister denominations around the world converge for a week on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University for preaching, singing, recreation, and fellowship. It’s a fantastic experience—and not just because I got to listen to thousands of people singing the psalms in harmony all week!

I say “unexpectedly” because I had no plans to attend RPIC, until the director of my college choir, Dr. David K. Smith, asked if I would be interested in accompanying him to the conference. As the choir’s PR director I could help him with recruiting and networking. Since Geneva College is the denominational school of the RPCNA and The Genevans choir plays an active part in keeping the tradition of a cappella psalmody alive, this seemed to be the perfect venue.

Initially we just planned to travel to Indiana for part of the week and run a table in the conference’s exhibition hall. After our initial plans were made, however, we were invited to present a workshop to the high schoolers at the conference on psalm-singing! Why the conference planners chose two non-RP’s to speak to Reformed Presbyterian youth about their own denominational distinctive is beyond me. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the opportunity to come in as observers and encourage a group of 30 or 40 youth toward a deeper appreciation of the musical tradition they grew up with. (I’ll post a summary of the workshop soon, Lord willing.)

In addition to serving in this “official” capacity, I had a lot of opportunities just to mingle with these Scottish brothers and sisters. I benefited greatly from Rev. Barry York’s keynote addresses on “The Sacrificing Church: Ministering Faithfully as Priests in the Local Congregation.” I got to sit in on several fascinating workshops, including sessions led by Rev. Michael LeFebvre and our own Rev. Danny Hyde! Above all, I enjoyed getting to meet hundreds of Reformed Presbyterians who loved to converse about the labors, joys and sacrifices of living in the body of Christ. I felt warmly welcomed into a different branch of the family of God of which we are all a part.

If there was one disappointing facet of the week, it was the blank stares I so often received when I mentioned the United Reformed Churches in North America. Most attendees, it seemed, had never even heard of our very like-minded denomination. One conventioneer even took pains to warn me about the increasing liberal trends in my federation, not realizing he had confused the United Reformed Churches with the United Church of Christ!

For denominations that share “Phase 2” ecumenical relations, I can’t help but find this a little embarrassing for both of us. Maybe sending a contingent of 500 URCNA members to the next international conference wouldn’t be helpful, but certainly there are plenty of ways on a local and regional level to affirm our unity. Have we pursued the option of a yearly NAPARC joint worship service, as is done in places like Pittsburgh? Do we invite each other’s congregations to fellowship events like game days or (in West Sayville’s case) lobster fests? Do we take advantage of the conservative, well-grounded Reformed liberal arts education a college like Geneva has to offer? (Yes, that was a shameless plug.) If not, perhaps these opportunities can help us map out a reasonable plan of action.

As Rev. York’s messages reminded me throughout the week, the world is pressing in on the church from all sides. In times like these, what a blessing and help it is to be united in the truth by building lasting relationships with fellow believers across denominational lines.

–MRK

Check out Bryan Schneider’s video montage of the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Convention here.

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I AM: Kids Sing Psalms! (Review)

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms!Last week I was reminiscing with some friends about the Sunday school songs of our childhood. Although we had plenty of choices, we really had only a few recurring favorites, including “Father Abraham” and the dubious classic “Arky, Arky.” Another favorite was the antiphonal “Hallelu, Hallelu/Praise Ye the Lord” chorus, which most often turned into a screaming competition between the boys and the girls as each group tried to produce the loudest exclamations of praise. We may not have been very musical, but we were definitely enthusiastic.

The topic of Sunday school singing comes to mind because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach kids the psalms. Even congregations with a robust tradition of psalm-singing often find it difficult to impress these songs on the minds and hearts of the next generation. On one hand, an energetic group of kids could be bored to tears by some of the more solemn selections in the psalter. On the other hand, more engaging styles of music like Steve Green’s classic Hide ‘Em in Your Heart albums tend to be unrepresentative of what would typically be sung in worship.

Crown & Covenant has recently released a CD album, I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! (2016), which seeks to meet this need. Featuring 27 children choristers from the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, the album pairs eight “I AM” statements of Jesus (“I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.) with similarly-themed psalm settings from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Each psalm is introduced by a choir member who reads the New Testament passage accompanying it. This album isn’t the first of its kind; other C&C releases include You Are My God: Kids Sing Psalms! and the correctly-spelled Kids Sign Psalms: O Be Exalted High, O God!

I expected I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! to resemble the singing I described above—what it lacked in tone quality it would make up in enthusiasm. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. These kids are excellent singers, and their polished sound proves that the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts provides a solid musical education. By the same token, I have to admit that the youthful zeal I anticipated often seems to be missing from this recording. The choir sings in unison with the rare addition of a second part, so the publisher’s description of “rich a cappella harmony” seems to be overstating the case. Whether it’s the restrained tempo, the absence of dynamics, or just the teaching style, I long to catch a little more excitement from these children’s voices.

Crown & Covenant describes I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! as being “designed for young children to gain familiarity with the psalms.” The difficulty in reviewing an album like this is that it really ought to be considered on two different levels. To be sure, the choristers in the recording have definitely benefited from learning and singing these songs. Nothing gets words and tunes stuck in your head more firmly than choir rehearsals, and the polished sound of these singers proves that they have put plenty of hours of practice time into the music. Whether they realize it or not, these kids’ experience with psalm-singing has left a lasting impression on their minds, hopefully one that mirrors the impression made on their hearts.

Unfortunately, the album’s design is less likely to make an impact on kids on the listening end. Subdued psalm-singing might be helpful background music for children as they go to sleep at night. But I doubt many children would beg to hear this CD in the car or in the middle of the day’s activities—and I say that as someone with an unusually mellow musical taste myself. Even lively congregational singing, for all its rough edges, might make more of a joyous and exciting impression.

Despite my criticism, I’m very encouraged by the production of this album—both because it’s great to see an acclaimed children’s choir working together with a Reformed denomination on psalm-singing, and because Crown & Covenant clearly recognizes the need for engaging and lasting ways to teach the psalms to youth. Although I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! may have left me missing the shrill enthusiasm of “Father Abraham” and “Arky, Arky,” I’m still looking forward to future releases.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this CD, and I was not required to write a positive review.)


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