Posts Tagged 'Modernization'

“Crippled in Both Feet”

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

Why has psalm-singing fallen by the wayside in so much of the Western church? Many people blame the rise of hymn-singing for the decline of psalm-singing. But in 1906, two men from the Christian Reformed Church reversed the argument. Instead they blamed a deficiency in psalm-singing for the rise of hymn-singing.

Today I’d like to take a short excursion from this summer’s Behind the Psalter Hymnal series—which is almost over, don’t worry—to present another fascinating document from the vaults of church history. It’s a report submitted to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1906 on “the new American rhyming of the Psalter.” That “new American rhyming” would become the United Presbyterian Psalter published in 1912, whose psalm settings have become beloved favorites in many Reformed churches. The 1912 Psalter was the source for most of the psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal and several other psalters of the 20th century.

As the finishing touches were being applied to the text of this new psalter in 1906, Henry Beets and Henry Vander Werp submitted this report to the CRC’s synod to provide some background and personal commentary on the project. The original report was in Dutch; since then it’s also been converted into English by an unknown translator, and the version I’ve posted on URC Psalmody is a slightly edited version of this translation.

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

In their report, the two Henrys compare the psalters that were then being used in the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking churches of the CRC. The former often used the 1887 United Presbyterian revision of the Psalter (pictured at the top of this page). The latter used the Genevan Psalter according to its 1773 translation into Dutch (pictured at right). In colorfully blunt language, Beets and Vander Werp expose serious deficiencies in the English psalter. They call it “kreupelrijm, en in meerdere gevallen kreupel aanbeide voeten”—“a crippled rhyming, and in most instances crippled in both feet.” They compare the Dutch psalter to the sun, and the English to “the moon, and not even a full moon!” They even write that the English translation “must take a back seat for the Dutch sister”—who knows where that expression came from.

Readers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), you might think the authors would at least have a higher regard for your psalm settings. Nope—in their opinion, the psalter “of the Covenanter Church here and in Scotland is much poorer and less poetic” even than the “crippled rhyming” of the United Presbyterians. Ouch!

We could easily write off these pastors’ criticisms of the English psalter as mere ethnic favoritism. Of course two ministers whose first language was Dutch would prefer a Dutch psalter to an English one! But I think there’s more to it than that. Beets and Vander Werp write:

The greatest defectiveness…with respect to the rhyming of the Psalms in our country is the spiritual poverty. In order to cling scrupulously to the Hebrew text, they have, so to speak, placed handcuffs upon the spirit thereof in many places. The glorious worshipful spirit of the Psalms cannot spread out its wings far enough in such narrow boundaries.

I’m sure Beets and Vander Werp would emphasize that any translation of the Psalms must faithfully represent the original Scripture. But they make an interesting point: by attempting to be slavishly literal, the translators of past English psalters often made the psalms actually more difficult to understand. How can the average psalm-singer even begin to worship while struggling to decipher perplexing lines like “For thee to keep in all thy ways/His angels charge He shall”? Such language may have been (slightly?) more colloquial in 17th-century Scotland, but in our contemporary American context, must we really settle for this?

Not only do these ministers propose that a rhyming of the psalms can be done better, they say it needs to be done better. They write:

From this is to be understood the great urge for spiritual songs [i.e. hymns] which are used in the American churches. At first these hymns found entrance because the Scottish rhyming did not do enough for the Christian heart, which felt a need greater than the stiff, crippled, spiritually poor rhyming used for centuries in the Scottish churches could supply. Hence there are very few Psalms found in the hymnbooks of most American churches. (emphasis mine)

Here my ears really perked up. If you ask why the Psalter has fallen out of use in most American churches, people will blame a variety of sources: Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases, Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, or the genre of “CCM.” But what if these pastors are on to something? Maybe part of the reason we stopped singing the psalms was because our translations didn’t do them justice.

There’s good news, of course. The 1912 Psalter, which Beets and Vander Werp called “unquestionably a great improvement,” has ingrained its psalm settings into the hearts and minds of multiple generations of believers, including many of us in the URCNA. Now, in the 21st century, we have at our disposal a wealth of resources for psalm-singing that is not only literal but also beautiful and memorable. The Reformed Presbyterians’ recent Book of Psalms for Worship includes many excellent psalm settings, both new and old, recast in simple, straightforward English. For those who still prefer the Genevan tunes, like Beets and Vander Werp so obviously did, there are the Canadian Reformed Churches’ new Book of Praise and New Genevan Psalter. And, of course, we have the promise of a further contribution to modern metrical psalmody in the URCNA and OPC’s forthcoming Psalter Hymnal.

When it comes to hymns and psalm settings, I’ve always tended to be a stickler for the “original lyrics.” I love some of the quirky wording of old psalters, and I’ll be sad if I ever have to see them go: “All earth to Him her homage brings,” “Who only doeth wondrous works in glory that excel.” But if we insist on clinging to archaic, deficient psalm settings merely for the sake of history or tradition, we may need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “[I]f with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?…For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:9,33).


Read the complete report here »

URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Update

Hymnological Math

Our local news station likes to pat itself on the back by calling viewers’ attention over and over to the fact that they saw a particular story “First on 12.”  Sometimes it’s a particularly boring piece of news that no other station could be expected to cover.  Then they’ll brag that it’s a story you’ll see “Only on 12.”

The update I’d like to share with you today is neither mundane enough to be something you’ll read “Only on URC Psalmody,” nor recent enough to be something you’ll read “First on URC Psalmody.”  Had I been unencumbered with a host of other obligations, maybe this post would have gone up a little earlier.  Nevertheless, here it is: a summary of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee’s latest report.

Read the entire press release here.

If you’re not familiar with the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project, this page provides some helpful background information.  As of last November (the date of their last report), the committee had tentatively chosen settings for all 150 psalms.  This report of their March 5-6 meeting includes a substantial amount of overlap, but also some new information.

By now the committees have completed a provisional “Psalm Proposal,” which includes one full metrical version of each psalm (except for Psalm 119, which is divided into its twenty-two large stanzas).  “In all, there are about 235 complete metrical Psalm songs included in the proposal. In addition to these metrical versions, there are about 40 partial or paraphrase Psalm songs that have been agreed upon.  Most of these partial or paraphrased Psalms are from the blue Psalter Hymnal (PH), as a fair percentage of selections in the PH are either partial or paraphrased Psalms.”  This seems to indicate that the Psalm Proposal will be only slightly smaller than the psalm section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (with 310 psalm-songs), and it is my guess that the evaluation process will tend to add more selections to the list.

The URCNA committee reports:

Sensitive to issues of continuity and familiarity, our committees have retained many full metrical or partial/paraphrase selections from the PH in several ways: either as is, or with updated words (e.g. ‘thee’ to ‘you’), or with fuller or more scripturally accurate texts (e.g. a partial text in the PH has been converted into a complete metrical version).

One of the most controversial characteristics of the Hymn Proposal was its extensive modernization of the lyrics of the hymns; the committees will have to address this issue as they tweak the Psalm Proposal as well.  Whatever course of action they decide upon, there are bound to be strong opinions throughout our churches.  Thus, we ought to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the committee members, especially as they try to sort out these sticky matters.  May the discussions and the final decision be to his glory.

Pocket Psalter HymnalI am very excited about the committee’s decision to expand some partial texts from the Psalter Hymnal into full ones.  One example they give is Psalter Hymnal #282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim.”  In the blue book this setting only treats vv. 1-7 and 19-21, but the report notes that it has been converted into a full versification in the Psalm Proposal.  Recently I even experimented with completing a setting of Psalm 63 in a similar fashion.  To me, this seems to be an excellent way to preserve the familiarity and heritage of our psalter, while also improving its quality and Scriptural accuracy.

Once again the committee emphasizes, “By retaining many well-known tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, we hope that our churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection.”

Now, what of the future?  It has taken the committees nearly two years to complete the Psalm Proposal; beginning this summer, they plan to begin work on a “new and improved” Hymn Proposal.  Meanwhile, the Psalm Proposal is expected to be released online sometime after the OPC’s General Assembly in early June of this year.  “There will be an online system for churches from both of our communions to submit feedback.  After considering this feedback, we hope to have the Psalm Proposal ready for recommendation in 2014 to both the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly.”  Work will continue on the Hymn Proposal, which the committees hope to present to synod and the General Assembly in 2016.  “Upon approval, the final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire songbook would then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

I’ll be honest: I remain on the edge of my seat as I wait to see what’s inside the Psalm Proposal.  Collecting beautiful, singable, familiar, and (above all) Scripturally accurate psalm settings into a reasonably-sized psalter is an incredibly arduous task.  There’s no doubt there will be disagreement amongst the members of our churches regarding which songs should be included and how much they should be modified.  And, like anyone in the URCNA, I need to be prepared for the fact that the Psalm Proposal will probably omit a number of my personal favorites.

But should these objections be allowed to bring our sixteen-year project to a grinding halt?  I hope and pray it may not be so.  I pray that our discussions and feedback to the committee will be well-measured, well-grounded, and well-intentioned for the good of our federation.  I pray that God will grant wisdom and good judgment to the members of the Songbook Committee as they continue their work.  Most of all, I pray that our efforts would be seasoned with grace and Christlikeness—for all our singing is in vain if it is not to God’s glory.


Keeping Up with the Joneses, Reformed Style

So far, a significant amount of attention at Synod 2012 has been given to the URCNA’s Psalter Hymnal project.  But the Federation of United Reformed Churches isn’t the only denomination on the block with a new hymnbook in the works.  Just as the URC and OPC are considering the joint production of a new Psalter Hymnal, our older cousin the Christian Reformed Church and her sister the Reformed Church in America are also collaborating to publish a new collection of songs.  The difference?  The finished product will hardly resemble the Psalter Hymnal we know.

Why do the CRC and the RCA feel the need to create a new hymnbook?  In a Frequently Asked Questions page on the hymnal’s website, the following explanation is given (emphasis added):

In worship one of the main ways we praise and honor God, give voice to our prayers, and communicate the wonders of God’s works is through song.  Though the underlying gospel message doesn’t change from generation to generation, the concerns, prayers, and social context of each generation does.  Since the publication of Rejoice in the Lord and The Psalter Hymnal we have seen sociological change with a move toward postmodernism and witnessed the exponential growth of technology–our world is very different today than it was twenty years ago.  The words we use for worship need to express these new realities that form the backdrop of our worship–a new hymnal for a new generation.

I’m not clear on how something like “the exponential growth of technology” should relate to our worship of God.  Perhaps we are to sing, “Now thank we all our God, with phones and apps and iPads”?  And while the shift toward postmodernism is real, how should this change the style of our songs?  If any reaction to this trend is needed, should it not be an even greater emphasis on the time-tested psalms and hymns of the faith?

For that matter, has the “worship vocabulary” of the CRC really changed that much since the publication of the gray Psalter Hymnal?  Even in the 1980’s, this collection exhibited an unconventional amount of political correctness, gender neutralization, and other “modernistic” trends.  How much further can this new hymnbook go?

The FAQ page goes on to explain,

This desire for a new hymnal for a new generation fits with the reality that a hymnal has a lifespan of about 20 years. The Psalter Hymnal and Rejoice in the Lord have both surpassed the 20-year mark. A new or revised hymnal about every 20 years has also been the practice of the CRC, with hymnals being released in 1914, 1934, 1959, 1976, and 1987.

Missing from this argument is the fact that all editions of the Psalter Hymnal from 1934 to 1976 are essentially the same (in fact, the 1959 and 1976 editions are identical).  Compared to the 2500-year-old history of many of the psalms, is twenty-five years all we can get out of a hymnbook?  Apparently, the CRC and RCA would answer in the affirmative.

The FAQ page proceeds to answer several related questions: Do enough churches actually want a new songbook?  Will an electronic version be available for projection?  Why is the new songbook bi-denominational?  Why is a CRC/RCA hymnal necessary given the existence of many other new books?  One of the most significant revelations, however, relates to this question: Will this hymnal include a separate section of psalms (a Psalter)?  The answer:

The Psalter Hymnal included all 150 psalms in a Psalter followed by hymns.  Rejoice in the Lord captured most of its psalmody in a discrete Psalter section.  Sing! A New Creation marked a noticeable shift by incorporating the psalms where they would most naturally fit in the order of worship or part of the church year.  It has become clear that this last approach encouraged more consistent use of the psalms in worship.  It is our plan to include the psalms in a variety of musical genres within the hymnal but not to dedicate a separate section to them.

Regarding this position, I’d like to offer the following questions for your consideration.  Maybe the CRC/RCA is correct that mingling psalms with hymns contributes to more regular psalm-singing.  But won’t such a drastic change also demean the psalms to the level of mere hymns?  Are the Biblical psalms still an essential element of worship as the inerrant, infallible Word of God, or have they become simply a collection of old Jewish songs?

My fear is that the revised and reorganized elements in this new hymnal may be indicative of the growing contempt of Scripture implicit in many Christian churches today.  Do such trends truly honor “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17 ESV)?  May God enable his church, and the URCNA in particular, to remain faithful to his unchanging Word.  In all our worship, let us remember this admonition from the apostle (James 1:27):

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To him be the glory,


A Personal Response to the Hymn Proposal

Just over one year ago I completed an exhaustive report on the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s Hymn Proposal.  My document was 88 pages long and contained more than 28,000 words (the equivalent of 28 lengthy blog posts!).  It was my belief that a long report deserved a proportionately long introduction, so I addressed several paragraphs of introductory comments to my church’s Worship Committee and consistory.

I share this material on URC Psalmody not because I want to toot my own horn (or, as some wits would have it, my organ), but because it attempts to quell several sources of musical controversy that have erupted in the URCNA over the past few years.  I realize some of my comments may be a bit polarizing, so I ask you to receive them as my own opinions—educated opinions, but not flawless news sources.

Nevertheless, I would like your thoughts and reactions to this introduction to the Hymn Proposal.  I tried to addresses a variety of issues, including the synodical regulations for church music, the importance of using time-tested hymns, the alterations of lyrics (including gender neutralization), the lowering of keys, and the reactions of the youth to modernizing old hymns.  Today, my desire is that this material might serve to stimulate our minds in preparation for the musical topics on this year’s synodical agenda.  You can find my unabridged introduction in an uploaded document entitled “Introductory Comments,” and the criteria referenced below in another document, “Principles and Guidelines.”

From this point forward is an edited version (with emphasis added) of my statements to the Worship Committee and Consistory of West Sayville Reformed Bible Church, dated June 2nd, 2011.

Introductory Comments

This report is the fruit of nine months’ labor and collaboration on the Hymn Proposal that was distributed by the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee at the last Synod meeting in summer 2010.  My review contains recommendations concerning both the lyrics and the music of the hymns in this Proposal.

For easy reference, I have included copies of the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines for Selecting Church Music from the preface to the Hymn Proposal, as well as a copy of the Additional Principles and Guidelines…submitted to Worship Committee last October.  I am aware that the Songbook Committee has asked that all evaluations of the Hymn Proposal to be based solely on the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines; thus, my extensive use of the Additional Criteria as justifications for my recommendations may be called into question.  However, I should make clear that I do not view our additional criteria as further guidelines for selecting hymns, but rather as implications of the Principles and Guidelines already included.…We came up with these additional guidelines simply to clarify and address the implications of the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines, which we wholeheartedly agree with.

I should also note that I have not referred to Additional Criterion x anywhere in my report. I leave the decision of “time-testing” hymns up to others, but especially the Worship Committee and the Songbook Committee.  While I am not confident enough in my own experience to decide which new hymns should be left out until a future edition of the URC Psalter Hymnal, I still believe this guideline is an important consideration to take into account, and I encourage the Worship Committee and the Songbook Committee to refer to it in their own changes to the Hymn Proposal.

Two of the major issues concerning the Hymn Proposal that are being discussed are alterations of lyrics and key changes.  Regarding these issues, I communicated with two of my friends who are actively involved with the music of WSRBC.  [At the time of this report, these musicians were ages 17 and 16.]  They definitely support the use of modern pronouns in modern hymns, but not in the church’s traditional songs such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Be Thou My Vision.” As trained singers, they were adamant against lowering the keys of the hymns, arguing that when the keys are changed, the mood of the song is changed.  Finally, they added, “While the church continues to grow, we can’t forget our past, because we wouldn’t be the true Church without it.  Newer songs are being written, and the best will be added to our hymnbooks until they eventually become the ‘traditional hymns.’ But the songs we have now shouldn’t be changed, just as we can’t change our Christian heritage.”  Overall, it seems that they are supportive of the Hymn Proposal and satisfied with the selections it contains.  Hopefully, this feedback offers just a small window into the hymn-related ideals of other young members of the URC with regard to the Hymn Proposal.

Another very controversial issue is the topic of gender-neutral language in the modernized hymns.  The disparaging discussions in some URC circles regarding this topic are unfortunate.  We have no substantial grounds to suspect that the Songbook Committee has gender-neutral leanings.  The more likely reason for occasional language that hints at this tendency is that the Hymn Proposal contains many versions of hymns taken from the 1987 CRC (gray) Psalter Hymnal, for various reasons—and a handful of these versions happen to include gender-neutral language.  While I am recommending that much of this language be removed to prevent offense to those who are sensitive to it, I believe that questioning the Songbook Committee’s motives as some have done is uncalled for and un-Christian.

I have written these recommendations with the understanding that not all of them may be feasible.  There are copyright issues which might prohibit some of these changes, but more significantly, the Songbook Committee is going to be flooded with requests, suggestions, and recommendations from churches across the country.  I am fully aware that they cannot possibly incorporate everyone’s comments.  However, I do hope and pray that my recommendations will be of some use as they work towards an eventual Psalter Hymnal.

I can almost guarantee that any work of this magnitude contains errors.  If corrections or clarifications are needed, please contact me, and I will be happy to help resolve these issues.

In many cases, I am recommending returns to the original versions of the hymns.  While I have various specific reasons for these comments, my main concern is that the excessive modifications to many of the hymns hinder us from our main purpose of glorifying God (as described in Principle II).  Changes of lyrics can confuse congregations.  Poorly chosen tunes, keys, and harmonizations can turn beautiful music into a dissonant progression of chords.  On the other hand, well-chosen modifications can enable us to play and sing to God all the more beautifully!  May we never lose sight of the supreme consideration: our ability to glorify God through the music in this proposal.  “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever.  Amen” (Romans 11:36).

In Christ’s Service,

Michael Kearney

URC Psalmody on YouTube

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