Posts Tagged 'Resources'

Another Look at Liturgy

Today, Mere Orthodoxy ran an article by an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor which laments the loss of liturgy in Reformed churches in the West. The author, Cameron Shaffer, discusses the bankruptcy of a megachurch mentality that states, “Get rid of the psalms . . . and the world will come”–reinventing worship to attract the next generation to the church, with no thought given to what will keep them there.

I’m currently reading Reformed novelist Douglas Bond’s newest book–this one nonfiction–entitled God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Again and again, Bond calls for the Reformed church to return to the traditions and aesthetic standards of previous generations. Although he does not necessarily invoke the word “liturgy,” the idea is all over.

The list could go on. The year 2020 may be the beginning of a decade in which Protestants rediscover the value of liturgical awareness–returning not to the ceremonies of Rome but to the historic practices of worship, psalm-singing among them, that have characterized the church since the days of the apostles.

Veteran readers of this blog may remember a summer series several years ago entitled “A Look at Liturgy.” That series represented my first attempts to come to grips with the role of liturgy in the Reformed faith, using a report produced by the Christian Reformed Church in the 1970’s.

A few months ago, I discovered the book I should have used in that study: Abraham Kuyper’s book Our Worship (Eerdmans, 2009). Writing more than a century ago, Kuyper called for a resurrection of “liturgical awareness” in the Dutch churches of his own day, anticipating many of the consequences that an individualistic and consumeristic attitude toward worship would entail.

Time does not permit me to elaborate on Kuyper’s book here, other than to recommend it as an accessible, thorough, and valuable resource for ministers, musicians, and interested members. I will mention, however, that I am working on a six-part series in The Outlook magazine summarizing Kuyper’s book with commentary and study questions. The Outlook is thoughtful and important reading for all members of the United Reformed Churches in North America, and it is well worth a (very affordable) subscription. My introduction to Our Worship will appear in the January/February 2020 issue.

May what Kuyper called “liturgical awareness” contribute to a new flourishing of Reformed doctrine and life in this third decade of the twenty-first century.

–MRK

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »

Sing Gently

Gentle ReformationA few months ago, Christian blogger Tim Challies listed Gentle Reformation, one of the only blogs I can even claim to regularly read, as one of his favorite blogs of 2016. It was a moment in the spotlight for the gracious authors of an ordinary and rather humble website, something they compared to winning the cyber version of an Oscar or an Emmy.

On one hand, I try not to put too much stock in online announcements like this. In the blogosphere, we can easily slip into our own imaginative reality in which a “like” and a “share” are equivalent to a laudatory review in the New York Times. But on the other hand, I think the authors of Gentle Reformation are on to something, and I’m glad a widely-read blogger publicly thanked them for it.

Gentle Reformation’s “About” page expresses three goals: to be persuasive rather than polemical, to be pastoral rather than pejorative, and to consider people in the pews rather than just professors and pastors. In other words, the blog exists because its authors recognize and seek to respond to several pitfalls that are especially prevalent in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith.

The first pitfall is the temptation of pride. Hard as it is to admit, we Reformed folk have the habit of turning the “only comfort in life and in death” of the Heidelberg Catechism into a surly self-confidence that shifts the attention from the finished work of Christ back to ourselves. How ironic that our Calvinistic theology that magnifies the grace of God can be turned to boost our own egos instead! Aware of this pitfall, the authors of Gentle Reformation have revealed a consistently humble and winsome tone in their writing.

Another temptation is to call out the bad without pointing instead to the good. In his recent book The Happy Christian, Free Reformed minister David Murray notes excessive negativity as a besetting problem for Christians as well as for our culture at large. Reading Gentle Reformation is refreshing because its dominant theme is one of encouragement rather than criticism.

Finally, bloggers—including Christian bloggers—often fall into patterns of technical jargon or lofty language that alienate readers. In the case of Reformed sites, the terms may include “neo-Kuyperianism” or Latin phrases from the Apostles’ Creed (and there is a place for such discussions), but the effects on readers are often the same. From what I have seen, Gentle Reformation consciously avoids this kind of jargon, instead creating articles that Christians in all walks of life can enjoy reading.

I feel the implications of these pitfalls pretty strongly with regard to psalm-singing as well. It is easy to lapse into discussions about short meter and formal-equivalence-versus-functional-equivalence that would leave many readers reeling. It is easy to lament the losses church music has suffered in the 21st century without suggesting gracious, practical, and positive ways to generate more enthusiasm for the psalms. And it is especially easy to look down on those who have a supposedly “less developed” understanding of worship.

Gentle Reformation serves as an inspiration for me as a fellow blogger to address these pitfalls more intentionally. More broadly, I think its example ought to challenge all of us in our everyday conversations, particularly with regard to psalm-singing. I’ve heard many arguments for the psalms that take the low road of dogmatism and condescension rather than the high road of gentle persuasion with brotherly love. That’s part of the reason URC Psalmody has never taken a position on exclusive psalmody or a cappella singing. Our point is to encourage readers to sing the psalms more, not to engender strife about hymns and instruments.

The example set by Geneva College also comes to my mind. Geneva holds to the practice of singing psalms exclusively and a cappella in chapel. And as the denominational college of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Geneva could easily define itself as the pro-psalm-and-anti-hymn-and-praise-chorus Christian college, with some powerful Scriptural and historical arguments to back it up. But that’s not at all the approach I’ve seen. Rather, I’ve seen the college gently disciple its students and professors in the practice of psalm-singing, week after week, year after year. Although many students won’t be won over by the time they graduate, I know many others who affirm that they developed a new and genuine love for the psalms thanks to Geneva. (You’ll hear from one of them later this week.)

I suppose the point of this post is merely to ponder out loud what a “Gentle Reformation” approach to psalm-singing might look like. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. I do know that these examples and many others remind us to emulate the chief example of our Savior, whose every word was full of grace and truth.

–MRK

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.)


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