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O ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear: On Singing Psalms (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 23, 2015 12:00:00 AM

In our last post, we explored the profound significance of Psalmody for our understanding of the Incarnation and our incorporation into the inner life of Christ. The Psalmist’s suffering voice is the suffering voice of Jesus precisely because our sufferings are now his by virtue of the Incarnation; having been incorporated into Christ, our temptations, pains, sorrows now become his, and he is thus able to bring to bear his own redeeming presence upon our fallenness. Moreover, when we sing the words of the Psalmist, Christ’s Psalms become our Psalms, his prayers are identified with our prayers. We thus see revealed in the Psalms Christ in his genuine humanness, in his full participation in our sufferings and frustrations. In singing the Book of Psalms, we therefore enter into the prayer world, the inner life, of the Incarnation, which brings a comparable harmony within ourselves, body and spirit.

Psalmody and Christian Culture

As instances of musical performance, the Psalms for Athanasius do more than harmonize the self, they provide a mirror for the listener to gaze at his own soul, such that the words of the Psalms become his own: “It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction” (Epistula ad Marcellinum).[1] This is because corporate singing fosters a distinctively Christian soundscape that surrounds and incorporates the listener into this Psalmody-based harmony as well: “those who do sing … so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them.” (Epistula ad Marcellinum)[2]

The mutual singing of Psalms by its nature creates a sonically interrelated community. It has long been recognized that a singing people is a united people. Ambrose writes:

A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice? It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus. The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony (symphonia). The fingers of a musician often go astray among the strings though they are very few in number, but among the people the Spirit musician knows not how to err. (Explanatio psalmi 1,9)[3]

Psalmody involves communion and thus entails a social order, which for Ambrose is the community of the Spirit. I think the early church fathers are quite correct on this. There is a reason why every political or social movement and every culture is expressed in corporate song. When we sing together, we are not merely claiming to create a social harmony and unity; we are demonstrating social harmony, our collective singing realizes and manifests tangibly in time and space the very Christological unity our hymns profess.

It is here that I have noticed one of the most significant effects of Psalm singing on my students. We live in what has been called a ‘consumerist age.’ This is an age where students demand the professor to convince them that this class, or book, or subject material is worth their time and attention. As consumers, they stand in judgment over the class courses; and thus they have an orientation toward education that is inherently sarcastic, flippant, and cynical.

In contrast, the students at our classical Christian school have learned largely through singing Psalms to cultivate and conform their wants and desires to something greater than themselves. As such, our students learn to approach this class, or book, or subject material not as something worth their time, but rather as something of which we are not worthy. Hence, rather than arrogance and flippancy, our students are filled with a sense of wonder and awe. Psalm singing, perhaps more than any other practice, fosters a distinctively Christian orientation toward the world from which a comparably Christian culture blossoms.

Lest I be misunderstood, I certainly do not disparage hymnody or contemporary praise and worship. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is always inspiring new and dynamic ways of proclaiming the new creation in Christ through song as part of the church’s ongoing enchanting witness. But certainly we can all agree that a song tradition common historically to all of the major branches of the church – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant – and rooted in the prayer life of Christ himself should not be so sweepingly disregarded. Indeed, the Psalms are our inheritance; a treasure trove of biblical silver and Christological gold, which transfigures self and culture into pneumatic extensions of the Incarnation and thereby echoes Edenic life.

If you are unfamiliar with a Psalter, I would suggest The Book of Psalms for Worship published by Crown & Covenant and the Psalter-Hymnal, Cantus Christi, published by Canon Press. There are a number of resources that teach part singing as well, such as the Vanguard System (http://singinparts.com/). And if you don’t read music, you need look no further than YouTube for a number of video instructionals on learning musical notation.

I am under no illusions over the difficulty of persuading others of what I have here envisioned. Ours is an age that reduces music to mere sentiment and entertainment, and as a result music no longer has the moral resources to make demands of its listeners. But I am convinced that a new generation of Psalm singers is in fact emerging, one which will carry on this tradition in their melodies and harmonies, and in so doing, provide for the next generations an historical bridge to the songs of the saints of old, a sonic treasure trove that is our present and future inheritance.


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[1] Cited in Carol Harrison, “Psalms revisited,”n.p.

[2] Cited in Harrison, “Psalms,” n.p.

[3] Cited in Harrison, “Psalms,” n.p.

Featured image credit: © 2012 Mennonite Church USA Archives, Flickr | PD | via Wylio

Topics: music, blog, church and society, Patristic theology, Patristics

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