A Gathering Vocies post by Adam Copeland
This post comes to you live from Louisville, Kentucky where I’m attending a meeting of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS). For several years now, PCOCS has met to select the contents, format, etc. of the next collection of Presbyterian songs and hymns – the next hymnal.
We’ve focused this particulary three-day meeting on the psalms, and I have a few reflections. First, a bit of history. The previous Presbyterian hymnal published in 1990 had many psalms set to music and contained in a particular section of the hymnal ordered by psalm number (rather than topical, ordered by use in worship, or some other arrangement). For a number of reasons the psalms, generally speaking, were the least sung and least popular section of the previous hymnal. This for a denomination whose roots are in psalm singing.
There are plenty of other reasons the psalms in the 1990 hymnal were less than popular – and we could certainly discuss whether popularity is the point – but I want to reflect briefly on a few other issues related to singing the psalms.
Singing a psalm from the Bible that has been set to music is singing someone else’s song as your own. This happens when singing any piece of music written by someone else, I suppose, but I feel it more strongly when I sing a psalm. Singing what God’s people have sung for thousands of years connects me to those people in a way singing a newly composed text doesn’t quite reach. And it also brings up some tricky problems when the messages of the psalms don’t fit into our neat theological categories today.
For instance, one psalm paraphrase we looked at had the phrase, “May God confirm your heart’s desire / and bring to fullness all your plans.” I found this psalm’s message curious because of how often we speak in Christian parlance today about following “God’s plan” but the psalm sings about God confirming our plans.
(By the way, since PCOCS works with texts with author’s names intentionally omitted I cannot cite them here which is fine because our work isn’t finished yet. So even if you somehow know the psalm I reference here, nobody knows whether it’ll be in the next collection. So please don’t freak out on me.)
Other psalms come up against other narratives of the Bible so that we can use the Bible as speaking different and sometimes conflicting messages at different times. This is obvious for any Bible reader, but seemed particularly tricky when working with psalms.
For instance, one psalm sets up how creation praises and responds to God then says, “None questions what you do.” But many of us do question God – which seems reasonable, right? And some of the psalms – a lot of the psalms – do the same thing!
Finally, some psalms get at the old challenge of works righteousness theology: “Those who trust the Lord are filled; all the good wrought by their labor / Is their gain, so God has willed.” Maybe this one gets at the challenge of simply explaining any theological concept in rhyming verse, but it struck me as particularly curious.
Though I’ve many more thoughts, I must cut this sort and run back to the meeting now. Unless I hurry, I’ll have to sing a song: “Please accept my apology / blogging stole such time from me.” Peace.