First Things attracts smart readers. The discussion of how we should present and read the bible in worship has been very interesting, bringing out some interesting differences.
For example: chanting scripture vs. studied efforts to read the bible with nuanced emphasis.
While a graduate student in the 1980s, I attended Christ Church in New Haven, a high Anglican parish that featured a great deal of sacramental punctiliousness. The implied theology of worship was best described as a commitment to the objectivity of grace—ex opere operato.
In the liturgy at Christ Church, the Old Testament reading was read aloud in a plain, unadorned, and almost monotone style. The Epistle and Gospel readings were chanted in accord with an assigned trope. This approach fit with the implied theology. We encounter God and fall under his regime of grace by virtue of his ordination of the Church (word and sacrament) as his instruments of salvation, not by virtue of our faith or the faith of the Church’s ministers.
My few years at Christ Church were very important for my spiritual development. I was an inwardly confused young man, eager to become faithful, but mostly pagan in my sensibilities. Worshipping amidst the incense and listening to the chants had the effect of making my experience of Christ more impersonal, which was exactly what I needed, because it brought home to me of a very, very important Christian truth, one greatly emphasized by St. Augustine in his polemics against the Pelagians: It’s not about me.
As my own theological studies became more advanced, I did not so much change my mind as come to see that this Augustinian insight works in tandem with rather than against a deeper personal engagement with the truths of the faith.
The objectivity of grace overcomes our inwardly turned concern about ourselves, not by uncoiling us from within, but by ignoring us. Christ’s death on the cross is like a spear thrust into the self-enclosed ego. But we don’t die. Instead we are released from our self-inflicted bondage to sin, and once we’re able to straighten ourselves we can turn to face Christ. The objectivity of grace frees us to enter into the proper subjectivity of faith.
This interplay of objective and external grace with subjective and internal faith is the reason why Catholicism can combine an almost mechanical understanding of sacramental grace with a strong emphasis on inner moral and spiritual renewal. Many forms of Protestantism manifest a similar combination, typically throwing emphasis on the forensic objectivity of Christ’s saving death (an Evangelical analogue to the objectivity of grace in the Catholic view of the sacraments), while at the same time expecting a born again experience within the believer.
All this is a long way of getting to my point. Chanting, it seems to me, provides a proper way of throwing emphasis on the objectivity of grace. A personally appropriated recitation, all the more interior if memorized, strikes me as a fitting expression of the freedom for which Christ has made us free, which after all is the freedom to enter into fellowship with him.
So which is best? Neither. Both can be done poorly. In our therapeutic culture there is always the danger of smaltzy, overly dramatic reading. And one should not underestimate the ways in which our bureaucratic culture can lead to the soul-numbing feeling that the lector is going through the motions as the scriptures are chanted. And both can be well done. Which way to go, it seems to me, requires good pastoral judgment.