From the beginning, the biblical Psalter has been the church’s main hymnal. Christians in the Book of Acts prayed the Psalms. Early church writers commend singing Psalms, and one anonymous writer said Christians everywhere chanted “David first, middle, and last.” Benedict required monks to chant the entire Psalter every week and lamented he couldn’t expect them to sing it every day, as earlier monks are said to have done. Liturgies of East and West are packed with Psalms, and William Peter Mahrt argues that Gregorian chant provided the “fundament” of Western musical culture.
Far from breaking with this tradition, the Reformation extended Psalm-singing to the laity to an unprecedented degree. As Diarmaid McCulloch reminds us, Protestants sang metrical Psalms not only in church but in the marketplace, at the workbench, in battle, and as they smashed statues in Catholic cathedrals. Everyone sang, men, women, and children. The Reformation spread on resounding waves of Psalmody.
Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, and many Lutherans retained the Psalter, but in much of the Protestant world the Psalms dropped out. Isaac Watts wrote a paraphrased Psalter that “Christianized” the Psalms, but in the process defanged them by removing “uneasy” bits. During the nineteenth century, revivalistic gospel tunes displaced the church’s hymnal. Contemporary Christian musicians sing Psalms, but normally in anodyne fragments. Psalmody never disappeared entirely. A friend likes to shock people with the news that every American Baptist hymnal through the early twentieth century, including hymnals used in black churches, had a section of Psalm chants. Still, for a couple of centuries the Psalms haven’t played anything like their traditional role in Protestant worship, perhaps especially in the U.S.
Imperceptibly, the tide is turning. Across the country, Protestant churches are rediscovering Psalms—the whole Psalter, including the mean parts of the mean Psalms. Inspired by my colleague at the Theopolis Institute, James Jordan, a handful of churches here and in the U.K. are no longer content to sing or chant Psalms but insist on “roaring” them, to echo the Lion of Judah who composed them. A brief search will turn up multiple YouTube and Twitter sites devoted to Psalm-singing, including some from the chant Psalter that the Theopolis Institute is working on.
At present, it’s a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. It will grab few headlines, though Blanton Alspaugh sketched the phenomenon in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. To most journalists, the light attention seems appropriate. Why report on what churches sing when you can scare readers with dire warnings about rising Christian Nationalism?
The thing is, the two trends are linked. Few practices establish the tone of a church as strongly as its music. We’re attuned to what we sing because, as everyone from Plato and Augustine and Boethius on has seen, music touches and shapes the soul. Preaching and teaching are powerful, but remain somewhat external to the hearer. Singing is self-involving. When we sing David’s sorrow, praise, grief, fear, and joyful triumph, we make it our own. Christians believe the Psalms are the songs of Jesus, the Greater David, so singing is a form of discipleship, a musical conformity to Christ.
The Psalms cultivate a distinctive ecclesial ethos. Nineteenth-century hymns inculcate a longing for quiet retreat or the sweet relief of the afterlife. The Psalter plunges the singer into the rough play of the real world. The world of the Psalms is full of evil men, set on destruction. It’s a bewildering world, and the Psalmists honestly acknowledge their fears, doubts, pain, sorrow, and confusion. Asaph confesses that he envies people who prosper while ignoring and defying God. David, the main character of the Psalms, often wrote them on the fly, keeping a step ahead of King Saul; fleeing his rebellious son Absalom; feigning madness in the house of Achish, King of Gath; or denouncing Doeg the Edomite, who slaughtered Israel’s priests at Nob.
Despite the dangers, the Psalmists know they live in God’s world. David is confident the Lord will break the teeth of the lions and dogs who attack him. Nearly all the Psalms of lament and danger end in celebration, because Yahweh comes to the rescue and welcomes the beleaguered singer into his temple. “You rescue me from the violent man.” “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and rescues them.” And the Lord’s invitation: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will rescue you, and you will honor me.”
You can’t go very far in the Psalms before you start singing about politics. Psalm 2 praises Yahweh for enthroning his king in Zion. He isn’t a merely spiritual king, but king of nations who holds a scepter to shatter his enemies. For years, pro-life protesters have sung Psalm 94 outside abortion clinics, a Psalm that calls on Yahweh to take vengeance against thugs who slay the widow and stranger and murder the fatherless. A sequence of Psalms calls on God to judge the earth, and describes the exultant joy of earth, heaven, sea, trees, mountains, and rivers when he does. Not for nothing have the Psalms been called the war songs of the Lamb. The Psalms produce men with chests.
You want to know what’s energizing a new Christian right, what’s lending the air of swaggering confidence? You want to know why the new Christian right isn’t full of sour scolds but jolly warriors? Check out what they’re singing.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
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