The Rise of Eclectic Psalmody

Last week I spent some amazing time up in Grand Rapids, MI creatively assaulting the Psalms.  I was participating in a colloquium on Congregational Song and Psalmody, a gathering spurred on in part by a new psalter being jointly published in 2011 by the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).   The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) hosted the event and invited an eclectic band of congregational song leaders, hymnal editors, and songwriters to participate, representing the spectrum of christian experience and practice.

The guiding question for our time was this:

How can we most faithfully, evocatively, and artistically invite congregations to sing, speak, and pray the biblical psalms, especially in light of all that Biblical scholars are teaching us about these amazing texts?

John Witvliet, director of the CICW, led us through three days of reading, singing, praying, chanting, yelling, and meditating on the Psalms with the end goal of experiencing a richer form of Psalmody which reflected new insights sensitive to the diverse literary forms present in the book of psalms.

(Make sure and pick up a copy of John’s new book “The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship”  This is the best book out there on helping congregations from all corners figure out how to incorporate more psalms in worship.)

Here are a few highlights.

1. The Psalms are full of distinct literary dimensions which either get ignored or trampled in our treatment of them musically.

  • Gearshift psalms – Psalms that demonstrate dramatic shifts in tone, time, and perspective are under served by music which remains consistent in key, mood, and time. Psalm 13, 19, 46,
  • Canonical Ordering – Various psalms are positioned in distinct groupings.  Psalm 9-10 and 111-112 are built on hebrew acrostics.  How can we render these literary structures with musical and vocal presentations?

2. The Psalms may be used regularly in your church’s Worship but they are often dryly presented or undiscerningly read.

  • Contemporary Liturgical Use – Many churches incorporate the psalms as a regular part of their Sunday worship diet.  How can these churches more creatively engage their practice?  We interspersed a reading of Psalm 12 with the verses of Kum ba yah.
  • Script/Dialogue/Drama – Often when a psalm is read or presented in worship, it is read once and worship moves on. This approach obscures the multiple voices and meanings present in most psalms. When reading a psalm take care to script it out, assigning roles in the assembly if possible.  See pg 80 in BPCW for more suggestions. Calvin Seerveld’s “Voicing God’s Psalms” is another great resource for various ways to present psalms corporately.

3. The Psalms are full of rich themes and metaphors which get muffled in our readings and songs.

  • Common Images – the psalms are full of metaphoric images that cry out to be highlighted in our practice.  We worked through Psalms 1, 52, and 92 which all use the common metaphor of ‘tree’ to describe the righteous.  How could we express these metaphors in our song? How could a refrain highlight these central theme’s?

4. How can we use familiar music to reinforce and enliven our experience of psalmody?

  • Hymn Juxtaposition – In this topic we explored pairing well-known hymn tunes and texts with psalms of a similar theme. The psalms was read aloud with different voices, while the hymn provided a sung refrain. Try Psalm 11 with ‘How Firm a Foundation’ or Psalm 87 with “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken’ (Jefferson Tune).
  • Existing Tune Options – Singing metric psalmody is the typical experience for most in the reformed tradition.  One challenge with this method is the artful pairing of text and tune.  What are the strategies we use to create a pairing that lasts for generations? Such as Psalm 100 and the tune Old Hundredth.

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