April 2, 2004


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I haven’t read Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship yet, but I’ve heard that in one of the essays, Terry Johnson questions the value of chanting the psalms instead of singing metrical versions of them. He claims, for instance, that chants are too difficult for most congregations to sing (which leads, then, to their being sung by choirs while the congregation remains silent). As well, he says, chanting isn’t as vibrant as other forms of singing and doesn’t have as much impact on the emotions.

Both of those claims are questionable. Johnson believes that simplicity is essential for Reformed singing. Is it? If so, then why ever progress beyond the level of “God is So Good”? What is important, it seems to me, is singability, which is not the same thing as simplicity.

Are chants singable? Well, contrary to what Johnson says, generations of Christians have found them to be singable. There are congregations that chant well. In fact, picking up on Johnson’s other point, the chanting I heard, for instance, at the Biblical Horizons conference last July was certainly well done and quite emotionally stirring as well.

Of course, if you have an English boys choir performing the chants, they’re likely to sound ethereal. But if you have a whole group, including a bunch of guys chanting down in the bass, it’s a whole nother story.

It’s true that chanting takes effort. It isn’t easy. But then neither is good congregational singing of any kind. At least, not at first. Even catchy songs can be hard to teach if the congregation resists learning new things.

But is it worth the effort for a congregation to learn how to chant the psalms? Johnson doesn’t think so, but I do. Why? Because when you chant a psalm, you’re chanting it exactly as it is in your English translation and that’s a whole lot closer to the way God inspired it than most metrical versions.

The Psalms don’t appear in the Bible with metre and rhyme. To make them fit a metrical scheme so you can sing them in 4/4 time, for instance, and to make the lines rhyme, you usually have to do a fair bit of work, tinkering with the text. You have to shorten some lines and pad some others to make the metre work. You have to substitute words that don’t rhyme for words that do.

Some metrical psalms have rather odd word orders. Think of the famous version of Psalm 23:

The LORD’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again;
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness
Ev’n for His own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear no ill;
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

When you sing this song, line by line, you miss the semicolon in the third line, so that it sounds as if He’s leading us in green pastures when it’s actually that He makes us lie down in green pastures. That’s one flaw. But you also have such odd phrases as “makes me down to lie,” “the quiet waters by,” “me to walk doth make,” and “staff me comfort still” — the kind of thing that led someone to refer to these sorts of songs as “the Psalms according to Yoda.”

When you chant a psalm, however, you aren’t constrained to make the psalm fit your metrical scheme or your rhyme scheme. If a line is exceptionally long, so what? A metrical song will try to shorten it to fit, but a chant will just sing it as it is. God had a reason for inspiring the psalm that way, long line and all. The form of the text is inspired, after all, and not just the “meaning” of it.

That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to sing a paraphrase of a psalm. There are some good paraphrases out there. I’ve particularly enjoyed using Canon Press’s Cantus Christi and the Canadian Reformed Church’s Book of Praise. But they are paraphrases. Wouldn’t it be good to learn to chant something that isn’t a paraphrase? Wouldn’t it be good for our children to learn to sing the psalms and not just rhymed and rhythmed versions of them?

Oh, but chanting just sounds and feels sort of Roman Catholic, doesn’t it? I’ve heard that comment. And it’s true: Many Roman Catholic churches do still chant. So do many Anglican and Orthodox and Lutheran churches. That shouldn’t scare us off chanting. Perhaps it should actually humble us and spur us on to learn from these other traditions.

In a recent e-mail to a mailing list I participate in, Paul Buckley made a number of insightful comments in response to Johnson’s critique of chanting. This one made me laugh out loud, and he’s allowed me to post it here. It’s worth thinking about:

Lots of non-inerrantists think it’s important to sing the psalms in a real translation; lots of inerrantists think it’s more important to wrangle with the text until it obeys a favorite meter and rhyme scheme. Behold, I tell you a mystery.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:02 pm | Discuss (0)

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