I’m listening to the Shins right now, but I am thinking about Dr. Erb’s psalm settings. Ain’t it nice to live in a world where I can have both? Which is better worth it to spend my time singing or listening to? I would think the Psalms are better simply by virtue of their purpose: a songbook for the Jewish people, originally. A songbook for the universal church now. Aesthetically, they’re some of the best poetry ever written. I think that this is a given, to honor the Psalms more than other songs, since we are Christians. We are mandated to sing praises to the Lord, and we have the words handed to us! And we should saturate ourselves in listening to it as well. I am terrible at this.
However, if it were up to me to choose whether to sing a psalm written by Asaph or David or one written by Chris Tomlin, would it matter? Am I obligated to delight in one more than the other? I don’t want to say yes… but I think I have to. There is a place for guys like Tomlin, but no matter my feelings associated with a certain worship song, no matter how many times it makes my heart leap or make me want to clap my hands, I should always defer to settings of canonized scripture. The Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, the Psalms! (Song of Solomon, anyone?) These songs were written by human hands, sung with human voices, as were modern hymns and praise songs. You can make that argument, that it’s all written by fallible men just like us, but the songs of the Bible are in fact, in the Bible. They form our theology. They form our sense of what is good, true, and beautiful— “enough with those words! I’m sick of them!”—But we should never feel we have enough of those three things. We have to take them in as much as we can. The Word first; words of other men second. There is a hierarchy.
We should always be thinking about theology; it infects everything. What is God like? What is the church like? What does God say about music? What does the Word tell us about beauty? Beauty isn’t whatever you want it to be. That idea is dead. Beauty can take many different forms, so thank the Lord for diversity! But in the realm of beauty, there should be a common, crimson thread, a unification of belief running through these many variegated and sundry expressions. If we believe that the Bible is true for all times and all circumstances, we ought to extend that belief to every facet of our life. (This includes lunch.)
This does not mean that, in the case of this post, that we should not drink from the wells of other musicians and artists. Rather, the Word should inform our thoughts on everything we listen to, with words or without, atonal or the best that the Enlightenment had to offer, Presbyterian or Pentecostal worship (I’m thinking of Kirk Franklin—TESTIFY, my brother.) Music, as with all other art, is a diary of human experience, so it is something we ought to read, consider, and add to, as brothers and sisters of humanity. We should delight in the differences. We should delight in the interplay of words and sounds and silences. I’m really into R&B right now and I don’t think this is a problem.
But in listening to Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige, I have to remember to love the psalms of the Lord more than I do anything else. There is a connection with this and literature. Books are my bread and butter. They form my imagination almost more than anything else. Even so, the Word must be my cornerstone for all these. It is my measure of story and narrative and meaning. It must inform my reading.
So, books matter: they carry ideas. Everyone knows this. Why wouldn’t music? We should consider the beauty of Chris Tomlin’s stuff. I’m not talking about his lyrics. Is this art? Is it a product to be sold? I’m not sure. Christian music shouldn’t be a tool for moralism or just a feel-good thing. It is worship! In so doing, we are bringing all things before God, conceding that all things are under his feet.
Worship music comes in many different forms: quiet and loud, broken and triumphant, confused and enlightened, tribal and refined, personal and communal. There are so many ways to express it, so let’s express it! Take piano lessons, learn to read music, listen to jazz and Gregorian chants and black spirituals. Honor your musical mothers and fathers. God’s praises are sung with all the voices and cultural aesthetics on earth, not just a three-chord progression. Make it good. Make it strange. Make, make, make! But first, imbibe the Word. It is the foremost diary on human experience, given to us by God. Somehow, He is pleased to give it to us, written as it is by men, and He’s telling us how we should sing to Him.