Dr. Ray Van Neste, biblical scholar at Union University, invited me to participate in the Psalm Project at Union. Ray heads up the project, sponsored by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, and funded by a grant from the Lilly Foundation.
I flew out March 5, 2009, was delayed in Dallas, and didn’t arrive in Memphis until the early hours of the morning. By then my voice had started fading into oblivion, and I could hardly speak. After a few hours of sleep we headed off to the university where I was to speak in chapel at 10:00 am. They gave the sound tech guy the heads up that I would need some extra volume on the mic.
Richard Wells, Dean of the chapel, opened with a reading from one of my hymns, Creator God our Sovereign Lord. I was not expecting this. After reading from Psalm 34:1-3, Michael Penny led the students (there are 3,700 at the university; I have no idea how many were at chapel, but it was more faces than I have ever spoken to before!) in OLD HUNDREDTH, Ronald Boud accompanying on the organ.
I then delivered (or croaked) an address entitled, Biblical Poetry in a Post-Biblical, Post-Poetry World. The students were remarkably attentive, even restraining themselves from fidgiting when I went five minutes over my allotted time (Imagine me doing that!).
After chapel I enjoyed meeting a number of students, some with Duncan’s War, Mr. Pipes, and other books in hand for me to sign. After a lunch discussion with Michael Chute’s journalism feature writing students, and a podcasted interview, we had a more informal follow-up time to chapel with enthusiastic students and some faculty.
How the Psalms Shape our Songs, was the theme of that discussion. See list of other speakers and listen to the podcasts by going to Union University’s Psalm Project.
I attempted to make the point that the Psalms are timeless and universal praise, inspired models of poetic adoration, sung worship of God that transcends all boundaries, appropriate for “All people that on earth do dwell.” William Kethe’s 16th century versification of Psalm 100 was my featured Psalm, conceived in Calvin’s Geneva while Kethe was a refugee in the haven of the Reformation. I concluded with seven reasons why it is essential for Christian young people to return to the Psalms in every age:
1. What is it we do so poorly in our Christian lives? Most of us would admit that we pray all too infrequently and very badly at our best. This is true in large part because we are so unfamiliar with the content and eloquence of the Psalms. The Psalms are often prayers, inspired ones that ought to enrich, deepen, and inform our own praying. If you wish you prayed better, with more heart, with words worthy of God, learn the Psalms.
2. Secondly, you and I need the Psalms today because the Psalms keep in perfect tension the poles of joy and fear in our worship, as in Psalm 100: the first stanza calls us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” then regulates and informs that joy in the second stanza with high, sobering truths about God’s power to create all things, and to make a people for himself. Joy and trembling are perfectly wedded in the Psalms.
3. In the third place, we need the Psalms today because they help free us from our slavery to the here and now, to the goofiness of personal taste. They can help keep us from the folly of the moment, the tyranny of the latest thing, the soul-killing bondage to the entertainment driven fads of the fleeting present. Thoughtful Christians will not dismiss Psalms as irrelevant for today, not to their taste, too difficult, too long, too complicated, or too old. When we give ear to these criticisms our sung worship, alas, will look and sound less and less like the Psalms.
4. Fourthly, we live in an egalitarian age, where high register things, especially words and language, are scorned. All the more reason you and I need the majesty of the Psalms to elevate our ability to enter God’s courts, a place you would never slouch or swagger into un-tucked. Worship is the highest-register activity a human being can engage in, and the content and tone of the Psalms ought always to regulate our attitude and posture in that worship.
5. Fifthly, Psalms give us theological discernment. The Psalms help us measure what is worthy and what is not. They help us reject vacuous praise, praise verbalized but without objective theological reasons informing those words. You and I need to return to the inspired sung worship of the ancients because it adorns doctrinal truth and helps us see the loveliness of that truth. Psalm poetry is the God-ordained means of keeping every generation enthralled with the surpassing splendor of biblical truth.
6. In the sixth place, recovering Psalm singing in our worship and life will raise the bar for all new worship poetry in every age. Seek God in the Psalms and then measure everything else by what you find there. Stop asking of what you listen to, what you sing, what you write, if it sounds like the latest thing. Rather ask: is it Psalm-like? An honest answer will enable you to rise above the inappropriate and tread on the high places of the earth.
7. Finally, Psalmody and classic hymnody serve to unite you and me with the vast throng of dazzled worshipers throughout the ages. The Psalms are God-given sung praise that transcends all barriers, ones of race, gender, ethnicity, geography, and most-importantly, Psalms free us from that, oh so, postmodern, all-preoccupying, all-excusing barrier: personal taste. Psalm poetry is for all time, the ultimate multicultural poetry, poetry for “All people that on earth do dwell.”