Full disclosure, sure to displease many: I am an ordained pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a historic Christian denomination whose practice of worship is marked by the singing only of psalms, a cappella. Fuller disclosure, likely to displease some of the rest: in contrast to some brothers inside my denomination and a few other little ones, I don’t think it is sinful to do other than we do.
But, and this is the gist of my blog post, I think the habitual singing of anything other than the biblical psalms is an unwise practice that narrows the soul of the church.
Notice I don’t say “the souls of Christians.” I mean that when the church neglects to sing psalms and instead chooses to sing Watts’ or Crosby’s or the Wesley’s hymns, or sing praise choruses, or what have you, it atrophies in important ways. Why? because uninspired songs inevitably reflect and therefore reinforce the culture and concerns of their provenance, with poor results. Therefore English-speaking hymnody reinforces a spiritualized view of the church, an individualistic understanding of salvation, and dulls the witness of God’s people.
The psalms recognize that God’s people are a political entity, a polis, a city. It is God’s people who will be vindicated among the nations. They – not just individuals – are the objects of God’s lovingkindness, the recipients of his grace. They have a standing among the nations. They are to be respected as a separate community. In the Christian context this is no longer a community that takes up arms against its enemies, but it is a polis nonetheless, and should be respected as such by its members and by outsiders. The Muslims in their heresy nonetheless preserve this sense of the universal community – the umma – to which all believers belong, and which has a position in the world. The papists (I use the word intentionally) do the same: they even have a human leader of the polis.
The psalms talk about God’s people having enemies. I have enemies – human and especially spiritual, who seek after my life. We have enemies, and we cry out to God to overcome them for his own glory’s sake. This is part and parcel of being a political entity. It makes middle class Americans uncomfortable to talk this way, but it is a faithful account of the experience of the overwhelming number of God’s people now and through the ages. How else are we to think of secular fundamentalists in American and Europe? Al-Shabaab in North Africa or or Al-Qaeda in the Middle East? Pretender messiahs like Kim Jong-Il or Emperor Akihito? Along with human enemies, the Bible has a more robust demonology than most American evangelicals do. The psalms do not emphasize this fact but do recognize it.