In the last post, reported on Calvin Stapert’s findings when reading some of the early church fathers for insights on music. He found that they uniformly rejected the music of the world around them, deeply tied as it was to paganism, whether explicit (the music of pagan sacrifices and ceremonies) or a step or two removed (the music of the theater and public “spectacles” like gladiatorial contests). The fathers denounce the music of their day as tending to stir up the passions, whether violent or sexual. They sounded, in short, a bit like old-time fundamentalist preachers blasting rock and roll.

So what is the alternative? You will not be surprised to hear from a Reformed Presbyterian pastor that the alternative to worldly music is psalmody – the singing of biblical psalms. But bear with me. There’s a lot more to this than a smug and tired announcement that “we were right all along.” Maybe I can explain best by just throwing out a stack of observations.

(1) Non-modern people don’t “use” music the way modern people do. That is, people without widespread recording and playback technology tend to, um, sing. All day. When they get up, while working, while playing (ring-around-a-rosy?), often at mealtimes, before going to bed. For us, music is something we consume. For most humans during most of time, music is something we make.

(2) The encouragement to sing psalms wasn’t mainly about singing in church: it was an encouragement to soak everyday life in the songs of Zion rather than the pagan alternatives. For weddings, the 145th psalm could be sung, instead of the more sensual pagan standbys. The morning sun and evening lamplighting could be greeted with psalms about God’s rule over days and seasons, or others celebrating his protection of his people. Psalmody was not just (or even primarily) about what was sung on Sunday morning (or other church-y occasions): it was for them what our car radios and iPods and home stereos and elevator music and retail store music are. It was, the fathers noted, proper and right for all people to sing – and would strengthen their hearts and lead them to God no matter what their situation in life.

(3) Further, the lines between psalmody and singing other Christian hymns were a little blurry. Some of the same fathers who most strongly exhorted psalm-singing (notably Ambrose and Chrysostom) also wrote some hymns. At the same time, hymns were viewed with suspicion and at times banned from church worship because they were a powerful teaching tool – in the hands of heretics. Even more than we do, the fathers understood the power of song.

(4) Stapert raises questions about the origin of Christian psalmody. Specifically he questions the assumption (common from at least the Reformation era with its debates over worship) that the synagogues of Jesus’ day provided the early church with its model for weekly worship. Stapert says that there is actually no evidence that singing of psalms was a common part of the synagogue’s activity – at least until a few centuries after the time of Christ. He implies that Christian psalmody may have come first, with early Christians adopting psalm-singing as the mainstay of their musical vocabulary very early on (certainly by mid-1st century, as is evident in Paul’s writing). If he is right, this should point debates over the “regulative principle of worship” in a very different direction. (See my next point.)

(5) For better or for worse, the Puritan-derived “regulative principle of worship” draws a very sharp line between worship and “the rest of life”. If the early church believed in such a line (and the probably did, given their care in excluding the unbaptized from communion), it wasn’t drawn through the middle of music. What was sung within the church was of course to be sung outside the church. I think it’s fair to say that the idea of listening to rock on the way to church, singing psalms during worship, and turning the rock station on again on the way home, would have puzzled if not disgusted our forbears.

(6) The “style” (in the ancient world primarily a matter of “mode”) of music mattered to the fathers. Some styles of music were simply inappropriate: designed to stir up the passions, frenetic, sensual or even sexual – the lyrics were beside the point. They were evidently troublesome – nature taught this. Note that the fathers were not narrow “biblicists” – they didn’t need a verse to tell them what they believed was self-evident. Note further that their observations on style of music reflect continuity with some earlier non-Christian thinkers, including the great philosopher Plato.

I’ll make one or two concluding notes in the next post. I welcome your disagreement, agreement, or head-scratching. This is a book that has my head reeling.

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One thought on “A New Song for an Old World, Review Part 2

  1. While I’m still not sure that I’ve heard a great argument from scripture for a cappella psalmity, the argument “from nature” is compelling in itself: instruments distract me. One can argue, “hey, it’s just a ‘mode'”, but then, if the mode is what’s grabbing my attention (instead of the content), then maybe I should get rid of the mode.

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