Thursday, December 16, 2010

Liturgy and Hymnody Review: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Jones, Paul S. What Is Worship Music? (Basics of the Faith Series). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010. 43 Pages. Staple Bound. $3.99. (LH)

Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010. 189 Pages. Paper. 12.99. (H)

O'Donnel, Douglas Sean. God's Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010. 211 Pages. Paper. $15.99. (H)

Three books from P&R Publishing are our focus in this review. You will find all three to be helpful descriptions and prescriptions to help the church at controversy over worship.

First, a rediscovery of Old Testament song:

"Are all the songs found in the Old Testament applicable to contemporary Christian worship? God’s Lyrics answers with a resounding “yes!”

"Douglas O’Donnell draws out the historical, exegetical, and theological significance of the songs of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, David, and Habakkuk. He then shows, in the light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, how the lyrics of God’s Word apply to contemporary congregational singing.

"God’s Lyrics offers both a corrective and a call—a corrective to sing of Christ from the Psalms, the Law and the Prophets, and a call to use the whole counsel of God in worshiping him.

"The new hymns and music provided for each biblical text encourage pastors, lyricists, and church musicians to reengage with these ageless songs and their timeless themes" (publisher's website). 

Our readers won't want to miss the disheartening story about "A Mighty Fortress" on xviii. 

In the first part of the book O'Donnell examines five Old Testament canticles in context. In the second, he applies theology to the practice of Christian worship. In the third, the author has written new hymns of the OT canticles set to commonly-known hymn tunes. The Appendix gives data behind the author's assertions in the book. 
Consider: "Four characteristics that recur in biblical song" (ix) :
  1. The Lord is at the center; that is our God is addressed, adored, and 'enlarged.'
  2. His mighty acts in salvation history (not merely or primarily our personal experience of redemption) are recounted.
  3. His acts of judgment are rejoiced in.
  4. His ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged.
O'Donnell calls for Theocentric worship rather than man-centered entertainment. This characteristic corrects the stereotypical CCM song that could either be sung about "Jesus or my girlfriend."

Focusing on salvation history gets into Christology and proclamation and delivery of the Gospel. O'Donnell calls for a deciedly more Biblical focus instead of one based on a personal testimony or worship overtaken by pietism. The major canticles tell these salvation stories!

The Law is listed third. I do like this listing due to theological priorities. In proclamation, preaching, and pastoral care, Law comes before Gospel. Yet, because the Gospel is intended by the Lord to be our priority, unique and predominate message, I like what O'Donnell does with this, especially in exposing his readers to the more uncomfortable corners of Holy Scripture: holiness, sin, repentance, confession, and judgment.

Number four on O'Donnell's list could be easily misunderstood by contemporary Christianity. Don't settle for a caricature of Christianity like moralism, works righteousness, or legalism. 

Two brief critiques are in order. I'm not a fan of Brueggemann's theology (33). I would encourage a rethink of this section in the light of the Lord remembering us. For comparison, consider Our Lord's words instituting Holy Communion. Who is doing the remembering. Yes, we are, but the Lord's remembering of us is far more important.

A minor change is also recommended in a footnote about Paul's theology of worship (118). Would it not be more accurate to say that "the church is gathered by the Lord" instead of "the church gathers" ?

The most valuable contributions of God's Lyrics include:
  • You are what you sing (101). Pastors, what would your congregation know about God based on what they sing in worship over two decades?
  • The recommendation of modern hymns by Kristyn and Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (138, 142) as among the best of the new.
  • The weakness of modern Christian song when it comes to Jesus' Incarnation, Life, Resurrection, and Return (143, Appendix).
  • The strength of classic Christian hymnody, especially the hymns and catechetical hymns of Martin Luther, and the hymnal Cantus Christi (164ff,;
  • Downloadable recordings of the author's original hymns. Lutherans will be able to pick them up on the first Sunday they are used. (And we all have a better text to use for the melody associated with "We Three Kings." Go ahead, prove that there were "three kings" from Matthew 2!)
God's Lyrics is a helpful resource for any church body or congregation trying to "grow up" and out of the so-called "worship wars."  And so is T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns.

No, it is not merely about "taste" (25). Gordon is right to point toward theological foundations for worship, especially the use of hymns and why hymns were/are in decline in many congregations and denominations. "None of this stern, transcendent seriousness is consistent with the values of pop culture" (92). So, people changed church rather than a sinful, anti-biblical culture!

"Changes in music have affected the way we think, the way we worship—even the way we are able to worship. We are steeped in a culture of pop music that makes other genres seem strangely foreign and unhelpful. Worship has become a conflict area, rather than a source of unity.

"T. David Gordon looks at these changes in worship and not only examines the problems, but also provides solutions. They are solutions of great importance to us all—because how we sing affects how we live. Dr. Gordon not only shows the problems, he also provides solutions - it's important, because how we sing affects how we live.

"T. David Gordon has been Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College since 1999" (publisher's website:

How did hymns ear the right to get into our hymnals? See 47:
  • theologically orthodox lyrics
  • theologically significant lyrics
  • literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics
  • lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visiible people
  • well-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form
  • musical setting appropriate to the lyrical content
Yes, these are high standards indeed! Gordon is also to be commended for once again trying to end the Luther "bar song" myth. "Bar form" is the misunderstood A-A-B(-A) structure in question (47). Yet, I will take issue with the author's assertion that "A Mighty Fortress" cannot be successfully accompanied on guitar. The chord edition of Lutheran Service Book makes it more possible ( And I will praise the author's insightful evisceration of pietism within the Lutheran tradition (144ff).

Gordon builds upon the work of Ken Myers' three kinds of music: high/classical, folk, and pop/mass music. Only the first two are intergenerational. Pop/mass music tends to fight against the unity of the body of Christ as taught in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.

Study Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns as encouragement to teach hymns (and why we sing them) to all of the Johnnys and Jonnies in your life.
"Too much of the debate surrounding different worship styles center on personal music preferences. Paul Jones, respected author on church musicianship and worship, takes one step further back and asks the question ‘What is the music for?’.

"Looking at biblical and historical sources, he builds a structure to help us all understand where we should be directing our energies and attention - and how to increase the value of our worshipful singing.
Paul S. Jones (D.M., Indiana University) is organist and music director at historic Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. He has composed or arranged more than seventy sacred works" (publisher's website).

Paul S. Jones gets right to the point. He has to: What Is Worship Music? is a mere 43 valuable pages. 

Worship is prayer, praise, and proclamation. If the melody, harmonization, instrumentation, musician placement, volume (or some other element) of the worship music fights against prayer, praise, or proclamation, it isn't doing its job. 

Another danger is growing commercialization, with Christian song being marketed just like top-40 pop music (cf. 6ff). Church educational institutions (from day schools to seminaries) need to be better at teaching about worship and church music (6). 

Dr. Martin Luther is one of the best advocates for church song as proclamation. Jones also refers to Luther's catechism hymns that taught the basics of a biblical Christian faith. (28-29, 24).

In conclusion...
  1. We must measure our worship practices by the Word of God (37).
  2. We need to comprehend the pastoral nature of music ministry (37).
  3. We should ensure that our practices are informed by and patterned after these truths.
And, "Musicians do not have to be front and center--that position can be left for the pulpit and preacher....Music is supposed to be heard, but it does not need to be watched" (41, n. 26).

Brief, yet potent, What Is Worship Music? from P&R's Basics of the Faith Series is a theologically-informed and practical addition to your pastoral care library, even if you are a lay musician!

Thanks to P&R for these three wonderful resources on preserving, promoting, and defending the heritage of Christian worship text and song. 

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.