The Church’s Original Hymnbook

By Jim Tune

There is an energy about the Psalms. I love the raw honesty that spills out everywhere as David and others confess their inadequacies, cry out for mercy, or plead for justice to fall viciously on their enemies. The Psalms have a voice of their own. Perhaps that is why the book of Psalms touches me in a way that some others in the Bible do not.

A friend once suggested the opposite of Psalms is Romans. I get that. In that rather formal letter, Paul meticulously lays out the foundations of the faith by following a specific pattern of logic. I picture him agonizing over every word, straining to get every nuance correct according to the Spirit’s promptings.

By comparison, Psalms seem earthy and spontaneous—less carefully edited if you will. Eugene Peterson says,

The Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.

The fact that the Psalms can be puzzling and disturbing at one moment and easy and pastoral a moment later is part of their allure. Their poetic meter is the meter of real life. They soar and sink like I do. The Psalms ache and celebrate, much like the real people I am in community with at church.

March18_JT_JNI enjoy the contemporary music served up in most of our churches today. Nevertheless, I believe we are missing out on something that has nurtured Christian souls for centuries when we neglect the Psalms in our worship. As “restorationists,” it’s surprising how few of our churches give much thought to recovering our original hymnbook. Maybe the Psalms are a little too real, a little too risky for our carefully arranged orders of worship. Let’s face it, the church’s original hymnbook is very disruptive in much of its content.

In an essay to incoming students at Wellesley College, Timothy Peltason warns, “Don’t make the mistake either of thinking that when a book or subject fails to please you that it’s the book or the subject that’s been found wanting.” We may blame the book for our inability to receive it, but reading an ancient text is like having a conversation with a person from another culture, and in the case of 21st-century Evangelicals, another faith community as well. That’s why I’m suggesting a very attentive reading of the Psalms—along with their inclusion at our Sunday gatherings.

Scholar N.T. Wright reflects these concerns in his book, The Case for the Psalms. Wright contends that the Psalms are essential for any church that would be growing and maturing. He states,

Until very recently, though, the kind of traditions from which this new music has emerged, traditions that think of themselves as “biblical” after all, would always have included solid doses of Psalmody. If that has changed, the sooner it changes back the better, with, of course, all the resources of fresh musical treatments upon which to draw. To worship without using the Psalms is to risk planting seeds that will never take root.”

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