The Psalms vs. P&W

As you all know, one of my favorite rants is against modern “Praise and Worship” music. I’d like to dive in and reexamine them, both in terms of lyrical and theological content, as well as poetical structure.

What brings this to my attention is this: I was thinking over P&W and trying to identify specific flaws. Given the dispensational nature of the theology that creates P&W, it seems reasonable to apply that train of thought here. Individualism was my first target, and yes, every single P&W song that I’ve ever heard is written in the first person, with no thought of cohesiveness in the Body.

Here’s the challenge: that last sentence almost describes the Psalms. Almost all of the Psalms are in the first person, and they have many of the same elements as P&W. Given the kind of audience I have, I’m fairly confident that I don’t need to argue the case for the priority of Psalms in worship, but why is this (apart from the fact that God gave us the Psalms)? In other words, what exactly about P&W makes my Calvinist blood run cold?

Since I’ve brought up individualism, I’ll address that first.

There should be no argument that individualism is a major element of P&W. Occasionally, you’ll use the word “us” and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a reference to the Church.

Given that, I don’t think this a problem that needs to be addressed in the context of  music itself. This problem is far deeper than that, rooted in the dispensational worldview itself.

However, this one-sided, close-minded view lends itself very naturally to pietism and sentimentalism.

Sentimentalism is not the kind of emotion that the Psalms take kindly to.

David was a man’s man. He killed lions and bears at a very young age, spent a good portion of his life on the run from a powerful king, and after becoming king, was no stranger to war. David was a man who wasn’t afraid of anything. If Israel had had metrosexuals, they wouldn’t have had metrosexuals, because David’s sheer manliness would have eradicated anything like that in the entire Middle East.

And yet we have Psalms like Psalm 6:

I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. My eye wastes away because of grief; It grows old because of all my enemies.

And yet it’s not sentimental.

But most of the sentimentalism comes not from sappy descriptions of grief. It comes from the “P” in “Praise and Worship.”

You are holy great and mighty
The moon and the stars declare who You are
I’m still unworthy but still You love me
Forever my heart will sing of how great You are! – “Cannons,” Phil Wickham

Nothing against Phil Wickham. I’m sure he’s a great guy. Nevermind that this verse is 4 of the 5 total verses. But can it stack up to this?

 To the Chief Musician. On the instrument of Gath. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth, Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained,

What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?

For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet,

All sheep and oxen — even the beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!

Much better.

Another problem lies with the concept of a “worship team.” The minister is no longer deemed the leader in worship, it is the band. Not only does this usually turn into a performance, it also keys into the idea of “Spirit-led” worship (i.e., whatever you happen to feel like). For the record, the Spirit is very orderly, and thank God for it.

It seems also that much of the problem stems from the fact that no one seems to know what exactly we are praising God for. Maybe “my heart will sing forever of how great You are,” and I pray that I do. But I know exactly what I’m praising Him for.

Not to say that P&W doesn’t give Christ credit for salvation. In fact, there’s little reference to anything else. It’s not very deep, of course. He gets the title “Saviour,” which is nice, and we do get lots and lots and lots of cheesy descriptions of His rising from the grave. All nice stuff, to be sure.

But where do we find that God protects us from our enemies? He’s just sittin’ there “lovin” us and we’re just swayin’ in the wind singing. But there’s still sin out there. Still death. And those are our enemies. Worship is war, and if you sat down on the battlefield and had a picnic, you wouldn’t last very long.

The Psalms are full of rousing battles and epic descriptions of YHWH readying Himself for war, wreaking vengeance on His and our enemies, and generally opening up a can of about thirteen different kinds of hurt all over anyone who wants to mess with His children.

But we don’t get that from P&W. We get:

You are God of the heavens and God of the earth
You are God of our Saviour’s virgin birth
You were God on the cross and God over hell
You were God before man and God when he fell
You
You are
You are God
You are God, God, God
You
You are
You are God
You are God, God, God

This is an actual song. Actually it’s just the first half. Rinse and repeat…and repeat…

But really, what’s the problem with these? They’re written from good intentions by faithful people. What are they guilty of, other than being immature theologically?

Well, turns out that’s a big deal. I said before (stealing from many other theologians) that worship is warfare, and it is. When we sing the Psalms and the great hymns of the Church through the ages, Satan hears us and trembles. He knows that he’s the Enemy, he knows we know it, and he knows we’re asking God to crush him to powder. Heck, I’d be scared.

But if I’m Satan, heck, I don’t give two flips about P&W. Sure, God is God. Can’t deny that. They can sing their stuff all day, I’ll just get back to my conniving and deceiving. When people start pointing fingers at me and telling God to hunt me down…that’s scary.

Hundreds of people fainting because they’re so “overcome” with emotion does not scare the devil. However, millions of well-armed Christians singing rousing war songs and shouts for strength to the Almighty Ruler…that’s a problem.

So Satan’s just fine with the way things are. He likes dispensational P&W, because it doesn’t challenge him. The Psalms? They challenge him. They win. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”? That challenges him. It wins. “For All the Saints”? That challenges him. It wins.

Satan does not tremble when P&W is played. If we want to defeat him, we can’t let music go unnoticed.

Help me out, y’all. Still working through a lot of these issues and no doubt my views will mature as I meditate more. Thoughts/comments are appreciated if not demanded.

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9 comments

  1. Bill Morrow

    I’m glad to see I am not the only one who has problems with many of the P&W songs used in worship services. For two decades I have struggled with my attitude, trying to figure out what is wrong with me. After all, it is obvious that other people are blessed by the music. During this time I have purchased numerous P&W CDs and listened to them over and over to try to learn to love them. Still, it usually gives me a heavy heart when we sing modern P&W songs in worship because it reminds me of how we have largely discarded such a wealth of emotionally uplifting, doctrinally edifying and beautiful hymns. As I have tried to examine my heart I have asked myself what it is about most P&W songs that make them less satisfying. Here are the shortcomings of many P&W songs I have identified.
    1. A significant element of traditional hymns that make them so attractive is the harmony. Most P&W is sung in unison.
    2. Everyone has their own vocal range, but because the songs are sung in unison, everyone has to try to sing the same notes, even if their voice can not reach those notes. With a traditional hymnbook one can choose a part that matches their vocal range.
    3. Churches typically show the words to a P&W song on a screen without music. If someone doesn’t know the tune they have to stumble along trying to follow the melody. In a traditional hymnbook we have musical notes to read.
    4. One might say that musical notes are superfluous since few people these days know how to read music. But like many people, I learned to sight read music in church. Singing P&W songs without music is making people even more illiterate musically.
    5. While some P&W songs have wonderful messages many seem superficial. True, some hymns are superficial, but with hymns it is the exception, not the rule.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Excellent comment! These 5 things are what I’ve been looking for but couldn’t formulate.

      Points 1-3 all deal with unification of the Body. Or rather, the marriage of unification and diversity (the natural outflowing of a covenantal, Trinitarian worldview). P&W comes from a culture that has lost a proper view of both of these aspects, and therefore fails in both. Take away harmony, you become bland. You try to sing the same notes, and fall into disorder, due to vocal range. You assume everyone knows the tune, and get the same problems.
      In general, this culture tends towards individualism (the far side of one spectrum) and yet fails to take into account the effect on individuals relative to the whole (the other end of the spectrum). So rather than find the middle of the spectrum, they fail in both respects.

      I also learned to read music singing in church. We sing traditional hymns, chants, and Psalms. All of these stem from rich musical traditions. Immersion in this tradition helps create good hymns. Like gives rise to like.

      Traditional hymns have always been written with doctrine in mind (not always sound doctrine, but purposeful). Thought was put into these, and a lot of it. This is mostly lacking in P&W. Subsequently, they fail to edify the hearer as a hymn does. Obviously the Psalms are the best example of this: can’t get much better at doctrinal teaching than the Bible itself. But P&W doesn’t do this. Sure, they aren’t specifically doctrinal wrong every time: but rarely do you walk away saying, “Wow, that really makes me think about this issue.” The Psalms, and many good hymns, make you do that. And that’s good.

      We never want to stagnate. The points you made make it clear that that’s the effect of P&W. It’s immature music. Maybe not wrong…but immature. Time to grow up. The American Church can’t move forward while it’s stagnating like this.

      The case can and should be made (often) that the music of the Church moves her forward. Our music both reflects and affects the doctrinal state of our Church. If our music is stale…so is our theology.

      Thanks for the read and the comment! It was very helpful.

  2. Nick House

    Thoughts to pour salt in an open wound.

    1. Your appreciation of the Psalms seems to be based on a teenage-boy aesthetic. You say that the P&W songs are “spiritually immature”, but then you say something about God “opening up a can of about thirteen different kinds of hurt all over anyone who wants to mess with His children.” This reminds me of the part of the Bible where Jesus pulls out his Glock and starts wasting some Pharisees. Oh, wait, that didn’t happen.
    “If Israel had had metrosexuals, they wouldn’t have had metrosexuals, because David’s sheer manliness would have eradicated anything like that in the entire Middle East.” I’m sure not even John Frame could come up with something so profound…and grammatically incorrect. But I thought David was a metrosexual. I mean, he played a harp, and didn’t he dance before the lord or something?
    By following this violence-loving teenage boy aesthetic (and I am a violence-loving teenage boy), the church is neglecting its old people. Old people don’t want to hear about God being the Divine Terminator and blowing some Thor worshippers to little pieces. Old people want to be comforted. I want to be comforted. Worship should be based on the Bible, not the tastes of teenage boys, or forty year-old teenage boys.
    2. By swinging the pendulum from sappy P&W, the CREC (and maybe other denominations, but I don’t know), has fallen into hymn neglect. I haven’t heard “Be Still My Soul” in ages. There are plenty of great hymns by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and other hymnwriters that are unheard in CREC churches, because we’re busy singing some “chant” or a “psalm” with an awkward rhyme scheme and unsingable music with all the rhythm of a drunken man falling down the stairs. I’m sure that Claude Goudimel wrote some lively, singable tunes. Unfortunately, they were all lost to history. If we’re going to sing the songs, let’s at least sing them to a good tune. It’s not a sin to sing something that is enjoyable. And if you want to sing something old, why not use some music from Bach? Bach is universally popular and acclaimed. Goudimel is known only to those who have had to suffer from his newfound popularity in Reformed circles.
    3. And if we want to be Biblical in our use of the Psalms as opposed to P&W, we should throw out the piano. Seriously. The Psalms command us to use stringed instruments, tabors, clashing cymbals, trumpets, and shouts. Instead, we use a piano playing block chords to songs that no one could shout to. Throw out the piano and bring in the tabors.
    4. You say that worship music “usually turns into a performance.” By that logic, we should not have sermons in church, because sermons “usually turn into a performance.” Anything anyone does at the front of the church during the liturgy is a performance of some kind. If you don’t believe me, ask an honest pastor.
    And on the other hand, “Amusing Grace, how neat the sound that entertained a wretch like me. I once was lost, I’m still kind of lost, was blind, but now I’m deaf, because I was too close to one of the amps.”

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Thanks, Nick

      1. Of course we need to remember that the Psalms are not all about violence, and when they are, it’s divine justice. Psalms 4 and 6 (and many others) are pleas for comfort. So we need to remember that when we critique this tendency, thank you.

      2. Again, we don’t want to drive into the ditch on the other side of the road. I agree that we’ve gone too far in some places. I do think that chanting is a very good way to sing the Psalms; however, there is a right way and a not-so-right way, and I think we’re just now starting to get the hang of that. Most churches still have hangups about this and rightly so. However, in our quest to reform music, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

      3. We’re workin’ on this. Most people don’t like the instruments commanded in the Bible, and to be honest, it often makes us Reformed worshipers uncomfortable. That being said, I have been in good Reformed services (Biblical Horizons) where a point was made to incorporate cymbals, particularly in the Psalms. It was amazing.

      4. A valid point. The difference is, of course, that music is by nature participatory, and especially so in a context of the Lord’s Service. The sermon is a time of teaching, and is by nature meant to be received as such. One trap here that we can fall into is performing for people instead of for God.
      This was also one of the problems that the Reformers sought to correct in the Roman Church: worship had become, if not a performance, then certainly not participatory. I suppose that that’s the term I’m looking for here: “non-participatory,” although I’m not quite sure that fully describes it either. Ask Luther, he knows.

      Thanks for the read!

  3. Nick House

    @ point #4: Non-participatory is a good word. My problem with P&W isn’t that they use instruments other than a piano, but that their instrumentation makes it hard for the congregation to hear what they are singing. The same with having people at the front singing and “leading” worship–It takes away from the congregational aspect when all you can hear are the singers.
    Never been to a “Biblical Horizons” worship service, but If James Jordan is involved, it’s going to be different.
    I know that there is a happy medium between the Dirges of Unbounding Joy (Written by Claude Goudimel) and P&W (much of which is bad even by rock music standards), but I personally haven’t found it yet.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Yes. I loved your comment about the amps…

      While the traditional dispensational approach to liturgy has been emphatically non-liturgical, you’ll find that the band is referred to as the “worship leaders.” There are all sorts of problems with this, but it’s indicative of the mover/shaker mentality. You’re right, the congregational aspect is minimized to almost irrelevance. They love if you sing, but if you don’t feel like it then that’s okay, no one cares. In a more fully congregationally oriented service, apathetic participation is painfully obvious. And of course, apathy when it comes to the Church is not a good thing.

      It’s certainly different, but in a good way. His catchphrase (and I agree wholeheartedly) is “Why say it when you can sing it?” For this reason it’s important to be theologically sound in what and how we sing.

      We’re all looking for the happy medium, ha. I’m not sure that any contemporary music has a place in worship, at least not as it is understood today.

      Goudimel – good stuff.

  4. Kathryn McCrary

    I wish I had of had all your thoughts on this subject when I wrote my paper on P&W back in the days of highschool. I need to get it out and show it to you sometime.
    Also, I like the bit about worship being warfare. I can’t believe you didn’t Mention “Onward Christian Soldiers.” 😉

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Thanks! Yea, if you would like to repost that on your blog, I’d love it.

      That’s just one of many. Too many to mention.

      Jim Jordan points out at every possible opportunity that worship is warfare, and rightfully so. Even those of us with traditional liturgies (Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.) still don’t have a full grasp of this. So we’ve got the weapons but not a battle plan.

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