Listen to this conversation with Joyce Borger, Martin Tel and John Witvliet, the three editors of Psalms for All Seasons.
Multiple Approaches to the Use of the Psalms
The overarching lesson of this book is that the biblical psalms can be legitimately appropriated in a variety of ways in Christian worship. This can only happen through attentive study of each psalm and thoughtful pastoral leadership.
The following topics are covered on pages iii-v of the book.
Excerpts versus Entire Psalms
Range of Interpretive Freedom
Function or Genre
Options for Imagining Our Relationship with the Text
Understanding the Psalms in an Old Testament Context or a New Testament Context
Multiplicity of Forms and Styles
This volume also arises out of the conviction that the richness of the psalms and different ways they function commend the use of a wide variety of musical, textual, and artistic forms for rendering them. Each approach has unique strengths. The reading or chanting of a psalm is ideal for engaging with the text in an unobtrusive way, free from the constraints of any single interpretative move. Metrical psalms, with regular meter and often rhyme set to familiar hymn tunes, are ideal for encouraging congregational singing. Their regularity improves their accessibility and facilitates their memorization. Responsorial psalms, with a repeated refrain sung by the congregation, are ideal for directing the congregation to a central thrust of the psalm. They allow for both congregational participation and the unique contribution that a soloist, cantor, or choir can offer in exploring a given text. Improvisational prayers based on psalms are especially ideal for contextually applying the psalms to present circumstances (see 126C). A dramatic reading of the psalm may be ideal for highlighting the implicit script in a psalm, a literary feature that is obscured in other forms. Drawing upon sources from a different cultural, historical, or ethnic context invites us to pray the text in solidarity with others.
As you encounter examples throughout this book, pause to consider the unique strengths, and corresponding weaknesses, of each type of setting. Note also that this volume includes some examples that push beyond standard approaches. Psalms with dramatic turns pose particular challenges. While most approaches to psalmody are good at establishing a mood, rhythm, and ethos, they are not necessarily well suited to conveying the abrupt changes or pivot points that are found in several psalms. This volume presents several examples (e.g., Pss. 22 and 73) which feature musical ‘gearshifts’ that correspond with the form of the psalm.
Several examples in this Psalter were crafted out of concern both to faithfully reflect the themes of a psalm and to connect the psalm with a particular occasion. For example, the text of 132B was created for a tune with powerful Christmas associations. In this case and many others, the tune and its associations becomes an interpretative resource, helping worshipers enter into the meaning of the psalm more fully. At other times, well known hymns or spirituals are placed in juxtaposition to the psalm (e.g., 74A). These songs become musical dialogue partners for the psalm text. The familiar song allows for greater accessibility to the less familiar psalm.
Difficult, Neglected, and Misunderstood Psalms
As a complete Psalter, this volume offers many opportunities to engage with psalms that are often neglected, misunderstood, or even intentionally ignored.
You can read about the following Difficult, Neglected, and Misunderstood Psalms on pages v-vii of the book:
Royal and Zion Psalms
Psalms that Express Innocence or Integrity
Psalms that discuss the godless, the enemy, especially psalms of vengeance and imprecation
Chanting the Psalms
The Psalms have been chanted by cantors, choirs, and congregations for centuries. Indeed, of all the modes of singing the Psalms, chanting comes closest to the ancient practice. Recently the chanting of psalms has been fused with jazz, modern, and popular genres. Sometimes chant is cast in conventional notation (e.g., the Orthodox setting of the Lord’s Prayer on p. 1034). In other instances the text may be set with musical notation using flexible chant melodies either for unison singing (e.g., 3A), or for singing in harmony (e.g., 46E). In either case, the singing should always be fluid, taking its cue from the pace of natural speech.
In this book the chanted texts are most often provided with red marks that serve as musical markers. This presentation is commonly referred to as ‘pointed psalmody.’ Though perhaps puzzling for the uninitiated, the formula is intuitive. The practice is better ‘caught’ than taught. The explanation of the pointing (in the next paragraph) can be both distracting and intimidating for congregations. Most assemblies do best when simply encouraged to chant with the cantor or an initiated group of singers.
To keep reading, turn to pages vii-viii of the book.