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Waiting for 2.0

By and December 1, 2012 No Comments

The title of this collection makes perfect sense: Psalms for All Seasons. The range of emotions and varying postures toward God exhibited in the Psalms assume that faith has a climate like a Great Lakes state. The Psalms anticipate a life with God that encounters the full spectrum of weather.

The subtitle, on the other hand, confused us at first: A Complete Psalter. We had not realized that some volumes contain “psalters” even though the psalms section includes only a portion of the 150. That sounds a bit like stopping at second but scoring it a home run in the books. Click to purchase Psalms for All Seasons doesn’t play that way. It is not a “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” psalter. Each psalm, even those that seethe and gloat and make us uneasy, gets set to music—multiple times and in various ways.

The multiplicity of settings is the most remarkable feature of this volume. The book runs a thousand pages before we musically exhort “everything that has breath [to] praise the Lord” a final time (Psalm 150:6). In spite of this, the editors would not want us to confuse “complete” with “exhaustive.” Even as particular psalms may get a dozen or more settings, the point is not for this volume to be the last word in psalmody. On the contrary, “this book,” state the editors, “is intended to inspire composers in a wide range of cultures and traditions to imagine new, vital, and faithful ways of rendering psalms” (emphasis original). In other words, Psalms for All Seasons not only presents what has been done; it hopes to generate ideas for what could be.

One way of inspiring new compositions would be to push back against negative associations many have with psalmody, to prove that these are not just for dutiful pastors’ wives who drown out lackluster singing at a barely tuned organ. Unfortunately, the volume contains too few contemporary or non- Western settings. That may be due to the limited supply to choose from or the editors’ desire to present a historical overview, but in the book’s “Index of Genre and Musical Styles” the number of songs under headings like “Traditional Hymn Tunes from England and Continental Europe,” “English and North American Cathedral Traditions,” “Lutheran Chorale Tradition,” and “17th– 18th Century American” dwarf the number under “Settings from Contemporary or Popular Music from the 1970s and 1980s” and “Settings from Contemporary or Popular Music from the 1990s and 2000s.”

The editors demonstrate efforts to make the older songs relevant to more contemporary worship settings. Most songs include notation for guitar and bass— which is great. Sadly, however, this note accompanies many of them: “Guitar chords do not correspond with keyboard harmony.” The frequency with which this note appears testifies to the fact that most of these songs were still written with organ or piano in mind.

The “Index of Genre and Musical Styles” and guitar and bass notation illustrate the second striking feature of this collection. Not only does it contain a multiplicity of settings of psalms, it contains a wealth of additional resources and information. The table of contents lists page numbers to various canticles, psalm-based liturgies for the daily offices and other occasions, as well as seven appendices and seven indices covering a range of material. In one index, the editors supply a few sentences about a particular setting’s origins or offer suggestions for how and when a song might be used.

But resources don’t end there. Check out the book’s website or YouTube for half-minute recordings of ninety-seven selections from this collection. These are not CyberHymnal-esque “sing-along-with-the-Casiotone” recordings either, but recordings of actual performances with vocalists and full accompaniment. However, we discovered these (ninety-seven!) recordings not because the introduction referenced them but simply by happenstance.

All this supplemental material raises a question regarding format. Apart from the fact that it is printed and bound, there is little about Psalms for All Seasons that suggests its editors hope churches will stock their pews with it. It is safe to assume that the audience for this book consists mostly of worship planners and leaders. Given this, we can see some real advantages to presenting this material in digital form.

For instance, the volume supplies a few pages of chord charts for guitar players—a thoughtful addition on the part of the editors. However, imagine a guitar player attempting to learn a song and forgetting the finger position for an F#-diminished-7 chord. This person would have to turn to the table of contents, flip to page 1,057, scan the index of chords until, ah, there it is, and then turn back to the page of the song. In a digital format, on the other hand, the finger positioning could pop up with a click on hyperlinked text in the sheet music.

Also, consider those ninety-seven recordings. What is the likelihood that a reader will bother to search YouTube to see if a particular setting is among ninety-seven posted there? A digital alternative could simply supply an icon alerting us to the existence of such a recording.

Again, the goal of this book is not simply to compile settings of psalms but to inspire continued investigation of the Psalms. The Psalms are an ever renewable resource. A book, for all its pleasures and benefits, has limitations in furthering this goal. It can’t facilitate an ongoing project—not easily anyway. It can’t, for instance, be updated with a click of a button. Notes that the reader makes in the margins of a particular setting show up only in her volume and cannot be distributed and be of wide benefit. These limitations could be overcome.

The Psalms, as the editors note, have been sung and played throughout church history in times of reformation and renewal. This psalter strives to see that history repeat itself. We would love to see that happen and believe that Psalms for All Seasons is capable of making a significant contribution to that effort—particularly when PFAS 2.0 becomes available for download.

Mark Roeda is head pastor and Dave Banga is director of worship and arts at South Bend Christian Reformed Church in South Bend, Indiana.