Book Review of John D. Witvliet's The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship
The Psalms are woefully under-utilized in modern Christian worship in North America. This is the lament sung by John D. Witvliet in his book, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship. He states in the preface,"...there is relatively tepid enthusiasm for the Psalms in worship throughout vast stretches of North America."
In the preface, Witvliet states, "those who dismiss the Psalms associate them with music they don't like." One might say, "They see the Psalms as old fashioned." My own experience confirms this observation. At First Presbyterian Church in Harbor Beach, Michigan, we had a substitute preacher for several Sundays. He insisted on a Psalter reading. Some of the members grumbled at the additional reading on the grounds, "We do not do Psalms anymore," and, in any case, "Three readings was one too many." This highlights another problem, watch-conscious members do not particularly like adding "innovations" that might "unduly" extend the service. Additionally, Witvliet notes the difficult nature of Psalm understanding. Psalms are basically poetry. Poetry is generally structured so that considerable meaning is packed into relatively fewer words. The modern world, though it has not rejected poetry outright, has certainly de-emphasized it, taking it almost entirely out of the spoken realm and relegating it to various forms of music. Psalm popularity has suffered from this modern perspective.
Witvliet enthusiastically argues that neglect of the Psalms is a waste of a divine resource. In a series of extended quotations, he calls on authority figures, both ancient and modern, to extol the virtues of the Psalms, both collectively and individually. He cites names from Basil to Bonhoeffer to Bono. Ambrose states, "History teaches, the law instructs, prophecy proclaims, reproach chastens and moralizing persuades; in the Book of Psalms there is the successful accomplishment of all this..." with such blandishments from every age of the Christian era we see the almost universal popularity of the Psalms, implying: as we study, sing or pray the Psalms we do so with a chorus of the fervent and the learned. The arguments of these greats pack a punch, not only because they come from authority, but because they are theologically sound and ultimately reasonable. Calvin highlights a benefit. Because of the book of Psalms "...we have permission and freedom granted us to lay open before Him (God) our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men."
If it is not enough to know that Calvin and Luther were ardent admirers of the Psalms, it is also well to know that the Psalms have had a vital part in Christian liturgy since the beginning of the Christian church. As Witvliet points out, the Psalms are frequently quoted in the New Testament and were commonly used in daily prayer from that day to this, especially among monastic orders. Tradition is a powerful indicator, many generations have successfully used the Psalms in liturgical formulas to inspire and inform congregants. We find a connection with those who lived in the past. Witvliet writes, "Praying the Psalms challenges us to stretch our internal horizons to sense our solidarity with those who prayed these words over three thousand years ago."
Witvliet's most powerful argument in favor of the Psalms is they are a vital "tool". He notes, "The biblical Psalms are the foundational mentor and guide in this vocabulary and grammar for worship." He goes on to quote Eugene Peterson, "If we are willfully ignorant of the Psalms, we are not thereby excluded from praying, but we will have to hack our way through formidable country by trial and error and with inferior tools". Later he makes an apt comparison between the Psalms and the collect prayer form. In other words, the Psalms help us to more effectively get closer to God.
If the Psalms themselves are an effective tool, it is partly because of their versatility. They can be as blunt as a hammer or as delicate as a scroll saw. There is a Psalm for any mood, for any conversation we may wish to have with God. There are Psalms for praise, intercession, lament and gratitude. There are Psalms for all seasons and best of all, there are resources available to help users to find the right Psalm for every occasion.
In spite of the arguments for Psalms being more frequently used in liturgy, the problem remains. Witvliet implies the waning use of Psalms is not so much a result of the concerns of individual congregants or the vacillating tastes and prejudices of the flock, or even in the shepherds of the sheep, but rather more in the methods chosen to present, perform and pray the Psalms.
Witvliet seems to see a revival in the Psalms as beginning with a top-down re-introduction of the Psalms to the congregations of the North American churches. For such a project to be successful requires first the evangelization of the clergy and music directors. The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship itself is a powerful push in this direction. Nevertheless, more would have to be done in this regard. Magazine articles, websites, seminars and university classes could all contribute. Perhaps the most effective means of re-popularizing the use of Psalms in liturgy, as well as private prayer, is to present them in a way that takes the most advantage of their strengths and allows them to prove their effectiveness. Popular use of Psalms in one church will spread to other churches by word of mouth. Witvliet clearly understands this and spends a large part of the book telling the reader how to present Psalms in liturgy.
Enthusiasm is infectious, and Witvliet is nothing if not enthusiastic. By the time I had read through the arguments for making use of the Psalms, I was ready to plunge into the minutiae of how this can best be done. I was glad to find: The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship is really a how-to book. I read with interest about the types of Psalms, how to choose a Psalm, how to chant a Psalm, how to present an unfamiliar Psalm to a congregation and even the difference between iambic and trochaic meter.
All this is what makes this book such a valuable resource. This work is not a theological tract or a theoretical tome, good for one read perhaps every decade, but a vital resource, a reference book loaded with pointers and ideas. When Witvliet explains various forms of chants we feel our knowledge has increased, and because we will surely want to delve deeper into the subject matter, there is a list of resources in the form of books, online, and audio. These resource lists appear exhaustive and helpful.
Personally, I took copious notes on the section describing the steps to prepare to sing or pray a Psalm in a service. Witvliet delves into every aspect of this process, noting how important it is to do it properly. To do justice to a Psalm and to connect with the congregation we must be sure to choose the proper psalm for a specific service, place it elegantly within the liturgy, thoroughly study the text and present it in any one of a number of modes.
I am a great proponent of the practical. I was taken by The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship because it is indeed practical. It is informative on the historical significance of the Psalms. It gives excellent reasoning on why Psalms should be a persistent and consistent component in modern services and, ultimately, reveals how this can be done. If there is one drawback to the book, it may be the extensive quotations of authorities, both ancient and modern extolling the virtues of the Psalms. I liked the fact Witvliet included them, but I felt he could have been, perhaps, a bit more rigorous about reducing the quotes to the more salient points. This especially applies to the quotes from Luther and Calvin. It may have been more appropriate to include lengthy tracts in the appendix. In spite of this quibble, I did find both of those excerpts interesting, but then I am also a frequent reader of appendices.
Witvliet, in The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, has convinced me of the importance of the Psalms, especially regarding their inclusion in liturgy. This is a book that can be profitably read by clergy and laymen directly involved in worship. For those resolving to study the Psalms, 1-150, try using Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship of which Witvliet is a contributing editor. The ultimate test of a book's value is whether it inspires. The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources has inspired me, and I pray it will inspire others in the future.
Review by W.J. Rayment.