In a recent reading of Walter Brueggemann’s From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, I came across the following five insights he draws from psalms of praise (for the practice of praise in worship):
Praise is an act of imagination, not description
This involves seeing the God and the world through the lens of faith in ways that inspire and evoke praise.
Hymns of praise are acts of devotion with political and polemical overtones
Such songs work to engage us in “world making,” or proclaiming and looking to an alternative world (the one of Scripture) in which the real stuff concerns fidelity, obedience, and gratitude…”
The Psalms voice and are embedded in a larger narrative in which the Lord is the key character and lively agent
These hymns and songs are rooted in the story of creator and creation, deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the law, gift of the land, and the building of a kingdom. They serve to pass on the story of God’s people to each successive generation who then take on their role in the ongoing, unfolding redemptive story.
Doxology is the exuberant abandonment of self over to God
Our songs engage both the intellect and the affections. As Brueggemann puts it: “Such praise has narrative substance but is offered in emotive exuberance without reservation.”
Such hymns of praise are in contrast with what we currently call “praise songs”
Brueggemann targets the wide number of contemporary songs that are “lacking narratives, void of political polemic or the taking of sides, and too often end in narcissistic reductionism.” Much of this problem arises out of the prominent influence of liberal individualism in our culture, which emphasizes private religious expression and a pragmatic preoccupation with oneself. *A caveat would be some of the more recent, reflective work being done in reaction to these very charges. Some notable groups or individuals include: Cardiphonia (and Hope College worship), Sandra McCracken, Sovereign Grace Music, Koine, and others.
These are interesting points drawn from extensive study of the Psalms. They challenge us to consider how and what we sing, and what formative role it plays in the faith life of the church. While not exhaustive, this list presents us with useful criteria by which to evaluate music and make sure what we sing in our churches serves to building up in faith (in covenant faithfulness to God and kingdom witness to our neighbor), rather than pander to pop culture or fixate solely on the intellect or the emotions.
I challenge you to consider the songs you sang in corporate worship last Sunday and evaluate them according to these five points. In what ways do they align with what Brueggemann identifies, and in what ways do they fail to do so. What significance might this have, and how might your heart and mind be shaped by such songs?