Trueman: Where’d the Psalms go?

tsslogo.jpgIt is quite obvious in Scripture that Psalms are to be sung in the corporate life of the church (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Scripture assumes continuity between the life of the Psalmist before the Cross, and the life of the Christian after the Cross. Yet, this emphasis on relating to the Psalmist – not to mention the direct singing of the Psalms – seems to be largely missing from the contemporary church. I wonder why?

Let me make my own confession. As a non-denominational reformed Christian, I’ve never sung from a Psalter. In fact I’ve never held a Psalter in my hands. In my circles, I would have a hard time finding people who even know what a Psalter is! (One close friend suggested it must be something like a salt shaker!)

I am thankful that Scripture calls us to sing Psalms, and also opens the door to hymns and various other spiritual songs. I am deeply grateful for the corporate freedom to sing a variety of worship songs.

But a big question in my mind over the past year is, simply, why have the Psalms been disconnected from the corporate expression of the church? In the past I have suggested that perhaps part of the reason Puritan spirituality seems so foreign to us today is because the Puritans used the Psalms to interpret their life experiences. But this does not get us closer to a contemporary answer.

Recently I read Carl Trueman’s collections of essays, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004). These essays provoked stimulating thoughts in a number of areas. Trueman is the Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) of the contemporary church and if you want a great read, Wages of Spin is it. (Catchy title, isn’t it?)

In his chapter “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” Trueman also takes note of the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship. While I am no closer to an answer, I have benefited from his insights:

Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.

Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably I creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?

Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.


4 thoughts on “Trueman: Where’d the Psalms go?

  1. I love it – “Carl Trueman in the Neil Postman of the contemporary church.” That is a great way to sum up Carl’s critical influence. I also agree, “Wages of Spin” is a great read. Great post.

  2. As one who sings the Psalms exclusively in worship, I can testify what power and majesty is to be found therein. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power” (Psalms, The Prayer Book of the Bible, p. 26).

  3. Ah, yes. I forgot about Bonhoeffer’s book. This is combined in his complete works with “Life Together.” What a combo! I’ll take another look tonight at this work. Thank you Andrew for your insights and comment. I deeply appreciate it! Tony

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