Psalms, Culture, Memory, and a Brief Book Review

So it’s been a while since we talked much about singing psalms and such, and I have an update.  I’ve been singing, saying, and yes, even occasionally chanting psalms for about 4 years.  I’m working with a youth group that’s been singing psalms for more than two years.  When we started, we expected  that it would take a while to see results, and we had to endure the opprobrium of lots of folks who simply did not believe our approach would work, and felt themselves justified when they could say that it’s been four months, and nothing seems to be happening.  Well, it’s been a lot more than four months now, and the results are starting to surface.

Our kids have memorized more scripture completely by accident than most youth groups ever get their kids to memorize on purpose.  We did it all without guilt trips or haranguing them about the importance of scripture memory.  All we did was introduce them to a musical culture.  We worshiped in front of them, and with them, and led them into worship with us, and in worship, we sang a  great variety of songs, but at least half of them were/are psalms, ripped right from the pages of the Old Testament.

Understand, these kids come from a culture of personalized performance music.  Everybody goes around with earbuds in, but nobody sings together.   Over a few years of persistent modeling and encouragement, we have created a culture of participatory musical worship. It’s not weird to sing together anymore; it’s just what we do.

It doesn’t just go for music, either.  A while back, we used the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed regularly.  We found it necessary to take an extended hiatus from both for reasons you don’t want to hear about.  (Trust me on this, Gentle Reader; the making of church policies, like the making of sausage, is a process best not described in public.)  Nonetheless, during that time of hiatus, we would find the language of both the Prayer and the Creed popping out of our kids’ mouths at some very applicable moments, and now that we’re free to resume, the kids have picked up as though we never stopped.  As we are a people who sing together, so we are a people who pray and confess our faith together — and the confession spills over into Facebook and school cafeterias as well as occurring in our worship.  Again, I hasten to point out that we never tried to get them to memorize any of this, never harangued them about the importance of memory, not a bit of it.

Behold, the mighty culture-forming power of sheer repetition.

Nor is this boon confined to the kids we’re ministering to.  Since (as you may have noticed) I’m sort of serious about the psalms, I do a fair amount of reading about them.  My latest book is Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor by William P. Brown.  I heartily commend it to your attention.  It is a scholarly book, and Brown does salt it a bit more liberally with Latin phrases than is strictly necessary to his purpose.  (Et cetera has entered the English language; ad nauseum is tolerable; qua avis is a bit too obscure.  “As a bird” would do just fine; saying it in Latin adds nothing.)  Those drawbacks aside, it is an outstanding exploration of the poetics and metaphors of the Psalter, and I’m enjoying it immensely.  But the reason I mention it is that I’ve noticed something interesting.  In pursuit of explaining the various metaphors of the Psalter — refuge, the path, animals, plants, water, and so on — the book wanders all over the Psalter, and I’ve discovered that far more often than not, I know the passages.  Frequently, the author will quote a line from a psalm, and I find that I know the next line.  Four years of immersion in the Psalter is paying off — and again, I made little to no attempt to memorize.  I simply sang, said, prayed, and chanted the psalms in the ordinary course of my life — “a long obedience in the same direction” as it were.  Of course, recognizing lines from the Psalter in a book is just a sidelight, an interesting epiphenomenon.  The point is that knowing the Psalter that well has transformed the way I talk to God — and the way I hear His voice, too.

Repetition forms personal culture too — who knew?

The fashion of the age is to scorn repetition.  Repetition is just too simple for us; we prefer to emphasize understanding and critical thinking.  The problem is, a person can understand an explanation perfectly well today, and then forget the whole thing tomorrow, never to have been deeply touched by it at all.  If we want a person to be formed, however, repetition is essential. So we say, for example, the Apostles’ Creed.  They won’t understand it first time out, but who cares?  If it takes a year, that’s fine.  We’re going to be saying it at least that long.

First we trust in a teacher, then we obey, then we understand, and lastly we are perhaps in a position to innovate intelligently and think critically.  That’s the order.  Or as one ancient writer put it, “Add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge….”


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