Consumer-is-King Mentality in the Church

Carl Trueman in The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012), pp. 29-30:

“The impact of consumerism is one reason why church sessions and elder boards often spend more time than is decent on discussions about worship and programs. Someone will make the point that certain young people have left because the worship is not to their liking and thus the church needs to think again about how it does things. Laying aside the fact that, for most of us, no church gives us everything we want in worship but we are nonetheless happy to attend because the Word is truly preached, it is interesting to note the session member’s response: we need to do something, to think again about worship. In other words, we need to respond to the needs of the consumer. An alternative approach might be that we need to do a better job of explaining why we do what we do, and what the obligations entailed in solemn vows of membership are; yet this is often not the knee-jerk reaction to such concerns. The consumer-is-king mentality renders all established and time-tested practices unstable and utterly negotiable.”


Three Cheers for German Hymnody

In evening worship last night, I was struck by the fact that many of my favorite hymns have a common thread tying them together: Catherine Winkworth. So many excellent hymn texts have been translated by Catherine Winkworth from German to English, many of which are still sung in worship regularly. In her relatively brief career (she died in 1878 at 51), she published hundreds of hymn translations, some now obscure, but many well known and well loved. It doesn’t hurt that many of her translations are paired with Bach or Cruger tunes. To give you an idea of the pervasiveness of Winkworth’s work in our hymnals, these are some well-known Winkworth translations:

  • Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended?
  • Comfort, Comfort Ye My People
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
  • How Brightly Shines the Morning Star
  • Now Thank We All Our God
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  • Whate’er My God Ordains is Right

Some may find many of her texts archaic or even opaque at times (“Hence with earthly treasure!”), but I find them poetic, rich, and dense. She also translated in a wide subject area of hymns. Here are some examples; consult your hymnal’s index to see how many Winkworth texts made it in.

From “All My Heart this Night Rejoices,” a Christmas hymn:

Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most cherished treasure?
To redeem us, he hath given
His own Son
From the throne
Of his might in heaven.

He becomes the Lamb that taketh
Sin away
And for aye
Full atonement maketh.
For our life his own he tenders;
And our race,
By his grace,
Meet for glory renders.

From “Baptized into Your Name Most Holy,” a, well, baptism hymn:

Baptized into your name most holy,
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among your seed, your chosen host;
Buried with Christ, and dead to sin,
Your Spirit e’er shall live within.

From “Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness,” a Eucharist hymn:

Now in faith I humbly ponder
Over this surpassing wonder
That the bread of life is boundless
Though the souls it feeds are countless;
With the choicest wine of heaven
Christ’s own blood to us is given.
Oh, most glorious consolation,
Pledge and seal of my salvation.

From “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” a hymn of trust:

Though the earth be shaking,
Ev’ry heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash and thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

2014 Books: 1Q

Here are the books I read from January through March. My next quarterly reading list is available by clicking here.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation – Lynne Truss (2006); Print // Fun, insightful look at the history and usage of punctuation. Less a user’s manual and more an interesting collection of reflections on colons, commas, dashes, semi-colons, periods, and all other punctuation marks. My only gripe was her lack of respect for the Oxford comma.

Empire of Bones – N.D. Wilson (2013); Print // Third installment of the Ashtown Burials series, and possibly the best of the three. Loads of fun, suspense, action, and bravery. Here’s to hoping there’s a fourth!

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902); Print // Read mainly because of our obsession with BBC’s Sherlock series, and it’s about time I read Doyle. Very enjoyable, witty, and smart. Wish I had read him sooner.

J.C. Ryle: That Man of GraniteEric Russell (2008); Print // Decent biography, if a bit long winded. Heavy on facts, light on analysis or engaging storytelling, unfortunately. Good to learn about Ryle’s life and ministry, but this was on the dry side.

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis (1938); Print // A re-read for “book club;” Lewis’ Space Trilogy is still among my all time favorite series. Looking forward to reading the next two this year also. Interesting that Lewis thought this series was among his worst writings, though Tolkien liked them. I’m with Tolkien.

Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship – Robbie Castleman (2013); Print // I was hoping for more, though my high expectations were perhaps a bit unfair. The principles and theory discussed were good, but I was really hoping for more practical insight. Where’s the easy fix for my kids when I need it?!

Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope – Keith Mathison (1999); Print // Very good, and now my go-to recommendation for a defense of postmillennialism. It is balanced, biblical, fair, thorough, and engaging. He helpfully devotes many pages to arguing for an early dating of the writing of Revelation, which further bolsters the preterist aspect of his arguments. I’m honestly not sure how a Christian could not be postmillennial after reading this, but that’s easy for me to say.

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (1958); Print // Glad I finally got around to reading this. Lewis explains that he wrote this collection of essays as an amateur writing to other amateurs. In that regard, it was very good. Chapters on praise and prophecy in the psalms were especially insightful. Some of Lewis’ slightly unorthodox leanings are evident, but not troublesome for me.

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 – Wendell Berry (1999); Print // Excellent collection of poetry by Berry. A collection that spans such a long period of time is fascinating, as it gives a glimpse into Berry’s ongoing maturity as a poet and thinker. He does not claim to be a professional poet, but merely an amateur writing these poems in conjunction with his weekly Sunday walks. Earthy, profound, understandable, and really, really enjoyable.

Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education – Doug Wilson (2013); Print // Short, almost pamphlet-sized work defending a Christian education for Christian kids. Goes to the foundational reasons for a Christian education rather than refuting the surface/practical arguments of the other side. In that regard, it was very helpful.

4Q13 Book Briefs

These are the books I read from October through December, 2013. My next list of quarterly reading is available by clicking here.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies – Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (2009); Print // I picked this up on recommendation from a Sandra McCracken concert. McEntyre is a curator of words, and this was a joy to read. She argues for the utility, potency, and urgency of words and the preservation of language. An even more important warning cry given the current dominance of texting and social media.

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (1961); Print // After merely skimming the Cliff’s Notes in high school, I’m glad I finally read this modern classic. Well-written with a strong sense of irony and wordplay while presenting gut-wrenching character studies of soldiers in World War II. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It – Matthew Berry (2013); Print // I had such high hopes for this book as a fantasy sports fanatic, but it fell far short. Funny at times and irreverent more often, it is basically the author’s egotistical autobiography interspersed among fantasy sports anecdotes submitted by his fans from around the country.

In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life – Sinclair Ferguson (2007); Kindle // Okay. A collection of Tabletalk and other similar columns that seemed disjointed and only loosely related. If read as separate entities, each chapter is decent on its own merits.

The Mind of the Maker – Dorothy Sayers (1941); Print // Recommended by and borrowed from a friend much smarter than I. Dense and beautifully argued treatment of the artist/writer as analogical to the Trinity. Sayers presents the best earthly analogy of the Trinity I’ve ever come across, as it runs circles around the Bible camp analogies of an egg or the states of water.

Right Ho, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse (1922); Kindle // Romping good time, as Wodehouse always is. I’ve been making more of a concerted effort to incorporate “Right ho” into my regular vocabulary since reading this one.

Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (2012); Kindle // Read for discussion group. Intensely personal, Butterfield recounts her “train wreck” conversion not for accolade’s or publicity’s sake, but for God’s glory. Really good in that regard, though strongly worded chapters on exclusive psalmody and homeschooling (though not bad) seemed out of place.

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation – Joel Beeke & William Boekestein (2013); Print // Well done short devotional on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and its myriad implications. Soaked in Scripture, and it especially evidences the authors’ mastery of the Psalms and their ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

Because He Comes, He Surely Comes

I have written in the past about why Psalms are appropriate for Advent and Christmas worship (quoting at length from C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms ). Psalms have a long history of being sung during Advent. Before most Advent/Christmas hymns were even penned, churches were singing Psalms to celebrate Christ’s incarnation. Traditional Advent Psalms include (but are certainly not limited to) Psalms 89, 96, 98, and 113. To go back further, the “Advent” hymns in the Gospels are rich in Psalm imagery; Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, is rich in psalm themes, especially Psalms 89 and 92.

Psalms are chock full of themes that have historically been associated with Christ’s incarnation. These include justice for the poor and oppressed, comfort for the downtrodden, judgment for the wicked, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and a cosmic rejoicing in God’s mercy and reign. Singing Psalms with these themes helps to balance the sentimentality of some Christmas songs, as well as center us on the magnitude of the incarnation. Indeed, the baby born in a cattle stall 2000+ years ago is the King and Judge of the universe who came to defeat the prince of this world. Granted, on the other hand, if we sing only Psalms during Advent, we’ll miss out on some sublime and strong incarnational hymnody. C.S. Lewis provides some helpful thoughts on Psalm singing and Advent:

“Psalm 110, the psalm assigned to Christmas Day, has nothing about peace and good-will, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory…The note is not ‘Peace and good-will’ but ‘Beware. He’s coming’…All this emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas does less than justice. For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the judge or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell, and the devil, had at last arrived.”

Since Christmas Day is two days away, I wanted to share one such Psalm that is especially appropriate for Advent: Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is cosmic in scope, calling on all people and all of creation to praise God for his covenant promises, righteous judgment, and imminent coming. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Joy to the World” is actually his christological paraphrase of Psalm 98. He published it in 1719 with the title “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” It’s not difficult to see why Psalm 98 and Advent are closely tied, as the ESV Study Bible notes: “The psalm and the hymn have come to be associated with Christmas; like Psalm 96, this is not inappropriate, provided it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Davidic king who will bring light to the Gentiles is what establishes the connection.”

There are several excellent metrical arrangements of Psalm 98 of which I am aware. My all-time favorite version is from the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing (also included in the Cantus Christi and the forthcoming URC/OPC joint psalter hymnal). This boisterous fuguing tune is called LYGNHAM, published in 1803. This video is from one church’s psalm sing, though I prefer it a touch slower for congregational singing.

My other favorite version has older roots than the British tune above: the Genevan version of Psalm 98. The Genevan Psalms were commissioned by John Calvin in the 1500s and are still frequently sung in Dutch and Canadian Reformed churches. The video below is an excellent Dutch  rendition of this song.

Psalm 98 (ESV)
A Psalm.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98A (Book of Psalms for Singing)

O sing a new song to the LORD,
for wonders he has done;
His right hand and His holy arm
the victory have won.

The great salvation wrought by Him
Jehovah has made known.
His justice in the nations’ sight
He openly has shown.

He mindful of His grace and truth
to Isr’el’s house has been.
The great salvation of our God
all ends of earth have seen.

O all the earth, sing to the LORD
and make a joyful sound.
Lift up your voice aloud to Him;
sing psalms! Let joy resound!

With harp make music to the LORD;
with harp a psalm O sing!
With horn and trumpet raise a shout
before the LORD, the King.

Let seas in all their vastness roar,
the world its living horde.
Let rivers clap, let mountains sing
their joy before the LORD!

Because He comes, He surely comes,
the judge of earth to be!
With justice He will judge the world,
all men with equity.

When the Symphony Rings Cacophony

“Because the Psalms are dialogic (they pose questions and offer answers), psalm singing involves learning the meaning, purpose, and grace that undergirds each individual’s life calling, and, living under the faithful presence of God’s guiding Hand. This manifestation of aesthetics, the study of what makes something beautiful, bittersweet, compelling, and enduring, imbues each note of each psalm. The Christian life becomes a symphony of aesthetics, as each note resounds and resonates to God’s glory and, by the Hand of his composition, fits together, even during those times of darkness and struggle, those times when the symphony rings cacophony. In singing the Psalms, in worship and in life, we always know where God is in our suffering. In singing the Psalms, we always have a song in our heart that provides us with direction, redirection, rebuke (when needed), and encouragement. After years of singing the Psalms, and because the word does not return void, we listen, we respond, and, as part of God’s training of our hearts, we grow in grace and sanctification.”

-Rosaria Champagne Butterfield in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012)

The Psalms Cry Out To Be Sung

Since I have been wont to beat the proverbial drum about singing Psalms in corporate worship over the years (see inclusive hymnody, Psalms for Advent, predominant psalmody, and well-rounded worship), I think it appropriate to point you in the direction of another excellent resource on Psalm singing. William Boekestein is the very capable and humble pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a sister church of ours in the URCNA. That church is embarking on a four-year journey through the Psalms, and to kick it off he preached an excellent sermon called “Singing the Psalms.” Hop on over to Sermon Audio and give it a listen; it’s well worth your time.

In light of Calvin’s pithy saying that the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul and Westermeyer writing that “the Psalms may be spoken, but they cry out to be sung,” Rev. Boekestein argues that “worship without Psalms is like preaching without Scripture, because it is missing divine inspiration.” He breaks his sermon into two main parts: why sing Psalms and how to sing Psalms. His basic outline is this:

Why Sing the Psalms?
1. Psalms were undoubtedly Israel’s inspired songbook.
2. Psalm singing is central to New Testament worship starting with Jesus and continuing today.
3. Psalms stretch our Christian consciousness.
4. Psalms help us to know Jesus better by revealing Him and presenting His experiences in prophetic form (Luke 24:44).
5. God commands it, and it is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16).

How to Sing the Psalms
1. Sing Psalms by way of personal appropriation: they must become ours.
2. Sing Psalms with an attitude that reflects the attitude of the psalm.
3. Sing Psalms with gratitude when the Psalms don’t express our current attitude (especially laments).
4. Sing Psalms with love for the work of God in Christ, as they remind us of our Suffering Savior and our Conquering King.

His discussion of the Psalms stretching our Christian consciousness was especially helpful, and what I would like to summarize here. He contrasts this aspect of the Psalms with much of the contemporary self-focused, self-reflective, comfortable worship music today by highlighting five examples of this consciousness stretching.

Psalms Stretch Our Christian Consciousness
1. Psalms help us to fight when we would rather coast (e.g. Psalm 144). The Christian life isn’t a nice euphemistic “journey,” but a war. The Psalms help gird us for spiritual battle.
2. Psalms help us lament when we would rather rejoice (e.g. Psalm 143). Laments are the most frequently appearing Psalms. We can sing them because they remind us of and identify us with suffering Christians worldwide; they remind us to prepare for trouble and trial, because it’s coming; and they remind us to bring all our troubles to the Lord. They also remind us of Christ and His suffering. See my post on singing Psalms of lament for more.
3. Psalms help us to repent when we would rather cover up (e.g. Psalm 32, 51)
4. Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (e.g. Psalm 44), especially since we can speak boldly through Christ.
5. Psalms help us worship when we would rather complain (e.g. Psalm 42).

There are many more helpful points of teaching and application in the sermon, so I commend it to you. Rev. Boekestein is also an accomplished author, with a co-authored book on Advent and children’s books on the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.