new Calvin Seerveld audio recording of Psalms, with the Pax Christi chorale

There have been oodles of books about worship in recent years, books ranging from the most creative and progressive to the most staunchly conservative.  I never tire wanting to understand this central aspect of our weekly gatherings and enjoy the diverse array of titles we have; I read some of them as I can, and we recommend them often.  Of the large selection of books about worship that we stock here, a few we often suggest—from must-reads by Marva Dawn to Gordon Lathrop, Russell Mitman, a small but weighty one by James Torrance,  to evangelical ones like Worship by the Book by R. Kent Hughes, D.A.Carson, Timothy Keller (Zondervan; $16.99.)  I even love the little pocket sized hardback by Matt Redman called Facedown (Regal; $12.99) which I highly recommend.  I’m not a worship leader, but I’ve read Worship Matters: Leading Others to Enounter the Greatness of God (Crossway; $17.99) maybe three times.
The Alban Institute not long ago did a very basic one that would serve as a good resource for an adult ed class in a mainline church, part of a series of their which we stock called “Vital Worship/Healthy Congregations” which is co-published by the fantastic Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  The Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why by Marlea Gilbert and others (Alban Institute; $17.00) is written by two UCC pastors, a Presbyterian and a Congregationalist pastor.  John Witvliet, the Director of the Calvin Institute, notes that “Excellent education about the shape and purpose of worship is one of the most promising approaches for spurring worship renewal.  The Work of the People is designed precisely to contribute to this educational and formational process.”   

A year or so ago The Alban Institute also published one by my Western Pennsylvania mystic9781566994057.jpg friend Graham Standish; we’ve mentioned it before, but we should mention it again as it is a wonderful blend of thoughtful, deeply spiritual considerations and some practical advice for what he calls integrated worship. (Nobody likes that phrase “blended” worship and “ancient-future” isn’t very clear, either.)  In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship (Alban; $18.00) is a very fine resource if you are reflecting on the nature of your worship experiences, and wanting to bring a few different styles and insights to the Table. (No pun intended.)  I like Graham’s book.

113205646.JPGWe just got into the shop a serious volume from a professor who has studied with N.T. Wright at McGill, teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,  is joined to the Orthodox church, and is known as a passionate and profound preacher herself. It is called Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven by Edith Humphrey (Brazos; $22.99.) Professor Humprhey’s new work carries rave endorsements by Michael Gorman, Ellen Davis, Scot McKnight, Scott Hahn, John Witvliet and other important scholars who serve the church well,  assuring readers that this will be a rigorous and ecumenically-sensitive study. Rooting us in an ancient story, Grand Entrance explores both the Bible and the best of the Christian traditions (East and West.) 

artofcuratingworshiplrg.jpgInterestingly, there have been two recent books that use the phrase worship curating.  An interesting phrase; you can deduce the image and the meaning, I’m sure.  One is by Jonny Baker, from England (although he studied for a while in Toronto), and it is simply entitled Curating Worship (Seabury; $20.00.)  The Anglican, house-church, emergent and missional gangs in the UK are very thoughtful and poetic about their work and this book is truly fascinating–he has a number of contributers and the whole second section includes interviews with leaders such as Kester Brewin, Steve Taylor,  Pete Rollins, Sue Wallace.  Perhaps a bit more accessible is The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of the Worship Leader by Mark Pierson (SparkHouse; $16.95) which came from the authors work in the Baptist Church of New Zealand.  Again, this is very interesting, suggesting that worship is not “led” by one person who leads music.  Endorsements include raves from Tim Keel, Alan Hirsch, Brian McLaren and others.  Still quite creative, but perhaps a bit more traditional, and useful for more typical Protestant fellowships is The Worship Architect: A Blue Print for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services by Contance M. Cherry (BakerAcademic; $22.99.)

One of the most interesting things that I have noticed in the last few years as I’ve observed—curated?—these releases of books about worship renewal, is that many traditions, from mainline denominations to these emerging forms of creative worship, those from higher or lesser liturgical sensibilities all agree that we should pay more attention to our use of the Psalms.  Psalms study and folks pondering the role of psalms in worship are on the rise, and it is a good trend.  There are more psalters being published, and we stock some and can order others.  Are you aware of this trend?
For one good example of a fairly recent Psalm book that offers new insights, I was excited to see a few years ago Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor by the very impressive William Brown (Eerdmans; $30.00.)  It isn’t an exegetical commentary (we have plenty of those, too) and goes beyond the study of functional analysis of parallelism and the like to a whole new sort of poetic sensitivity and research on how language works and how these songs/poems/prayers were created in the ancient Near East.   As Walter Brueggemann wrote in a longer review, “The book is fresh and accessible and is an important contribution to our common reading and the prayers our common readings permit.”  Indeed. (Brueggemann’s own books on the Psalms are essential, by the way.  His Message of the Psalms (Augsburg; $19.00) is excellent for a variety of reasons, and the little Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit was reissued by Cascade; $15.99) and is very useful.

Another extraordinary example of this recent interest in Psalms and worship, recall that I reviewed and celebrated The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary by Bruce Waltke and James Houston (Eerdmans; $28.00) which is both a stunning example of an overview of  Psalms exegesis and theology (and how they have been viewed throughout church history) and how they have been used in worship, again, over time.  This is over 600 pages, a treasure trove to work through over a life-time, perhaps.
One man who has been a voice of using the Psalms more routinely in worship—indeed327.300.jpg, singing them, as Waltke & Houston remind us that the church has often done–has been Calvin Seerveld, who has perhaps most known for his several book on aesthetics.  You may recognize his name from our regular mention of his books on the arts, Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence; $29.95) or Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves (Toronto Tuppence; $35.00) or his early Christian Perspective on Art and Literature (Dordt College Press; $15.00.) Anytime we ever set up books anywhere, if we take devotionals, we display Take Hold of God and Pull (Dordt College Press; $20.00) or Being Human: Imaging God in the Modern World (Dordt College Press; $8.00) which does vibrant meditations inspired by a particular art piece, which is shown in b/w.  I hope you know his name and have seen us happily promoting his engaging work.

2828064.jpgTo help us understand the role of the Psalms (and some other clearly poetic Biblical texts) and how they might be used in worship, Seerveld gave us Voicing God’s Psalms (Eerdmans; $20.00.)  His “versifications” of the Psalms are masterful–it takes complex knowledge of Hebrew (and Hebrew poetry) as well as a tuneful ear to put them to verses so they can be sung in English.  This is a book that is fresh and striking and could be very useful, whether one is a “worship curator” or a more traditional pastor or preacher.  Seerveld has arranged the Psalm translations into thematic clusters under nine progressive headings (Torah, Enemies, Repentance & Forgiveness, Wrestling, Comfort, Promises, Hallalujah, etc.)  It includes a CD with over an hour of some readings and singing of Psalms in different styles and cadences; his passionate reading of his careful, if colorful, rendering of Psalm 19 is nearly alone worth the price of this resource!  The point of the CD mirrors the book: we can use the Psalms as creative, God-inspired hymnody and it can be as sorrowful as a lament and as joyous as a jig; there are wrestlings with God, here, and various moods and tones, matching the demands of the psalter itself.  As Eugene Peterson says of it, “A simply remarkable recovery, vigorous and engaging, of the original tone and range of the biblical prayers that give us the voice of ‘God talking live.'”  Jeremy Begbie writes, “For many years Calvin Seerveld has brought freshness, vitality, and rigor to the interplay between Christian faith and the arts.  These very qualities mark his compelling psalm translations.  I commend them warmly.”

Another useful feature to know about this good resource: there are one or two line introductions to each of the Psalms that he translates, and they are themselves rich, dense, intense.  Seerveld is one of the most skilled, and heartfelt, scholars I know.  His earnest, scholarly, phrasing is brilliant, so these introductions are themselves extraordinary.  

In Voicing God’s Psalms Seerveld has a few concluding remarks about the role of using the Psalms in worship.   It is wise and commendable. (The two pages about “difficulties to overcome in worshipping with Psalms are broad but prophetic and should be prayerfully considered.)  But there is an introduction to this book which I have read over and over.  Perhaps I’m a bit odd, but there are a few pages in the intro, explaining Seeerveld’s love for fresh translation, his peculiar realization of the gospel in the Psalms, his passion for using certain Genevan tunes or Welsh songs which seem, to him, to capture a mood or color—rough and tender, or, as he says sometimes, merriment—of these pieces for ordinary people.  In this intro Seerveld has a long, good sentence that I’ve often noted, explaining that the Gregorian chants were to be sung by trained voices but the reformation’s shift to the whole people of God allowed for a (then controversial) opening of the role of ordinary folks singing in church, singing in their vernacular.  He says it more eloquently with greater historical lucidity and aplumb, but you get the point.  Seerveld’s knowledge of the history of the rise of church singing, and particuarly Psalm singing, adds a nearly revolutionary edge to this stuff.  If you buy Voicing God’s Psalms, please don’t miss John Witvliet’s good forward (it too, is fabulous) or Seerveld’s must-read introduction. And underline this important insight about the historical development of this stuff.  Believe me, it is important.

Which then leads me to this.  If you are reading at home,  now give us a pound-your-hands-on-your-thighs, drum-roll pleeeezzze.  This is a very, very long-awaited announcement; some of us have been waiting for Seerveld’s brilliant work on the history of Psalm singing for quite some time.  He has done lectures on this at various conferences and workshops.  He has alluded to this in personal notes and in public appearances.  He has offered leadership at the legendary annual worship conferences at the Calvin Institute. 

And, now, we are so very pleased to announce that a CD has been produced, a high-quality recorded CD of Cal’s passionate, deeply moving lectures and an hour’s worth of wonderful, high-quality performances of the Psalms put to music, illustrating historical approach, musical fashion and theological insight. (Ahh, remember?  Are ordinary people allowed to sing God’s Word?  Is it for trained choirs?  What language and dialect do we use?)   

Allow me the honor of telling you just a bit about this marvelous new audio, by re-printing an edited version of a review I just had published over at the Cardus think-tank journal, Comment. I write for them sometimes and since Seerveld has been an inspiring presence for them in their reformational journalism, I wanted them to know about this first.  Now that that review has been posted there, I wanted to share it with our broader readership here at BookNotes.

GenevanPsalmody_bookletcover.jpg(I’m sorry this CD jacket art is so large–it is the only way I could get it to appear.  Ooops.)

CD audio recording The Gift of Genevan Psalmody for Today Sprung From Its Historical Context by Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press, 2011) $17.95

As we’ve said, Dr. Seerveld is renowned the world over. His profound insight about the arts and the allusive aesthetic aspects of daily life are legendary. Seerveld also has had an equally long-standing interest in mature worship, in opened-up possibilities of richly sung congregational music, especially using the Psalms. He has often drawn on the 15th century Genevan Psalms in his talks and in the worship services he has curated. After studying the Song of Songs and offering his own translation, he put it to choral arrangements called The Greatest Song, that have been performed throughout the world. (And, yes, we stock that book, too.)

 Although retired from teaching philosophical aesthetics, Seerveld is being used by God to encourage a renewed interest in the Psalms in worship. In this brand new CD, Seerveld lectures–or is it preaching? or testifying? –between each recorded piece, helping us learn how music was sung in the late medieval world (from Gregorian chant to polyphonic song
s through simple laudes) and into the Protestant Reformation. Space does not allow me to explain the many stops along the way, but the commentary is vintage Seerveld: very detailed, colorfully worded, historically knowledgeable, and honorably ecumenical. He may be the world’s leading scholar on this, and he loves telling us the important details.

In each recorded mini-lecture, he tells us not only the historical (and theological) context of the piece that is about to be preformed, but also the style of the music–noting something to pay attention to, a chord or cadence or a high note–and guides us from Gregorian chant to German Lutheran hymns to Calvin’s own preferences for Psalms designed to be sung regularly by the common person in the vernacular.
They sing two versions of Psalm 42, for instance, one by Palestrina, a devout Catholic, another as written by Louis Bourgeois, of the Reformed movement; both are beautiful in their own way, but it is evident that one is wildly complex and professional, the other earnest and singable for the common person. The rise of vernacular singing is a blessing that some literally paid their life to advance, and Seerveld knows this deep in his bones.  Just hearing his brief telling of the tale is an emotional experience and a rare way to deepen your own experience of faith.
The excellent recordings of nine pieces by the Mennonite Pax Christi Chorale are truly stunning, comparable to the Tallis Scholars or Cambridge Singers, even. (Some Mennonite churches still sing accappella so this is a natural choice, but I was still delightful surprised to hear this brilliant vocal treat offered here, knowing it came from Mennonites.) This music/spoken word audio runs just under 80 minutes, and you will listen to it repeatedly, I’m sure, to hear again Seerveld’s passionate explanation of how these moving Psalms of God came to be put to song, how the theology of the tunesmiths and singers so colored their particular choices, and–Lord, please–how we might be buoyed up deep down by practices in our day of regularly singing Psalms like this.
Curators, arise!  Listen to this disc, read Seerveld on the Psalms, and get busy, allowing the Spirit to guide us not just to a (as Seerveld puts it) “a revival hour, but a reformation of our awareness of God’s presence, Christ’s Rule in God’s world, and the Holy Spirit’s dynamic for disciplined, givewaway lives of love.”

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