The Psalter for Christian Worship: Revised Edition (Michael Morgan) -- Review

THE PSALTER FOR CHRISTIAN WORSHIP: Revised Edition. By Michael Morgan. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. Xiii + 184 pages.

In some parts of the Christian community, the Psalms have a central role in worship. That is, in some traditions, the Psalter served as the hymnal. They might be chanted or put to tunes, but they were the songbook for the church (as they were for the Jewish community). While this is doable it's not always the easiest form of singing. That is one reason why the hymns of the church have replaced the Psalter as its primary songbook. Now, the lectionary does include readings from the Psalms for each week of the church year, and many hymnals include a Psalter. They can occasionally become the foundation for a sermon. More often than not they are spoken (often responsively) in worship (my experience) rather than sung.

One reason why singing the Psalter is not easy is that we rely on translations of Hebrew poetry. These translations, though faithful to the text, often don’t lend themselves to the needs of the singer. One solution to this problem is to create paraphrases of the Psalms that are faithful and yet singable. With this in mind, down the years, Psalters have emerged that use paraphrases, but not every Psalter is as helpful as others. I’ll say here that while my denominational hymnal has a Psalter (with choral responses), it doesn't invite the congregation to join in singing the Psalms. The responses are helpful, but they don’t enable congregational singing.

Enter the revised edition of Michael Morgan's The Psalter for Christian Worship. First published in 1995, it was republished in 2010 by Witherspoon Press and again in 2019 under a WJK imprint. I’m not sure what makes this a Revised Edition, but since I didn’t know about the earlier printing, for me this is brand new.  With that in mind, in this book we are provided with paraphrases of all 150 Psalms along with suggested hymn tunes. I'm not a poet, so I can't speak to the poetry side of things. However, I understand the need for the words of a song to fit the tune, lest it becomes unsingable. I also understand that it is helpful to use existing hymn tunes to introduce new words. That is what is done here.

Before we get deeper into the book, I need to take note of the author of this Psalter. Michael Morgan is the seminary musician at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian (PCUSA) seminary in Georgia. He is also the organist at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. In addition to these professional activities, he is a Psalm scholar and apparently has one of the largest collections of English Bibles in the country. Being a Psalm scholar and musician, he is well equipped for this task.

This Psalter includes not only the paraphrases of all 150 Psalms (as used in the Revised Common Lectionary), but Morgan provides us with a helpful preface and introduction to the Psalter. In the Preface, Morgan lays out the parameters for his paraphrases. This starts with making "the texts suitable for Congregational singing." Secondly, he wants these paraphrases to remain faithful to the character of the Psalm, which means not Christianizing them. That is something I appreciate. Third, he employs modern English—there are no thees and thous here! Fourth, he is committed to inclusive language for God and the people of God—again this is most welcome! Then, there are the tunes assigned to each Psalm (I tried a few out singing a capella and they flowed nicely). What is of great help to congregations, he grants permission for the texts to be reprinted in bulletins (or on screens) as long as the source is acknowledged. That final piece important if this is to be a useful resource.

In the Introduction, Morgan takes us on a journey through the history of Psalm singing in the Reformed Tradition. He speaks to Calvin's Psalter, in which he notes that Calvin understood that the Psalms needed to be translated into vernacular and in verse, and so he enlisted the help of both a poet and a theologian to turn the Psalms into the best French poetry. Focus is then given to the English Psalters, which begin with the work of Thomas Sternhold, groom to Henry VIII. This work was not on the level of the French version, but Henry liked it (being a British historian I know that what Henry liked, Henry got). This became the foundation for subsequent Psalters that emerged over time. Morgan introduces us to some of these versions as well. He also notes the contribution of the Scottish Psalters, and then the works that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. The problem, in his view, was with the connection between poetry and tunes. That is why Psalm-singing was "for the most part been swallowed up in a vast sea of hymns authored by the Wesleys, the poets of the Oxford Movement, and other hymn writers." (p. 7).

While metrical Psalm singing, for the most part, has been set aside, there have been attempts at providing Psalters for a new day of worship. This is but the latest version. Again, I am not a poet, but I do like to sing in church. And these texts and related tunes do seem to make for good use in worship. The real test, of course, will be its use in worship (I will be handing this off to my minister of music). In the end, The Psalter for Christian Worship seems to be a real gift to the church!


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