Why would God sing?
The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah
(3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.”
I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and
have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling
to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?”
I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the
ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily
make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.
God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.
Other than some adaptations that have been made
in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of
worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the
exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to
the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And
yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely
universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the
Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in
which little chanting was used – though this never found a place
in the East.
This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a
teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young
teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer
in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi
himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me
privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as
published in Hebrew Scriptures.
I mastered the alphabet and began to understand
that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines,
strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat
proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I
recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of
markings that my friend had yet to mention.
“What are these?” I asked.
“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also
had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to
demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked.
The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant –
perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely
aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made
pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September. The first morning (it
was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at
sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a
plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted
the morning call to prayer.
Indeed, if you made a study of world religions,
you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or
worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms
of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant
Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate
to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the
Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What
is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?
I’ll come back to that question in just a few
moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some
experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in
our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides
– it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making
pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During
that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had
lost one particular brain function (governed by the area
effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not
affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one
side of your body but not on the other (a common result of
In the same way, I have seen any number of
patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who,
nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme
case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct
dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and
virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had
discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He
would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in
when you sang a familiar hymn.
God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims
sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the
A surprising musical experience for me came in
visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have
youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp.
However, my experience in Church, is that, like most teens
surrounded by adults, they remain quiet. However at the summer
camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of
their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.
So what happened in the Protestant West that made
them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely
stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were
written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and
offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of
Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place.
What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we
know God and the place that worship plays in all that.
For many in the Reformation God could be known
only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He
had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing
what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced
from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from
worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but
not necessarily because He was present.
The distance that arose between man and God at
the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most
important were the politics of severing God, the individual and
the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a
severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at
last established the state as superior to the Church with, for
the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted
Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on
the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has
unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role
of politics has been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force
which intervened and spared Europe from further religious
madness. The state, as secular state,
was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite
possible to understand the history of that period as the history
of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of
religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on
this topic is quite revealing).
The Reformation itself brought something of an
ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious
being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual.
Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word.
God was reasoning with
man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the
new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with
the sacramental past. However God might be present with His
people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments
were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestment at all. The
minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest.
The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the
bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ's Body
and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with
the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate
that he was performing no priestly action.
The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and
not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of
magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite,
was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with
magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.
Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As
noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that
movement – and have marked every major “revival” within
Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?
There is no doubt that vast changes in much of
Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of
the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th
century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has
taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship
forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.
In many ways a revolution as profound as the
Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant
Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason
as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary
Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An
interesting player in this modern revolution has been the
“science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is
that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they
“choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the
science of the passions.
In this light it is important to say that people
sing for many different reasons and that not all music in
worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that
music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety
and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from
time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of
some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too emotional.
That conversation continues.
But why do we sing?
Here we finally come to the question that has no
easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We
sing because God sings. We sing
because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings.
We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do
not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural
mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the
angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we
sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.
It is not for nothing that the one book of Old
Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at
least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of
Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within
Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest
– I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was
assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the
chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a
Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned
to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.
The heart of worship is an exchange.
It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we
have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The
exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.
I have heard the singing of angels. I am not
certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something
of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice
singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body
which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have
heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take
up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”
God sings and so should everything else.