Review of John Bell’s The Singing Thing

I recently finished reading John L. Bell’s book The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had the delightful opportunity to hear several lectures and sing in worship led by Bell at Baylor University’s Alleluia conference this summer. (Incidentally, I now recognize that much of the material for his lectures comes from the chapters of The Singing Thing.)

Bell discusses eleven reasons why people sing, in church and outside of it, and then writes about why some people do not sing. His writing is persuasive and laced with humor, and I appreciate the plethora of musical examples and stories that illustrate what he means to say.

When I was in seminary (oh so long ago . . . graduation is now 17 weeks in my past) I wrote an extensive critical review of almost every book I read on worship and church music. The urge to do so persists, but I will resist it and simply highlight a few points that jumped off the page as I read The Singing Thing.

 

First, a personal point. In regard to children and the song of the Church, Bell writes that “whenever anyone teaches a child a hymn or religious song, they may be preparing that child to meet his or her Maker . . . Children’s hymns should never be seen simply as a form of entertainment to keep the kids happy. These songs, in the future, will be evocative of God” (42). This served to heighten my awareness of the music and words that my own daughter absorbs, even at two years old. I’ve noticed that she is very good at repeating what she hears, and she can almost recite entire storybooks that we have read to her. As I encountered this section of The Singing Thing, my cognitive light bulb lit up with the notion that I deliberately should be teaching her songs that gently shape her understanding of who God is and what God does. And I should also begin teaching her important liturgical texts such as the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Throughout The Singing Thing, Bell emphasizes that everyone can sing, and that singing is natural rather than unusual. He writes a lot about this idea because it is counter-cultural for us. In the eleventh chapter on Why People Sing, he notes that people sing because God commands it. In no fewer than six psalms, God instructs us to sing a new song, and “God never asks people to do what they cannot. When God asks us to sing a new song, it is because God believes that we can” (106). To me, this is both convincing and encouraging. And the fact that he desires a new song indicates that we are creative beings and our relationship with God is ongoing.

Understanding that our singing, as an offering of worship, is important to God should prompt us to give it great value. Bell puts it this way: “When we sing we do something unique. For – never mind the song – there is no voice which sounds like ours . . . And if this utterance of song is offered to someone else, then we may be sure that it is a unique gift which no one else could offer. For no one else has our voice, and the song will last only for as long as we sing it. Then it is gone, and no one else will hear that particular rendering” (78). Every time a group of Christians gathers to lift its communal voice is a special, one-time event. This is why it’s important that we bring our whole selves as offerings to God.

 

There is another theme that runs through Bell’s writing: the tension between individualism and communalism in worship. He does not give this as much weight as the idea that singing is for everyone, but he mentions the tension frequently. Bell believes that corporate worship is a communal offering, and he states this in no uncertain terms: “Public worship is not private devotion, and ministers and musicians have to be clear that encouraging this kind of individualism is the enemy of corporate liturgy and community singing” (129). I agree. Many churches, however, tend to downplay the sense of worshiping together because such activity is uncomfortable to people in an individualistic culture. Bell notes that “the commercial music scene is now very diverse, but there is a common strand in much of it – namely that it is geared towards performance rather than participation . . . Therefore when the Church invites people to sing hymns, it is doing something profoundly counter-cultural. It is both presuming that all can sing, and providing material specifically written so that the whole community can participate” (118). What does this mean for the worship planner? “The discerning pastor or pastoral musician has to be able, for the good of the rest of the congregation and the integrity of the event, to help those choosing the hymns to distinguish the difference between what is individually evocative and what is suited for community singing” (41). In my view, the grey area between individually evocative and suited for community singing is continually expanding, especially in the praise and worship music sold by the contemporary Christian music industry.

 

In addition to emphasizing the communal nature of worship, Bell voices concern about the materials sung in worship. Referring to Amos 5, Bell writes, “When the song of the church has become tantamount to sentimentality or deliberately avoids the hard issues of the day or the real issues in people’s lives, God has every right to tell us to shut up” (84). Again in regard to praise and worship music, I am concerned that most of the current texts do not address hard issues. Yes, they mention difficult feelings and therapeutically try to ease our anxieties, but rarely do they address tough issues outside of the individual’s inward experience.

(Sidebar: If it seems that I am unfairly scrutinizing the praise and worship genre, I probably am. I could also point out general deficiencies in other streams of congregational song, but praise and worship happens to be the stream that currently holds much of my ministerial and academic focus.)

It’s not that I think all praise and worship songs are bad. Most of them are pretty good. But I have found few that are excellent for the purpose of corporate worship. Bell judiciously writes, “We are creatures of our culture. We cannot undo that, nor can we fail to be influenced by trends in music as in literature. But the Church’s musical mandate cannot be dictated by gifted artists or ‘Christian’ publishers with their eye on the profit margin. The voice of the performers will always be heard, and devotional CDs can always be purchased. But they are no substitute for the voice of the people actively praising their Maker” (120). When planning the songs that a congregation will sing, I am not very interested in who wrote the song or when they wrote it. What concerns me is whether it is excellent music and text, and how it fits with the theology and experience of the congregation as a corporate body.

 

If you would like to join me in exploring the case for congregational singing, I recommend you read The Singing Thing. Next up for me: The Singing Thing Too: Enabling Congregations to Sing.

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5 comments

  1. Michael Palis · September 11, 2015

    I have found that there are not many songs in any stylistic genre of worship that address the “real issues” of the day. And when a text is written for a certain issue, it is generally not as universal or long-lasting as texts that are more focused on the manifestations of God and his attributes.

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    • stephenacowden · September 11, 2015

      Good point, Michael. Maybe there is room in the Church’s repertory for songs with short life spans. These maybe shouldn’t be included in hymnals, but I think they can be significant for a time.

      Throughout the history of God’s people, God has revealed himself in specific situations. Take, for instance, the Book of Psalms. Many Psalms discuss attributes of God that were manifested in specific situations, and these have been around for a long time. The challenge of using such a psalm in worship is that the congregation really needs to know the background story of the Psalm in order for it to be meaningful.

      So maybe we ought to write some songs that are unique to our individual congregations, as well as songs that reflect upon specific situations.

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  2. Pingback: Praise Bands and Priesthood of All Believers (part 1) | stephenacowden
  3. Pingback: Praise Bands and Priesthood of All Believers (part 2) | stephenacowden
  4. Pingback: Review of John Bell’s The Singing Thing Too | stephenacowden

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