Continuing a series begun here.
OK, people have sung to worship God since the earliest times of church. The Hebrew Bible gives a whole book over to songs of praise, otherwise known as Psalms. Does that mean that we should follow their example?
There are lots of other traditional forms of worship that we no longer practice as a norm (certainly in the non-conformist tradition that I come from anyway.) We are not much into sacrificing animals, or washing feet, or burning incense, or flagellation, or dancing (particularly the naked Dancing that King David was known for.)
Then there is are lots of others that are fashionable, but still relatively rare- pilgrimage, silent meditation.
So- why sing?
Some people would point to the passages in the Bible that would seem to instruct it- ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’. Clearly early followers of Jesus sang together-
1 Corinthians 14:26
[ Good Order in Worship ] What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
I have to say however that my times of direct literal application of words like this without any wider questioning are gone. There are lots of other passages that we do not apply in this way. The question of how much is social/cultural/historical, and how much is expected conduct for all subsequent followers is always a point of debate. In this instance- the practice seems to me to be less important than the purpose and the meaning of the practice.
There are some things about singing that are special. I will divide these into three areas- physiological, communal and spiritual.
There is plenty of evidence of the health benefits of singing.
- Singing releases endorphins into your system and makes you feel energized and uplifted. People who sing are healthier than people who don’t.
- Singing gives the lungs a workout,
- Singing tones abdominal and intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, and stimulates circulation.
- Singing makes us breathe more deeply than many forms of strenuous exercise, so we take in more oxygen, improve aerobic capacity and experience a release of muscle tension as well.” — Professor Graham Welch, Director of Educational Research, University of Surrey, Roehampton, UK- from here.
Other claims made are that singing can increase your life span, can reduce depression, improve your posture. If half of this is true then perhaps every hospital should have its own choir. GP’s should prescribe barber shop.
We do not worship for our own benefit of course- and I suppose you could argue that worship music has already become too centred on ‘us’- our needs for a ‘high’, not to mention the egos of we worship leaders. However, we might argue that things that carry a simple wholesomeness about them always seem to draw us towards God.
Everywhere, in all cultures, through all time, when people come together, we sing.
In these times when individualism tends to dominate our western culture, very few things still collectivise our activities. There are very few semi-ritual activities that bring us together. Communal singing is one of the few things that achieves this- whether on the football terraces, or our national anthems, or in churches.
When we come together like this, interesting things happen. We humans are above all things, social creatures. Our sense of wellbeing is very dependent on our connection with people around us. The stronger- more harmonious- that these are, then the better we tend to feel.
Perhaps the most developed example of this is the choir. Choirs come together to rehearse, with an overarching mission- the performance. Fairly ordinary voices are combined with other fairly ordinary voices, and the sound that is made collectively can be extraordianry- even sublime. And along the way, we learn together, laugh together, form relationships with people from other walks of life. There is much of the ways of the Kingdom of God in this I think.
And then there is the high of performing together. Like this, for example.
If our culture skews us towards individuality, then perhaps our means of worship have taken a similar course? Our spirituality is ‘personal’ and ‘private’, and newer forms of worship may have underlined this too- for example, ‘alternative worship’ spaces (which I love) which owe more to art installations may tend to make individuals of all of us even within a communal space.
Singing is one of the few spiritual practices that can be totally shared. When done together it requires us to align ourselves entirely with our fellow singers- to find the same rhythm and chordal structure, to feel the ebb and flow of the emotional content of what sing and to depend on others to fill out the polyphonic diversity.
There is more however- many of us who have sung in groups would describe transcendent experiences whilst singing. These things are extremely difficult to define- but perhaps the shared intensity, allied to deep breathing and exposure to rich lovely sounds will always open us wide to deeper experiences.
Of course, you might experience similar things from exposure to all sorts of art/beauty- from a rock concerts, to films, or beauty in nature. But singing is slightly different- in its democratic accessibility.
It is also a means of making worship deliberate and directional. It combines something abstract- music, with something concrete- words.
In many ways, these words are the carries of our faith- the ones that we remember more vividly and use to encapsulate beliefs. Some of these words rest on our souls- we never forget them. They come to us in moments of significance almost unbidden- either in times of adversity or ecstasy. Somehow their allegiance to music makes them spiritually more three dimensional.
So perhaps the arguments for singing remain strong?
The issues of what and how remain however…