Love the Lord with All Your Voice
We eat because we are hungry; we sleep because we are tired. But there are many other things we do without a clear sense of why we do them. Each year I teach a course on theological aesthetics, and one of the questions I pose at the beginning of the semester is, "Why do human beings sing?"
Many answers are given: We sing to mark important occasions, to pass time while working, to simply enjoy ourselves. We could also give rationales based in history, sociology, psychology, or biology. But my students answer with a fair degree of unanimity. "We sing," they say, "to express how we feel."
In the fourth century, the church father Athanasius (293–376) articulated a different understanding of singing. It includes self-expression, but Athanasius believed singing is centrally a spiritual discipline—an important practice in Christian spiritual formation, and a means of growing in the life of faith.
In a letter to his friend Marcellinus, Athanasius enthusiastically commends the Book of Psalms and provides guidance for reading the Psalms devotionally. Of course, Athanasius recognized that each portion of Scripture is valuable and makes its own contribution to the life of faith. The Book of Psalms, however, has a unique place in Christian devotions, something that was true in Athanasius' time and remained so across centuries of monastic practice and worship. Athanasius suggests that the Psalms are so spiritually significant precisely because they are not simply read or spoken but sung. But why is singing valuable?
The Art of Imitation
For most of my students, singing is a means of expression—a way of drawing out what is in us (the ex in expression). Athanasius very nearly inverts their reasoning: The first and most important outcome of singing the Psalms is impression. In singing, the truth of the Psalms is drawn into the depths of one's being rather than out of the depths of one's being.
Athanasius explains that "in the other books [of Scripture], those who read … are relating the things that were written about those earlier people." Imagine an ancient preacher reading to his church the story of Moses and the burning bush. As the story is read, there are two separate actors: Moses, and the preacher, who is reading about Moses. In this sort of reading, Athanasius says, "those who listen consider themselves to be other than those about whom the passage speaks."
On the one hand is Moses, who is worshiping; on the other hand is the congregation, who is listening to the account of Moses worshiping. In contrast, Athanasius says, consider the Psalms: "He who takes up this book … recognizes [the words] as being his own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs" (my emphasis).
For Athanasius, the first virtue of the Psalms is not that they allow me to express my emotions. Rather, singing the Psalms makes it possible for me to express Moses' or David's emotions as my own ("as if they were his own songs"). Singing is first of all an act of imitating. I take another person's words, another person's declaration, on my own lips and into my own heart. For Athanasius, singing begins as impression rather than as expression.
The Posture of Our Words
We might ask again why we could not simply speak the words of Scripture as if they were our own. What is gained by singing them? Just this: In song, we learn not just the content of the spiritual life, but something of its posture, inflection, and emotional disposition.