The implications of singing to God are far wider-reaching than we could ever imagine. My friend Dave Bish at thebluefish.org recently pushed an excellent article my way by Steven R Guthrie entitled 'The Song-Shaped Soul'. It's a study of singing as a spiritual discipline, with particular focus on a letter from early church father Athanasius to his friend Marcellinus on the benefits of reading the Psalms and singing.
Quite often we see singing and music as means of expression of what's within us. If I'm feeling down I'll listen to something that suits my mood and allows me to draw it out. I probably should beat myself out of such a mood with some happy hardcore, but in the moment I feel I want something to identify with how I'm feeling.
In my line of work, using music in prison as a means of reducing re-offending is particularly powerful. With those we've worked with post-release we've seen a 75% reduction in re-offending rates, which is an incredible statistic. Music and singing undoubtedly has a profound effect on people. Very often we link our success as a charity to the power music lends to inmates as a means of communicating and expressing what they have within.
However, among Athanasius' main points is the outcome of singing the Psalms as being IM-PRESSION rather than EX-PRESSION. Guthrie uses some stunning short statements in relation to singing the Psalms and its act of impression upon the soul. I can't help but see them applying across the board in other forms of singing and music.
'Singing is an act of imitation. It is im-pression rather than ex-pression'.
'Like children playing dress-up, we are formed by the words as we 'wear them'.
'We do not just say words, we inhabit them'.
'Song not only carries the words inside us; it also carries us to the in-side of the words'.
'When one sings, however, reason, emotion, physical sense and desire come alongside one another, each contributing something essential to the experience of music. As we sing, we become a harmony.'
He also quotes the philosopher Roger Scruton; 'when we respond to a piece of music 'a kind of gravitational field is created, which shapes the emotional life of the one who enters it. We move for a while along the orbit of a formalized emotion and practice its steps.' Music allows us to take the posture of the words that we're singing.
For me, as a regular member of the public, doing what I do in prison, as a worship leader, and as a member of the Body of Christ, this potentially has an enormous impact on what I/we sing and listen to...
If I'm simply feeding a state of depression in listening to depressing music, that can't be healthy. If I'm in prison with psychopathic tendencies, surely it's not the best idea to be singing death metal or anarchistic punk?!
If this is true, that singing through its impression on the soul could create identity, then also for the Church, and in my role as a worship leader where I'm looking to develop a corporate response to the glory of God and to lead people into an encounter with Him, I surely need to be using songs that will feed us with truth and develop a 'body/bride identity'. Paul talks in Ephesians 5:19 about 'addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with Your heart'. What an incredible responsibility we have! We are to impress upon ourselves and each other the truth in Scripture, hymns and spiritual songs. Singing as a Church not only shapes us individually but corporately. What a wonderful opportunity to develop ourselves into the Bride and Body of Christ. Might I suggest that the soul of the Body of Christ is best shaped through songs that tell of the mind of Christ, and that the Bride of Christ might best build her identity through tales of the passion of her future Husband.