Not Learning to Lament: Comparing the Psalms to Songbooks

If you are looking for an accessible, pastoral but academically informed study of the Psalms, particularly the lament psalms, let me point you to a book recently published by my ACU colleague Glenn Pemberton. Glenn's book--Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms--is a wonderful book that would be great for personal bible study, a sermon series, or an adult/small group study.

One of the provocative things Glenn does in Chapter 2, with the help of Austin Holt, is to inventory the content of the Psalms and compare that content with the content of three different songbooks--Songs of Faith and Praise (used by my faith tradition the Churches of Christ), The Baptist Hymnal, and The Presbyterian Hymnal.

According to the system Glenn and Austin used, the three biggest categories of songs, for the Psalms and the three songbooks, were songs of Trust and Thanksgiving, songs of Praise, and songs of Lament. Using these categories Glenn and Austin inventoried the Psalms and the songbooks, calculating the percentage of the songs in each of the categories. (There were more than three categories. I'm just focusing on the biggest three.)

When Glenn and Austin graphed these percentages they found this:
Notice anything interesting?

Note that 40% of the Psalms can be classified as lament. The three songbooks don't even crack 20%. And two of them don't crack 15%

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17 thoughts on “Not Learning to Lament: Comparing the Psalms to Songbooks”

  1. I'd assume this graph doesn't include 21st popular worship music, written by mega churches that manufacture an experience so far removed from the realities of the world, it's alarming. I'd be surprised if psalms of lament cracked 1% for that stuff.

  2. More telling would be the statistics of how often the hymns of lament are actually sung. Even when present in the hymnbooks, they often seem to lie neglected.

    Perhaps the most immediate answer to the question of why laments are not used as much has to do with the fact that we live at a very different moment in redemptive history. While this is an argument worth engaging with - its basic claim is correct - I don't find it ultimately persuasive.

  3. Interesting.

    The Psalms are my favourite prayer aid, especially when things are shit, because of the lamentations. There are only a couple of modernish hymns that I can recall off the top of my head for that purpose. So usually not a whole lot of singing when I lament.

  4. PS to add that there is something wrong with me because I can't get past the typo in that graph :(

  5. I was the same. Corrected version here: :-)

  6. Thank you for this post.  I have parishioners who simply flat out hate lament songs.  Some have told me to eliminate any songs in minor keys.  To them, negative mood in worship is antithetical to the gospel as they come in expecting an avalanche of positive (IMO a denial of suffering and pain).

  7. The good news: Among seminaries, ministers, and others, lament is now really trendy. I've heard about 50 people over the last 3 years complain that we never talk about lament--which means someone must be talking about it! The deeper question is how to make this more than a trend, a solid part of our lives--and whether Americans will put up with it.

  8. Could we ask some of our Muslim brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach us about how to lament?  But I wonder if lamenting is the kind of thing that can be/needs be taught.  Perhaps though we can come to learn to recognize the sorrowful heart in another and to make a place in our life and our lives together for another’s lament?  I am afraid though, that like so many other Christian virtues, it’s really only through our own suffering that understanding comes.  obliged.  

  9. It seems a bit silly to use two hymnals which come from two evangelical denominations that are so similar -- the Baptist Hymnal and Songs of Faith and Praise. Both the Baptists and the Church of Christ are cut from much the same American Anabaptist theological cloth, considering all the many ways they have split themselves up over the past 180 years (at least). If Pemberton's and Holt's aims are to actually show how their Church of Christ hymn traditions do not include many hymns of lament compared to other Protestant or Anabaptist worship-in-song traditions, their study might be more inclusive if their scale were built around comparisons between the Evangelical Lutheran Worship or The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal); United Methodist Hymnal; and then Songs of Faith and Praise, the hymnal Churches of Christ use (some still with the shaped-note reading system). 

    So many of our hymns come from the Victorian-era -- the tunes especially, and style of music. Before then, where would we be without Charles Wesley (Anglican)? Between Wesley, the American gospel-style emerging from the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800's (which the Arminians in the CofC camp latched onto) and the Victorian influences the doctrine within American hymnody and any notion of lament as found expressed within the Psalms was totally reshaped. Add to that much of American contemporary music inhabiting country western, country folk, pop rock, or show tune styles and, well, there is not going to be much space to cram more into the existing hymnals. Country folk of the Appalachian style is, no doubt, highly modal, but its gospel doctrine has more to do with the death, dying and suffering more akin to New Testament theology. Spirituals, on the other hand, do encompass more of the Old Testament imagery of lament. But if Spirituals are included in the white man's hymnal they are more from the 'Were you there?' type, and the 'Ring dem Golden Bells' happy clappy tunes.

    Today's hymn-writers are led to write songs, hymns and spiritual songs that folks are going to sing and listen to on their iPod (iPad). How many CD's of lament get sold out from wear and tear? If there are psalms of lament to be sung in corporate worship then the church leadership has to educate the congregation on the value of lament. As a more intimate, private or reflective expression of worship, the psalms of lament are more effectively sung if one has been taught how to sing them. 

    I agree with some of the others commenting here that 'Lament' has become yet another trend -- as has 'Vesper' services in churches that are not from liturgical worship traditions. And masses of people have been rushing into churches for Vespers to find their own safe space to lament in. Next thing for churches to build are cave-like grottos with special lighting features. The very nature of lament is also, for many, a deeply private expression of faith and worship, if you could call it that. In upwardly mobile urban churches where keeping up appearances is important this is problematic. In rural evangelical churches such as the CofC where there are just a few members openly lamenting in front of others is even more complicated. 

    There are also plenty of Afghan and Iraqi Muslims in American mosques who have suffered in their homeland, as well as Christians who have immigrated to the US from the Middle East and other countries who could teach us plenty about suffering. They have been in our midst all along -- all it takes are those who are willing to do the footwork and get to know them. The mosque in Richardson is a lovely place to start! :)

  10. I thik lamenting is something that is hard to do collectively or as a community.  For the community to lament together, there needs to be something that binds hearts together so that lamenting is natural..  A shared experience can draw the body together for lamenting.  Or it can take the right setting.  But if it is forced, it isn't heart felt . . . and no real lamenting is taking place.  In the assembly, if the focus is to be on lamenting,  I think more planning is needed.

    "Okay everybody, it's time to do a lamnet song.  We need to remember how to lament.  On your mark . . . get ready . . . get set . . . start lamenting."  That doesn't work in settings where we have come to lift up our voices in praise and adoration and thanksgiving.

    But don't get me wrong.   I am drawn to the lament songs as a part of my own personal devotional time.

  11. How lamentable! If you want lament, try putting hymns, even upbeat ones, in a minor key.


    George Cooper

  12. Richard Leonard, an Australian Jesuit, published a book last year called "Where the hell is God?" It looks at the problem of suffering from an approachable theological perspective.

    In it, he refers to what has been a common practice in Australian churches in the last couple of decades--praying for rain to break the drought crippling much of the country. He said that he has a problem with these prayers if we approach them as expecting a simple cause and effect--that God feels like inflicting a drought that is driving farmers to suicide, but if we ask him nicely he might come around. As he puts it, treating God as Zeus. Instead, Leonard frames these prayers as a communal lament that helps to draw us into solidarity with our suffering compatriots.

    Personally, one of my common prayers is the simple lament, "I wish things were different". Sometimes I don't have the grace to accept mystery nor the energy to fight with God so I just pray "It's cold outside and there are people without houses. I wish things were different." I'd appreciate more communal prayers being expressed like that.

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