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.
When we sing, we learn not simply what to say but how and why to say it. What Athanasius recognizes (and what we might forget) is that inflection, rhythm, and tone of voice matter deeply. They are not aural decoration. For example, after someone offends us we might say, "It's not so much what he said, it's the way he said it."
We all know, for instance, that there is a way of saying "thank you" that is simply enacting a social convention, such as when someone holds the door for us. There is yet another way of saying "thank you," perhaps after receiving a beautiful gift, that means, "I love you." And there is still another way of saying "thank you," perhaps halfway through an annoying sales pitch, that effectively means, "Go away now."
We do not just say words. We inhabit and enact them. What matters in the spiritual life is not only the words that are said but the "certain attitude . . . posture and expression" with which they are said. This is a deeply biblical insight. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus had condemning words for those who had learned the words by heart but had failed to learn the heart of the words. Song is valuable because it carries the words inside us (impression), and because it carries us to the inside of the words.
Entering a Broad Space
It is only after discussing "impression" and "musical posture" that Athanasius moves to the element of musical expression. Here he commends the Psalms: "It is fitting for the divine Scripture to praise God not in compressed speech alone, but also in the voice that is richly broadened." In comparing the Psalms to the prose passages of Scripture, such as historical books and the law, Athanasius finds that in those books "things are said … in close sequence." These descriptions are puzzling at first.
To understand Athanasius, we need to recall that reading was almost always something done aloud for the ancient reader. If we think in terms of audible speech and song, it becomes apparent that Athanasius has given us a reasonable description of the difference between the two forms of speech. In ordinary speech there is intonation and rhythm, but these are "in close sequence." When "things are expressed more broadly"—when we draw out and sustain the tones and rhythms of our speech—we move from prose, to poetry, to song.
In intoning words in this way, Athanasius says, "thus will it be preserved that men love God with their whole strength and power." Words that are broadened allow space for the speaker to enter in. The singer enters in, not only by inhabiting the words as described earlier, but by filling and animating them with her own strength and passion. We are invited to pour our hearts into this broad space.
We might be tempted to begin with this part of Athanasius' spiritual formation program. When we think of the role of music, we first think of self-expression. Indeed, in the spiritual life generally (and in music particularly), we may wish to begin by giving voice to our own concerns and passions. Of course, there is a place for immediate and spontaneous expression. But Athanasius commends a pattern of tuneful discipleship—one that begins with self-denial rather than self-expression. Before the self is expressed, it is to be formed through Scripture and worship.
This should not be surprising. Jesus marks out this path. At the start of the Christian life there is a surrender, a laying down of one's self, a kind of death: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23, NRSV). Yet neither the gospel nor the Christian life ends at the Cross. After Good Friday there is Easter; after the grave there is resurrection. In the same way, it is after surrendering my own voice to the melody of another that—paradoxically—I find I can express myself truly: "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (v. 24). Athanasius' program of singing the Psalms does not begin with but culminates in self-expression—expression of our true selves. The Psalms are a rich and broad place where all the fullness of one's heart and soul and strength can be given voice.
Becoming a Harmony
Athanasius suggests a final reason that God has paired these words of the Psalms with melody: God intends for melody to serve as "a symbol of the spiritual harmony in a soul." Athanasius writes that while "the entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and of the truths of faith, [the Book of Psalms] possesses somehow the perfect image for the souls' course of life" (my emphasis).
What is a "harmonious soul"? We might define harmony as a pleasing concord of disparate elements, a way of being in which difference gives rise to delight and fullness rather than to strife and frustration. Sadly, our inner life rarely reflects this consonance. We need the image of a well-ordered soul because in their present fallen state, our souls are confused and disordered. We are out of rhythm with God, out of tune with others, and troubled by jarring dissonances within ourselves. Musical harmony, however, may give us some intimation of a life that is composed. Music, Athanasius believes, is a sounding image of a soul that is no longer at odds with itself, nor at odds with the Holy Spirit. Melody models an inner life in which the many different elements and impulses of the person are drawn together in a pleasing chorus.
Athanasius goes even further. Not only is this singing of Psalms an image of the well-ordered soul; it is also a means by which God brings about this order. As the Christian goes about "beautifully singing praises, he brings rhythm to his soul and leads it, so to speak, from disproportion to proportion." This proportioned, harmonized self is not our normal state of being. Apart from Christ, the ordinary state of affairs is for the various members and impulses of our person to jostle for control, battling with one another (Rom. 7:22–23). But when one sings, body, reason, emotion, physical sense, and desire come alongside one another, each enlisted together in the praise of God. As we sing, we become a harmony.
This is not to suggest that music in itself has the power to make us holy. The spiritual discipline Athanasius describes involves singing the words of Scripture, and singing them in the presence of God and the company of God's people. Athanasius' point, however, is that specifically by singing our praises, all the diverse elements of our humanity are drawn together, and then together lifted to God in worship.
Athanasius portrays the Christian life as a sort of richly broadened harmony, ringing out in praise of God. This image of the spiritual life itself may be one of the most important ideas from his Letter to Marcellinus.
Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I ran a summer Bible study series on the spiritual disciplines. I now cringe when I remember the name I gave the series: "Boot Camp." The handouts and Bible study worksheets had military-looking stencils and borders with clip art of camouflage and—forgive me, I was young—barbed wire. What a set of images to surround our discussions of prayer and fasting and Bible study! And how far removed from Athanasius' image of a soul that is "beautifully disposed."
Of course, Christian growth and the spiritual life include hard work, discipline, and training. The apostle Paul himself used a military metaphor (2 Tim. 2:3–4). But we have missed something vital if our vision of spiritual formation is altogether lacking in poetry and song. Perhaps we simply recognize all too well the discordant inner impulses that Athanasius describes, but we haven't yet learned the way of melody and rhythm. We haven't yet learned how to allow grace and beauty to draw our fragmented souls into God's presence. So instead, we urge one another on in sanctification through guilt and threat, through systems and record-keeping, and through heavy-handed admonitions and manipulative programs.
But when Athanasius (and with him, countless generations of monastics) thought of spiritual formation, they thought first of the ringing cadences and resonant harmonies of the Psalms. For this reason, when Athanasius commends the spiritual life to Marcellinus, he does so in terms of song. And when he describes the character of Christian growth and formation, he finds no better image than joyful melody.
Steven R. Guthrie is associate professor of theology at Belmont University in Nashville. He is the author of Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Baker Academic).
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