Michael Morgan. Louisville: Witherspoon Press, in partnership of the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Columbia Theological Seminary, 1999. 182 pp. Hardcover $25.95; softcover $14.95.
For our ancestors in the faith, both Christians and Jews, the book of Psalms has been both a hymnal and a prayer book. The figures and imagery, the language and grammar of the psalms are indelibly ingrained into the consciousness of people of faith so that we return to them time and again for private devotions and for communal worship. Nothing testifies more truly to the ineffable nature of the psalms than the variety of ways in which the present generation is rediscovering their freshness and power.
In his book of metrical psalm texts for Christian worship, Michael Morgan shares some mementos of his spiritual journey. The book contains original metrical renderings for all 150 of the psalms.
I had the pleasure of singing some of these psalms with Michael Morgan during a conference at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, prior to their publication. It was a remarkable and moving experience, for example, to sing his setting of Psalm 22, the Good Friday lament, to the familiar tune PASSION CHORALE ("O Sacred Head Now Wounded").
My God, am I forsaken?
Why turn from me Thine eyes?
Why cease to feel my anguish,
or hear my plaintive cries?
The ones who came before me
funnel merit for their trust;
while I, despised, tormented,
am cast, into the dust.
Many of the text-tune matches he suggests are stunningly appropriate and startling in their emotional and spiritual impact. Psalm 150 is perfectly matched with sine nomine ("For All the Saints"):
Let ev'ry heart lift: up God's name in praise;
each voice a sons within this temple raise
to God, whose goodness follows all our days:
By these examples you will have learned that Morgan has matched his versifications to familiar hymn tunes. It is a device that makes his work readily available to congregations, especially those who resist singing unfamiliar music. He has provided a most helpful index of suggested tunes for each psalm text, and also provides an index that matches the psalms with their liftirgical use in the Revised Common Lectionary. The association with well-known music is, of course, a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it gives voice to these texts in settings where more contemporary music would not be accepted readily. At the same time, it both limits the music and deprives the church of truly singing "a new song unto the Lord."
My greatest single disappointment with Morgan's work is his affinity for Elizabethan English. I find the archaic pronouns, verb forms, and sentence constructions both annoying and distracting. It isn't as though he tries to hide this affinity/though. He says plainly in the introduction that he is "thoroughly steeped in the grandeur" of the seventeenth cefTfufy. His reliance on the King James Version of the Bible is obvious: 1 would have wished for more accessible language to complement his insistence on familiar music. At the same time, we should note that he is sensitive to gender-inclusive language in reference both to God and to people, his "passion for tradition" notwithstanding.
There are a few places where he tinkers with the imagery of the original in distracting ways. In some instances, the alterations are no more significant than the very familiar example from Old Hundredth where William Kethe (1560) turned "O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands" into "All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord a joyful song." In other cases, however, some fairly significant theological issues are glossed over by Morgan's rendition. A remarkable example is his Psalm 23, where human beings are said to provide God with the role model of "faithful shepherds [who] tend their flocks," rather than vice versa, as the psalm itself intends.
This is not a perfect volume. No hymnal is; there arc always imperfections and flaws, and elements that one or another of us will not want to use. This is, however, a good contribution to the continuing rediscovery of metrical psalms for Christian worship. Michael Morgan is a sensitive poet and a passionate musician who is at home in the book of Psalms, and I am glad he invited us to share that home with him. I hope his good work finds receptive hearts and voices in our churches.