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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Allow me to introduce: Psalm 73 / Why do the powerful have it so good?


“True, true, God is good.
   Good to the upright, good to the just.
But I—I couldn’t see it, nearly missed it.
   Feet slipping, sliding to the ditch.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the rich...”


We are lucky and blessed that there are so many engaging, high-quality and theologically fabulous new church music resources being produced by contemporary Christian musicians and poets. However, I know church leaders are sometimes reticent to introduce new material to their congregations. There are many reasons for this which I'll save for another day's ramblings.

I think one thing that is enormously helpful in introducing new worship songs or other materials to congregations is to take the time to give the piece some context. This allows the music to quickly become a familiar friend (rather than that awkward stranger on the bus who’s encroaching on your personal space). I make this act of taking the time to carefully and thoughtfully introduce new material an important aspect of my ministry.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the leadership of an evening Psalm festival as part of a two-day celebration of Psalms at Emmanuel College, Toronto. I shared this leadership with Dr. Swee Hong Lim and church musician/doctoral student/new favourite person Becca Whitla. We led, among other things, the Canadian premiere of a new setting of Psalm 73, recently published in Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship / Faith Alive! Resources, 2012).

The setting is entitled “Why do the powerful have it so good?” and is a versification of the Psalm spoken over an e minor vamp (later transitioning to an A-majorish key area with some sus-2 action). The congregation responds to the spoken text with sung refrains. The entire thing is in a kind of dub poetry/quasi-hip-hop style. It’s a wonderful setting, and could easily become part of a congregation’s repertoire.

Here is how I chose to contextualize the piece for the gathered participants that evening (in conjunction with teaching them the sung refrains). What do you think? What might you have done differently?

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“Why do the powerful have it so good?” is a paraphrase of Psalm 73, a Psalm which employs strong language to demand justice for the poor and to accuse God of allowing the wicked to prosper. The setting which we are about to learn employs spoken-word poetry for the text of the Psalm, interspersed with changing sung refrains and underscored by a musical vamp, in a kind of dub poetry or hip-hop style.

In Canada, we enjoy a rich tradition of artists in both of these contemporary genres, performers who employ spoken poetry to convey powerful messages of critique. Among them are internationally renowned Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist K’naan, and Pentictonite slam poet Shane Koyczan, who performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

K’naan uses the medium of hip-hop, which is too often a platform for conveying messages of violence, misogyny and celebrating worldly wealth, to decry the corruption and conditions of poverty in his beloved native Somalia, and to call for people to live lives built on mutuality, generosity and gratitude. He combines expressions of anger and grief at the struggles his country faces with pride at his African heritage, reminding his listeners that there is always a place for  joy and thankfulness in the midst of struggle.

Koyczan’s recent online poetry-video project To This Day, a tribute to “the bullied and beautiful,” went viral during the month of February with 4.3 million views in less than a week. It combines Koyczan’s affably cutting poetic voice with the animation of several artists to convey a powerful message against bullying.

The unapologetic, adamant voice of Psalm 73 lends itself well to this spoken-word genre. Drawing on these previously-mentioned traditions, this setting invites us into the text’s message of critique in a fresh contemporary style. I invite you to join me in learning the sung refrains...

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FYI:


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