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Mark Noll

Praise the Lord

Song, culture, divine bounty, and issues of harmonization.

Many readers know Mark Noll as a historian of American religion, others first as a chronicler of transnational evangelicalism and author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a formative influence on Books & Culture. Some know him as a poet. But he is also a lover of music who has edited and contributed to several collections of essays on hymnody over the past few years. So it's altogether fitting that in responding to this year's question for the Christian Vision Project, What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?, he should frame his answer in terms of the power of singing—a power capable of building Christian community and also of dividing believers and their communities one against another. How should we think about that power today, in this in-between time? How should we make music in the light of the vision vouchsafed to John when the door of heaven was opened to him, and he heard voices praising God without ceasing?

An old German proverb runs: "Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder" (the one who speaks with me is my fellow human; the one who sings with me is my brother). In the world Christian community today, nothing defines "brotherhood" more obviously than singing. As it was in the beginning of the limited Christian pluralism in 16th-century Europe, so it remains in the nearly unbounded Christian pluralism of the 21st century. As soon as there were Protestants to be differentiated from Catholics, Calvinists from Lutherans, Anabaptists from Lutherans and Calvinists, Anglicans from Roman Catholics and other Protestants—so soon did singing become the powerful two-sided reality that it continues to be.

One reality was that believers who together sang the same hymns in the same way came to experience very strong ties with each other and even stronger rooting in Christianity. Psalm singing nerved Huguenots to face death and devastation during France's violent religious wars of the ...

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