There’s a new sound emanating from the CUI campus — old lyrics put to new melodies that express timeless theological truths about God.
The Psalm Library, a project of the Center for Worship Leadership (CWL), is bringing together gifted co-writers who have musical and theological depth, to create excellent contemporary music grounded in the rich doctrinal history of the Lutheran church.
“We want these songs to be useful to all congregations, especially Lutheran congregations, within the context of our church calendar and the doctrines of our church body,” says alumnus Kip Fox ’03, who was enlisted as the songwriter for the first psalm in the project. Fox serves as a worship leader at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Mesa, Arizona, and as director of the CWL’s "Songwriter Initiative" which connects and supports Lutheran songwriters across the country.
It was CWL theology director Rev. Steve Zank ’06 who recruited Fox and Rev. Dr. Paul Elliott to collaborate.
“I had no real ambition to be a songwriter, but it sounded like an exciting opportunity,” says Elliott, who teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at CUI. “I’m willing to try new things.”
Elliott and Fox got acquainted by email and phone, then chose Psalm 72 as the first song to be written. Elliott performed an exegetical study on it the same way he does when preparing an academic paper or a seminar.
“I read it many times in the Hebrew, identified all my questions about the text, and dug through dictionaries and commentaries to make sure I was understanding each part correctly,” he says.
One challenge he identified was to convey how the poetic elements brought out different meanings of Hebrew words. For example, the psalm repeats the words “righteousness” and “justice” but uses them in different ways and contexts in the course of the poem, he says.
“This was a key to understanding the poem, that the same vocabulary was used multiple times and in multiple senses of the words,” he says.
Ancient psalms, he reminds us, were not meant to be read without music, or explained in straight prose.
“I’m a firm believer that you can’t reduce poetry to prose,” Elliott says. “There’s always something lost. Poetry conveys levels of meaning that aren’t in the prose version.”
So the opportunity to express Psalm 72’s meaning in lyrics was novel.
“We tried to break down barriers which put cultural distance between the psalm and the reader, so they can think about the text in ways they might not by just reading an English translation. To do that, we had to find the theological themes that really made it tick, pull those out and express them in a modern idiom that makes sense.”
Elliott emailed Fox a fresh translation of the Psalm and identified elements he thought important to include in the final song. Fox was impressed by what he saw.
“It’s pretty amazing, the depth and wealth of knowledge that a scholar brings to the table,” he says. “There are so many things going on in the psalm, from the context, the audience, to when it was written, and amazing nuggets about what Solomon was really saying. My heart was moved in a new way based on all the new information I was getting.”
Elliott’s “strong exegetical work on every aspect of Psalm 72 guided me through the main themes,” Fox says. “It was really cool. I’ve co-written with a lot of writers but never in this way.”
Fox “pinged” Elliott a lot of questions to get a handle on what the psalm was saying. The thing that stood out to both men is the song’s joyous, celebratory nature in describing the reign of King Solomon and, more distantly, the reign of Jesus Christ. Verse 15 focuses the theme with the words, “Long may he live.”
“The whole theme points to the messianic nature of the psalm,” Fox says. He tweaked “Long may he live” to “Long live the king” which is “more natural to our modern vernacular and sang better than the original line,” he says.
With Elliott’s approval, it became the song’s hook and title. Finally, when the song was finished, Fox brought musicians together to record it, and CUI alumnus Brandon Li ’18 produced a video available on the internet.
“Fox was a joy to work with,” Elliott says. “We were very much on the same wavelength. He did some cool things I wouldn’t have thought to do. I’m hoping as people listen to this song that they will think about the Psalm in new ways. I was delighted that it came together so well.”
CWL will release free lead sheets and song charts as resources to the church. Zank plans to produce at least two songs per year, and to expand its number of songwriters and theologians.
If the first collaboration is any indication, there should be fruitful, psalmic ministry flowing from CUI’s songwriters and theologians for years to come.