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Book Review: “The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song”

July 11, 2016

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The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song
John L. Bell
GIA, 2000; 158 pages




I found this an interesting little volume that deals with the general philosophy of congregational singing as a communal activity. Bell discusses the purposes and benefits of communal singing, as well as exploring the reasons that many people refuse to sing.

Bell is a member of the ecumenical Iona Community in Britain, which focuses mainly on social justice. The theology in Bell’s book is an unmitigated disaster, but it’s mercifully relegated to the background. References to Scripture are largely eclipsed by quotes from pop culture, and Bell’s thinking is clearly shaped not by Scripture but by history, anthropology, and modern secular thought.

But despite a general absence of theological grounding, Bell makes a number of trenchant observations about building a culture of singing  from a secular perspective (and the common obstacles to such a desired culture). The second half of the book, a largely anecdotal discussion of common objections to singing, was itself worth the purchase. Predictably, Bell fails entirely to deal with any implications of Scripture’s commands regarding singing, or the diagnosis of sin in the heart that manifests itself in fear of man. But it’s also true that the issues Bell raises are worth considering: vocal disenfranchisement, performance culture, poor leadership, and modern acoustics and architecture.

To be clear, I rated the book as I did because what it seeks to do, it does reasonably well. On matters of biblical clarity, Bell’s writing is entirely unhelpful. But a theologically-grounded reader will likely glean some benefit from Bell’s perspectives on community and communal music-making, as I did.

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