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A Review of “Singing the Faith: A Short Introduction to Christian Hymnody”

Carl Schalk. Singing the Faith:  A Short Introduction to Christian Hymnody
St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2020.
93 pages. $15, paperback.

Subtitled “A Short Introduction to Christian Hymnody,” Carl Schalk’s Singing the Faith covers the range of the church’s song from the Old and New Testaments, through Greek and Latin hymnody, through the medieval and Reformation periods, and into the twentieth century. The chapters follow closely the organization of Schalk’s 1993 Praising God in Song, intended for the study of Christian hymnody by congregations and published in a three-ring binder for ease of reproducing the chapters. The two books are related in content as well, with many of the same hymn examples included in both. But Singing the Faith is more than a mere rehashing of the former work; it tends to cater to the more scholarly reader who desires a condensed relation of the history of Christian song. The chapter titled “The Reformation: Calvin and the Psalters” (Chapter 7) is a case in point. While the corresponding chapter from Praising God in Song provides lists of several tunes and texts from psalters still sung today (helpful for a congregation to know), in Singing the Faith, Schalk covers all the scholarly bases, writing sections on the Souterliedekens, Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, and Matthew Parker’s Psalter—subjects not covered in his former book for congregations. 

The scholarly nature of the book—coupled with the brevity necessary in an “Introduction”—presents challenges at times. In places it presupposes a reader’s deeper knowledge of the subject (or, perhaps, is encouraging further study). For instance, a reference to the Pope’s edict concerning “secular song” in 1322 is given without further explanation (34). The verbiage on page 41 indicating that Luther’s “Vom Himmel Hoch” was contrafactum may leave one with the impression that the melody we are still singing with the text “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” was originally a secular tune. (It is not; Luther eventually wrote his own tune for his text.) An explanatory footnote in cases like these would be helpful, although the brevity of the book understandably calls for a limit on such things. Still, a bibliography of basic sources—or at least a list of books “For Further Reading” (as found in Schalk’s Praising God in Song)—would be helpful to scholar and student alike.

The book abounds in musical illustrations pairing nicely with Schalk’s fluid prose. Those who know Schalk and his work will also understand that his perspective is from that of Lutheranism. Thus they won’t be surprised to find an emphasis on the centrality of the Gospel and the Word and Sacraments (as well as the church year and liturgy) as providing the foundation from which the greatest of hymnody throughout time has flowed.  

Singing the Faith, another gem from the pen of one of America’s eminent hymnologists, is to be commended for church musicians, pastors, and all students of the church’s song. It could be used as a basic introductory text for a university course dealing with church music, and it could be useful for churches studying the history of congregational song. In my own re-reading of Schalk’s earlier Praising God in Song, I found myself wishing that Concordia Publishing House would publish a new addition of this excellent study (it is out of print). Indeed, a fuller picture of the church’s song can be gained from a parallel reading of both—perhaps with Praising God in Song supplying the material for the congregation members to have in their hands, with Singing the Faith used by the leader to provide additional information.          

Dr. Samuel Eatherton
Director of Music
Trinity Lutheran Church and School
Sheboygan, Wisconsin