Ancient-Future Worship: The Odes Project

I’m no musician, but I think a lot about worship-in-song. As I’ve commented some before, I want to see worship become increasingly wise and transformative, with everything from lyrics to tone aiding in the development and formation of the worshiper. (More about this in a post soon – probably something about ‘integral worship.’) This doesn’t always mean aping the past (as Kevin Beck so succinctly argues), but I am a ‘conservative’ in that I think the past offers us many rich treasures, treasures that can provide a welcome relief, at times, from the cacophony of the present. It is with this in mind that I approached The Odes Project, a double-album of contemporary worship arrangements based on “the oldest Christian hymnal,” the second-century Odes of Solomon.

The Odes Project bills itself as an adaptation of

…the Odes of Solomon for use in worship today, bringing the past to the present. It is hoped that by doing so, a greater understanding of the nature and function of Christian hymns will be understood by Christian artists who are learning the principles and practices of Christian worship.

Two Christian Music pioneers, Dr. Chuck Fromm and John Andrew Schreiner joined together to create this project, sharing a calling to serve Christian worship communities with “new song.” Both are lifelong students of worship and music, and as they joined their talents together, they resolved to make these ancient songs of faith accessible in the present tense. Fromm is a visionary and publisher in the service of worship. He connected with the Odes of Solomon while studying the worship of the early 1970’s worship music and preparing to write his dissertation. The worship history scholar Hughes Oliphant Old, a regular columnist in Worship Leader magazine, pointed out the connection between the Odes and the wisdom doxology of praise. Fromm related the singing and teaching to his own experience of the Jesus Movement of the early 70s. John Schreiner is a noted musician, composer and worship leader/pastor and has dedicated his life to the service of the Word through music.

The album is very easy to listen to – it’s a tasteful arrangement of 32 of the 42 Odes. I could see singing many of these in a congregation; the lyrics are great – as you can imagine, they’re very theocentric. Take this song, adapted from Ode 12, for instance:

He filled me with his truth
So I sing of His beauty
He came to dwell with me
So that I reflect His light
He poured out his love on me
So I can show mercy
He gave me the truth of his Word
So I share his love

Come and Flow living waters
Flow through me
That I might serve You
Flow living waters
Flow through me
That I might serve you
Overflowing, overflowing to those who thirst.

Before the dawning of His light
His eternal Word
His mind and his thought
Yet your Word dwells with me
And Your truth is love, One to another
I will sing of Your beauty, Your glory, Your purpose, Your ways

Blessed are they who know him
Blessed are they who love
Blessed are they who know him
Blessed are they who love

One to another, One to another, One to another

The only thing I’d change, musically, for congregational singing is that I might arrange the music to sound a little more ancient, ambient, and/or a capella. As they stand now, they’re rather ‘Maranatha‘ in style, which isn’t exactly my bag – but it makes sense, seeing as that is the background of the composer.

One last word: I’ve corresponded some with the creators and really appreciate their vision to bring the Odes of Solomon to life. But it’s ironic to me that this very evangelical crew is helping popularize a work that many scholars consider Gnostic in origin. As its Wikipedia entry notes, the Odes

perhaps originated from a heretical or gnostic group. This can be seen in the extensive use of the word ‘knowledge’ (Syr. ܝܕܥܬܐ īḏa‘tâ; Gk. γνωσις gnōsis), the slight suggestion that the Saviour needed saving in Ode 8:21c (ܘܦ̈ܖܝܩܐ ܒܗܘ ܕܐܬܦܪܩ wafrîqê ḇ-haw d’eṯpreq — ‘and the saved (are) in him who was saved’) and the image of the Father having breasts that are milked by the Holy Spirit to bring about the incarnation of Christ.

It’s quick to note, however, that

In the case of ‘knowledge’, it is always a reference to God’s gift of his self-revelation, and, as the Odes are replete with enjoyment in God’s good creation, they seem at odds with the gnostic concept of knowledge providing the means of release from the imperfect world. A number of scholars, considering the links with gnosticism have been overworked, now see the Odes as gnosistic at most.

You know, like the Gospel of John. At most, this might be the reason why some Odes were rendered for this project and some were not.

There are other things that are intriguing to me about the Odes, including its prototypical Trinitarian doxology in Ode 23, which the composers render explicit throughout the album; I wish they would have done the same with the rich feminine and nursing imagery of God – but perhaps this is something Isaac Everett or the liturgists at St Gregory’s in San Francisco can take on?

All in all, I’d recommend The Odes Project. It’s an excellent model of what good ancient-future worship can look like.

4 Responses to Ancient-Future Worship: The Odes Project

  1. Zac Hicks January 23, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    Thanks for this post. Saw it on twitter. I’d been interested in the Odes Project, but not enough to get it. Our music ( and our other counterparts in the hymns movement across the country attempts to do things along the same vein (setting old hymns to new music), but not with this kind of antiquity. I’ll have to check it out and am glad you reviewed it.


  2. isaac everett January 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Wow, this is a really cool project! Like you, I also wish they’d gone with less gendered language for God and that the music wasn’t in such a “praise and worship” style, but I’m really excited to see modern artists dusting off ancient texts like this. Hopefully this will open the gates for more experimentation.

  3. Heather W January 29, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    Wow Mike, don’t know if I’ll like the Odes Projet or not, but I a so glad to see someone talking about the Odes of Solomon – I have long loved that collection, even memorizing some of them inadvertantly from hearing them so often…. And yet hardly anyone I know has ever heard of them…

  4. chuckfromm June 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    This is a wonderful and encouraging post… THANK YOU ! All of us involved with the Odes project would agree that they require remediation in a variety of style, not merely “praise & worship”. The participatory / rhapsodic / contemporary instrumentation is remixed on this project with anti-phonic / choral phrasing on many of the songs. Seeing the project as a collaboration with the past is critical. All forms get dated. Look how quickly the Ipad 1 had to be remediated via IPAD 2 . The question in remediation, of course, is what forms from a VAST past need remediation today. And the goal in remediation is to function as originally intended, not merely as a museum piece. The hope with the Odes project was not simply to create something that connects with the Oldest Christian Hymn Book but can also serve communities today in creating one voice of praise as well as personal devotions.

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