Yet as I study Colossians I become more and more convinced that singing is not optional. So Paul instructs: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col 3:16, NRSV). Why is singing so important? It has to do with the substance of the song as much as the verve of the voice or the emotion of the moment (which are all interconnected anyway). Paul is not encouraging people to sing whatever song but especially the songs inspired by the ‘word of Christ.’
In fact, as Paul often does, he exemplifies what he preaches. The Letter to the Colossians is essentially Col 3:16 writ large. Paul reminds the Colossians of the faith, love and hope they received as result of the word of Christ, the gospel that is flourishing in them (1:3-8). He then proceeds to sing to them a song about Jesus (Col 1:15-20), a beautiful hymn that celebrates Christ as the means of creation and salvation. He identifies his ministry as precisely ‘teaching and admonishing’ so that ‘we may present everyone mature in Christ’ (Col 1:28), and the song he sings is integral to this since it highlights God’s mystery, Christ, that is ‘in us’ and is our ‘hope of glory’ ((Col 1:26, 27, 2:2, 4:3; cf. 3:4). And Paul’s goal, as we’ve discussed, is to remind his audience of what God has done, is doing, will do for them so that they will have ‘gratitude in your hearts’ (cf. 1:12, 2:7, 3:15, 16, 17, 4:2).
My former teacher and mentor, Tom Olbricht, occasionally breaks out in song when he teaches. It could be a children’s song or a great church hymn, but almost always it is apropos of the moment, catching the emotional resonance of the heady theology he and his students are studying. It is a curious bravado that allows him to express boldly what he believes in a vulnerable fashion. And my sense is, he is compelled to sing; he can’t help it.
Now it’s not likely that, passing by my classroom, you’ll encounter a scene akin to Enchanted or perhaps more apt, “Once More, with Feeling,” the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. Where Dr. Olbricht loves his students too much to not sing to them, lacking his vocal abilities, love dictates that I refrain from singing. But still, investigating the word of Christ rightly is not simply a dry academic exercise; it is an emotionally evocative experience that must find expression in my teaching and in my life somehow. If it doesn’t, then can I really claim to understand what I’m talking about.