Paul’s epistle to the Romans is, I’d say, the most theologically foundational book of the Bible. As a young Christian I was taught the “Romans Road” method of sharing the gospel, using verses like Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”), Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”), and so on to teach the doctrines of sin and salvation. The book is definitely Paul’s magnum opus.
Countless commentaries on Romans have been produced, but none takes the unique approach of Cody Curtis: exegeting the entire text with music.
The project began, loosely, in 2011, when Curtis’s pastor asked him if he could set to music Paul’s benediction in Romans 11:33–36 to supplement a sermon series. The result, “O the Depth!,” was well received, which gave Curtis the confidence to experiment with lyrical adaptations and musical settings of other Romans passages. In 2014 he decided to pursue a full-out album in collaboration with other musical students, alumni, and friends of his alma mater Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. They call themselves Psallos, from the Greek verb psallō, translated in Ephesians 5 as “making melody”: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (vv. 18b–19).
Released in March 2015, Romans mines the theological depths of its eponymous book, bringing to life Paul’s teachings on sin, grace, sanctification, and divine promise with music. The predominant style could be described as orchestral folk pop, but elements of rock, soul, and jazz are also present on the album. (Read more about the eclectic style choices in Trevin Wax’s interview with Curtis from last year.) Besides your standard piano, guitar, and drums, other instruments include the violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and harmonium. Curtis’s compositions bring to bear his extensive music education—he’s a newly minted doctor of musical arts—as well as his experience leading music for church congregations. He presently serves as music minister at Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.
One of the benefits music offers as a theological medium is its ability to convey mood and tone, and Curtis has done this beautifully. Choosing scripture as his text, he has applied all the tools of his trade to it—e.g., tempo, pitch, volume, timbre—to give dimension to words that, though inspired and living, may have gone flat in believers’ lives due to overexposure or just indifference.
The prelude, an instrumental introduction to the album, brings together musical motives from throughout. (See the teaser above.)
Track 10, “What Shall We Say, Part 1,” highlights a common rhetorical device Paul uses: posing questions from hypothetical opponents and then following them with an answer. The song starts out with the feel of a Jewish folk song but then becomes rock anthem–like when the discourse moves into thanksgiving.
The chorus appears again in “What Shall We Say, Part 2” but lacks the triumph of its original incarnation, instead taking on a mournful tone. That’s because part 2 is an internal monologue in which Paul voices his struggles with personal sin. “Why do I still sin?” he asks, trying to make sense of the fact that although Christ has delivered us from sin in an ultimate sense, it still wages war within us. Here’s an acoustic session of the second half of the song featuring the album’s two fantastic lead vocalists, Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren (née Leaf), with Ben Rico on cello and Curtis on piano:
My favorite song on the album is probably “Glory to Come,” based on Romans 8:19–30. Here’s an acoustic version:
This particular Romans passage is dear to my heart, a reflection on present suffering and future glory that I turn to often. Psallos has gorgeously captured its tone of lament. The musical phrase “Creation groans” itself groans. There’s a sense of heaviness, of being trapped, and then a rising out of it on the chorus:
A day will dawn when glory will be shown
Far outweighing pain and woe.
We await that glorious day
When full redemption comes
With the rising of the risen Son.
Here’s the fully instrumented version:
Although each individual track has high artistic merit on its own, the album was really designed to be listened to as a whole. The songs flow seamlessly into one another, reflecting the seamlessness of Paul’s arguments. It’s not always obvious where one track ends and the next begins. A hard break, though, is made after track 14, reflecting the structural break in the epistle at the end of chapter 8.
Also, key themes are reprised, underscoring the thrust of Romans. We have a sure hope: it is the power of God to save everyone who believes. Nothing can separate us from his love.
I am extremely impressed by the Romans album—all the study and technical skill and imagination that went into it. The concept was ambitious, and it had the potential to go wrong in so many ways, but the execution—the lyrics, compositions, performances, and overall presentation—have proven brilliant. Romans by Psallos provides an opportunity to journey through one of the best-known books of scripture, through its expressions of sorrow and celebration, of remembrance and petition and declaration, using the vehicle of music.
Psallos will be touring the Carolinas next weekend, performing three concerts that are open and free to the public.
Right now Psallos is at work on their next album—a second biblical epistle that has yet to be announced. To receive updates, subscribe to the Psallos e-newsletter or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.