Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit
In the Anglican tradition, to which I have belonged for more than twenty years, the psalms are in constant use, recited or read as part of the liturgy, in daily prayer as well as in Sunday worship. This contrasts sharply with the Brethren tradition in which I was raised, where odd snippets from psalms might be quoted from time to time in support of a particular line of thought during an ad-hoc talk or a sermon, but where it was easy to quietly disregard the more 'difficult' psalms with their abrasive spirituality and angry cries for vengeance.
In both traditions, however, it's rare, in my experience, to find the spirituality of the psalms explored in any depth: in the Church of England, a psalm is recited and, without even a moment's pause for reflection, we move on to the next reading; in the Brethren, we'd simply pick and choose the psalms we fancied (or as the more pious in the congregation would say, as we were led by the Spirit).
In this book Brueggemann invites us to a deeper, more authentic approach to these ancient prayers and songs, challenging us to engage with the psalmists in their historical and cultural context, teasing out and exploring their quintessential Jewishness. Five short chapters take us on this journey, not psalm by psalm or verse by verse as is the way of commentaries but more dynamically, beginning and ending with both our own and the psalmists' experience of life and of God.
Chapter 1, 'Letting Experience Touch the Psalter', sets the scene, finding common ground between ourselves and the psalmists as the life of faith moves with God through orientation, disorientation and reorientation (p.2) — "our common experience is not one of well-being and equilibrium, but a churning, disruptive experience of dislocation and relocation" (.p.7).
Chapter 2, 'The Liberation of Language', takes us a step further, pushing our use of language beyond simple descriptive reporting into evocative speech whereby our interaction with God becomes a living, transformative thing. Reading this chapter I found the old adage that "prayer changes things" coming to mind — not in the all too common but misguided sense of asking God to wave a magic wand and put the world to rights but rather by drawing us into God's work in the world: the psalmists envision change and it is in that envisioning that change is wrought.
Chapter 3, 'Language Appropriate to a Place', continues the themes opened up in chapter 2, exploring the contrast between two metaphorical places in which we and the psalmists frequently find ourselves: in the pit, crying out for rescue; and under the shadow of God's wing, in the place of safety and refuge.
Chapter 4, 'Christians in "Jewish Territory"', focuses, of course, on "the Jewishness of the Psalms" which "must be faced because our spirituality is diminished and trivialized if we neglect the Jewishness that belongs to our own tradition and practice of faith." (p.46). Brueggemann points out the all too often neglected (if not entirely forgotten!) fact that Jesus was a Jew and our faith is rooted in the faith of ancient Israel, then examines what that implies for our life of prayer: we must learn to pray for the Jews, with the Jews and even, he posits with some uneasiness, as Jews.
Chapter 5, 'Vengeance: Human and Divine' tackles that "most troublesome dimension of the Psalms... the agenda of vengeance." (p.63). Too often Christians have attempted to sidestep the issue, Brueggemann argues, either by pretending that Christianity has somehow evolved beyond such primitive desires or by ducking the question. Such an approach, however, simply will not do: the desire for vengeance is a part of our humanity; rather, with the psalmists and with God we must find our way through to 'take the route that God "himself" has gone' (p.81).
By approaching the psalms with integrity and honesty rather then trying to hide from or simply ignoring their difficulties, Brueggemann opens them up in powerful and challenging ways. Paternoster in the UK and Cascade/Wipf & Stock in the USA are to be warmly congratulated on reissuing this book for a new generation of readers, making it all the more valuable with a new preface and an updated bibliography. Read it and let your experience of the psalms be invigorated and transformed.
Phil Groom, January 2008
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Order from www.christianbookshops.org