What happens when we pray the Psalms?

According to Walter Brueggemann, in his essay “The Counter-World of the Psalms,”* the Psalms mediate to us a “counter-world” that subverts our “closely held world”–that is, the narrative or worldview we commonly live by.

What is this “closely held” world like? For Brueggemann, it is a picture of the world characterized by anxiety and scarcity, self-sufficiency, denial, amnesia, and normlessness. That is, we are anxious because we believe that we have to compete for a limited set of resources and cannot depend on others, who are our rivals and competitors for these resources. We deny that this is a dysfunctional way to live and we block out or forget the toll this way of living takes on human well-being. This all leads to a sense that “everything is permitted”–that there is no meaning to life other than what we individually and privately impose on it. This is essentially what Brueggemann elsewhere refers to as a “military consumerist mentality.”

But how do the Psalms counter this? In Brueggemann’s telling, the various types of Psalms (praise, lament, history, wisdom, etc.) counter the elements of our closely held world at every turn. By reciting, praying, and meditating on the Psalms, we are inducted into a world of trustful fidelity, abundance, ultimate dependence, abrasive truth telling, hope, lively remembering, and normed fidelity. In the Psalms, God is the trustworthy ground of existence who creates a world that, in Gandhi’s words, “provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” It is a world in which trust in God goes hand in hand with neighborly interdependence, we can tell the truth about ourselves and our own failings and even complain to God when things go awry, and in which we believe that God will act to bring about shalom. It is a world in which we remember God’s mighty acts of salvation as both the reason for hope in the future and the basis for fidelity to God’s revealed path to human flourishing (Torah).

At the center of the Psalms stands YHWH, the God of Israel–“a lively character, and an agent of firm resolve who brings transformative energy and empancipatory capacity to all our social transactions” (p. 27). The living God of the Psalms stands in stark contrast to the mute and lifeless idols of nationalism, capitalism, and mastery; of a “conservative scholasticism” that tries to encase the truth in a set of propositions; and of a progressivism that reduces the scope of divine action to the confines of a narrow Enlightenment rationalism.

The Psalms “witnesses to and makes available a God of agency who shatters the serene sedation of our closely held world” (p. 29). By “performing” the Psalms, our familiar world is broken open, and the alternative of abundance, trust, truthfulness, hope, memory, and fidelity comes alive. “It is the work of the Psalter to populate our world with the character of this God. Where this God governs, the world is transformed and transformable” (p. 35).

It’s often said that the Psalms provide an expression of every human experience or emotion. But on Brueggemann’s account, they are also tools of transformation–of refining that raw material of human experience with the truth of God’s self-revelation. This provides a strong reason for keeping the Psalms at the center of both public worship and private devotion, as has been the case in both Jewish and Christian traditions for centuries.

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*Found in his book From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms.

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