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.

Extremists for love and justice

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love–“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice–“Let  justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ–“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist–“Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist–“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist–“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

These words are still powerful and challenging considering how quickly we deploy “extremist” as a term of opprobrium. Islamist terrorists are “extremists”; right-wing congressmen are “extremists”; left-wing environmentalists are “extremists.” Using “extremist” as an inherent term of abuse shifts the grounds of the debate, making the the “moderates” sound reasonable by definition and suggesting that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. But as we well know, King had some harsh words for those he called the “white moderates”–the clergy and other respectable citizens who, while they may have been sympathetic to the aims of the civil rights movement, were uncomfortable with anything that seemed to create “conflict.” They preferred orderly, incremental change that didn’t involve disruptive measures like civil disobedience. But as King’s roll call of “extremists” demonstrates, sometimes conflict–even bloody conflict–is unavoidable in order to unmask the violence and injustice that simmer and fester beneath the surface of an apparently “peaceful” social order.

I also find King’s words personally challenging because I am, by temperament, a conservative person who prefers orderly, incremental change. I’m deeply skeptical of revolutions and Manichean crusades. And yet–some cases do seem to call for a certain black-and-white thinking. Certainly the systematic oppression of black people in the South (and elsewhere in America) was such a case. (Or even more clear-cut, the case of chattel slavery.) A preference for order and incrementalism, as King points out, is often a luxury of the privileged.

Needless to say, I don’t have a good answer to the question of when “extremism” is called for. But surely one essential task is to listen attentively to the voices of those who are pushed to the margins our society–those who most keenly pay the price to prop up the existing order. Examples aren’t particularly hard to come by these days–whether it be the unemployed and hungry, those incarcerated in a nightmarish prison system, or the victims of police brutality. Attending to such people is a quintessentially Christian set of priorities–Matthew 25 priorities you might say. Any social order that rests on the systematic disenfranchisement, impoverishment, or devaluing of some segment of its population, whatever other virtues it may have, falls far short of what justice–at least as the Bible defines justice–requires.

Keep the Bible weird!

Peter Enns recounts a conversation he had with a Jewish colleague in graduate school about the story of Adam and Eve:

So my classmate and I were having lunch talking about this story and I mentioned casually the “fall” of humanity.

“The what?

“The fall of humanity. You know, Adam and Eve’s sin plunged all subsequent humanity into a state of alienation from God.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Really? That’s odd, since it’s so obvious.”

“No it’s not. The story nowhere says what you just said it says.”

“Well then what do you make of Satan tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit….”

“Who?”

“What do you mean ‘who?’”

“Satan? There’s no Satan in the story. There’s a serpent, just a serpent. He’s called the most ‘crafty’ of the creatures that God had put into the garden. He’s a serpent. A crafty creature. That’s what the text says.”

“But the serpent is talking.”

“Because it’s a story.”

It came as a bit of a shock to me that what I thought I “knew” the story of Adam and Eve was about wasn’t really “in” the story itself, but how I had been taught to interpret the story. The dominant Christian reading is rooted in the apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, where Paul seems to place at Adam’s feet (not Eve’s, curiously) the blame for human misery.

I was reading a Bible story book to my kids the other night and was struck by how much interpretation had been imported into its version of the Garden of Eden story. It included a full-blown quasi-Miltonian account of the serpent as Satan, the fallen angel who had rebelled against God. This isn’t exactly explicit in the original text, to put it mildly. This rubbed me the wrong way, because I felt like the Bible wasn’t being allowed to speak for itself, but was being overlaid with the “official” Christian interpretation.

Of course, it would be naive to suggest that you could have a story without some kind of interpretation. But the Bible’s stories can and have generated multiple meanings over the centuries, even within a broadly Christian framework. As Enns points out, the “fall into sin” is a particularly Western Christian understanding of that story–one that is absent from, or at least less emphasized in, Eastern Christianity.

I don’t have a good solution to this, but as I’ve been exposing my kids to the Bible, I’ve become more aware of the fact that many of the interpretations we take for granted are less than obvious. While I want my children to be inculcated with the Christian narrative, I don’t want to drill into them an overly pat understanding of the Bible. The Bible is often richer, weirder, and more interesting than our familiar theology leads us to think. Instead of thinking they have all the answers, I’d rather my kids experienced what Karl Barth called the “strange new world” within the Bible.

Favorite books of 2014

I should say, books I read in 2014. Most of these weren’t published this year.

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H. W. Brands

A compelling and readable (indeed, almost novelistic) account of the life and times of our 32nd president. Brands doesn’t gloss over his flaws, but I came away even more impressed with FDR’s political genius and his sincere desire to make the United States a better, fairer country.

Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds

A lovingly crafted story of the third Doctor and his arch-nemesis (and here temporary ally) the Master. Reynolds is a popular “hard” sci-fi writer, and he brings some of that ethos into this story, while remaining faithful to this particular era of Doctor Who (which also happens to be one of my favorites).

Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams

This was a re-read, and I’m still convinced this is one of the best contemporary introductions to the Christian faith. Organizing the book around the theme of the “trustworthiness” of God beautifully illuminates how the various parts of the creed hang together.

The Magicians trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land), Lev Grossman

Grossman’s trilogy is a sort of mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books filtered through the sensibility of a Brooklyn literary hipster. Which sounds kind of insufferable, come to think of it. But, despite the at-times aching self-awareness, Grossman manages to tell an original story about friendship and growing up infused with a genuine sense of wonder.

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel–refugee from European Naziism, mystic, rabbi, theologian, friend and comrade of both Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr–is a near-legendary figure. So I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this is the first time I read him. Even more, I’m sorry I waited so long. Heschel’s writing sits somewhere between poetic allusiveness and philosophical argument, but radiating at the core of this book is the insight that wonder–or what Heschel calls “radical amazement”–at the sheer contingency of being is our deepest clue to the existence of the transcendent–and to a worthwhile human life. I’m currently reading the companion volume, God in Search of Man, where Heschel lays out his vision more explicitly as a “philosophy of Judaism,” and am enjoying it even more. He is easily the religious writer I’ve been most excited to discover in years.

1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Walter R. Borneman

It seems inappropriate to call a book about a war “fun,” but Borneman’s history of the War of 1812 (meant for the general reader) is definitely written with a light touch. Borneman focuses mainly on the theaters of war (the Western frontier, the Great Lakes, the Eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Coast), and I for one would’ve liked to see a little more attention to the social and political context. But he brings to life the admirals and generals on both sides who executed the war, and deftly shows how the conflict helped put the “United” in “United States.” I knew very little about the particulars of the war going in, but after reading this, my appetite to learn more has been sufficiently whetted.

Heschel’s trilemma

Reading 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s important work God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism recently, I was struck by this passage:

There are only three ways of judging the prophets: they told the truth, deliberately invented a tale, or were victims of an illusion. In other words, revelation is either a fact, or the product of insanity, self-delusion, or a pedagogical invention, the product of a mental confusion, of wishful thinking, or a subconscious activity. (p. 223)

This reminded me immediately of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” from Mere Christianity. Speaking of the claims the Jesus of the gospels makes for his own authority, Lewis writes that a man who did such things

would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. (p. 56)

What Lewis was criticizing was the view that Jesus of Nazareth was simply a “great moral teacher,” rather than God Incarnate. The claims Jesus makes for himself, Lewis argues, simply don’t allow us to place him in that category. His claims (e.g., the right to forgive sins) are much more radical than that.

Somewhat similarly, Heschel argues that we aren’t really in a position to evaluate the prophets’ putative revelation by our own canons of rationality. He writes that “[i]n calling upon the prophets to stand before the bar of our critical judgment, we are like dwarfs undertaking to measure the height of giants” (p. 222). Prophets like Moses, Amos, or Isaiah weren’t offering moral wisdom for our dispassionate consideration; they were propounding a radical demand for holiness and justice that, they claimed, came from God himself.

In both cases, we’re faced with a potentially life-changing challenge. Lewis and Heschel both want to bring us face-to-face with the unvarnished claim of God’s revelation. Categorizing Jesus or the prophets are purveyors of a vague and genial moral wisdom that we might choose to incorporate into our existing mental framework allows us to keep them at arm’s length. By denying this alternative and posing the remaining ones so starkly, both Lewis and Heschel are prodding us to decide whether we will accept their claims on us.

(Oh, and yes, it looks like I’m blogging again, at least for the moment.)

Overdue blog retirement party

I’ve been blogging for over ten years(!), but it’s become apparent to me–and quite likely to you, dear readers–that this blog has been running on fumes for quite some time. The truth is, at this point in my life I have neither the time nor much of an inclination to update this blog on a regular basis. I’m happy with a lot of what I’ve published here, but I increasingly don’t have much new to say on most of the topics I generally cover.

I’ve had some very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating interactions with commenters and other bloggers over the years, but for better or worse the free-wheeling atmosphere of the early blogosophere seems to have largely dissipated. The various blogging communities I’ve been a part of have drifted apart, as people moved on to other projects or just stopped blogging altogether. Anyway, these communities seem to happen more on Twitter or other platforms nowadays, and I’ll still be actively tweeting for the foreseeable future.

There’s a good chance I’ll find myself with the itch to blog again at some point, but if I do, I’ll probably do it somewhere else and with a different focus. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has read or commented over the years. I’m both honored and humbled to think that people have found it worth their time to read this blog.

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8