How the Psalms Teach Us to Pray

In my reading today, I came across this quotation from Walter Brueggemann and it’s too good to not reproduce in its entirety. He captures what it means to be a people of the book. In this case, that book is the Book of Psalms, and our action is prayer. Brueggemann teases out the implications of learning to pray the Psalms. They give us words to pray as well as show us how to create prayers using our own words. (Text in italics is Brueggemann’s emphasis, text in bold is mine.)

The psalms function both as acts of prayer themselves and as invitations to other prayers beyond these words. As an act of prayer, the psalms witness to the ways in which this community has always prayed, from its first “belief-ful” utterance until our own practice of the same speech as an act of prayer. The community uses, reuses, and reuses these same words because the words are known to be adequate and because we have no better words to utter. The initial speakers of these words understood that prayer cannot be thought, but must be spoken. At the source of this prayer tradition, the community found a particular, peculiar spokenness that we still speak: a spokenness that is daring and subversive, attuned to the reality of human hurt, to the splendor of holy power, to the seriousness of moral coherence, and to the possibility of cosmic and personal transformation. The community has found these words and modes of speech faithful, adequate, and satisfying because the original articulations of prayer have—in our judgement, in our faith, and in our experience—gotten it right. We boldly reuse their speaking in our speaking.

The psalms function not only as discipline and instruction about how to pray but also as invitation and authorization to speak imaginatively beyond these words themselves. These words in the psalms initiate a trajectory of dangerous speech that we can continue. We not only reiterate these prayers in their timeless words now found timely but are authorized and nourished by these words to find our words, fresh words that are more resonant to our own experience, more congruent with our own life, more crucial for our own faith. Thus our best speech of praise requires our best inventiveness. Our most candid speech of lament permits words that live close to our deepest hurt and our most intimate groan. We pray in our own time and place, from our own experience, and out of our own faith, and therefore in our own words. The psalms both permit and generate such inventiveness.

The inventiveness of our own prayer, however, stands always in an odd relation to the norm of the psalms themselves. The very psalms that invite our inventiveness also expose much of our inventiveness as trivial and trite, unworthy for this awesome conversation. We then move back and forth between these classic acts of prayer and our own inventiveness. We find in the psalms both models and permits. We stand under their discipline, and we are authorized by their freedom. In this movement out of the psalms and then back into them, we are speakers for ourselves. We are at the same time speakers through the countless generations, continuing the prayers and the speech begun for us long before us. (“The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 33-34)

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Keeping Theological and Psychological Readings of the Psalms in Tension

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with psalms of lament, in particular Psalm 88, what just might be the most distressing lament in the whole Bible. In my time swimming in these dark, forlorn waters, I have a lurking sense of shock at the utter sadness expressed in their words. For years I have embraced lamentation as a valid and necessary element of a faith in the God of Israel. I have even said after a long season filled with horrible pains and losses that lament saved my faith because if praise and thanksgiving were the only acceptable prayers to God after my family and friends died, I would not want much to do with this God. Instead, God allows and welcomes our complaints and protests.

Psalm 88 is an individual lament rather than a corporate protest. Its individual nature invites psychological readings and some authors have noted that Psalm 88 accurately describes the experience of depression—loneliness, feeling rejected by God, sleepless nights, feeling trapped, etc. As I read the psalm I want to offer only a psychological reading of this psalm instead of a theological one. That is, I want to let God off the hook and say that Yahweh has not truly hidden his face from the psalmist, but that to the psalmist it merely seems like Yahweh is avoiding him. I want to say that statements made about God in the midst of lament do not adhere to an objective reality about God’s nature. After reading other theologians and having numerous conversations with people of faith, I know that I am not alone in wanting laments to be only subjective protests about the writer’s experience.

I notice, however, that we are generally happy saying that the psalms of praise or psalms of thanksgiving do objectively portray God. For example, we accept the writer of Psalm 145 accurately describes God when he writes, “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (145.9, NRSV). God truly and objectively is good to all. At the same time, we say the writer of Psalm 88 only expresses his thoughts and feelings when he says to God, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them” (88.8). God didn’t really cause the writer’s companions to shun him, it just feels like God caused the writer pain.

Why the discrepancy, especially when nothing in the texts themselves suggests different readings?

The discrepancy stems from cognitive dissonance. We want to believe that God acts only generously and lovingly toward people—or the more specific variant, God acts only generously and lovingly toward people in the faith community—regardless of what we might experience at the given moment. Therefore we affirm praise and thanksgiving psalms as having objectively accurate descriptions of God. Any description of God that would contradict our picture of Yahweh must be diminished or dismissed. We might ignore lament psalms altogether. More likely, we say that lament psalms are important because they acknowledge suffering and show us that one can protest to God and still remain a person of faith. At the same time, we may insist, what these psalms say about God has little to no bearing on who Yahweh actually is or how Yahweh actually acts.

Our efforts to relieve our cognitive dissonance lead us to a dilemma of inconsistency that needs to be addressed.

We could say every claim about God in the Psalms relates to objective reality, but not many interpreters move in that direction. The verses of the Psalms overflow with symbolism and metaphor, the language of poetry. Some interpreters move the other way to solve the dilemma by saying all the claims about God in the Psalms are subjective. They have a lot to teach us about prayer, but we cannot draw many conclusions about God’s character from them. This option is largely unwarranted given the amount of theologizing we find in Second Temple texts, the New Testament, and other Christian and Jewish writings that grow out of exegesis of the Psalms. Those writers read the Psalms as having something objective to say about God, not just offering accounts of what life with God feels like. Since the Book of Psalms is a collection of poetry, it is probably best to say that the claims of God contained in any of them are a mix of the objective and the subjective.

If we are going to accept the claims about God in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving as objective, then we better accept that the psalms of lament also make objective claims. If we are going to posit the psalms of lament make subjective claims, then we must also assume that some of the statements about God in the praise and thanksgiving psalms are subjective. Our interpretation must respect that psalms are poems and songs, which by their nature use extreme language. As others have shown, the extreme language of poetry reveals deep truths, though not in the same way as scientific texts. Accepting the Psalms’ claims of God as a mix of subjective and objective may solve the dilemma of inconsistent interpretation in theory, but in practice, holding these poles together is a great challenge. How does one tell if a claim is subjective or objective? Or how does a reader know how much of a claim is subjective as opposed to objective?

The psalmists do not give us a guide that says, “These claims of God written in blue ink are theological and those written in black ink are psychological.” That is, there are no clear-cut answers to ultimately solving the objective/subjective dilemma. Instead, we have to risk by wading into the waters of the Psalms’ language. We let the Psalms shine their challenging light on our assumptions about life and God. We read these prayer-poems with our community and listen to others’ interpretations. We pay attention to and question our responses. It is precisely when we want to reject a psalm’s claims about God because we feel uncomfortable that we stop and consider what if these claims are true? This is a messy process, yet is deeply life-giving. The Psalms show us that life with God is no safe, easy affair. We will be challenged, shocked, and ultimately transformed. But we cannot be transformed if we try to remain on the outside, looking for clear-cut answers before engaging in a life of prayer.

Francis, Benedict XVI, and Atheists

Lots of commentary and debate flying around the internet on Pope Francis’ recent homily in which he argued all people are redeemed through Jesus. People are seeing this message as further evidence that Francis is distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was seen as much more strident and exclusive. Francis is viewed as taking the Roman Catholic Church in an altogether new direction. To that I say, not so fast.

Francis is not saying anything outside the tradition of the Catholic Church. This takes some parsing, so bear with me. In Christian theology, there are generally three major views on who gets saved. (The fancy word for discussing salvation is soteriology.) First we have universalism, in which Jesus saves everyone. Second we have exclusivism, in which Jesus saves only those who respond to his call to follow him and confess he is Lord. Finally, we have inclusivism, in which all who follow Jesus will be saved, but Jesus may also save some who were unable to hear the gospel message or who never confessed he is Lord, yet still embodied many of his teachings. The Catholic Church has held to an inclusive view of salvation.

While the Catholic Church has had an inclusive view with regard to eternal salvation, it has had an exclusive view of which is the true Church. (The fancy word for discussing the church is ecclesiology.) This is where many see Francis and Benedict splitting, but I do not think that is the case. Benedict spent a fair amount of his papacy emphasizing the essential nature of the Roman Catholic Church as the one, true Church. He said communities of followers of Christ outside the Catholic fellowship were not true churches, even though the Holy Spirit may show up in those groups from time to time. This was good, old-fashioned, Roman Catholic ecclesiology. It merely sounded harsh in our culture. (I’ll note that as a Protestant, I couldn’t disagree with Benedict more on this point, but he wasn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said about my folk for centuries.)

Put together the inclusive soteriology and the exclusive ecclesiology and you have a view that says Jesus death can redeem everyone, but if you want to be sure that you have received that redemption as well as experience the full blessing of that redemption in this life, you should be in good standing in the Roman Catholic Church. From what I’ve read, Francis focused on the inclusive soteriology without touching much on the exclusive ecclesiology. If anything, he offered a subtle correction to Catholics who want to extend the Catholic Church’s exclusive ecclesiology to matters of salvation. That is, there is a temptation to say, “If you’re not in our Church, then Jesus hasn’t saved you,” and Francis was pushing back against that. The bits of Francis’ homily that have surfaced look incredible. I love the idea that by participating in good works people find common ground. Further, since we are made for good works (Ephesians 2.10), by doing good, we grow closer to God. So far, I’ve been very impressed with the new pope.

There are clear differences between Francis and Benedict and we won’t know the full extent of those differences for a while. We need to see more of what shape Francis’ ministry and leadership will take. As of now, however, the differences between the two popes is more a matter of style and understanding that the method by which a message is delivered is just as important as the message itself. Francis is seen as more compassionate and caring for the poor in his choices to wash the feet of juveniles in detention, opting for a simpler apartment at the Vatican, and having more modest dress. Benedict’s teachings on care for the poor were just as robust as anything Francis has said, but Benedict never fully appreciated the importance of nonverbal communication. He could articulate the deep Christian tradition to love the “least of these,” but he never seemed to grasp that wearing designer loafers undermined his powerful words.

Benedict is an academic who, like so many other academics, had a hard time communicating to non-academics. I had to read a bit of Benedict’s (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) theological writings in seminary and he is a first-rate theologian whose works will have great influence for several decades. These works were not written for a general audience, however, and he was never fully successful making the switch to a general audience. He could not connect with people outside the academy with the same ease that Francis can or John Paul II could. Benedict never figured out how to make a pithy sound byte and opted for careful, nuanced, and full arguments. In a sound byte world, it is easy to take bits of full arguments out of context. His analytical style came off as cold. He certainly didn’t have the charisma to work a crowd like John Paul II or Francis.

“No One Language Could Ever Capture the Fullness of Who God Is”

Richard Twiss died earlier this year. His voice is so important for the Church to hear. I’m using this video to help me reflect on the meaning and implications of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-21).

I tried to embed the video, but WordPress isn’t letting me. Sorry for the inconvenience. Check out the video, it’s well worth it.