The Psalms Speak for Us

A couple of years ago I wrote about my need for prayer guides. For most of my life I had this ideal picture of what it means to be a prayerful person as someone who sits and talks to God for long periods. But that picture has never really manifested itself in my life. I have found great help in podcasts that lead people to pray, praying with others, and books of prayers. I wrote Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 to be one of those aids to help people pray.

Years ago I was challenged by Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles to look to the Psalms to learn to pray. Peterson argues that until the 19th century the people of God learned to pray through the Psalms. They were the original prayer guides, and are still the best, covering virtually all human emotions and expressing all types of speech to God. Peterson reiterates an oft-cited paraphrase of the 4th century theologian, Athanasius: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.” (55)

A fuller quotation from Athanasius is worth considering. The notion of the Psalms speaking for us comes from his Letter to Marcellinus, which is the first known Christian writing on the Psalms. Note, the language might sound a bit archaic, but the ideas are wonderful and beautifully expressed.

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn. about yourself You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill….

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.

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Good News and the Poor in Luke

While this period of economic hardship and uncertainty has hurt my friends and family, one thing I am grateful for is that people have taken the time to reflect on the positions and sources of our ethics with regard to the economy. Three of the four sermons I preached this year have come from Luke or Acts, which means I’ve had to wrestle a lot with what the New Testament has to say about money and ethics.

Preaching out of Luke and Acts also means I’ve had the pleasure to read a lot of Joel Green recently. Green is a first-rate scholar who has written a great deal on Luke-Acts. He reads the text closely and carefully, emphasizing theology and how Scripture shapes people. In his excellent work, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Green explores the overarching themes at play in Luke. I love what he says regarding how Luke deals with the issue of salvation and how it confronts our contemporary individualism, and by extension, our economics:

Traditional understandings of Christian faith in the northern hemisphere have generated a series of fissures — between the horizontal and vertical, the spiritual and secular, social witness and evangelism, the personal and the public, individual sin and systemic sin, and the like. These have made problematic our understanding of “salvation” and, thus, “evangelism.” Saved from what? Saved to what? Traditional styles of evangelism concomitant with rifts of this nature have emphasized proclamation to individuals and the initiation of individuals into the heavenly reign of God. “Salvation” in this Christian subculture has generally been defined along narrow lines, in subjective, individualistic terms.

Analogously, “good news to the poor” in wider society is often understood as a matter of economic intervention, as though the answer for “the poor” would be to transform them into members of “the middle class.” The needs of “the poor” around issues of dignity and kinship are rarely entertained; after all, did the psychologist Abraham Maslow not teach us that there can be no “self-actualization” (itself often defined outside of relational lines) without material security? The problems represented by hunger and homelessness in the West are frequently dissected along biographical lines: how did this person find herself living on the street? What irresponsible decisions did he make that left him without a roof for his family? Rendering the problem along individualist lines, we also entertain a narrow band of solutions, themselves focused on individuals. The potential harm or help of cultural institutions — for example, the political economy, the public church, the almost hypostatized power of technology — rarely comes under scrutiny….

In the Lukan conception, life must be viewed in its totality, salvation understood in the most all-encompassing way possible. Luke holds together what the contemporary church has often partitioned into discordant elements: empowering the disadvantaged, seeking the lost, reconciling persons across social lines, calling people to repentance, healing the sick, forgiving sins, initiating people into the community of God’s people. All of these and more are constitutive of salvation in the Third Gospel. (134-136)

The sentence in bold text (which I emphasized) has had my mind swimming and I would love to hear what others have to say about the issue. In many discussions about “good news to the poor,” I would argue North American churches largely reflect the values of wider society — namely, that we too think the “answer for ‘the poor’ would be to transform them into members of ‘the middle class.'” Green shows that in the world of Luke-Acts, being poor does not mean only being economically disadvantaged, but poverty also carries an element of social isolation. The fact that one was poor was seen as a rejection from God and if God rejected you, then others maintained a safe distance as well. When Jesus brings good news to the poor (Lk 4.18), he breaks down the social barriers, the social systems that others use to ostracize the poor. Simply giving a person money would not bring about deep reconciliation.

Forgive me for asking a slew of questions. Feel free to answer any of them or just share your positions and opinions. I’d love to hear peoples’ thoughts.

If it is the case that “being poor” in the time of Luke-Acts meant more than not having money, but also included being marginalized by various values and social systems, what does it mean to be poor in our modern capitalistic system? Are “the poor” central players in the conversation about how we should shape economics? Do they have a voice equal to “the middle class,” or “the rich”? Or are the poor today also marginalized, though perhaps in different ways than in ancient Palestine? I would argue that the poor still are ostracized and kept out of many of the major decisions regarding the economy.

Will helping make the poor members of the middle class actually solve their problems? Is the “good news to the poor” that Jesus continues to preach through his Church announcing to people that they should get a better job so they can repair their credit and buy a home, a new car, and a better television? What does salvation look like for the poor today? I assume access to capital and better-paying jobs, as well as better educational opportunities are necessary components to bringing salvation to the poor, but good news cannot stop at merely helping someone get a better job, or helping one student go to college. I also think there are systems and institutions that need the light of Jesus’ gospel shined upon them.

What do you think about Green’s description of North American individualism and our approach to addressing poverty? In what ways are “the poor” ostracized or included in our current economy? Is poverty primarily an individual matter or are there also larger systems that must be addressed in order to bring good news to the poor? What is good news for the poor in our cities, in our country, and in our world?

Volf and Scripture Making Claims on Our Lives

It has been a while since I last read a book by Miroslav Volf and his work Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection reminds me why he is one of my favorite theologians. His reflections are rich and rooted in the deep questions that arise from everyday living. Here is a wonderful quotation from the book that shows well the confrontation we people shaped by modernity have with the Bible, or any sacred text:

Many people today, especially scholars, approach the Bible with suspicion. This is not surprising. For one thing, we are modern men and women, individuals standing on our own two feet, masters and mistresses of our own choices and destinies — or so we like to think. For others to insert us into their story and envision the proper end of our lives, define for us the source and substance of human flourishing, and tell us what we should or should not desire, is for them to violate us as self-standing individuals. The Bible as a sacred text, however, does just that. (32-33)

In Captive to the Word of God, Volf praises academic Christian theology’s return to biblical reflection after decades of essentially ignoring Scripture. He also offers his arguments for how theologians can use the Bible to help shape their reflections. For Christians and others who have not studied academic theology, it may come as a surprise to hear that academic Christian theology did not focus on the Bible, but let me assure you, it is true. Volf is right when he argues that academic theology began to look more like the discipline of philosophy while biblical studies departments looked more like history departments. I remember reading systematic theology books in school and thinking, “Interesting, but where is that in the Bible?” Similarly, I recall reading biblical studies books and thinking, “I’m glad to know the historical issues in that time and place, but can we please deal with what this text says about God?” Recently, thankfully, there has been a change in which theologians are once again reflecting on the Bible and biblical scholars are once again interested in the theology of the texts they read. (For most Christians, separating theology from the Bible would seem strange, because, frankly, it is.) In this way, Volf’s book is a bit of an intramural discussion among theologians working in the academy or those who continue to watch what happens in seminaries and divinity schools. I have found, however, wonderful insights that are helpful to any Christian, or anyone interested in how Christianity thinks about things.