Wednesday, September 4, 2013

NT Wright: The Case for the Psalms

Below is an excerpt of N.T. Wright's The Case for the Psalms which is set for release this week.  In many ways, this book is intended for those non-liturgical protestant communities that don't utilize a lectionary or breviary for daily prayer, like the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion do.  This excerpt comes from HarperOne's News and Pews:

"This book is a personal plea. The Psalms, which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians, and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest times. Yet in many Christian circles today, the Psalms are simply not used. And in many places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as “filler” between other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the latter case, people often don’t seem to realize what they’re singing. In the former case, they don’t seem to realize what they’re missing. This book is an attempt to reverse those trends. I see this as an urgent task.
Suppose the Psalms had been lost and had never been printed in any Bibles or prayer books. Suppose they then turned up in a faded but still legible scroll, discovered by archaeologists in the sands of Jordan or Egypt. What would happen? When deciphered and translated, they would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Many scholars from many disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content of these ancient worship songs and poems.
The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world. They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul—anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.
And astonishingly, it doesn’t get lost in translation. Most poetry suffers when translated into other languages because it relies for its effect on the sound and rhythm of the original words. It’s true that the Hebrew of these poems is beautiful in itself for those who can experience it. But the Psalms rely for their effect on the way they set out the main themes. They say something from one angle and then repeat it from a slightly different one:
By the word of YHWH the heavens were
               and all their host by the breath of his
                     mouth. (33.6)
I will open my mouth in a parable;
       I will utter dark sayings from of old.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even when this doesn’t happen line by line, it often happens between different sections of a psalm or in the balance of the collection, or a part of it, as a whole.
The important point here is that some of the most important things we want to say remain just a little beyond even our best words. The first sentence is a signpost to the deep reality; the second, a signpost from a slightly different place. The reader is invited to follow both and to see the larger, unspoken truth looming up behind. This means that not only can the effect be maintained in translation, but the effect is itself one of the deepest things the Psalms are doing, making it clear that the best human words point beyond themselves to realities that transcend even high poetic description. (Something similar is achieved elsewhere in the Bible—for instance, in the provision in Genesis of two creation stories, offering two picture-language images for a reality that lies beyond either.)
All this, as I said, should capture the attention and generate the excitement of anyone sensitive to powerful writing on the great themes of human life. But for those who, in whatever way, stand in the spiritual traditions of Judaism and Christianity, there is all that and much, much more. That makes it all the more frustrating that the Psalms are so often neglected today or used at best in a perfunctory and shallow way.
In some parts of contemporary Christianity, the Psalms are no longer used in daily and weekly worship. This is so especially at points where there has been remarkable growth in numbers and energy, not least through the charismatic movements in various denominations. The enormously popular “worship songs,” some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe is a great impoverishment.
By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm. I hope that one of the effects of this little book will be to stimulate and encourage those who lead worship in many different settings to think and pray about how to reintegrate the church’s ancient prayer book into the regular and ordinary life of their fellowships. The Psalms represent the Bible’s own spiritual root system for the great tree we call Christianity. You don’t have to be a horticultural genius to know what will happen to the fruit on the tree if the roots are not in good condition.
But I’m not writing simply to say, “These are important songs that we should use and try to understand.” That is true, but it puts the emphasis the wrong way around—as though the Psalms are the problem, and we should try to fit them into our world. Actually, again and again it is we, muddled and puzzled and half-believing, who are the problem; and the question is more how we can find our way into their world, into the faith and hope that shine out in one psalm after another.
As with all thoughtful Christian worship, there is a humility about this approach. Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however “Christian,” but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.
In particular, I propose in this book that the regular praying and singing of the Psalms is transformative. It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when, and what we are: we are creatures of space, time, and matter, and though we take our normal understandings of these for granted, it is my suggestion that the Psalms will gently but firmly transform our understandings of all of them. They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way. I hope my exposition of these themes will help to explain and communicate my own enthusiasm for the Psalms, but I hope even more that they will encourage those churches that have lost touch with the Psalms to go back to them as soon as possible, and those that use them but with little grasp of what they’re about to get inside them in a new way."


Jason Engel said...

I agree that reading the Psalms regularly can be transformative, especially if you read them out loud and attempt to express the emotion contained in them, even if you are the only one hearing yourself say them.

It's also helpful to keep in mind that the Psalms are human expressions. They are human poems of joy and gratitude, as well as pain and fear or even shocked horror. These are from humans pouring out their thoughts and emotions to God. With this in mind (along with context, which is critical), it's even possible to see the terrible beauty in a psalm as tortured and horrific as 137....

Just try to imagine being one of the few surviving exiles of the Babylonian conquest, all the horrible brutality you just witnessed for days and weeks and months endlessly, being betrayed by your neighbors, being forced to leave your home knowing you'll never return - and not really wanting to go back to that devastation anyway. And after all that horror, your captors have the nerve to tell you to cheer up and sing a song for them! What would you feel? What would you say to God? Yes, it ends with such awful words, but it's important to realize why they are being said and the depth of pain they come from.

But I digress.

I recommend reading 5 psalms a day, every day, for a month. I try (often fail) to stick to this plan, but whenever I manage to complete this series, I feel very satisfied and uplifted. I hope you would experience that, too.

James Ignatius McAuley said...

The psalms are beautiful and the heart of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Roman Breviary. The Roman Breviary provides a schedule for saying all 150 psalms in one week while the Liturgy of the Hours over a course of four weeks. The Monastic Diurnal from Clear Creek Abbey allows you to experience the psalter as it was before 1911 - where Lauds is ended with Psalms 148, 149, and 150. The Monastic Diurnal uses the Vulgate, while the Roman Breviary may use either the Pian Psalter or the Vulgate, unlike the Masoretic based text used in the present Liturgy of the Hours. In the Byzantine/Orthodox way we have the psalms from the Septuagint in the Horologion with the psalms being broken up into 20 kathismas of varying lengths. I would note that the Septuagint Psalter has more in common with the Vulgate than the Masoretic text.

Anonymous said...

When I feel spiritually dry or lost and can't seem to pray, I simply recite some psalms. This always gets me back on track.

losabio said...

I finished NT Wright's book on the Psalms last week, and promptly ordered a copy of the pointed Grail Psalms from GIA. I'm eager to sing/pray/chant/rap (?!) the Psalms regularly.

Also, and this may be well-known to all of you, the points in the pointed versions of the Psalms can be used to mark rhythmical beats within the oration/singing/chanting of the Psalms. I had thought them merely used for marking tonal or chordal changes, until an informative vid on YouTube opened my eyes to their rhythmic uses.