This is a chapel talk I gave this past Summer, which is more or less the religious counterpart to my previous two blog posts on the cultivation of literary appetite (here and here). In my previous post I credited Japanese culture (by way of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) for the idea of cultivating appreciation. On the religious side, Dallas Williard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines was an important influence. The two strands are now fused in my thinking, but I don’t believe that they were in the beginning.
This struck me as as rambling and over-long when I first delivered it, and the passage of time has not softened my opinion. Oh well.
I want to speak this morning about the book of Psalms, and the role that the psalms are beginning to play in my own life. I’ve undergone a change in the last few years, from reading the psalms as poetry, to reading them in a more disciplined fashion, with the intent of transforming my soul. So this is pretty recent, and I don’t expect everything that I’ll say this morning to be helpful. I don’t even give it much weight myself. But here we go.
My testimony is fairly typical I think. I grew up in the church, but as I grew up I came to realize that I was not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, and then there was point of repentance, of the presence of the Holy Spirit. All that to say, long before I had made any sort of commitment to Christ, I grew up in a very pro-psalms environment. I heard that the psalms were classic expressions of faith, applicable to any situation, and so forth. I heard it in sermons, books, and the testimony of Christians of all ages. So I have always had high expectations from the Psalms. Unfortunately, I was rarely able to really get into the psalms. For a time, I had the practice of reading five psalms every day. That gets you through the psalter in a month. I did that for quite some time—I’m don’t remember how long, but I certainly read each psalm several times over. Then at some point I lost that practice, and I can’t honestly say that I missed it.
Now, I used to read the psalms like I read any other poetry—with more reverence and respect, but still just like any other poetry. Let’s say that I was reading through the psalter systematically. I would read a psalm and think, more or less, about whether I agreed or disagreed—or, not about whether I agreed or disagreed with the Bible as such, but I thought about whether I could feel the sentiment that the psalmist was expressing. It either did it for me or it didn’t. Or, I might read a psalm for a specific occasion: Psalm 23 if I was feeling upbeat, Psalm 51 if I needed to express repentance, Psalm 100 if I wanted to praise God.
That’s just how I read poetry: I read to enjoy the poem, to try to understand it, and to see whether it speaks to me at any level. Some poems speak more to me than others; some authors speak more to me than others. Rightly or wrongly, I tend not to care for poems I have to think too much about. I like to understand what’s going on. How well do those preferences serve me when I approach the psalms? Not too well, actually. The Psalms are very different. A modern poem might be happy or sad, jubilant or meditative; it might tell a story or reflect on a theological truth. But psalms often have all that in a single poem. There are celebrations of past deliverance, agony over being pursued by attackers or slanderers, and meditations on wisdom. Each of those might be given two lines in a six-line psalm. It can be a struggle to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It can even be hard to figure out the psalmist’s state of mind: is he facing opposition and galvanized for action? Is he paralyzed by depression and trying to talk himself out of it? It’s not always clear, and that makes the Psalms difficult. And that makes it hard, of course, to find a psalm that I feel speaks to where I am. And so, not very long ago, it seemed strange that someone would advocate “praying the psalms”—because unlike David, I’m not often being pursued by my enemies; I’ve never wronged a Hittite; and so forth.
Psalms are also challenging because of the breadth of emotion they express. When I read very optimistic psalms, I want to pull the psalmist back a bit—so he’s not disappointed if things don’t turn out well. When I read angry psalms, I’m uncomfortable for different reasons: breaking arms, breaking teeth, dashing out babies’ brains. Even allowing for some hyperbole, those are not feelings that I’m accustomed to expressing. (That’s not to say that they’re not there, they’re just not the feelings I talk about, or even admit to myself.) But the best thing about the psalms is that they are so comprehensive. Depending on the day, each of us will want to pray for deliverance, curse our enemies, celebrate God’s word, or imagine that we can see everything working out according to God’s perfect will. Now, it’s rare to find contemporary Christian music that will explore the darker side of life; you can’t put that on Christian radio or sing it in church. Some emotions are okay and some are not. So it’s sad that the psalms are not read in church much, but perhaps not surprising. The psalms give us that emotional range.
Psalms are also difficult because, as an Old Testament professor put it, they are written for us but they are not written to us. Many of the images and metaphors in the psalms are not meaningful to us. Here is the whole of Psalm 136:
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
There’s nothing there that I don’t understand, but there’s also nothing there that connects to me emotionally. It really takes all of my historical knowledge and cross-cultural experience to understand the imagery: how anointing was a privilege—though it does not sound pleasant to me; how the abundance of oil would be so much more meaningful among people who were materially poorer than we are; how the entire community gains honor when its leader is honored; how Aaron represented the ideal priest, the pure form of religion, free from later corruptions; how valuable dew is in the desert, how it is a sign of life and prosperity. I have to make a huge effort even to understand the imagery, and even then, I am barely able to connect emotionally.
So, it’s been quite easy for me to list the reasons that I wasn’t connecting with the psalms. I’d now like to tell you what has changed for me.
The first thing that changed for me was that I became convicted that I had become quite disconnected emotionally from God. About three and a half years ago I was in a very dark place emotionally—I think certainly was more despondent, cynical, and frustrated than I ever have been before or since; and there were good reasons for that. At that time in my life, a poem called The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, meant a great deal to me, because it expressed much of what I was feeling. Now, Yeats was not a Christian and the poem isn’t a Christian poem. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it is striking that my thoughts and emotions connected to that poem rather than to something from the psalms, or to some other passage of Scripture. I think it’s a clear demonstration that I was not engaged with God as I worked through things; I had gone elsewhere. So—not in the midst of that experience, but as I reflected upon it months later—that was something of a wake-up call.
In the year or two following that, I read two helpful books. One was The Case for the Psalms, by N.T. Wright, in which the author basically begs the reader to take the psalms seriously. The other was A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson, which is a meditation on the Psalms of Ascent, psalms 120 through 134, which are thought to have been sung by pilgrims during pilgrimages and feasts. Both are excellent books, and I’m drawing on them with what follows.
But first let me share something that C.S. Lewis said, in his book A Preface to Paradise Lost, which speaks to the way I was reading the psalms. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language—possibly in any language—and in his preface, Lewis reflects on the nature of the epic genre. He said most students of poetry approach epic poetry as if it were lyric poetry. Lyric poetry emphasizes the expression of emotion with beautiful language. Lewis said that if you check out a copy of Paradise Lost from the library, you will find that people have underlined “the good lines” in the first few pages, but that the underlining drops off quickly because such people give up on the poem. They miss the larger effects that the author intended—the effects that require an entire epic poem to develop. They miss out on the poem because they’re not reading it in the right way. They’re approaching it with the wrong goals.
Lewis was only speaking of how students of poetry misread Paradise Lost, but I think his critique applies equally well to the way that I was reading the psalms. I was looking for the good verse, the psalm that spoke to me, the emotional high. But I think that in reading the psalms that way, I was more or less missing the point of the psalms. In fact, I was reading the psalms for exactly the wrong reason. I wanted the psalms to express my feelings. But—and this is the main point of this talk—the psalms should instead form our emotions and our interpretation of life.
In seventeen years of Christian discipleship—of course at various levels of seriousness and intensity over the years—this is the most profound thing that I’ve learned about the Christian life: you are being formed spiritually. Right now. Yesterday. The day before that. All the way back to the day you were born. You are constantly being formed. You’re being formed by your friends, by your church, by the books you read, by the movies and television you watch, by the music you listen to: everything is contributing to who you are. In fact, once you know where people are from, what denomination, what family background, what they read and listen to, and who their friends are, there are usually few surprises about how they live. There are surprises, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Our character is largely the sum of the things that influence us.
I’d be surprised if you didn’t recoil at least a little bit when I said that, so I’m going to take a moment to explain myself. There are probably two things going on in your reaction. First of all, if you’re from the West, your culture is incredibly individualistic. Western culture is largely a product of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement. That means that we value and believe in individual freedom, and the importance of an individual response to life. The classic expression of that line of thinking, familiar to all of us from grade school, is this: “You are special and unique.” Special and unique, you know, just like everybody else. And the reason we talk like that is because we’ve absorbed values from Romanticism: the idea that the only thing that counts is a unique personal or emotional reaction. American Pastor Max Lucado did not write a book entitled You Are Special because there’s a Bible verse that says, “You are special.” He wrote that book because our culture has created in us an emotional need to feel special, and he’s responding to a need that our culture has created in us. I’m not prepared to say that’s a wrong thing to do, but I think that we should at least be aware of where the need comes from: from our culture, not from the Bible. So when I say, “Look, there’s this book of Bronze Age poetry is really important and should be forming your soul, whether or not it means anything to you right now,” Western culture does not really prepare you to receive that message.
Second of all, if you’re an evangelical Christian, you probably favor stories of sudden, dramatic conversions. I will leave it to you to reflect upon how our expectations from Romanticism inform our expectations about our relationship to God. But I had a dramatic conversion experience, and I know it’s real. But we can take the wrong lesson from those experiences, and start to think that progress in the Christian life comes when we finally believe hard enough, or are finally dedicated enough, or finally having a sudden flash of insight. Important as sudden changes can be—and they are real, in my experience and in the experience of many others—our spiritual and moral formation is typically an extremely gradual process. That is the overwhelming experience of Christians throughout history, even those with dramatic conversion experiences. Christian spiritual formation is the product of thousands of decisions, turning toward God or away from God, doing things that sensitize you to sin or deaden your perception of it. But again, certainly for Westerners, the message that you should read and meditate on the Psalms, not as a one-off, but as a life-long discipline, is a bit odd. Rich Mullins had something to say about this. He says:
It used to be I only got born again every year, about once a year. That was when I was going to camp; you know, you go every year and get born again again. Those of you who are young enough to go to camp and rededicate your life every year, keep doing it. Because by the time you get to college you’re gonna have to re-dedicate your life about every six months. Then you’ll graduate from college and it will become a quarterly thing. By the time you’re in your 40’s and 50’s you’ll do it about four times a day.
I think that sums it up nicely. Many of us, growing up, rededicated our lives to Christ on the last night of camp on an annual basis. Long before the end of high school, that started feeling a bit artificial, at least to me. But the problem was not that it had to be redone every year, but that it was only being done once a year. We need to repent—that is, to turn back to God—continually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, even just this Summer, we have heard several people give messages about the importance of the slow and steady—and repetitive and unexciting!—work of spiritual formation. That’s where real Christian discipleship happens.
Let me bring this back to the psalms. By now I think the reasons for my earlier disappointment with the psalms should be clear. I had all these wise and holy people talking about how much the psalms meant to them, but they did nothing for me. That wasn’t a coincidence. It’s because I was immature in my faith—as I still am, relatively. But here’s the shift in mindset: now I don’t read the psalms because they mean something to me. I read the psalms because they should mean something to me. I read them because I need to be formed by them. The language, and emotion, and thought of the psalms need to get into me, and start changing how I speak, feel, and think.
That means that sometimes I read psalms out of a sense of duty, with no emotional or spiritual response. That will set off all sorts of alarms in your head, partly because you come from a culture informed by Romanticism, and partly because of an ill-defined bogeyman in evangelical Christianity called “legalism.” But it’s absolutely necessary for me to stick to it. I don’t want my emotions in the driver’s seat; I am trying to train my emotions to give an appropriate response. The idea that we can train our tastes and desires is not strongly emphasized in American culture. I first encountered the idea in an ethnography of Japanese culture, but it’s also in the ancient Greeks. Let me try to give an analogy. Who’s ever been rock climbing? I bet I can sum up your first experience of rock climbing with two words: terror and humiliation. We’re terrified at first because we’re not used to trusting our weight to a thin rope. We’re humiliated because we’re using an entirely different new set of muscles, and making all sorts of idiotic mistakes. Our forearms turn to jelly, and people are shouting incomprehensible things to us from below. The first difficult climb is not a pleasant experience. But if we can soldier through those difficulties to learn to enjoy that sport, I think we can train ourselves to appreciate the psalms as well. The emotional response and the spiritual formation are not the same thing, but they are not independent. In rock climbing, our emotional enjoyment of the sport is clearly different from the process of developing muscle and stamina, and learning climbing techniques. But the two go hand in hand, and reinforce one another. So it is with the Psalms.
I’m now going to talk a bit about how our commitment to a text informs the way that we read it. To do that, I want to read another psalm, Psalm 95.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”
Now be honest, how many of you were surprised by the way that end? I hope it was a little surprising at least. I hope that you’re not so accustomed to not understanding the Bible that you didn’t notice the shift in tone. We start off with a statement of corporate piety, and a celebration of the Lord as a Creator, and of Israel as his special possession. And then there’s a sharp pivot, and we’re reminded that that first generation that came out Egypt rebelled and were rejected by God, and, as the author of Hebrews says, “their bodies fell in the desert.” It’s a strong and sudden contrast. What do we make of it?
One option is to give up. Both pragmatics and discourse admit that, for some messages, the listener has to conclude that the text doesn’t hold together, or make any sense. So that’s one option: maybe it’s just two unrelated halves. But if I’m coming to the text from a place of commitment—that is, if I believe that God has taken care, throughout history, to ensure that Psalm 95 has come to me in this form—then I have to be willing to live with the psalm. And, more than that: if I take God’s message seriously, it’s probably better that I live with my questions, rather than try to answer them and be done with it.
I do have some tentative ideas. I think Psalm 95 is a very jarring presentation of a very jarring reality: both that we are God’s chosen people, protected by a mighty God, and that we have it in our power to reject God and be rejected by him, just as our forefathers did. Humans are, as Milton said, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” God did create a special people for Himself, but the People of God throughout history have continually drawn the wrong lesson from that. Membership in the People of God—the Body of Christ—is, I believe, more a position of responsibility than a position of privilege. Now that’s my current interpretation, but I hope that, beyond whatever I happen to think right now about Psalm 95, the psalm is getting into my heart and rearranging my thoughts and emotional responses, filling me with both awe and caution. And poetry is well suited to the task. In poetry, the reader or listener is invited—to a greater extent, say, than in a story—to think about the meaning, and take responsibility for interpreting it and absorbing it. Perhaps for that reason, poetry often sinks in deeper than more direct communication. It’s no coincidence that three-fourths of the Hebrew Bible is in verse.
I’m now going to talk about how the Psalms can form our understanding of prayer in general. I’ll go about it in a slightly unusual way. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It’s a collection of German fairy tales, published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century. When you read the tales, you begin to get a sense of the world of German folk literature. There are kings, princes, and princesses; there are millers, wood cutters, and servants. There are fairies, magic beans, and magic animals. And there are certain kinds of events: certain kinds of cruelty, certain acts of kindness, certain means of resolving problems. It gets to the point where, long before the end of the book, you’ve got a pretty firm idea of how things work in that world—what stories are possible, as it were. They’re all stitched together using the same basic elements. It’s kind of like going down a list of sentences in a grammar exercise: you eventually come to understand the combinatorial possibilities, and you learn the grammar of the language. And, working from that metaphor, there have been studies of narrative grammar.
Now I’m concerned about sending the wrong message if I compare the Bible with a book of fairy tales. … But I think you can see the point. The Psalms—as a large collection of the prayers of the people of God—constitute a sort of language of prayer, a theory of everything that can be prayed about. We can internalize the grammar of the psalms in the same way that we internalize the grammar of a foreign language, though exposure and reflection. The metaphor works pretty well. At the outset, we’re confronted by a wall of noise: unfamiliar poetic structures, strange metaphors, foreign concepts. But through exposure, the psalms begin to mold our outlook on life; they begin to inform our understanding of our relationship to God, and to the people of God. They place us where we belong, in the story of Israel. They present what should be the fundamental categories of our life: worship, loyalty to God, the pursuit of wisdom, the need for forgiveness, and so forth.
I wouldn’t want to push this too far, because we have other prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or Jesus’s prayer at the Last Supper, which are not just rearrangements of verses of the psalms. But the breadth of the psalms provides a very rich grammar. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to pray as fluently as we can speak our mother tongue? Wouldn’t it be nice to be saturated by Scripture in that way—not just from memorization, but because the words have had their proper effect on our hearts? I’m not there, not by a long shot. But I can tell you who is. The strongest recommendation I can give for the psalms comes from the writers of the New Testament. No other book is quoted in the New Testament as much as the psalms. No fewer than forty-three psalms are quote directly in the New Testament—some of course by Jesus Himself. And just about every other psalm is alluded to, though without a direct quotation. Some of those are quoted with a purpose, like the messianic psalms (2, 8, and 110). But elsewhere it’s clear that the psalms were so much a part of their lives that the quotations came out naturally. We have the prayer book of Jesus and the apostles. We have the opportunity to pray along with them.
I start writing this talk a few months ago. When I returned to it recently, the last thing I’d written was, “Now I’m going to share a few things that I have learned from the psalms.” And try as I might, I could not recall what things I was thinking about when I wrote that, or if I even had anything in mind at all. It’s quite possible that I wrote it just because that’s the kind of thing you say in a chapel talk. But isn’t the phrasing interesting? It’s a very linguistic approach. “I have read the psalms. I learned these things. And now I will tell them to you so that you can know them too.” All of a sudden we’re back in the realm of transferring knowledge. And that’s really a very small part of Christian discipleship. All of the knowledge about the Psalms—and imagine how much there is to know, and how little you and I know—is insignificant compared to the value of a heart that is being transformed by the Psalms. It won’t come naturally at first; that’s the point. But the Lord has provided the Psalms as part of our journey of spiritual formation. They were part of His life; they were part of the apostles’ lives; they should be a part of our lives as well.