Book Review: Praying the Psalms

Praying the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann, Walter. Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scritpure and the Life of the Spirit. 2d ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007.

In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann offers a lens for experiencing the Psalms as our own prayers. He talks about three functions of Psalms: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. The idea is that some Psalms are designed to affirm the reality we live in, others are actively engaged in denying our reality, and some are restoring us to God’s reality. Brueggemann has an unquestionable preference for the latter two types.

His rational for preferring lament is in part that the Book of Psalms prefers lament, and in part because he believes we do not know how to lament, as a people. Brueggemann regards a diet of the Psalms as a resource for setting ourselves back on the pathways of God, and leaving the pathways of triumphal nationalism. It is interesting how much of what he says seems to fit with the church as I understand it.

Because the church as WB describes it is a somewhat deformed creature, either very conservative or very liberal. He has since this book identified the cultural condition with what he calls technological therapeutic military consumerism, hoping to diagnose both types of deformity in a single idea. The sense he gives of what we are in America today seems to me to be eerily accurate: we are a lazy bunch of people, neither seeking nor wondering what we might be missing in faith, but always attempting to patch the problem with some distraction or another.

The Psalms speak into this world of ours, precisely because they are written for and in a world much like ours: a people who believed themselves to be chosen, watching the rise and fall of their own and other empires, in a setting of relative indifference toward God. In such a setting, it is the lament in particular that WB believes has the power to turn us back to God’s world. In lament, we put to speech what is wrong and mixed up and crazy, and we hand it all to God in hope that he will hear and act. This form of speech, however, is remarkably scant in most churches. There are some that same only capable of lamenting about how bad they are, and how they are the worst people ever, etc. etc. But even there, such lament is a far cry from the world of the Psalms.

The lament of the Psalms is a lament about everything! Sometimes it is accusatory toward God. Sometimes it is vicious toward enemies. But it is always passionate and poetic and thoughtful. Such laments could, WB argues, prepare and condition us for trouble when it comes, and help us to admit to God, ourselves, and others, just what life is like. It is interesting to me that the words, “the mercies of God are new every morning” do not come to us from a triumphant king, like David or Solomon. From them come mainly words of advice, and plenty of reprehensible actions. But these words come from a lonely prophet in a city under siege.

To me, this simple fact strikes out against the contemporary situation, where such words are used primarily by people who have no clue what a siege is, because I don’t think we are permitted to own hard-wrought convictions until we have first shed blood for them. In any event, WB certainly seeks to offer to us an opportunity to takes words as our words so that when life is ready for it, they may truly become our words. I think this is the opposite of the “mercies are new” phenomenon, because it is essentially preparatory and discipline-oriented.