Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Weds. with Words: The Case for the Psalms

The Case for the Psalms is one of N.T. Wright's newer books.  It screamed out to me from the bookshelf at the library.  After thinking more about liturgy through Desiring the Kingdom I am struck, again, at how little knowledge I have about the Psalms and how crucial they seemed to generations before ours.  So far, Wright is making a great case.

I knew it was the right book when this quote tied into James' comments about singing in exile 
It seems wisest to think of the Psalms, in their present form, being collected and shaped in the time of the exile in Babylon (beginning in the sixth century BC), when paradoxically the people who found it unthinkable to sing the Lord's song in a strange land may have found that actually singing those songs (and writing some new ones) was one of the few things that kept them sane and gave them hope. 
After covering a brief history of the use of the Psalms in Jewish tradition and the church he makes this striking point
What Jesus believed and understood about his own identity and vocation, and what Paul came to believe and understand about Jesus's unique achievement, they believed and understood within a psalm-shaped world.  That same shaping, remarkably, is open to us today.  That is the burden of my song. 
He then talks more about philosophical backgrounds and translates them into worldviews.  He discusses how Epicureanism is something old made new in our current age; meanwhile, Christianity offers a "creational and covenantal monotheism" that stands in opposition but is a story that gets muddled in modern Christianity.
The Psalms, I want to suggest here, are songs and poems that help us not just to understand this most ancient and relevant worldview but actually to inhabit and celebrate it - this worldview in which, contrary to most modern assumptions, God's time and ours overlap and intersect, God's space and ours overlap and interlock, and even (this is the really startling one, of course) the sheer material world of God's creation is infused, suffused and flooded with God's own life and love and glory.  
The rest of the book is developed along the lines of time, space and the material world.  His overview of time was interesting. 
First, "time."  All music and all poetry regularly have the capacity to transcend ordinary time. They call to the depths of memory and imagination, bringing the past forward into the present (memory) and envisaging the future as well (imagination).  
I am suggesting that the entire worldview that the Psalms are inculcating was to do with that intersection of our time, space and matter with God's, which Christians believe happened uniquely and dramatically in Jesus. 
The Psalter forms the great epic poem of the creator and covenant God who will at the last visit and redeem his people and, with them, his whole creation.  
He then talks about how we are also His "workmanship" his poema.  And ends the introductory chapters with this. 
At both levels, this gift functions by transforming the imagination.  It isn't so much that the world doesn't believe in God.  Most people simply can't imagine what it might be like to live in God's world, in his time, in his space, and in his matter.  This book is aimed at helping God's people to imagine God's larger, richer world as they pray the Psalms.  
Honestly, it is hard to capture the depth of what he is calling us to in these short quotes -but hopefully it gives you a taste.  The rest of the book goes through different Psalms and points out what they teach us about time, space and matter.  It is not a heady read nor is it long.  I will find a way to spend more time in the Psalms. 

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