The Case for the Psalms

From the introduction of N.T. Wright’s little book, The Case for the Psalms:

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 non-psalmic ‘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 the’re about to get inside them in a new way.

tablemountain

The Psalms thus transform what I have called our ‘worldview.’ I use this term in a specific way that I have developed over the last twenty years.  A ‘worldview’ in this sense is like a pair of spectacles: it is what you look through, not what you look at.  Worldviews, in this sense, are complex and consist of the swirling combination of stories, symbols, habitual praxis, and assumed answers to key questions (Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? and What time is it?).  This developed notion of ‘worldview’ has its roots in some aspects of continental philosophy, though I have developed it slightly differnetly; I have set it all out in various places, such as the volumes in my series Christian Origins and the Question of God.  There is, however, a quite different meaning of ‘worldview’ that has recently become popular in some circles in America, particularly under the influence of Francis Schaeffer and his disciples. There it is used to refer to a basic kit of would-be Christian assumptions that for some reason have taken on a particular political slant. That is not what I am talking about, as will become clear.

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