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Book Review: Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann

by Peter Menkin  
1/20/2009 / Book Reviews

Very useful for understanding the Psalms: Readable and telling

In both private and public prayer, in reading for pleasure the Psalms as they are published in "The Book of Common Prayer" and in both my King James Bible, and NSRV, I have sought meaning and understanding. In an effort to gain that end, I turn to intelligent commentaries for help. "Spirituality of the Psalms" by Walter Brueggemann is such a book, and it is a readable, slim one from Fortress Press--a mere 74 pages as I note from my copy.

I have welcomed this title into my home, with its dramatic black & white illustration on the cover. It is a favorite not only for me, but for others with whom I've said: "Have you read this book?" Sometimes the blurb on the back cover of a book is hyperbole, but the statement, "Brief, brilliant treatments of vital aspects of faith and life" rings true. I will restrain myself from writing a glowing review, for that measure would betray the dignified and dignified writing style of this book on faith. Categorized under the definition "Hebrew Bible," and this certainly is an accurate categorization I think, the paperback copy I own is for readers who wish explanation, orientation, and educational illumination regardless of being Christian or Jewish.

In this review I have tended towards my own uses for the book, and I could say those are the pastoral uses. The author, in his preface, tells the reader the various kinds of ways he addresses the purposes of his writing. Here I want to pause a moment, and tell you reader that the book is illuminating. It will give you ideas, and explain things to you as a reader in ways that you will find helpful and interesting. But for my purposes, here is a way I found the book useful, in Walter Brueggemann's words from the book's preface:

"In an attempt to be 'postcritical,' I have had in mind especially the pastoral use of the Psalms. By that I mean how the Psalms may function as voices of faith in the actual life of the believing community. So I have sought to consider the interface between the flow of the Psalms and the dynamics of our common life."

I think there are many readers of the Psalms, some for their private interest, and others like me who also follow them in public and private worship. The Psalms speak to us. One cares about them, they offer a wider life, a connection to God, an explanation of our existence. The book offers: "Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing. Matching this we will consider 'psalms of orientation,' which in a variety of ways articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God's creation, and God's governing law." Please note that there is wisdom in this book about the Psalms, and it will be apparent to you on reading the book.

Of the book's direction, the purpose lies in a book of both orientation and disorientation. "This may be an abrupt or a slowly dawning acknowledgment. It constitutes a dismantling of the old, known world and a relinquishing of safe, reliable confidence in God's good creation." For the believer, this is good news.

Is this a book about something written from centuries past that continues and still brings good into our lives? In other words, is the reading of the Psalms and their use in prayer beneficial in our times? Are they worth the trouble to understand and work with? And for the Christian, are they a telling source of knowing Christ and living ones life in the Christian way? The author speaks directly to their value by making them become for us available, and by his authority as a scholar and teacher broadening the meaning of the Psalms. This is a direct statement that tells us what the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia USA says:

"The Psalms speak of a healthy, oriented life that is anticipated, even if not yet experienced. There moves in these psalms a deep conviction that God's purpose for the world is resilient. That purpose will not yield until creation is brought to fullness. The Psalms assert that the creation finally is committed to and will serve the Creator." I take that to mean, also, that the world is created for good, and that even the universe is a friendly place.

These are some notes on commentary from the book: The personal complaint song shows a great variety of "...psalms of disorientation." Communal complaint songs take more effort, for "...the category of the personal, even psychological, has become our mode of experiencing reality. We have, at the same time, experienced a loss of public awareness and public imagination." The result is we have "...little experiental counterpart to the communal complaint psalms." There are religious dimensions for such complaint and loss, the author explains. This book will be satisfactory for those who have religious inclinations and practices.

As I write this review, I am enjoying going through the book to refresh my memory of its message and information, and I believe a reader could easily read this title and come back to it a year later or so, and reread the book. That way one may get more from it. Apparently, the author believes the Psalms have transformative power. There is beauty in the words, and there is spiritual and religious meaning in the Psalms. In the section, "Hymns of Praise," the book clearly leads one to that understanding, and influences the reader rightly, that he or she will benefit from the historical power of the Psalms:

Sung with abandonment in praise to God, as Professor Brueggemann puts it, he says, " the pattern of orientation-disorientation-new orientation that we have pursued, these psalms should all be placed at the very end of the process as surprising, glad statements of a new ordering of life, or whether they should be treated as the very deepest and established statement of the old orientation that is firm, settled, and nonnegotiable." There is a thematic statement, a solid remark of learned value that like much in this book leads the reader to understanding the Psalms as instruments for relationship with God, and means of reconciliation.

For those wanting and even needing explanation and commentary of the Psalms that will enhance and even illuminate their use and reading, this slim volume is a welcome addition to a library. And if that library is a small one, make this one of that number. Keep the book, read it again even a year later. "Spirituality of the Psalms," a remarkable book that reads well and may be approached with ease.

--Peter Menkin, Christmas

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.

Copyright Peter Menkin

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