My Experience with the Psalms
Unlike those from more ‘high-church’ traditions, I didn’t have much exposure to the Psalter growing up. We didn’t sing the psalms. They weren’t read during worship. No one talked about memorizing them. Sure, they were in our Bibles and I can recall hearing the advice to read 5 Psalms a day (and one chapter of Proverbs) to get through those books in a month. But that was about it.
For all the talk of being ‘Bible-based’ and ‘Bible-believing’, many conservative, evangelical Christian congregations have surprisingly little Bible during their worship services. Sure, they preach out of the Bible (usually; I’ve attended some services where the preacher barely mentioned it). But those who attend high-church congregations (be they Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) hear far more actual Bible during the course of an average worship service.
You don’t have to read far in N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms to realize that his experience with the psalter, as an Anglican, doesn’t reflect mine at all.
‘The Case for the Psalms’: Breathing the Psalter
Early on, Wright compares his experience with the Psalms to breathing.”I have sung, said, and read the Psalms all of my life, from early churchgoing days in the Anglican tradition through glorious years in the English Cathedral tradition, and with my own daily reading of them as a constant backdrop – or should I say backbone – for everything else” (p 13).
Rather than breathing, my life with the Psalms has been more like exercising. I’ve done it here and there but never really made a habit of it. And in both cases, my (spiritual and physical) health has suffered for want of habit.
Fortunately (for my spiritual health), I began to realize that something was missing in my worship a number of years ago. I somehow got ahold of an article on metrical psalms (I can’t recall exactly how or where I got the information). The fact that the Psalms were still sung by groups of Christians astonished me. I grew up believing that the Psalms were no more than a peculiar book of ancient poetry. Sure, there were some great ones -Psalm 23 anyone? But there were also a lot of strange ones. Even frightening ones. I had seldom seen any connection between my Christian faith and these very ancient, very Jewish songs.
In other words, how could I square Psalm 137:9 with any of Jesus’ teaching?
Nevertheless, the idea of using the Psalter as a book of Christian worship intrigued me. Even if the practice sometimes seemed nigh impossible.
‘The Case for the Psalms’: A Call to Worship with the Psalter
And then along comes N.T. Wright.
When I normally think of N.T. Wright, I think Paul. I think Romans. I think New Testament. I definitely do not think Psalms.
And Wright recognizes this in the Acknowledgements. That’s what makes this book different from many of his others. It isn’t a book that delves into much scholarship. It doesn’t wade too deeply into theological waters. It’s pastoral.
The Case for the Psalms is a plea for Christians of all stripes (both high and low church) to reclaim the Psalter as the sourcebook for Christian worship. And even if you’re not a fan of Wright – if you’ve found his arguments concerning justification and Paul less than compelling – you owe it to yourself to consider what he says here about the Psalms.
Wright’s argument basically comes down to this: the Psalms are not merely good worship songs. They are transformative. They shape us as we sing and read them.
‘The Case for the Psalms’: Transformed by the Psalter
In particular, he notes that they transform our understandings of time, space, and matter. They pull the past and future together into the present. They pull heaven down to earth. And they help us see that matter was not created to be abandoned but to be redeemed and filled with God’s glory. If you’re unfamiliar with Wright’s work on ‘Heaven’ and the second coming of Christ, some of his thoughts may catch you off guard. And though you may not agree with every statement he makes, his broader painting is undeniably true and beautiful.
Wright argues his point masterfully by examining the shape of the Psalter as a whole as well as the individual Psalms it contains. Throughout the book, he quotes from it extensively – drawing parallels between passages and showing how they lead us out of where we are and into God’s future, today.
‘The Case for the Psalms’: Learning to Sing the Psalter
And then, he concludes by suggesting several practical things we can do to reclaim the Psalms. Pastors and worship leaders ought to incorporate the Psalms more fully into corporate worship (I’ve always believed that what the church does on Sunday, the individual Christian will do throughout the week. If prayer is a priority during the worship service, it will become a priority in the lives of the congregants. The same is true of scripture reading, etc.). And we ought to value the entire Psalter and not just pick and choose our favorites. Yes, there are some challenging Psalms. But none are to be cast off. Not even Psalm 137.
‘The Case for the Psalms’: Learning to Love the Psalter
Wright concludes with a very personal chapter where he shares several stories from his life that illustrate the points he makes throughout the book. Wright’s love for the Psalter is palpable. And reading these stories is somewhat like being a single guy and listening to your best friend talk about how perfect his new girlfriend is. It makes you want to be in love too.
If nothing else, Wright’s book has value in this way. If you don’t already love the Psalms, it will make you want to.