The Spirituality of the Psalms | Walter Brueggemann

The cover of Brueggemann's The Spirituality of the PsalmsThe psalms are disturbing if you read them—all of them. It’s easy to take the familiar comforting ones at face value:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-2 ESV)

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2 ESV)

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name! (Psalm 103:1 ESV)

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 150:6 ESV)

If that’s all we read then the psalter is a gentle almost pedestrian song-book. If we dig a little deeper, however, things begin to get strange:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 ESV)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22 ESV)

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9 ESV)

If we want to take the entire psalter seriously, it’s clear that we need more than romantic notions about God’s gentleness and protection. In Spirituality of the Psalms, Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the whole book of Psalms. While not every psalm can be fit into a neat category, the majority of the psalms can be viewed in one of three ways:

  1. Psalms of Orientation (e.g. Psalm 8, 24, 33, 104, 133, 145). These are the psalms we are most comfortable with. These are psalms of gratitude for God’s ordering of life. These psalms reflect life the way it is expected to be: full of blessing for the saints. These are psalms where the Torah is celebrated and the God of creation is praised. Brueggemann draws on the scholarship of Sigmund Mowinckel who notes that these psalms are not only responsive but generative: they generate, in part, the reality they celebrate. “Worship is indeed ‘world-making'” (19).
  2. Psalms of Disorientation (e.g. Psalm 13, 35, 74, 86, 95, 137). These psalms are the reaction of the faithful to God when the world they knew was broken. These are psalms of lament that move and deepen the faith of the worshiper. When Jerusalem, the city of God, falls to Babylon, you don’t sing Psalm 23—you respond with the virulence of 137. Whether the content is ethically pure or not, the words reflect the pain of a people engaging with their God in world-shattering circumstances.
  3. Psalms of New Orientation (e.g. Psalm 29, 47, 93, 97, 98, 99, 114, 148, 150). These are deeper versions of the orientation psalms. Disorientation is now past and the singer praises God for salvation. This category includes the victory hymns of Yahweh. Miriam’s song in Exodus 15, although not part of the book of Psalms, is a great example.

Overall, Brueggemann’s tripartite understanding of the book of Psalms is very helpful. While no schema will ever contain the rich diversity of the psalms (as Bruggemann himself acknowledges), the movement from orientation to disorientation to new-orientation is not only evident in the psalms, it is fundamental to Christian life.

Brueggemann’s bias against royal ideology and deuteronomic faith is evident here. When he speaks of the orientation psalms, he is quick with a disclaimer:

In using these psalms, we must be alert to the slippery ways creation faith easily becomes social conservatism, which basks in our own well-offness. … They may also serve as a form of social control. (20, emphasis his)

While he is correct with his warning, it seems disingenuous to read the caution note before understanding character of these psalms. Furthermore, he offers no corresponding warning for the psalms of disorientation. If the orientation psalms can lead to self-satisfied oppression of the poor, surely the disorientation psalms can lead to self-satisfied rebellion against the rich!

Spirituality of the Psalms is a both a theologically acute and pastorally insightful way to integrate the whole of the psalter into the believer’s daily life of worship.

—Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002).

Party Pentecost| Frank Bartleman

Frank BartlemanEvery fresh division or party in the church gives the world a contradiction as to the oneness of the body of Christ, and the truthfulness of the Gospel.

—Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street: The Roots of Modern-day Pentecost (S. Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1980), 172.

Azusa Street | Frank Bartleman

The cover of Bartleman's Azusa StreetIn 1906 the Azusa Street revival which launched the modern pentecostal renewal began. It was led by a black preacher, William Seymour. Seymour wrote very little so we rely on the eyewitness journalist and evangelist, Frank Bartleman, for first-hand stories.

Azusa Street is valuable for these stories as well as the practical insight Bartleman demonstrated concerning the moving of the Spirit. He notes, for example, how the revival brought imposters and disrupters out of the woodwork. His response?

We found early in the “Azusa” work that when we attempted to steady the Ark the Lord stopped working. We dared not call the attention of the people too much to the working of the evil. Fear would follow. We could only pray. Then God gave victory. (48)

Consider also his thoughts on church unity and his fear of a Pentecostal party:

Surely a “party spirit” cannot be “Pentecostal.” There can be no divisions in a true Pentecost. To formulate a separate body is but to advertise our failure, as people of God. (68)

Unfortunately, the insight of Bartleman is difficult to read because of the self-centredness of his narrative. Despite Seymour’s leadership of Azusa Street, Bartleman’s book is focused solely on his own exploits.

Bartleman also has an unfailing certainty that trumps any introspection. Consider the account of his family’s move from Long Beach to Pasadena:

We should have moved one month earlier, but a party occupied the house and would not move, though God called them to Sacramento. Refusing to obey God they kept us out, and caused much suffering all around. They confessed their wrong later. Thus they missed the mind of the Lord for themselves, got out of divine order, and suffered much, besides causing great suffering to others. (152)

Every time there is conflict in the book, the other party is in the wrong and Bartleman writes himself into the right. Azusa Street is a gripping first-hand account of the early pentecostal renewal, so long as you can stomach the author’s bias!

—Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street: The Roots of Modern-day Pentecost (S. Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1980).

Spirit of Love | Amos Yong

Yong's Spirit of LovePentecostals face a theological problem. We are comfortable with a language of power. With our roots sunk deep into the Luke-Acts “canon within a canon” (93), we proudly proclaim, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8 ESV). So far so good. The problem comes when we emphasize power at the expense of love. Did you know that the book of Acts does not even contain the word “love”?

Do Pentecostals have anything to say about a theology of love?

In Johannine literature we find two similarly constructed phrases:

  1. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16)
  2. “God is spirit” (John 4:24)

While John doesn’t go so far as to say that “The Spirit is love,” the relationship of the Spirit to love is important and worth exploring. This is what Yong accomplishes in Spirit of Love. Here’s his thesis:

Pentecostal understandings of the Spirit of God can shed new light on God as love and loving, and on what it means for creation as a whole and for human beings in particular to receive the love of God who gives graciously. (x)

Yong explores various fields of research to make his point. He looks at the science of altruism and the history of the Pentecostal movement before diving exegetically into the Lukan, Johannine, and Pauline writings.

The relationship between God’s love and the history of the Pentecostal movement is particularly enlightening. Yong describes the racial unity (and subsequent disunity) in the early days of the pentecostal outpouring as well as the movement’s explicit pacifism (and subsequent follow-your-conscience theory). I cannot think of two more critical love-based issues than racial integration and non-violence!

Yong makes every written page count—even the 44 pages of fine-print notes that followed the 164 pages of main text were interesting! A work like this has the potential not only to challenge one-sided Pentecostal theologies of power but also to remind us of our close connection to the Wesleyan tradition, which emphasizes love more explicitly.

—Amos Yong, Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).

Area X | Jeff Vandermeer

The cover of Vandermeer's Area XThe Southern Reach Trilogy begins with what sounds like the set-up for a joke: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist walk into … but this story is no joke. These four people comprise the twelfth expedition into Area X, a place cut off from the rest of the world, accessible only through a “doorway” in the Southern Reach.

I paused before selecting a genre for this review. It’s equal parts science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian fiction, and mystery. The first book in particular, Annihilation, keeps you revising your views as more data comes to light. This is page turning fiction at its best.

As I read, H. P. Lovecraft kept coming to mind. Both Lovecraft and Vandermeer wrestle with the idea of an unspeakable, incomprehensible horror from outside any human frame of reference. How do we come to grips with something wholly other? Area X represents an existential threat to humanity.

Area X is one of the most unique and gripping trilogies I have ever read.

—Jeff Vandermeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014).