by Walter Brueggemann
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002. 75 pp. $6.00
Reviewed/excerpted by Joyce M. Bowers
Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. He is a prolific author; many of his books have been published by Fortress Press, notably Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997) and The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (2001).
Brueggemann’s classic The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984) has been widely recommended. An abridged version, Spirituality of the Psalms, was published in 2002 by Fortress as part of the Facets series, described as “brief, brilliant treatments of vital aspects of faith and life” – an accurate description at least in this case. Its small size and modest price make it attractive for busy pastors, despite its uninviting cover art. The writing style is lively and accessible to serious lay readers as well as clergy.
Brueggemann draws on the work of numerous scholarsof the Psalms, but combines that with pastoral concerns, resulting in
… a post critical interpretation that lets the devotional and scholarly traditions support, inform, and correct each other, so that the formal gains of scholarly methods may enhance and strengthen, as well as criticize, the substance of genuine piety in its handling of thePsalms. (p. 3)
The structure of Brueggemann’s work on the Psalms,reflected in this monograph, is to propose three main categories of Psalms and two “moves of faith” in personal and communal life:
- Psalms of Orientation (songs of guaranteed creation)
- Psalms of Disorientation (songs of disarray)
- Psalms of New Orientation (songs of surprising new life)
The life of faith expressed in the Psalms is focused on the two decisive moves of faith that are always underway, by which we are regularly surprised and which we regularly resist. One move is out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation…. The movement of dismantling includes a rush of negativities,including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, isolation, despair, hatred and hostility. It is that move that characterizes much of the Psalms in the form of complaint and lament….The sphere of disorientation may be quite personal and intimate, or it may be massive and public. Either way, it is experienced as a personal end of the world, or it would not generate such passionate poetry. (p. 10)
The other move we make is a move from a context of disorientation to a new orientation, surprised by a new gift from God, a new coherence made present to us just when we thought all was lost…. This move of departure to new life includes a rush of positive responses, including delight,amazement, wonder, awe, gratitude, and thanksgiving. (p. 11)
The theological dimension of this proposal is to provide a connection among:
- focal moments of Christian faith (crucifixion and resurrection)
- decisive inclinations of Israelite piety (suffering and hope), psalmic expressions that are most recurrent (complaint and praise) and
- seasons in our own life of dying and being raised(p. 13)
Thus, deep loss and amazing gift are held together in a powerful tension. (p. xi)
Brueggemann is strongly critical of a Christian piety which focuses only on positive aspects of faith and thus Psalms of praise. He fully appreciates the importance of praise and thanksgiving, but in keeping with this issue’s theme of lament, we focus here on his treatment of lament psalms, or “psalms of disorientation.”
The psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith…. Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness…seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms;it is a lie in terms of our experience. (p. xii)
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. (p. 25 – 26)
The use of “psalms of darkness” may be judged to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith… These psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life…. Such a faith is indeed a transformed faith… in a very different God, one who is present in,participating in, and attentive to the darkness, weakness, and displacement of life. (p. 27)
This reviewer highly recommends that readers pursue Brueggemann’s work on thePsalms, especially since it has been so conveniently “packaged” in this small volume.