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We Need Psalmists (II)

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In my previous post, I described modern psalmists as public servants (not necessarily professional) who embody a story with vivid imagery and whose body of work expresses the wide range of human experience. This writing reflects on our current efforts to be psalmists.

Evaluating Our Body of Work

My social and cultural experiences of the last few years have pushed me to reflect on my body of work and hope that leaders in the church will also.  Are we only putting out words, just information? Do we see human beings as nothing more than “brains on a stick,” as James KA Smith quipped?

Is our body of work too narrow? Is our music limited to celebration, suggesting our grief, and the grief of our neighbors is inappropriate? There’s nothing wrong with praise and celebration, but as a body of work, as we saw, it does not resemble the biblical Psalter.

Is our poetic work limited to devotional guides? Are we putting out poetry and music that is accessible outside the church? Do we write poetry or stories that could heal political injuries and weariness?  Are we engaging only in politicsism—treating political ideologies and tactics as ultimate? Or do we naively think we are apolitical and “apoetic,” and by so doing, enable the status quo?

Is our audience too narrow? Many of the biblical psalms address the nations of the world as their audience, not just believers. The psalmists invite those who worship idols to understand Yahweh by singing along. Sometimes people must sing in order to know. 

Regardless of whether you like the Irish rock band U2, their catalog is an example of a comprehensive body of work performed by Christians for the world. Their songs’ subject matter is as varied as romantic love, marital pain, love for Christ, doubt and faith, political violence in Ireland, famine, Apartheid, family memories, history, pop culture, fun, shame, and odes to heroes. U2’s poetic work speaks to the whole of human experience and all kinds of people.

The body of work produced by many Christians today tends toward the palliative, polemical, and partisan. Devotional literature leans toward the palliative—privately comforting, affirming more than exploring, only mildly poetic, and for Christians only. I’m not against devotional literature, but leadership that starts conversations requires more.  Other work tends toward the polemical—attacks on unbelief and “proofs” that appeal to reason’s highly contested standards. Then there is the politically partisan work—publicly Christian but lacking poetry, nuance, and grace.  The fault here is not in speaking to political matters but in taking sides—giving undue allegiance to a political ideology or leader.

Thankfully, writing is emerging that addresses the embodied and sensory aspects of how we learn and know, more honest poetry, and independent political thinking. I will present examples of this work in a later post.

The Heart of a Modern Psalmist

What qualifies a person to be a modest but mighty modern psalmist? The poetry of the burning bush is born on holy ground, conscious of the glory and love of God. We need psalmists who have fallen to their knees in reverent fear, and like Isaiah, had their tongues touched by a burning and cleansing coal. Without such an encounter, all attempts at “boldness” will be self-righteous and susceptible to bitterness.  A bowed person sees the beauty of God. She is humble because such searching exposure makes her tremble. She is courageous because she has seen the Majestic Glory.

Will you honesty ask God, “Search me and know me, reveal me?” Will you commit yourself to soak your imagination in the scriptures—especially the stories and the poetry? And having done so, will you write your inadequate and incomplete responses and riffs in your journal? Will you translate them for your neighbors? And, then with trembling, will you go public?

The Possibilities Before Us

If the church supports and encourages its psalmists to step into their public and embodied roles, our culture will again hear the melody of Christ and imagine the new creation revealed by the ancient poets. Those who turn aside and pay attention to the new psalmists will feel what the faith is like from the inside as they sing along in order to understand.

If the church’s body of work becomes more like the psalms of Israel, we will produce more first-class art—short stories, novels, memoirs, songs, poems, plays, films, and paintings. People will encounter realism about evil, emotional honesty, the ambiguity of reality, along with compelling evocations of goodness and beauty. We’ll have something like Shakespeare. We will help people find beauty and brokenness with the eloquent voice that emerges from the broken bones of a contrite heart. Open our lips, Lord.

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