June 7, 2020

Another Look: The Contexts of Faith

David childrens book

Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Enlightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, 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. Brevard S. Childs is no doubt right in seeing that the Psalms as a canonical book is finally an act of hope. But the hope is rooted precisely in the midst of loss and darkness, where God is surprisingly present. The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced — all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.

– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms

* * *

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann has identified a pattern that groups the psalms roughly into three kinds: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. This scheme has personal and pastoral as well as analytical value, for as the scholar says, “the flow of human life characteristically is located either in the experience of one of these settings or is in movement from one to the other.”

Psalms of orientation speak of and to those seasons of life when we enjoy a sense of well being and stability. In these times we praise the God of creation, who bestows his good favor upon us in the regular cycles of nature. We give thanks for the beneficence of the God of providence, from whose hand we welcome sunshine and rain, as well as his good gifts of food, health, human fellowship, family, and stable economic and political circumstances.

Psalms of disorientation evoke those times in life when the bottom falls out. The ground beneath our feet, once firm, starts shaking and we lose our bearings. Illness and other forms of personal distress, financial problems, relational conflicts, “wars and rumors of war,” and “fightings without and fears within” make it seem as though God has abandoned us, or at least hidden himself for awhile. We hurt. We question. We doubt. We may despair even of life itself. We are lost!

Psalms of new orientation celebrate those times when God breaks through our darkness with a new burst of light. Weeping has worn out our night, but joy awakens us at dawn. As on Christmas morning, we stumble downstairs and behold surprising stacks of new gifts under the tree with our names on them. Our jaws drop at the generous display of grace that appeared overnight while we were asleep to the possibilities of God. Like the birth of a Baby, the sight of the Master walking on water in the midst of the storm, the appearance of One raised from the dead standing in our midst, we can only squeal and gape wide-eyed with childlike wonder and praise.

Furthermore, Brueggemann asserts that the Psalms portray these seasons of life, these contexts of faith, in a dynamic manner. That is, we are always moving from one state to the other. The two primary movements involve:

  • going from the state of settled orientation into a season of disorientation, and
  • moving from distorientation into a new orientation by God’s gracious intervention.

psalm_42These movements provide the drama which characterizes the Psalms and our lives. They are also easily seen in the great events of Scripture.

  • The story of Israel moves through regular cycles of blessing, exile, and restoration.
  • The story of Jesus moves from glory at his Father’s side to self-emptying that culminates in death on a cross, to resurrection and exaltation (Phil 2:5-11).
  • This is all portrayed in the sacramental act that marks us as Christians — graced with the gift of life we die, buried with Christ in baptism into death, raised to walk in newness of life.

This pattern also explains the movements of the Church Year in its cruciform shape. At the beginning of each year, we participate in Advent activities, which invite us to experience the depths of our disorientation because of sin and brokenness. Advent also calls us to anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, when God will break through the darkness and visit us with the light of salvation. In Christmastide, we will celebrate wholeheartedly our newborn King and the gifts he brings. This pattern continues until its climax on the Three Days and the season of Eastertide — ultimate new orientation!

Such a grid in two movements reveals an understanding of life that is alien to our culture. The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss. The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as loss. And our culture is organized to prevent the experience of both.

This means that when we practice either move — into disorientation or into new orientation — we engage in a countercultural activity, which by some will be perceived as subversive. Perhaps that is why the complaint psalms have nearly dropped out of usage. Where the worshiping community seriously articulates these two moves, it affirms an understanding of reality that knows that if we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and that when lost for the gospel we will be given life (Mark 8:35). Such a practice of the Psalms cannot be taken for granted in our culture, but will be done only if there is resolved intentionality to live life in a more excellent way.

– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms


  1. Kent Haley says

    This post is very good.

    “The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss. The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise.”

    How true this is. We are always seeking to numb the pain, and to improve ourselves, and in the process never discover the amazing goodness of God when he does bring that “genuine newness and real surprise.”

  2. A truly refreshing look at a biblical reality God bless

  3. Rick Ro. says

    One of the element of the Psalms that I’m trying to factor into this analysis is David’s frequent call/cry to God for Him to basically “blast” his enemies. I’ve always struggled with that element of the Psalms, especially coupled with the seemingly contradictory command of Jesus to love our enemies and love others “as ourselves”.

    So now I’m wondering…could that be another element of what Brueggemann calls “the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced — all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life”?

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      As a regular Psalms prayer/singer/reciter/whatever, I can definitely say that those psalms are very difficult. Probably the best advice I ever heard on this was that we need to learn how to sometimes say “I” but mean “we,” and say “we,” but mean “I.” I usually try to use those psalms as a way of praying for God’s justice on behalf of his people who have been and are being treated horribly. Sort of similar to Revelation 6:10 “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'” (ESV). That’s my two cents on the issue.

    • I don’t usually have too much of a hard time with the imprecatory Psalms, so long as I consider that my true enemies are sin, death, and the devil. What bothers me the most is Psalm 51:8 and similar: let the bones YOU have crushed rejoice. God crushes our bones. That is a harsh reality to deal with, especially when it describes where you’re at. It’s hard to turn to God in prayer for healing when the gauntlet of life leaves you feeling burnt and bitter.

      • “don’t usually have too much of a hard time with the imprecatory Psalms, so long as I consider that my true enemies are sin, death, and the devil.”

        VERY helpful to me. thank you!

        • It was quite a liberating discovery for me as well. Always remember that conversely, the gifts of God are forgiveness, life, and salvation. These two ideas make great lenses through which to view difficult passages.

          • Rick Ro. says

            Very insightful to me, too. Unfortunately, the average reader of the Psalms is left scratching their head, as I have much my Christian walk.

  4. Robert F says

    When I was practicing Zen, the roshi would encourage us with a saying that parallels the theme of this post:

    In the beginning, the mountains were mountains, and the rivers were rivers.
    When I understood more, then I saw that the mountains are not mountains, and the rivers are not rivers.
    But now that I see things as they are, the mountains are mountains again, and the rivers are rivers.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Though that doesn’t make much sense, I think I’m to the age that it does. Thanks for sharing that, Robert F!

      • Robert F says

        I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to completely shake off my Zen lunacy, Rick Ro.; thanks for humoring me.

      • Robert F says

        And BTW, Rick Ro., that’s very Zen of you, to say that something that doesn’t make sense does make sense.

        • Rick Ro. says

          My walk with The Lord has changed so much over my 27 years of being born-again that I see more and more how the things that don’t make sense make sense, and vice versa. God is a mystery, for sure. Maybe that makes Him semi-Zen-like…? Oh, and maybe that explains why I am getting baptized in a couple of weeks…it doesn’t make sense, yet it does.

          • Robert F says

            I was baptized as an infant before I can remember; I’ve never walked with the Lord, but he has stalked me indefatigably lo these many years, pushing me ahead in the forward, anticipatory wake of his inexorable pursuit toward a goal I can neither see nor imagine. I do not know how he feels about Zen, but our Lord is unquestionably a God of many paradoxes Have a wonderful and blessed baptism.

  5. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I can’t think of anything that’s helped me feel like a part of the “Big Story” of the bible than regular singing/praying/reciting of the Psalms. I guess that’s why they’ve been essential to traditional spiritual formation since Temple times!

    • On most days, the Psalms are the only prayer I’m capable of, mentally, emotionally, and practically. I’m thankful to God that he gives me words to pray when I can’t find any and don’t want to.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        If you’re all about the Psalms, Miguel, let me seriously recommend picking up a copy of St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. Singing/chanting the Psalms is really, really fun.

        • I’ll look into it. I already have the monastic diurnal and I know how to read the notation and sing the tones, but most of those type books require more time than I can give. I typically just carry around a NT + Psalms and read through there on a Cranmer like scheme when I can squeeze it in.