Let them praaaaaaaaises give Jehovah,
For his name alone is high,
And his gloooooory is exalted, And his glooooory is exalted,
And his GLOOOOOOORY is exalted,
Far above the earth and sky.
That’s how I grew up singing Psalm 148, from the 1959 Psalter Hymnal. There were 310 psalm settings in that songbook, though I can’t claim we sang them all. As I page through my old copy, “O Royal Bride, Give Heed” does not ring a bell, for instance. But “Amid the Thronging Worshippers” and “O Lord My God, Most Earnestly” certainly do, along with dozens of others. I’m grateful to say, I come from a long line of psalm-singing people.
I’ve read and sung and studied the psalms all my life. Daily in my prayers, weekly at worship, for many years as part of my scholarly study of early modern metrical psalms. The contours of my inner life, I think it’s fair to say, are shaped by the psalms, so that I can’t imagine the Christian life without them. But there are unfortunate people for whom this prayer book of the Bible is unfamiliar territory. To provide such berefts with a primer on the psalms, W. David O. Taylor came out in March with Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life.
Taylor welcomes the uninitiated from the zeal of his own conversion experience. Raised in the free-church tradition, Taylor discovered the psalms only as young adult. He has since fallen deeply into them, especially under the tutelage of his friend and long-time mentor, Eugene Peterson. Taylor is now a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Texas campus. Four years ago, under the auspices of Fuller’s worship-and-arts-focused Brehm Center, Taylor produced a short film in which he interviewed Peterson along with U2 front man Bono—the three have all become friends over their shared love of the psalms.
Open and Unafraid emphasizes that honest prayer is central to a healthy spiritual life. The psalms guide us into that honesty, give us words for it, give us permission. Organized into short chapters, the book begins by establishing a wise dialectic between personal honesty and communal life. Taylor fittingly describes how the psalms always place the prayers of the inner heart within the context of the “congregation.”
Having laid that foundation, Taylor briefly addresses some contextual basics: history, prayer, and poetry. The remaining chapters each explore a theme within the psalms—sadness, enemies, death, creation, and more. Each thematic exploration is thickly studded with quotes from all over the psalms as well as quotations from scholars and interpreters. Unsurprisingly, Eugene Peterson remains center stage throughout, with Taylor frequently quoting from Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, and from Peterson’s writings on the psalms. Walter Brueggemann also presides, keeping Peterson company on stage, while people like Bernhard Anderson, John Witvliet, and Ellen Davis wait in the wings to pop in and offer a line whenever needed. We definitely do get the sense of studying the psalms in “the congregation” of scholars.
Each chapter also provides thoughtful connections to Jesus and the gospels, usually in the “conclusion” portion. Chapters conclude with discussion questions and exercises. Clearly, publisher Thomas Nelson means the book to be used in small groups, and it should serve as a rich resource for that purpose. Let the reader beware, though: the questions and exercises are not easy little Twinkies. They are robust, more like the Bible study equivalent of Pilates. You would have to choose from among them rather than trying them all.
At first, I was a little impatient with Taylor’s thematic approach. Instead, I wanted some deep, close readings of particular psalms. Why not demonstrate with a few central examples how to read and pray a psalm, rather than operate by this buckshot method? But after a few chapters, I began to see the wisdom of doing it Taylor’s way. He’s trying to introduce readers to the world of the psalms. How do the psalms as a whole approach sadness? How do the psalms as a whole define and deal with enemies? Establishing the topography, I quickly agreed, is actually a smart way to prepare readers for those inevitable moments they hit the more startling and confusing verses in the psalms.
The chapters on sadness and anger offer some of Taylor’s best insights. If you’ve never permitted sadness and anger a place in your spiritual life, well, the psalms will cure you of that. Taylor writes: “What the lament psalms have offered us in our hour of need, they offer to all who find themselves in need: edited language to give expression to our unedited emotions.”
The approach to anger is similar. We don’t need to ignore the angry psalms, Taylor advises: they “help us feel angry without being undone by our anger.” The psalms give coherence to incoherence and put it all before the face of God. This is a timely reminder in these days of constant crisis, division, and trauma. My mother-in-law and I were just saying the other day how we have treasured some of the angrier psalms in recent months. “It’s like they were written for TODAY!” we exclaimed to each other. They were.
Taylor does not hold back in the justice chapter and throughout, insisting that justice is at the heart of God’s character as revealed in the psalms. Righteousness is measured by care for the widow, orphan, poor, and resident alien. Thus we cannot pretend to serve God and not get busy protecting the vulnerable: “As the Psalter sees it, prayer and worship require something of us: doing justice.”
In the enemies chapter, Taylor fully acknowledges the difficulty of praying imprecatory psalms and repeatedly stresses that vengeance belongs to God. We pray angry prayers against enemies in order to give God our anger and leave the rest to God. Then some due references to Jesus’ teaching about enemies, and, well–I think that’s about the best you can do with this problematic aspect of the psalms.
“Nations” turns out to be a surprisingly tricky topic, and I found that chapter somewhat less satisfying. I wanted a closer interrogation of our problematic cultural absorption of kingship metaphors and our too-easy mapping of the biblical terms for nation onto the modern nation-state.
The creation chapter, too, moved too quickly for me onto Psalm 8 and a celebration of our human vocation to “rule” the earth. I would have hoped for a stronger decentering of human distinction and more time to dwell in the psalms’ celebration of God’s other creatures. The sea creatures and stormy winds praise God in their being, after all, whether or not we are even around to notice. God has a relationship with other creatures apart from us, and we can learn from the exuberance of creation’s praise without having to make it all about us.
These are the small quibbles of a scholar and lifetime psalm-prayer, though, and I am not the target audience for this book. For pastors and teachers wanting to invite people more deeply into the psalms, Open and Unafraid is an ideal recommendation. It’s insightfully organized, offers clear statements at the beginning of each subsection, and provides challenging follow-up assignments. Most important, Open and Unafraid invites people into the psalms as a portrait of the inner contours of faith and gives people permission “to tell our secrets faithfully.”
Taylor wisely acknowledges, though, that in the end, it’s not about studying the psalms. It’s about praying them. That is the long wisdom of the faithful, from the ancient Hebrews through the monastic traditions, right through today. That’s the gist of Taylor’s anecdote in the introduction, where he describes Peterson first recommending that he enter the psalms. Just begin. Let them work on you, over time. Just begin, and keep going, all the days of your life.
David Taylor is great on Twitter. You can follow him @wdavidotaylor.