A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.

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After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Jesus is Baptised — Mark 1:1–11 

Introduction: Jesus in 4-D

On the 28th August 1989 the band Depeche Mode released a song called Personal Jesus. I personally think it’s a great song. If you like 1980s music you might well agree. However, it does not make for good theology. In fact, it inadvertently acts as a critique of other bad theology. A close analysis of the lyrics implies that Jesus is essentially just a therapist and not a lot more. The singer-poet implies that they could be both lover and therapist—the implication is that Jesus might be good therapist, but the singing lover will be a better one.

One of the biggest problems in faith, as well as theology, is that we have a terrifying tendency to make Jesus into a reflection of ourselves and/or to caricature him. Professional theologians and believers in general both have this ability of taking the God-Man Jesus and making him into their own ‘personal Jesus’—seeing him in 1-D, or at best 2-D. In this way, the most remarkable person in all history is neatly labelled, categorised and at the same time emptied of his enormous depth and substance.

Church History and history at large have countless examples. Here are just three:

  1. Nineteenth-century German liberal theologians saw Jesus as a liberal pedlar of timeless truths emptied of his Jewishness.
  2. Some Marxist Liberation theologians look to Jesus and see a Marxist revolutionary.
  3. Margaret Thatcher famously looked at Jesus and saw a proponent of Thatcherite economics.

The wrong Jesus means the wrong gospel, and the wrong gospel is simply not Good News. Seeing Jesus in 1-D supports lifestyles, politics, worship and faith, all contrary to the Good News. The wrong Jesus obscures the best news. The very real danger is that we lose the Good News about the creator’s action for us and obscure it with a Jesus of our creation. In creating our own personal Jesus we can prevent the possibility of genuine personal relationship with the Father through Jesus.

One way to address this problem is to turn to the four New Testament gospels. To attempt to see Jesus afresh as those first witnesses report. To see Jesus in 4-D. This reflection is just one small contribution to this aim.

Mark and Jesus’ Baptism

Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the canonical gospels. Most of its verses are found in the other two Synoptic Gospels: Matthew and Luke. In terms of content it does not add much to the accounts of Matthew and Luke. So why worry about Mark’s Gospel? Why even bother? Can’t we just cut out the unique bits and paste them as an appendix to Matthew and Luke? Or how about making a single bigger gospel? As great a theologian as John Calvin did just this in his epic commentary on the Synoptics: A Harmony of the Gospels.

If we think this is a good idea we are, I think, missing a major point of why there are four gospels included in Scripture. Mark has a ‘story’ to tell and a ‘biography’ to unfold. Jesus’ life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his significance are beyond one human’s capacity to capture. Mark makes a contribution equal to that of the other gospel writers. Despite being shorter he has captured and presented a unique account of the remarkable nature of Jesus in his own God-authorised way.

Mark’s account is a gospel of phenomenal pace and dynamism, as well as having been shaped so that the episodes and events emphasise Mark’s understanding of Jesus. This account probably served as The Gospel for one of the earliest Christian churches—it was all they had for perhaps a decade or two. We are privileged to have all four authorised ‘biographies’ of Jesus.

I would encourage you to make time to encounter each gospel over the next three months. Reading Mark’s gospel at a gentle pace takes just under two hours—this is the length of a typical film or four episodes of a soap opera. Why not get it as an audio book for freshness?

Mark makes much of three key events in the life of Jesus: his baptism, his transfiguration and his crucifixion.1 Mark even appears to make deliberately links between the three events. Here at his baptism, for example, the heavens are ‘torn open’ and a dove descends. At the transfiguration his garments turn white and a cloud descends. Whilst at his crucifixion the sanctuary curtain is torn and darkness descends.

At his baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven is heard, at the transfiguration a voice is heard from the cloud and at the crucifixion Jesus’ own loud voice is heard.

As Jesus is baptised God says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”, during the transfiguration God says “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and during his crucifixion it is said that “Surely this man was the Son of God!”.

John the Baptist plays the role of Elijah at the baptism (the camel’s hair and belt give it away), Jesus is joined by Elijah on the mount of transfiguration and Jesus is thought, by some, to be calling to Elijah as he is crucified.

The baptism, transfiguration and crucifixion are for Mark the central points of revelation—they reveal his gospel to be the:

“good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”

 As he stated at the very outset.

John the Baptiser

The return of Elijah had become a mainstream Jewish hope by the time of Jesus. And Mark echoes the description of Elijah from 2 Kings 1:8. Mark picks up specifically on the hope that Elijah, or a new Elijah, would prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist was a proponent, as his name suggests, of baptism. The very word baptism, is for us, rich in meaning and we see it as a religious word, the carrying out of a religious rite whether by immersion in water or by sprinkling of water during infant baptism or Christening.

But those hearing the call to be baptised and seeing other people baptised were seeing something new—we know that there was a Jewish renewal movement who practiced ritual bathing, the Essenes who were the owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But their practice was for the community and was a repeated ritual. Some scholars think John might have been one of these Essenes. But John is doing something different in his call to baptism. The word baptism was a normal everyday word, simply meaning being submerged or being drenched in water.

John the Baptist, as Mark makes clear started something—he initiated a call to baptism as a testimony to a decision of repentance and renewal of faith. He prepared the way by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. He is part of the old order—he preaches forgiveness under the old covenant. He is also a bridge between old and new. A bridge between Torah and Gospel. Just as John heralds Jesus, so Jesus heralds good news. The first we hear of this good news is some continuity. Jesus also promotes baptism and he also teaches forgiveness of sins.

Jesus the Baptiser

But when someone is a bridge there is not only continuity there is also newness. There is startling newness encountered here in Mark’s story of Jesus. It might not sound new to us, but the way in which Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope was remarkable. This is the reason why so many did no instantly believe this message of good news.

The truth of Jesus’ message was not enough to start Christianity. The veracity of Mark’s account and the other gospels was not enough. The Holy Spirit that Jesus baptised with at Pentecost, and subsequently, was the powerhouse that enabled the journey of the Good News of forgiveness from 12, to 120, to 2000, and to the ends of the earth.

The forgiveness of sins is of course not just something that Jesus talks about, it is something that he achieves in his very actions—in his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. What John promises is not just a present opportunity for water baptism, but that the Messiah bringing an extra dimension to baptism. John was only too aware that he baptised with water—just good old H2O, with a few impurities no doubt, from the river Jordan. But the one he was preparing the way for would baptise in Holy Spirit.

In much of the New Testament it is not always clear whether baptism refers to water or the Holy Spirit. In early Christian thinking the two merged into one—water baptism and Spirit baptism are both expected early steps in Christian initiation and discipleship—two sides of the same early experience of faith and the encounter with Jesus in 4-D.

Christians have disagreed on what Spirit baptism means, for example whether it must be accompanied by speaking in tongues, prophecy or some other manifestation. Most Pentecostals teach a two-stage process as normal where Spirit baptism is normally a so-called second blessing after the receiving of the Spirit as a seal for salvation. Others see, at least ideally, a single stage.

Whether it be a quiet sense of inner peace, a warm inward glow, speaking in other tongues or something even more dramatic, such work and experience of the Spirit is part of what it means to follow a Jesus who baptises in Spirit. We must remember that we can’t invoke the Holy Spirit. God’s action by his Spirit is not dependent on us. Unfortunately, what we can do is quench his work.

The best ways of avoiding quenching the Spirit and to be in the place of God moving by his Spirit are to look to holiness, prayer, repentance, obedience and Scripture. The Church and our faith are served best when our lives are open to both receiving God’s word and receiving God’s Holy Spirit. For God the Father works in his creation continually by his two hands, the 4-D Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

 

Reference

  1. I am indebted to Ched Myers’s unique commentary, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, for this helpful point.

Book Review: ‘Psalms Old and New’ by Ben Witherington III

Witherington, Ben III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

I came to this book with great expectations, having benefited over the years from a number of Witherington’s New Testament commentaries—in particular his The Acts of the Apostles and Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (3 volumes). I also found the subtitle full of promise as the subject of how the New Testament authors use the psalms is a fascinating and complicated mass of interpretative issues.

At the outset of this volume, Witherington implies that there is a straightforward continuity in scholarship on the psalms with the trajectory initiated by Gunkel and Mowinckel (p.2). In a short paragraph he glosses over nothing less than a paradigm shift in psalms scholarship initiated by Wilson’s 1985 The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. This work is not mentioned in Witherington’s bibliography nor are any other works by Wilson. A more thorough examination of the bibliography reveals very little of the recent work on what some term the canonical approach. This approach is important not least because it is now the scholarly consensus with regard to both the formation of the Psalter and the form of the Book of Psalms.

This sidelining of the canonical approach is puzzling for a number of reasons, two of which are worth noting here. Firstly, the canonical approach is enormously rich in its broader implications for intertextuality. The intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) itself would surely have formed a promising point of departure for this study—as a minimum the New Testament writers stand in continuity with a community of faith that had continued to reread the psalms. Secondly, Witherington structures his book around the five-fold structure of the Psalter which implicitly affirms the recent paradigm shift. At the outset there is very little justification for why the five books of the Psalter are each treated in a separate chapter. The impression is that this is just to provide manageable ‘chunks’ of material.

By page 4, Witherington affirms by use of italics that “the Psalms, unlike various other parts of the OT, served four functions at once: . . .”. Whilst the four functions he goes on to state are sensible, this bold statement mutes important interpretive nuance and diversity in early praxis. The complex processes of writing, editing, forming of collections, combining collections and further editing over something like a millennium means that the fourfold functionality of the psalms is prone to oversimplifying the psalms. Such developments mean that psalms were used differently over time and by different parts of the Israelite, Judahite and Jewish communities, between the Monarchical period and the early Rabbinic period. Just how anachronistic this implied uniformity of fourfold function is, is revealed a few pages later, where Witherington identifies a fourfold Christian pattern where the four functions are alternatives and are not viewed as being simultaneously operative.

The second chapter is titled The Psalter in Early Judaism, and at this point the reader realises that there will be no space given to the shape and shaping of the Psalter despite the hermeneutical promise of such an endeavour. This short chapter rehearses some generic comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the biblical psalms in the Qumran literature, the Apochrypha, etc. Witherington is at pains to dismiss Brooke’s rather unusual claims about a movement from poetry to history during the evolution of the Psalter. The best way to show how such an approach fails to account for the Psalter would, in my view, have been a thorough exploration of the one thousand year history of the psalms (the interested reader can find such exploration in, for example, Holladay’s The Psalms through Three Thousand Years and DeClaisse-Walford’s Reading from the Beginning).

Chapters three to seven consider the five books of the Psalter. Here Witherington is in his element as he explores how the New Testament picks up on specific psalms directly and exhibits more subtle intertextual dependence on the Psalter. These five core chapters contain a wealth of detail and Witherington explains carefully how he has built on the work of others as well as carried out his own extensive work (writing major commentaries on every book of the New Testament, for example). This near exhaustive re-examination of the use of the Psalms by the New Testament writers makes this volume essential for anyone wanting to understand this intertextual and inter-testament interpretive issue.

A key strength of all five main chapters is the careful exploration of the different ways in which the New Testament writers use the psalms. Sometimes the New Testament authors have been given hard time for not abiding by modern interpretive approaches and playing fast-and-loose with the Psalter. Witherington helpful considers the variety of approaches used by the New Testament authors and notes that much of their usage relies on a homiletical approach (see p.251, for example). This is the key element of the work which can be said to be new and it represents a genuinely useful insight.

Witherington helpfully points out that some of the usage of the Psalms relates to the identity of the resurrected Jesus as the Messiah and other usage is far more general, reflecting the life of Jesus’ followers in a world where following Jesus means experiencing suffering. On this latter point, Witherington seems to be advocating something like Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Approach although this is not considered. Throughout the book, the psalms are consistently viewed as poetry and the New Testament writers are judged to have appropriately developed and interpreted them in the light of the Jesus Event. Witherington’s exploration of the nuances of such interpretation heads of some of some dangerously naive approaches of reading the psalms. In a similar vein the appropriation of the imprecatory psalms is handled with care as Witherington explores these psalms as the words of those struggling in prayer and at times voicing prayers at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

There is still a question in my mind about the use of the five-fold structure of the Psalter. At one point (p.319), Witherington sounds either disappointed or surprised that he has not really found any clear difference in the use made of the psalms in the five books by the New Testament authors. I would have liked to have seen some clearer conclusions about Witherington’s findings in the light of different interpretive paradigms of the psalms but this is perhaps unfair given the scope of this book and the series to which it belongs.