How does the book of Psalms help make sense of life, art, metaphor, violence, suffering, and mortality? How do the Psalms reflect God’s attributes of justice, grace, goodness, healing, power, and refuge? How are the millennia-old psalms a guide to living faithfully the modern Christian life in the midst of joys, sorrows, angers, doubts, praises, and thanksgivings?
What is the message you’re conveying with your book’s title?
W. David O. Taylor: What I want readers to know is that standing before God, open and unafraid, as the psalms invite us to do repeatedly, is to counter the devastating effects of our primordial sin. When Adam and Eve sin, their first impulse is to hide. And all the ways in which Adam and Eve hide—from God, from themselves, from creation—result in one thing: their dehumanization.
What the psalms offer us, then, is invaluable help to un-hide: to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame or embarrassment, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity. Said otherwise, the psalms invite us to stand in the light of God so that we might be made whole and wholly alive in Christ.
How has reading the psalms changed the way you see your Christian faith?
W. David O. Taylor: For starters it has shown me that I’m in the minority position when it comes to the church’s 2,000-year relationship to the psalms. Christians have made far more extensive and frequent use of the psalms than my home church as a child ever did. The psalms have also shown me that it’s OK to speak boldly to God in a way that I never imagined possible. It’s reminded me that the business of my spiritual life is my community’s business too, and that we get to say all sorts of things to God in prayer—from “Thank you!” to “We love you!” to “How long?” to “I’m alone!”
The psalms have given me permission to feel my sadness deeply without being undone by it. They have shown me how “to cuss without cussing,” as Eugene Peterson describes the curse psalms. They show me an image of joy that seems downright excessive. They make it possible for me to simultaneously name my enemies and to bless them. They remind me repeatedly that there’s no true worship without justice. They bring me face to face with my mortality yet also remind me that God is powerful over all deathly forces in the world, and that he’s the Lord of the nations and of creation in a way that would cause me to feel both humble and grateful.
Why do you call the book of Psalms a prayer book?
W. David O. Taylor: Whatever else they are, the psalms are prayers. They’re prayers for people who already know how to pray as well as for those who don’t know how to pray at all. They’re prayers for those who wish to pray to God with all their heart.
Said otherwise, in putting the words of the psalms on our lips, we enter into a school of prayer. In such a school we become students, and we never stop being students of such prayers, learning how to talk to God and with God. If we wish to make the most of the psalms, then, we must not only understand them as prayers, we must also understand how they “do” prayer. That’s what I hope to show readers throughout the book.
How do the psalms understand the human condition?
W. David O. Taylor: The psalms give voice to the whole anatomy of the soul, as John Calvin once described them. “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror,” he writes. No emotion is excluded from such prayer; no topic is out of bounds. This should come as extraordinarily good news for many of us who may worry that God is interested in hearing only a few things from us, perhaps only the “right” things, not all the messy contents of our hearts.
Martin Luther once called the Psalter a “little Bible,” because he believed that we would find there everything that was essential to a faithful life before God. It’s for that reason, as I argue in the book, that all human beings, everywhere and always, can resonate with the psalms, because nothing basic to the human condition is excluded from them.
Your book’s chapters each deal with a different theme from Psalms. Select two or three themes and explain how the psalms treat them.
W. David O. Taylor: I start the book with a chapter on the theme of “Honesty,” because I believe this is the only way we can receive the greatest benefit from the psalms. Standing before a gracious God and before trusted others, without secrets, vulnerable and transparent, is the way to be made holy, whole, and wholly alive.
In the chapter that follows, on “Community,” I show how honesty and community are deeply linked to each other in the psalms, and how it’s practically impossible to be truly open and unafraid apart from a community that has fully embraced the grace of God. As the psalms see it, each of us finds our place in the world of faith within the “assembly” of God’s people, and in the “company” of friends and neighbors, who keep choosing by grace to remain honest to God and fully honest with one another.
Honesty and community are the two fundamental conditions that we must embrace in order to receive the greatest benefit from the psalms.
What went through your mind as you filmed Bono conversing with Eugene Peterson about the power and meaningfulness of Psalms?
W. David O. Taylor: I didn’t have much time to think about anything else during the actual filming of the conversation except, “Don’t screw this up, David!” But every once in a while I’d pinch myself in my head as I looked across the table at the man “who wrote the Bible” and the man who has profoundly defined the shape of rock ‘n’ roll music over the past 40 years. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to be sure.
How do you respond to skeptics who minimize psalms of love and emphasize psalms that speak of violence against enemies; especially Psalm 137:9?
W. David O. Taylor: If you read the psalms carefully, you’ll see enemy talk belongs to faithful living, not because the Psalter comes out of an ancient culture that didn’t know any better, but because enemy language is faithfully honest about life in a fractured and often cruel world. It’s honest about other people and their capacities to harm, wittingly or unwittingly. It’s honest about the heart of darkness that lies within. And it’s honest to God. The psalms, in this way, run counter to two extreme positions in our churches today: those who make too much of the psalms of enemies and those who make too little of them.
But the psalms also invite us to live wholeheartedly in light of the steadfast love of God. In praying the psalms we trust that the Holy Spirit will open up a space in our hearts to give and to receive the love of God, from whom no secrets are hidden. We too would pray with the psalmist that God’s steadfast love might meet us in our hour of need (Ps. 59:10). We too would pray, “I love you, O Lord” (Ps. 18:1), with whatever faith we could muster. And we too would pray the words of Psalm 31:23 (The Message): Love God, all you saints; God takes care of all who stay close to him.”
How do you see Jesus in the psalms, which were written 1,000 years before Jesus was born?
W. David O. Taylor: At least 196 citations of the Psalter appear in the New Testament, so we can reasonably assume that for the early church, the Psalter functioned as their principal worship book. For Jesus, he repeatedly summons the language of the psalms to define the shape of his life and ministry.
When challenged by the teachers of the law for his actions in the temple, Jesus responds by quoting Psalm 8:2 (Matt. 21:12–17). When the chief priests question his authority, Jesus appeals to Psalm 118 (Matt. 21:23–27). In conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus cites Psalm 110 as evidence of his Davidic vocation (Matt. 22:41–45). At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, in response to those who might invoke his name in vain, Jesus quotes Psalm 6:8 (Matt. 7:23).
Predicting his betrayal at the hand of one of his disciples, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 (John 13:18). A little later he appeals to Psalms 35:19 and 64:4 to show how his ministry is the fulfillment of the Law (John 15:25). On the cross, he gives voice to his terrible pain by uttering the words of Psalm 22:1 (Matt. 27:46). In his final hours with the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus tells them how all things concerning himself “in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
As I argue throughout Open and Unafraid, the psalms teach us how to pray as Jesus himself prayed, because he understands intimately our human experience. With Jesus, we, too, feel forsaken. With Jesus, we, too, feel God’s protection against enemies. With Jesus, we, too, feel the pain of suffering. With Jesus, we, too, feel the life of God’s Spirit making us new again and feel our beloved nature as a son or daughter of God. And with Jesus, we, too, find ourselves singing the praises of God with grateful hearts.
What do you want people to do as a result of reading your book?
W. David O. Taylor: I’ve written this book so that readers might become excited to embrace a prayer book that’s been deeply influential, not just supremely for Jesus and the apostles, but also for the hymns of the Reformation, the spirituals of African American slaves, and the songs of the global church.
My hope is that church leaders and laypersons, and even seekers and “nones” (those claiming no religion), would understand they’re never alone in their sorrows, angers, doubts, joys, thanksgivings, or questions about life and death.
Likewise, I hope teachers and students might become curious as to why such a great variety of people throughout the centuries have loved the words of the Psalter: from Saint Augustine to Johann Sebastian Bach, from the Rastafarians to the Wesleyans, from C. S. Lewis to Charles Spurgeon, from football players to basketball coaches, and from presidents to filmmakers.
It would give me great pleasure if all Christians uncovered in these holy poems the character of a God who meets us as Good Shepherd and Just Judge, as a powerful God of Angel Armies and a comforting God of Refuge.
I should also add, perhaps, that my secret hope is that readers themselves would hear the gentle, encouraging words of Eugene Peterson to take up and read the psalms, one after the other, and to find themselves at home with God, from whom no secrets are hidden.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
W. David O. Taylor: Speaking only of the psalms, I’d say I don’t have a single psalm that I love above the rest. But I do have a triad of psalms that I’m drawn to repeatedly: Psalms 3-5. What I love about this sequence of psalms is how they invite us to pay attention to the God-ordained rhythms of evening and morning, which echo the rhythms of creation in Genesis 1.
In Psalm 3 the psalmist talks about lying down to sleep and then waking up in the morning with a deep conviction that God has been watching over him throughout the night. Then in Psalm 4 we get what might be called an “Evening Prayer,” while in Psalm 5 we get a “Morning Prayer.”
It’s as if the Book of Psalms were telling us right at the start that if we adopt a habit of nightly and morning prayer, acknowledging however simply or briefly the presence and care of God, that our life will find its right orientation and its secure grounding. It’s an awfully reassuring thing to know.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
W. David O. Taylor: I use Bible Gateway almost daily. It’s awfully user-friendly and I love the ability to easily explore different Bible translations in different languages as I prepare both my class lectures and my sermons. I love Bible Gateway!
Open and Unafraid is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative in worship, theology, and the arts. He’s the author of Open and Unafraid, Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts, Contemporary Art and the Church, and For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts.
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