Tuesday, December 12, 2006

With One Voice -- The Psalms

Reading Reggie's With One Voice is something like eating a well made pound cake -- the prose is rich and sweet with hints of subtle flavors (citrus, almond -- pick your recipie), but it's not so heavy as to leave you feeling fat and bloated and your head swimming in a sugar fog. He's got moments of prose that are so apt and right, that I had to copy whole paragraphs into my notes. I keep finding myself teetering on the tightrope between "Wow!!" and "Man, I wish I could write like that"

This second chapter introduces us to the book of Psalms as God's way of working on our hearts (just as the law works on our minds and the prophets work on our actions). He begins with the broad sweep of the book of psalms -- a slow movement from lament and struggle to ending with triumphant praise.

Then Reggie zeros in on Psalms 1 and 2, confessing that he's using them not only to introduce us to the purpose of the Psalms, but also to show us the personal soulcraft that has worked on him through the songs of Zion: “We are all inveterate idolators, little Pinocchios trying to work our way from puppethood to independent personhood. In this chapter, I want to confess my own false gods, because my passion for the importance of a snug theology lies in the way God has used music and song to carry out his campaign against my pet idols. Others may worship elsewhere, but I worship at the twin altars of Reason and Action – also known as Knowing and Doing.” (35)

Reggie tells the story of his coming to faith -- how he had started as a hard nosed intellectual who lusted for a clean and tidy intellectual system overseen by an aged-english actor type God (imagine John Geilgud portraying a Great Unmoved Mover). However, in college, he met Mort, a Presbyterian Pastor who challenged him with a vision of a God who intervened and meddled in the universe -- and by so doing, this God suffered wounds and hurt and bled:

“One night Mort heard me sing and play on the guitar one of the many love songs I knew. ‘From the way you seemed to feel that song, it sounds like you’re going to need a bigger God than just Someone who can explain why E=mc2 works,” he mused ‘Okay, but what did you think of the song?’ was my rejoinder, but some other voice inside of me muttered, ‘So he knows.’ Finally, there was the night Mort, frustrated after an extended conversation about whether God existed, blurted, ‘Reggie, I thinkyou worship your doubts. Could it be you just enjoy being the aloof inquirer?’ While part of me looked for a clever repartee, a deeper part confessed ‘He’s right.’ My intellectual curiosity was a smoke screen for a psyche that wanted to stay untethered. I wanted a God I could manage, not a God who would meddle. I was having a hard time admitting that I needed a God who would do a lot more than meddle – that I needed the God who had scarred himself to heal the broken and out of control places I hid from everybody else. Within a few days, I succumbed to Christ, figuring that any remaining riddles needed to be worked out from inside
of the faith. I sensed it was wiser to accept faith’s mystery than continue in unfaith’s befuddlement. I was starved for what Mort’s intrusive God offered.” (36)

Then Reggie talks about how he began to experience this overwhelming intrusive God through music, particularly a performance of the Messiah:

“I was completely unprepared for the experience. It’s not that I had never
heard any of the music before. But I had never heard it in context, all at
once, or more importantly, from the inside, from a posture of faith.
Minutes into the program I was weeping. I was overwhelmed by the beauty,
the majesty, the poetry, the melding of passion and thoughtfulness, of lovliness
and truth – the things that make Handel’s Messiah the special phenomenon it
is. I felt bathed in a new existential awareness: what Christ
brought was more than truths to learn or disciplines to master. It was
more like his coming made me – made all of us – the object of a passionate
courtship.” (37)

I've talked about having a similar kind of experience in seeing Les Miserables on Broadway. I've always taken this as being touched with an experience of glory -- yet Reggie here sounds the experience out in more detail than I've ever been able to. It's that experience of leaving the performance and feeling better, cleaner, brighter than you were before. I'm not sure if this is what Aristotle meant by catharsis in his poetics -- maybe it is catharsis viewed through redeemed eyes. And the book of Psalms points us toward having this experience on a regular basis through the songs of Zion. “Psalm 1 tells us that God simply does not care to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of coolly aloof inquirers: his passion is for dragging ugly wallflowers onto the dance floor. When we come to him looking merely for a respectable philosophical system, he not so subtly reshapes the question: ‘So it’s truth you think you want? Come sing in my choir, then we’ll talk’ In other words, learn to praise. Understanding will follow.” (49)

Reggie moves from there to talk about Psalm 2 -- how are we to understand God's interaction with the world -- particularly in the face of injustice. He retells his early passion for social justice, particularly in combatting the rascism that he saw so evidently in the 1970s South. He was desperate to show that Evangelicals cared for social justice and were thinking Christians.

“My zeal over race left me with little energy for other spiritual practices, whether personal holiness or individual evangelism.” (44) In a class on modern theology, he was studying liberation theology. He reports how the class was almost monolithically angry because of the inequities revealed in the book – how the haves oppress the have nots. Finally, one class member spoke up “The thing that troubles me about this book and the approach to God it represents is that, well, there’s no joy in it. There doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate.” (44) Reggie at first internally objected, but then realized that the theologian they were studying had indeed abridged the gospel to a political platform. He instantly had an inner memory of sitting with this student and others singing songs of praise and realizing that one of the ways we build the city of God – and just as necessary as social action – was the worship of the people of God. Being shaped and formed by singing the songs of Zion. He saw that there wasn't a dicotomy between "worship Christians" and "social justice Christians" -- joyful worship should send us forth to be salt and light in a watching world so that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven.

“I realized then that our outlook on history and society is anchored in the conviction that above us stands a God who laughs. He mocks the arrogance of the exploiters who misperceive the kind restraint of his wrath and refuse to repent. He laughs at the folly of sin’s residium in a redeemed person’s rascism. He scoffs at the demons who mock my redemption, as though the besetting sins I have yet to shake in thirty years of following Christ could lessen my Father’s commitment to see my salvation through.” (46) The laughter of God is a key component of Psalm 2 (and 37 and 59). Reggie wrestles with the discomfort of this concept, but finally finds peace in it -- for we are included in the objects of God's laughter.

In many ways, Reggie hits on the theory of literary comedy -- Think of Shakespeares comedies -- they are all about wandering pilgrims faced with various tight lipped naysayers and villans. But in the end, even the rogues are reconciled, so long as they learn that the joke is on everyone -- as long as they stop taking themselves so seriously. I think Reggie's point here is that we need to stop idolizing our own actions, thinking that in our hustle and bustle and planning and conferences and efforts we save the world. We need to rest in the laughter of God who is sovereign and has called us according to his purpose -- we are called to be pilgrims with a song on our lips and blessings from our hands.

Heavy thoughts -- More to come next week.

Soli Deo Gloria