One of the world's most trusted Bible scholars, N. T. Wright turns his attention to the central collection of prayers that Jesus and Paul knew best: the book of Psalms. Wright points out that the Psalms have served as the central prayer and hymnbook for the church since its beginning - until now. In The Case for the Psalms, Wright calls us to return to the Psalms as a steady, vital component of healthy Christian living. Reading, studying, and praying the Psalms is God's means for teaching us what it means to be human: how to express our emotions and yearnings, how to reconcile our anger and our compassion, how to see our story in light of God's sweeping narrative of salvation. Wright provides the tools for understanding and incorporating these crucial verses into our own lives. His conclusion is simple: all Christians need to read, pray, sing, and live the Psalms.
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Five years ago, if you had asked me what my least favorite part of the bible is, I would have probably said the Psalms. I might have said the lists genealogies or Numbers, but most likely I would have said Psalms.
However, The Case for the Psalms is the third book on the Psalms I have read this year and I am moving toward a greater appreciation of the role of the Psalms, not only as illustrations of the range of biblical expression but as important centers for Christian worship and theology.
I grew up low church, I remain low church, but I appreciate more all the time the liturgical parts of the Christian church and the role of the Book of Common Prayer and various other expressions of historic worship. Not because I have an emotional attachment to them, but because I see how the role of liturgy shapes the life of the Christian.
I have not completely bought into James Smith’s liturgical project (Imagining the Kingdom), but I continue to struggle with how to think about transforming the overtly evangelistic worship of my megachurch to include more historic elements of Christian liturgical worship. (Not that I am a decision maker or in anyway involved in worship planning at my church.)
And this where NT Wright comes in again. As a consistent voice calling for the church to maintain the importance of scripture (see Scripture and the Authority of God) Wright has helped me see that a church that is not shaped by scripture is not doing the work of the church. No Evangelical churches are explicitly rejecting scripture, but there are many that, while verbally upholding the importance of scripture, do not actually spend much time reading it publicly or using it as part of worship.
I am all for modern worship music. And I fully admit that modern worship music does not have the full theological richness of some historic hymns. However, that is a false comparison, it is comparing the best of history of the wide swath of current music. But even the historic best of Christian hymns did not spend a lot of time including the Psalms. Prayer books and liturgical orders of service always included the Psalms and historically most church worship has had a mixture of scripture, current musical expression, historic worship and some amount of teaching.
The Case for the Psalms is not a commentary on Psalms, but an exploration of the themes of Psalms and the reason why Psalms are indispensable for Christian worship. Wright commonly moves into hyperbole in many of his books, but this is one case where I think he has made his case without overstating the case too strongly.
The Psalms keep our worship grounded. They show a wide range of human emotion toward God and keep us from minimizing our humanness as created by God. The Psalms center our focus on worship using temple, heavenly, nature and other metaphors for bringing wonder to the fore.
The Psalms give the church a common worship language, which may be even more important as the church, even in a small geography, has lost a lot of its common cultural language.
The Psalms also are historic, the same Psalms that we use in worship were used by the early church, by Jesus, by Israel in Exile, by the Reformers, by 5th Century Monks and by 21st Century believers around the world.
The Case for the Psalms ends with a personal appendix from Wright about how he personally uses the Psalms for worship and how he has been transformed by them. This is a good illustration of why I think he is such an important figure in modern Evangelical scholarship. Because even in the midst of the densest of his academic writing, there are glimmers of his pastoral experience and pastoral heart. The Case for the Psalms is overt in his pastoral focus. This still has an academic tint, but it is more a pastoral call than an academic treatise.