Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MI.: Augsburg Fortress, 2001). 
Pp. xv+ 76. Pb. ISBN: 0800634500. $ 6.

Spirituality of the Psalms represents another offering from Walter Brueggemann, one of the most prolific authors in the area of Hebrew Scriptures in the twentieth century. This work is an apocopated form of Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984). The text reads word for word with most of the earlier work, however, the author has chosen to alleviate the numerous annotated biblical examples from the Psalter. Thus, shortening the overall length of his work from 205 pages in The Message of the Psalms to only 76 pages in Spirituality of the Psalms.

Noticeable differences appear in Brueggemann's shortened work. The title of the first chapter in The Message of the Psalms reads, "Introduction," while its briefer counterpart reads, "The Psalms and the Seasons of Life." Another notable difference arises in the titles of the concluding chapter originally called "A Retrospect: Spirituality and Theodicy," and now changed to "Spirituality and God's Justice."

A stated purpose for this work is to offer words of comfort and understanding in light of the changes September 11, 2001 has made on Western biblical interpretation. Brueggemann states in the preface "these tragic events suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith" (p. xv). The author reminds the reader of the vibrancy of the psalms for practical faith in today's world. A more pervasive purpose implicit in this work is to evaluate the Psalms in light of literary criticism and liberation theology particularly reflected by quotes from the works of John Updike and Jose Miranda.

The alleviation of the numerous biblical comments and examples allows the reader to grasp in a more straightforward manner the application of Brueggemann's thesis about the nature of the psalms. The main thrust of this work conveys that the message of the psalms in the Hebrew Psalter is evident from three major perspectives. First, many of the psalms relay a picture of "orientation." Repeated psalm types among these psalms are Creation psalms, Torah psalms, or Wisdom psalms. These psalms each reflect an order present in the world. God is in God's place and all is well in the world. A serenity of hope, or confidence in a divine order permeates the psalms of orientation.

Second, certain psalms relay a different message, namely "disorientation." Brueggemann lists the individual and communal laments as examples of this type. Common among these psalms is the sense of disarray that arrives when we encounter problems or storms in life. The author documents that the hymnody of Israel changes in many instances from confidence in a divine order to abject confusion or consternation on behalf of the psalmist(s). The psalms of disorientation play a vital role in the development of an informed, honest faith; a faith that allows the God of Israel and the church today to still be God in the midst of confusion or disarray. Brueggemann rightly discusses the dilemma that most present day churches frequently avoid the psalms of disorientation in favor of psalms of orientation.

The third major perspective found among the psalms according to Brueggemann are the psalms of "new orientation." These psalms are filled with images of God's grace prevailing itself through times of peril often emerging unexpectedly in aid of the psalmist(s) or the community at large. The hymns of praise along with songs of thanksgiving are afforded a place in this category. These describe words of joy, hope, and assurance of God's continued presence in the world of the worshiper.

The concluding chapter, "Spirituality and God's Justice" addresses the issue of theodicy throughout the Psalms. According to Brueggemann, the issue of theodicy is best seen as reflective of various distinct "dimensions." He states that theodicy is a religious crisis about the character of God. Theodicy is also to be viewed as a social crisis when evaluating life's social inequities. Finally, theodicy can be seen as a revolutionary action seeking to change the rules of the game. Theodicy provides the arena for the implementation of the scheme necessitating various types of psalms including orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

What new can be said about the genius that is Brueggemann? His contributions stand as a bulwark of 20th century scholarship. In addition to his on-going legacy, the readers of Spirituality in the Psalms also find themselves confronted with one additional persona of Brueggemann humility. He clearly states the limitations of categorizing psalms into a convenient system. The varied psalms defy the interpreter to conveniently domesticate them into a pre-arranged order or category. It is refreshing for the seasoned interpreters of the Psalms to be reminded of the limits of our discipline. Frequently, scholars are bombarded by those who champion intellectual certitude rather than confident humility.

Spirituality in the Psalms is an earnest attempt by Walter Brueggemann to make his earlier work The Message of the Psalms meaningful to a broader audience. It is helpful to readers at all levels seeking to understand the dynamic nature of psalm interpretation. Those readers who have previously worked through The Message of the Psalms should not invest their time and money in this more succinct work, but it is a good introduction for those not previously introduced to Brueggemann's treatment of the Psalms.

H. Wayne Ballard, Jr.
Carson-Newman College