A blog for Christian men "going their own way."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Men and the Psalms of Disorientation

A notable contribution to the interpretation of the Psalms is that advanced by Walter Brueggemann. A well-known scholar in seminary circles, Brueggemann has taken a sociological approach to study of the Old Testament, which though not entirely without criticism, cannot be summarily dismissed either. While Brueggemann veers slightly towards liberation theology at times, his work should not be pigeonholed as such. I daresay evangelical scholars who are worth their salt acknowledge the contribution Brueggemann has made to the study of the Psalms. Pick up any academic work on the Psalms put out by Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, etc. and you'll probably find a hat tip to Brueggemann right along with Derek Kidner or Trempor Longman.

Brueggemann posits a threefold scheme to understanding the book of Psalms (or the Psalter, if you will): psalms of "orientation," "disorientation," and "new orientation." Psalms of orientation express sentiments of faith when all is right with the world. These are psalms of praise, psalms extolling the value of God's word, or psalms that assure the blessings of the righteousness and punishment of the wicked. Psalms of disorientation represent a crisis in faith. These psalms cry out in agony over sin, sickness, persecution, defeat, despair, etc. Many times these psalms are frank and brutally candid in their desperation. The often wonder aloud why God is taking so long to right a situation (Psalm 13) or they may express their desire for vengeance against a personal or national enemy (Psalm 109). Finally, the psalms of new orientation represent a restored sense of faith after a crises has passed. Psalms of thanksgiving, for example, can fall into this last category.

I want to focus on the psalms of disorientation. They remind me of Job's statement: "Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (Job 7:11, NASB). Brueggemann has stated these psalms have a vital role to play in the lives not only of individual believers but of the Church as well. Modern Christians may be taken aback by some of these psalms, such as the imprecatory psalms (where curses are pronounced against enemies). I myself do not think we can easily adopt the sentiments of all these psalms in toto (Romans 12:14), but in many other ways, we cannot ignore the negative emotions expressed by believers of old in the Psalms.

Brueggemann warns that when the psalms of disorientation are absent from individual or corporate worship of the Church, two things happen. One, the believer has an inauthentic relationship with God, only telling God what the believer thinks God wants to hear and not what God sees in the heart anyway--the grief, frustration, anger, sorrow, fear, moments of doubt. The second danger is that churches become a mouthpiece for the status quo, blind and indifferent to the suffering and problems others face. The churches are too busy singing "happy, happy, joy, joy" when they should be mourning for others and mourning for their own sins and failures (Romans 12:15; Jeremiah 8:11). Brueggemann indicates that a body of believers who cling to the mode of orientation when times of disorientation are upon them have become inauthentic in their expressions of faith.

So, the ones who quote Proverbs 18:22 on marriage forget that the same author penned Ecclesiastes 7:26-28. The ones who quote Psalm 127:4-5 on children forget that the same author penned Ecclesiastes 4:1-3. The ones who focus on Psalm 9:11 and want to sing praises forget Psalm 137:3-4 where the author, witnessing the brutal subjection of the Jews by the Babylonians, doesn't have the gumption to sing any songs at that moment. I could go on and on. There is a time and place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). The scriptures speak to the places where we are at in our lives. Our churches, unfortunately, all too often speak the same tired litany. They're stuck in Psalm 65:4 while Jeremiah 7:4-8 rings out from the streets.

What does this have to do with men? I think it is obvious. I have already written how social conservatives have betrayed men. I have already written how the things that people consider blessings can oftentimes only serve as a painful reminder to some men that things are not right. Religious leaders and so-called "men's ministries" would like men to stay in a hollow mode of orientation. They would deny us the language, the liturgy, or the venues to express our grief, our despair, our anger, our frustration, our sense of outrage against injustice. They tell us to "stop being bitter," "move on," "get over it," "stop whining," "man up," "stop being so self-centered," "stop blaming others," and on and on. Yet they would do well to hear what Brueggemann says:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disorientated. That may be laudatory. It could be that such relentlessness is an act of bold defiance in which these psalms of order and reliability are flung in the face of disorder. In that way, they insist that nothing shall separate us from the love of God ...

But at best, this is only partly true. It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numbed denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing "happy songs" in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does. (The Message of the Psalms, pp. 51-52) [emphasis mine]
Men, like Hannah, are weeping in the "bitterness of soul" to God (1 Samuel 1:10), but our church leaders too often play the part of Eli and falsely accuse these men of impropriety (1 Samuel 1:13-15). And all too often, church leaders are impatient with those who are suffering, forgetting that the seasons of refreshing and renewal for an afflicted believer are in God's hands, and the issue cannot always be forced. Job and the author of Psalm 88 must wait in a disoriented faith until the Lord encounters them.

So, we see, dear readers, that the ones who often accuse men of spiritual immaturity may themselves be spiritually immature. The issue of how our churches, our popular culture, our society as a whole, and even women treat men is not going away and cannot be swept under the rug of a bogus ecclesiasticism. Men of faith who are concerned about these things are finding a way to talk about these things, the cavalier dismissal of the religious status quo notwithstanding. In the face of religious misandry, they can look with a vindicated conscience to the words from the Lord by the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24, NIV)
Gentlemen, let's take a cue from Amos. Let us never be shamed into silence. Let's roll.

More recommended reading:

"What Can Miserable Christians Sing?" (by Carl Trueman) (a fuller version of this piece was published in Themelios, February 2000)


wombatty said...

Outstanding, Anakin - a very powerful post.

Jeff said...


I think you are definitely on to something here. Suffering and mourning don't fit well into the positive thinking mindset of many churches that I have been in.

Some churches (especially the church growth movement type) are being run more and more like businesses: focus on numbers, short term growth, publicity, branding, etc.

Too much suffering in the church works against the carefully crafted image of a happy, perfect, sucessful community. It's almost like we think that confessing sin and honestly dealing with pain is an admission of doubt.

Thus, any form of disorientation is kept ("safely") at arms length...if people are being real with each other, it could get uncomfortable for the leadership.

Anonymous said...


tannen said...

Well done, Well done!! Thanks for posting some Brueggemann up here. Evangelica Americana needs to be reading him and those like him instead of some of the disgraceful writing peddled by "conservative evangelicals" as theology. Jesus said in John 16:33, "I have told you these things that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world."

To comment on Jeff's comment, "suffering and mourning don't fit well into the positive thinking mindset...." strikes me as why many loudly 'evangelical' churches never celebrate seasons of the church year like Lent and Advent. It is uncomfortable to the point of embarrassing for people to admit that life is hard for them and that they have doubts. Doubly so for them to realise that our sin has sent our Saviour (who is God) to the anguish and disgrace of the cross.

Justin said...

To be sure, not all evangelical churches preach the prosperity and happiness gospel. I think maybe this is more of a mega-Church phenomenon, a Churchianity kind of thing.

Tannen, I also long for an evangelical church that celebrates Lent. But, on the other hand, where is the Lent-celebrating church that is also evangelical?

The quality of preaching is so much better in evangelical than in liturgical churches, it is not even close. While you will find me on most Sunday mornings in an evangelical church, I will sneak into a Catholic congregation to receive the ashes (and you might even see me and my kids doing stations of the cross!!!).

njartist said...

This is O.T. but I think you will be amused:


Adams is telling his readers that there is always someone for you.

njartist said...

Protestant churches do not celebrate pagan traditions to the extent they are Christian. The more polluted they are by the Babylonian Mystery religion the more these traditions of men are celebrated.

Learner said...

Interesting post Anakin. I think it is true that many christians are uncomfortable with the suffering of others because it interferes with their happy, rosy view of reality. The trials and suffering of others are such a downer. When going through a life-altering trial it always surprised me when my believing friends shied away from me or were unable to listen to me express what was happening.

Will S. said...

Justin: If you want solid preaching AND liturgy, you would do well to check out various confessing Reformed or Presbyterian (i.e. Calvinist) churches, where you will get both (though YMMV; some observe Lent and Advent and Christmas and Easter; others don't). But if you're into smells and bells and ashes and pagan elements, and equate that with liturgy, you're hooped, as far as I can tell. Maybe a conservative Anglican church might be what you're looking for, but probably not.