Brueggemann & the Psalms – 2

In my first post on Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful book “The Message of the Psalms,” I introduced his threefold “scheme” for making sense of the range and reach of the Psalms in understanding the life of faith. That is: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.

And before we dive into the this rich resource of Hebrew psalms, I thought I would expand Brueggaman’s scheme a bit – giving you a fuller understanding of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. More specifically, how Brueggemann sees these three as “seasons” that are common to the life of faith, though the experience of them may be diverse. Brueggemann insists on holding in tension the Pastoral and the Theological. As with most great theologians, he is aware that the academy is limited. The faith life is to be experienced – and so mere theology will not do. But neither can you be given to the pastoral elements of faith without being informed theologically by the faith community and its convictions, commitments, and relation to YHWH.

I want to share a piece of Brueggemann’s Preface to the book with you, to flesh out this threefold scheme, giving it fuller dimension, while exposing the necessary tensions that must exist between pastoral and theological concerns – and ultimately how the Psalms intersect all of this.

“a> The moves of orientation-disorientation-new orientation are for Christians most clearly played out in the life of Jesus of Nazereth, but not exclusively there. I find Phil. 2:5-11 a helpful articulation of this movement. It can, without any forcing, be correlated:

Orientation: ‘Though he was in the form of God…’
Disorientation: ‘[He] emptied himself.’
New Orientation: ‘Therefore God has hightly exalted him…’

I do not understand that in any ontological way and am not interested in Christological speculation. Rather, the life of Jesus, and especially the passion narrative, does portray his life in precisely that fashion, perhaps with special affinity to the liturgical destiny of the king.

b> The liturgical form of this matter is, for the life of the church, evidenced in baptism. The same two moves that I have sketched in the Psalms are the key discernment of baptism:

‘We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death… that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)

We understand in baptism that the loss of control of our lives (disorientation) is the necessary precondition of the new life (new orientation).

c> In the radical reflection of the Old Testament (in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah) these same moves are made around the destiny of Jerusalem. It is a city that must be plucked up and broken down in order that it may be built and planted (Jer. 1:10). That same sense of deep cost and discontinuity has been important for Jews in trying to understand the Holocaust and the surprise state of Israel.

d> All three dimensions of our tradition, the life of Jesus, the baptism of Christian believers, and the destiny of Jewish fortunes around Jerusalem, attest to the reality that deep loss and amazing gift are held together in powerful tension.

The gain in this for the study of Psalms is that it shows how the Psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengence and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God. Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Enlightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience. Childs is no doubt right in seeing that the Psalms as a canonical book is finally an act of hope. But the hope is rooted precisely in midst of loss and darkness where God is surprisingly present. The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced – al of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.

I find this profoundly helpful, as I study, read, reflect upon, pray, and finally act upon the Psalms. Breuggemann names what I know to be important – that faith in God means having the courage to enter into our suffering and pain rather than neglecting it, or masquerading as if it is not real. In a society such as ours we are schooled in the ways of false victory. If there is pain, hurt, loss, trial, disease, abuse, persecution, we either possess the means to dismantle and destroy the enemy, or we dodge it all together. The problem with such a culture, is that life in it does not require authentic faith. Brueggemann continues:

“e> The Psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover the darkness we are called to enter. Personally we shun negativity. Publicly we deny the failure of our attempts to exercise control. The last desperate effort at control through nuclear weapons is a stark admission of our failure of control. But through its propaganda and the ideology of consumerism, our society goes its way in pretense. Against all of this the Psalms issue a mighty protest and invite us into a more honest facing of the darkness. The reason the darkness may be faced and lived in is that even in the darkness, there is One to address. The One to address is in the darkness but is not simply a part of the darkness (cf. John 1:1-5). Because this One has promised to be in the darkness with us, we find the darkness strangely transformed, not by the power of easy light, but by the power of relentless solidarity. Out of the “fear not” of that One spoken in the darkness, we are marvelously given new life, we know not how. The Psalms are a boundary thrown up against self-deception. They do not permit us to ignore and deny the darkness, personally or publicly, for that is where new life is given, whether on the third day or by some other uncontrolled schedule at work among us.”


  1. Hi, This is my experience to write in a blog. However, your suggestions make a lot of sense. It reminds me of Joseph. His life was the Orientation, Disorientation, and new orientation. Something stimulating. But life is not always in this pattern, though. Just an other helpful, edifying discovery in interpreting the Bible. Thanks for the stimulating and thought provoking comments.


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