Richard Beck on hope for “Winter Christians”

Richard BeckLast night I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Beck speak at The Borough Common in London, as part of his UK speaking tour. Richard’s wife, Jana, also contributed actively to the discussion.

Richard began by describing how it became apparent early in his marriage that he questioned his faith far more than Jana did hers. One thing that helped them both work through this was being introduced to the terminology “Summer Christians” and “Winter Christians”: Richard being in the “Winter” camp, Jana in the “Summer” – though they agreed that 24 years of marriage has moved them closer together, with Richard being more “autumnal” and Jana describing herself as “early spring”.

The focus of Richard’s talk was therefore on what it means to be a “Winter Christian”, and above all how a Winter Christian can learn to have hope as well as questions. He described how Job 13:15 has been a key text: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

This post sets out an expanded version of notes I made after the talk, with my own thoughts in response. I’ve formatted the notes as quotations (and references to “I” are to Richard), but they are notes made from memory after the event and not verbatim quotations. Apologies to Richard in advance for any misquotations or misrepresentations of what he said.

Psalms, prophecy, poetry 

Walter Brueggemann distinguishes between psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. An example of a psalm of orientation of Psalm 1: the righteous get their reward, the unrighteous get their comeuppance; it’s a “Hollywood ending”.

An example of a psalm of disorientation is Psalm 13: one of many psalms that say to God, in essence, “why aren’t things working out like Psalm 1 said they would?” One of the things that gives me faith in the Bible is this way in which it contradicts itself; it squabbles with itself.

But most psalms of lament end with doxology: why? Again, Brueggemann provides a framework for this, when he observes the different kinds of “poetry” that are to be found in the prophets.

First, there is the poetry of indictment. Amos is a good example of this: the prophet confronts Israel with its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant, and warns of disaster to come if it doesn’t change its ways, particularly in its treatment of widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. A lot of Christians (particularly those who would identify as “progressive” or “liberal”) find that this type of prophetic “poetry” resonates with them strongly.

Second, there is the poetry of lament, classically to be found in the book of Lamentations. This is where the disaster warned of by earlier prophets has come to pass: Jerusalem is destroyed, the people are exiled. Now the prophet sets aside the poetry of indictment, and sits beside the people to weep with them. Again, this is a poetry with which I can identify.

But then there is the poetry of hope. After all the unheeded warnings, after the disasters and lamentation, we come to Isaiah 40, “the first chapter of the New Testament”, where God tells the prophet to “comfort, comfort my people.” This poetry of hope is often the hardest for “Winter Christians” to express for themselves.

What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.

Some thoughts on this: first, I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, though I’m closer to that than to “Summer” (talking to Richard afterwards, I said that my two favourite times of the church year are Advent and Maundy Thursday). I’m certainly a “person of two questions” (see below).

One of the main benefits of praying the Daily Office is that, by praying all the psalms on a regular basis, we get that balanced diet of indictment, lament, hope; orientation and disorientation.

One thing that struck me thinking about Richard’s talk afterwards is the importance of realising that the psalms of orientation are as much the Word of God to us as the psalms of disorientation. It’s easy to slip into thinking that the latter are the real psalms, the crunchy psalms, unlike those pollyanna-ish efforts like Psalm 1. But we need to pray the psalms of orientation also (such as Psalm 107 this morning), as an expression of our hope that, ultimately, all wrongs will be righted by God’s justice and love.

How many questions? 

I mentioned above Richard’s distinction between “people of one question” and “people of two questions”. Here’s how he described it earlier in his talk (again, heavily paraphrased from memory):

One difference between Summer Christians and Winter Christians is the difference between being a person of “one question” and a person of “two questions”. Someone may ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” and be given an answer such as: “Because of free will.”

A person of “one question” will accept that answer and move on. However, a person of “two questions” is likely to follow up with: “Well, why did God create us with free will if he knew what the result would be?”, and so on. The moment you ask that second question, your path is determined: there will be a third question, and a fourth question, and your faith walk is always going to be one of questioning.

We shouldn’t fetishise being “questioning” people, though. That can easily degenerate into cynicism. One highly concrete way in which Richard has learned hope (and Jana confirmed these are experiences that have brought the two of them closer together, spiritually) is by spending time with marginalised people: through their work with homeless and poor people, and Richard’s ministry in leading Bible studies in a maximum security prison in Texas.

Lamentation and privilege

Richard described how he had led a very well-received Bible study for a group of university professors on the psalms of lament. This privileged audience readily agreed that the church needed to allow more space for lamentation.

When I was preparing for my first prison Bible study, I reached for this as it had been the most successful study I’d led, and surely prisoners (many of whom had been in prison for decades, and were destined to die there) would understand better than most the gritty reality of life and the need to acknowledge this in our faith.

However, as I started to talk about the psalms of lament, the prisoners cut me off. For them, their faith was the one thing that gave hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. To start deconstructing that was to strike at the root of their very being.

This made me realise the privilege I have. For me, faith is optional. If I stopped believing today, it wouldn’t make much difference to my life tomorrow. But for many marginalised people, faith isn’t optional: it’s the only thing they have that makes sense in their lives. As a result, they are people of hope, not cynical questioners; and I’ve changed, become more hopeful, as a result of this.

That point about how, for those of us with privileged and affluent lifestyles, “faith is optional”, really hit home for me.

Making God’s love credible 

Richard went on to describe how his work with prisoners has also given him a greater awareness of how important the link is between the love we show one another and our ability to experience God’s love:

One prisoner, Steve, asked how the words “God loves you” could have meaning for him when no one had ever said the words “I love you” to him – not his mother, nor his father, nor any family or friends. He had never heard those words spoken to him. So every week now I stand before him and tell him: “Steve, I love you.” My saying “I love you” makes the love of God credible to Steve.

This then has a parallel in our weekly life as a church:

In the same way, when we gather as Christians and share the bread and wine with one another, saying “here is the body of Christ broken for you,” “here is the blood of Christ shed for you,” that has greater credibility because I know that last week, you were showing that sort of love for me; you were being broken for me. That helps me understand what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for me.

The danger of labels

Terminology such as “Winter Christian” does carry dangers, though, as Richard observed during the Q&A following his talk:

We have to be careful we don’t start to apply labels in a way that says, “I’m the best type of Christian.” We often build up our self-esteem in violent ways – psychically violent, that is. We mark the other person down, and mark ourselves up. One of the things that makes Jesus so attractive is his complete refusal to do that.

The biggest problem in the Corinthian church wasn’t diversity or division, but shame. We can see this from 1 Corinthians 12:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” – this is the language of shaming, of looking down on others as inferior. But God inverts our worldly hierarchies: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable […] God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member…”

Re-ordering our affections 

Richard concluded his talk by quoting Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, particularly its concluding lines:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Indictment and lamentation and questioning on their own can lead to cynicism. “Winter Christians” also need to learn to “practise resurrection”, to speak words of hope to others (which can increase both their and your hopefulness). This is partly a matter of reordering our affections:

In capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising messages designed to secure our affections, to pull them away from the things of God. Right now, someone is being paid to make me want what they’re selling, to make me click on that button. So I do various things to keep my affections centred on God: I pray the hours; I wear a prayer rope on my right arm; I have a tattoo on my left arm; I have a St Francis medallion. My office is nicknamed “the chapel”.

Martin Thornton described the basic spiritual “Rule” of Christianity as consisting of “Mass – Office – personal devotion”, with the most important element of “personal devotion” being what Thornton calls “habitual recollection” rather than formal spiritual exercises. That type of recollective, habitual self-reminding of God’s love and hope is one way to “practise resurrection” in our daily lives.

Conclusion 

What did I take away from this? Even though I wouldn’t (quite) describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, a lot of what Richard said resonated with me. To put it into the “Mass – Office – devotion” framework I mentioned in the previous paragraph:

  • Office: praying the Daily Office helps to maintain that balanced diet of orientation and disorientation, of indictment, lament and hope. It can also play a powerful role in keeping our affections centred on God.
  • Mass: we need to see the connection between the Eucharist and the concrete reality of our life together as a church: showing love for one another, refusing to bring into the church the world’s categories of who is “superior” and who is “inferior”.
  • Devotion: at its heart, this is about reordering our affections – particularly in the direction of hope and resurrection – through the habitual recollection of God in our daily lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “religionless Christianity”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Religionless Christianity” is one of the resonant phrases (along with “the church for others” and “the world come of age”) which emerged from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “prison theology”, and which have intrigued many Christians ever since.

Bonhoeffer’s death prevented him from developing these ideas further or making it clearer what “religionless Christianity” means or looks like in practice. In many ways, the phrase has become a blank screen onto which Christians have projected their own ideas about what the church should look like.

Sabine Dramm’s book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to his Thought provides a helpful, brief exposition of Bonhoeffer’s prison theology. As I’ve described here, Dramm is particularly good at showing how the prison theology stands in continuity with what Bonhoeffer had been saying before his arrest – including in his unfinished Ethics, but also in books such as Discipleship – rather than being a sharp departure from his earlier theology.

Dramm demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation of Christianity” does not imply “a renunciation of every type of cult” (i.e. of corporate worship or personal devotion), but is about “Christian life in a non-religious world”; a world in which it is no longer self-evident that people have “a sort of religious antenna” (pp.199f.) However, it is still left unclear as to what “religionless Christianity” actually looks like.

This essay by Will Abbott describes some of the attempts that have been made to unpack Bonhoeffer’s phrase, by scholars including Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge, Clifford Green, Larry Rasmussen and Paul Ricoeur. One recurring theme is the rejection of the “God of the gaps” concept, including the final “gaps” of metaphysics and personal interiority. Others include “the centrality of christology” and (picking up on another of Bonhoeffer’s phrases) “the idea that Christianity is directed towards others in the world.” Bethge, in particular, links it to Luther’s distinction between religion as a human work and faith as the work of God. 

For me, the most useful part of Abbott’s essay is the “checklist” he provides for assessing which elements of Christianity are “religious” or “religionless” in the sense intended by Bonhoeffer:

  • Is it episodic? Does it focus on crises in people’s lives, and ignore their ordinary existence?
  • Is it parochial? Does it relate only marginally to people’s lives?
  • Is it subjective? Does it focus on private issues?
  • Is it individualistic? Does it ignore the bonds of community and focus on a person’s relationship to God to the exclusion of that person’s relationships with other people?
  • Is it otherworldly? Does it ignore life here and now to focus on a paradise to come?
  • Is it intellectually dishonest? Does it attribute to God what can be explained otherwise?
  • Is it humiliating? Does it demean the value of a human being?
  • Is it self-centred? Does it focus a person’s attention in him- or herself, to the exclusion of others?
  • Is it gap-filling? Does it use God solely to explain something we can’t currently explain otherwise?
  • Is is interior? Does it focus exclusively on a person’s internal, affective state?

This list isn’t intended to be applied rigidly – “it is quite unlikely that something will be rejected for meeting only one of them” – but provides a basis for thinking critically about our life as a church. To take one example: for Bonhoeffer, an example of “religion” was the tendency to turn to God only in times of trial or distress (a tendency that, in the terms used above, may be “episodic”, “individualistic”, “self-centred” or “parochial”); the absence of this tendency among his fellow prisoners, even during “the nightly torment of air raids,” was one of the observations that led Bonhoeffer to his belief in a “post-religious” humanity. “There are no atheists in foxholes” is thus a religious statement in this sense.

Another example (this time of the “intellectually dishonest” or “gap-filling” aspects of religion) might be the tendency described by Bonhoeffer, when he asks rhetorically whether the church’s remaining target market amounts to:

a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious”. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? (Letters and Papers from Prison, p.280).

This is brutal stuff, but are we quite sure that our churches’ “evangelistic” strategies are entirely free of such thoughts?

Where all this leaves us isn’t clear, and perhaps never may be. But Bonhoeffer’s sketched-out thoughts on this subject can continue both to challenge and inspire us. To end on a more positive note, for Eberhard Bethge (as summarised by Abbott) “religionless Christianity” amounts to “living for one’s contemporaries”; resolving “to stay in contact with the world around [us], rather than flee to some otherworldly realm.” In short, it is:

the commitment to live in the world and for the world, listening to the world’s needs, and responding to the world in the world’s own language.

“Not going to let Hitler mess me around”

Dad's ArmyToday is the 70th anniversary of VE Day. To commemorate it, here are the answers given by my wife’s paternal grandmother (who died in January at the age of 94) to some questions our middle son asked her about the Second World War for his homework a couple of years ago:

1. What happened to you during the war?

I was living in Salisbury, working as a hairdresser. The government said I had to go to Bristol and make guns in a factory. They sent me to a house where the lady provided bed and breakfast. The factory gave me lunch and supper. I was hungry for the whole war, from 1940 to 1945.

2. What responsibilities did you have?

Mainly making sure the guns I made were properly made so they didn’t blow up and kill our own men. Once a fortnight I had to be on fire watch all night – I was on the roof of the factory, looking out for fire bombs. Other buildings were hit, but ours was not.

3. What job did you get at that time?

Cutting huge metal blocks with a machine – workmen lifted the blocks on to the bench, and I used the cutter to make the right holes. All day, every day for 4 years.

4. Where were you at what times?

Bristol from September 1940 to 1945. Allowed to go home for a 1 day visit every 2 weeks. I worked 1 week on day shift, 7am to 5pm, followed by 1 week on night shift 5pm to 7am.

5. Did you face any serious problems, and how were they solved?

  • shortage of food – was hungry for 5 years. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • had to wear head scarf at all times in the factory to keep hair out of the cutting machine – worst bit of the war. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • the factory foreman hated having women working in his factory – a terrifying man, much more frightened of him than of the Germans and their bombs. Solved by going home as soon as we had beaten Hitler.

6. What was your most dangerous moment?
Bombed whilst shopping in Bristol – town centre badly damaged. They missed me, so I went on shopping. Not going to let Hitler mess me around.

7. What times were you in mortal danger?
Air raids at work at night – all lights out – factory stopped working – everyone waiting – heard bombs whistling and hitting CRUMP elsewhere – all clear siren – back to work – more guns for our men.

Lots of love from Grannie Magpies

Praying for the election, with St Thomas Aquinas

Sign at polling stationThree days till polling day, and for many politically-engaged Christians (or is it just me?) the dilemma presents itself: how should we pray concerning the election? Should we pray for “our side” to win, or should we attempt to be more highminded – praying, as it were, for a “good clean fight”, regardless of outcome – lest we turn our prayers into an attempt to canvass the Almighty (“So can we put you down as an ‘undecided’? And will you be needing a lift to the polling station on Thursday?”)

Thomas Aquinas – via Denys Turner – can help us out here. At one point in his book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, Turner discussed what Thomas has to say concerning voluntas, or the “will”. This is a problematic term for modern readers, Turner suggests:

Bluntly, Thomas’s voluntas is not best translated by the English “will” at all. It is more accurately, if more cumbersomely, translated as one translates Aristotle, as rational or “reasoned desire”, that is, desire rationally deliberated as distinct from instinctive or nonrational forms of desire such as is caused in a hungry person by the smell of food. (pp.174ff.)

Another way of putting it is that my “will” consists in what I “really” want – that is, in what will make me happy. This is not without its own problems, given the human capacity for self-deception, but for Thomas it lies at the heart of what “the moral life” is about: developing prudentia, “skill in seeing the moral point of human situations, what true desires are to be met within them.”

How can we do this? How can we start to strip away our self-deception, pierce the veil of our ignorance, and develop this “prudence” in desiring what will make us truly happy, give us what we “really” want?

For Thomas, the answer is: prayer. And Thomas advises that, when we pray, we should pray for what we want: not for what we think we ought to want. As Turner puts it, prayer is in part about self-discovery, and:

…our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is “in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will,” so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all their opacity in their form as experienced.

In other words, it is only by praying for what we think we want that we will discover both the real desire that underlies our “wants”, and thus how our desires need to change in order to conform to God’s will for us. The model is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “in response to our animal desire” (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire – for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is – we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.

Thus we should be praying for what we want, even if we don’t know that it is God’s will – and, what’s more, even if we know it is not God’s will:

Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire even what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites the authority of Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something else.'” Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what are our true desires, our real will.

So, if you are politically partisan, then the proper thing to do in praying about the outcome of the election, for Thomas, is to pray on politically partisan grounds: to pray for a Labour victory, or a Conservative victory, or a Green/Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru/SNP rainbow coalition, or whatever your desired outcome may be. Only by sincerely praying for what you actually want can you sincerely end your prayers with: “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (And even then, I’ll find it a struggle if the answer to that prayer is five more years of Mr Cameron in No.10.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Dietrich BonhoefferToday is the seventieth anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Flossenbürg concentration camp.

I’ve posted on Bonhoeffer numerous times over the years, most recently in Bonhoeffer and Luther on the psalms. Here are links to most of those posts.

The Cost of Discipleship 

In 2007, I wrote a series of posts on Bonhoeffer’s best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, mostly to defend it from charges of “legalism”:

Another post based on The Cost of Discipleship is here: Recognising Christ the mediator.

Life Together 

Here’s a short series from 2010 on Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together:

On a similar theme (though based on The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible) is this short post quoting Bonhoeffer on The blessing of morning prayer. I also quoted Life Together in this post on congregational singing: Singing with all your heart.

Seize the Day 

I first discovered Bonhoeffer shortly after I returned to faith in 1994, when I bought a copy of Charles Ringma’s book Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is a daily devotional which has a short quotation from Bonhoeffer for each day, followed by reflections written by Ringma.

My intermittent use of this book has led to a small number of blog posts over the years:

Other posts

Some other posts which don’t fit into the above categories:

Auden’s vocation

W.H. AudenA very interesting essay on W.H. Auden here: Auden and the Limits of Poetry.

The writer, Alan Jacobs, begins by describing Auden’s conversion to Christianity, and how this was expressed in his later poetry: in particular Horae Canonicae, which Jacobs observes “have rarely been given serious attention,” but which is (according to Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson) “arguably his greatest work”; a judgment which I am not about to disagree with.

Later in his essay, Jacobs asks why it is that Auden is so neglected by Christians today. Partly, he suggests, because of Auden’s homosexuality, an obstacle even for those Christians “quick to forgive C. S. Lewis’ peculiar liaison with Mrs. Moore, or Charles Williams’ penchant for spanking and being spanked by young women.”

Mostly, though, it is because of Auden’s “Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication,” in which the Christian perspective is often present in his poetry by the absence which points towards it. This isn’t an approach that shifts many units in Christian bookshops:

This emphasis stemmed from Auden’s determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets’, prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don’t want their poets to be humble: being somewhat Romantic in taste, they tend to prefer their poets to be seers, prophets, “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as Shelley put it) just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are “redemptive.” But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ and thus he called Shelley’s famous line “the silliest remark ever made about poets.”

As Jacobs observes, summarising Auden’s perspective: “What can poetry add to the Incarnation or the Passion of our Lord?”

For Auden, poetry was a vocation rather than a hotline to the divine. Jacobs describes this (with some justice) as a “Lutheran” understanding:

Auden consistently repudiated the notion that poetry has any privileged access to truth, any especially sanctified role to play. Poetry was certainly his vocation, and he loved it. As Mendelson writes, “Vocation, for Auden, is the most innocent form of love, a voluntary loss of self in an object.” He knew he would be wrong not to love his work, not to achieve what he called “that eye-on-the-object look” characteristic of people who are “forgetting themselves in a function.” But he would never claim that his calling was superior to any other. In this sense he was purely Lutheran, emphasizing the dignity of every calling before God.

In his conclusion, Jacobs describes how Auden rejected as a temptation of “the Black Magician” the belief that poets can be “prophets and redeemers”. Poets, for him, can do nothing that could not be “done in some other way, by action, or study, or prayer.” But this doesn’t leave poetry without a role:

Auden uses poetry to remind us of what poetry can never give us. But, in the end, this assigns poetry a genuine and important role, as it points always beyond itself in a strangely mute witness to that of which it is unable definitively to speak.

As Auden put it in one of his poems, with which Jacobs closes his essay:

We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
this world with a happy eye
but from a sober perspective.

Bonhoeffer and Luther on the Psalms

Dietrich BonhoefferI’ve just been reading the last book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lifetime, before his arrest in 1941: The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible.

It’s a very short book – really only an essay, 24 pages long – but full of profound reflections on the psalms as a model for Christian prayer. Martin Luther was also a great lover of the Psalter, and Bonhoeffer quotes him on a number of occasions in the book. The interaction between Bonhoeffer and Luther is a good way to get a flavour for the book as a whole.

Bonhoeffer begins by reflecting on how the psalms are prayers that God has given us in his Word to pray back to him, just as Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. As such, the two are closely interrelated:

All the prayers of the Bible are gathered together in the Our Father, taken up into its measureless scope. The Our Father does not make them superfluous, but they are themselves its inexhaustible riches, even as the Our Father is their crown and unity. Luther says of the Psalter: ‘It is interwoven with the Our Father in such a way that we can understand each through the other very well and see their happy harmony.’ (p.4)

This relationship between the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer is, incidentally, reflected well in the Daily Office, whose twin poles are the chanting (or reciting) of psalms and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, just as the two poles of the Mass are the ministry of the Word (supremely, the Gospel lesson) and the ministry of the Sacrament.

A little later, Bonhoeffer is discussing the musical nature of the psalms (the word “psalms” itself being derived from the word “psaltery”). Again, he is able to call on Luther in his support:

Many of the rather baffling headings of the psalms are directions for the choir master. Equally, the ‘selah’ which frequently occurs in the middle of a psalm probably indicates an interval. ‘The selah is telling us to pause and reflect diligently on the words of the psalm; for they require a calm and tranquil soul who is able to grasp with understanding what the Holy Ghost is presenting to his thought.’ (Luther). (p.7)

One of my favourite Luther quotations from the book comes when Bonhoeffer describes what a blessing it is for a church to have a liturgical life that is built around the psalter:

In many Churches the Psalms are recited or sung antiphonally every Sunday, or even daily. These Churches have preserved a treasure of incalculable value, for only through daily use do we grow into that divine prayer book. If we read them only now and again we shall find these prayers so overwhelming in thought and power that we shall always want to turn back to lighter fare. But anyone who has begun to pray the Psalter regularly and in earnest will soon have done with his own easy, ‘trifling little devotions and will say: Ah, here there is none of the sap, the strength, the fervour and fire that I find in the Psalms, this is too cold and hard for me.’ (Luther). (p.8)

Moving on, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther’s description of Psalm 110 as “the foremost among the chief psalms of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” (p.13). He also cites Luther on the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as “the Pauline psalms” (p.18), for the way in which they “take us to the very depths of what it means to acknowledge our sin before God, they help us to confess our guilt, they direct our whole trust to the forgiving grace of God.”

In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer describes the purpose of his book as follows:

We have undertaken this short journey through the Psalter in the hope of learning to pray some of the psalms better. […] [A]ll that really matters is that we should begin afresh faithfully and lovingly to pray the Psalter in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.24)

He then gives the last word to Luther:

May our dear Lord, who has given us the Psalter and the Our Father and taught us how to pray them, grant us also the spirit of grace and supplication, that we may with delight and resolute faith truly pray without ceasing, for thus it behoves us. He has commanded it and desires that we should. To him be praise and honour and thanksgiving. Amen.