Why should anyone read the Psalms? Full of ancient imagery and visceral emotion, they are not an obvious recommendation.
My Really Useful Guide to the Psalms has recently been published (as the beginning of a new series from Bible Reading Fellowship). Its purpose is to encourage and facilitate Bible reading and so its very existence begs the question: Why read the Psalms?
The public sphere has been dominated by Remembrance recently, with the commemoration of the centenary of the armistice at the end of the Great War. (I never quite feel comfortable with the irony and poignancy of calling it WWI, as deftly illustrated by this Doctor Who clip.) But a sobering piece in the Church Times this week by Dr William Philpott, Professor of the History of Warfare at KCL, provides a litany of conflicts that ensued the armistice. From border disputes and civil disturbances to subsequent international conflict, a great deal of further conflict stemmed, directly or indirectly, from the terms of the armistice. The end of hostilities between the major powers in 1918 was certainly not the outbreak of peace.
The enduring legacy of pain and suffering that follows major conflicts was on my mind recently after watching the film of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Set in 1946, it narrates a journalist’s immersion into the world of a group of people bound together both by a love of literature and by their shared experience of the German occupation of Guernsey through WWII. She gradually discovers that the legacy of the war for them is not primarily related to their physical privations, as awful as these were. Rather they are bound by the shared experience of broken human relationships – betrayal, heartbreak, loss, grief – as well as the most noble of human characteristics – self-sacrificial love.
In both these ways I am forcefully reminded that the destructive and harmful consequences of conflict are so deep, widespread and enduring. Moreover, these have been the experiences of most people throughout most of human history: inter-generational consequences that rip through the fabric of all forms of society.
A tragic aspect of the story is that the only character who openly confesses a religious perspective is cold-hearted, bitter and mean. Whilst reading this plot device (generously, perhaps) as a comment on the possibility of the corruption of Christian faith, it does highlight the difficulty that I have often spoken or written about: how to connect the most powerful and painful aspects of life to a faithful expression of Christian devotion?
I think that is where the Psalms come in, since they provide exactly the means that is needed. They allow the honest expression of the widest and strongest of emotion, within a clear framework of authentic faith.
So (part of) my answer to the question ‘Why read the Psalms?’ is this: that we need them to shape our prayer through the varied seasons of life, whether as a ‘script’ or as a pattern. And as is the case with, say, fire evacuation instructions, I would encourage people to read them before the moment that they are urgently needed!