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Why The Psalms Are Not Essential to Many Christians

A friend recently asked publicly about the Psalms, wondering out loud why it seems that they are often relegated beyond the 'mainstream' of Christian worship. I also wonder why we find them often times beyond regular devotional experience (regular reading or engagement).  As I thought about it more deeply, I decided to respond with this short article.

I believe one of the reasons people sometimes distance themselves from the Psalms as a primary source of prayer/song/reflection has much to do with the fact that the Psalms are work. They take work, energy, and effort. To read, sing, think and toil around in the grit and density of the Psalms requires more than effusive emotional sprinkling. It requires effort. One must engage and re-engage over so many topics, emotions, time, situations and personalities that the sheer energy required is more of a commitment than many of us (yes, me included at times) want to give.

If we approach church, gatherings or devotion as medicinal stop offs in life (like a convenience store for the soul), we expect them to deliver something to us- to bring relief. We don't expect to have to spend more effort. But the Psalms don't let us (very often) get away with that. They push, pull, or stand obstinately in the way of many of our ideas either mentally or culturally.

In tackling the Psalms we must stay on, working through them. And the fruit/outcome of our work is not instant. It takes years. And it takes this time for one of the reasons NT Wright and others mention in their books- the Psalms shape us. That is transformation. We are being literally reshaped by them. They aren't (or shouldn't be) reshaped by us.

All this effort, shaping and engagement is more like a relationship than a drive-through order at a fast food place. This may be some of what accounts for why people minimalize their real interaction and engagement with the Psalms. It costs us something. It shapes us. In the end, it is certainly the kind of transformation that matters, but many (like me, from time to time) find it to be too much when compared to the other options available. Be good, feel good, sound good media can allure us away with ease, even if the core has no transformational value.

This is the contrast the entire modern world faces: to look into the face of real life (as articulated by the Psalms, and the gospels for example) and be transformed by its slow work as we partner in it; or to lean into the ease of a media-rich world that neither cares or condemns deeply for anything except that all participants just be gently silent and enjoy the ride to oblivion where the stomach and appetites have become our gods.

This might seem very tragic and bristling with negativism, but what I am saying is both how I see some of our culture and much of our churches. Sadly, it even describes me at times. This is not to say that life with Jesus is not by grace. It is. But that grace, that power, has work to do. It's work (at least in part) is to bring health and real life to each one of our lives.

I think He is there to help us into that lifelong transformation and conversation. In my mind, one of the major streams of that conversation is the text of the Psalms. But they require a surrendering and intentionality by the reader / listener, to become a participant. That surrendered intentionality is what (I believe) many choose to waste on other things. Things that smile and sleep, but don't bite back. Things that excite but don't engage. Things that ultimately are not routing the disciple back into Holy Spirit transformation. The Psalms can be beautiful prose, amazing music, and iconic lyrical oasis for the soul. But they are also real, and that reality is the unstoppable energy of transformation that comes from real relationships. Real people. And a real God.

The friend who asked the question that started me thinking about this topic is Brian Doerksen. So I'll end this with a link to his musical group, the Shiyr Poets, who are putting the text of the Psalms to the sounds of acoustic/folk stylings in the unique voice of Brian and his friends.


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