The Contexts of Faith

By the Rivers of Babylon, Tov

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. Brevard S. 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 the 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 — all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.

– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms, p. xii

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann has identified a pattern that groups the psalms roughly into three kinds: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. This scheme has personal and pastoral as well as analytical value, for as the scholar says, “the flow of human life characteristically is located either in the experience of one of these settings or is in movement from one to the other.”


Wine for the Bride, Tov

Psalms of orientation speak of and to those seasons of life when we enjoy a sense of well being and stability. In these times we praise the God of creation, who bestows his good favor upon us in the regular cycles of nature. We give thanks for the beneficence of the God of providence, from whose hand we welcome sunshine and rain, as well as his good gifts of food, health, human fellowship, family, and stable economic and political circumstances.

Psalms of disorientation evoke those times in life when the bottom falls out. The ground beneath our feet, once firm, starts shaking and we lose our bearings. Illness and other forms of personal distress, financial problems, relational conflicts, “wars and rumors of war,” and “fightings without and fears within” make it seem as though God has abandoned us, or at least hidden himself for awhile. We hurt. We question. We doubt. We may despair even of life itself. We are lost!

Psalms of new orientation celebrate those times when God breaks through our darkness with a new burst of light. Weeping has worn out our night, but joy awakens us at dawn. As on Christmas morning, we stumble downstairs and behold surprising stacks of new gifts under the tree with our names on them. Our jaws drop at the generous display of grace that appeared overnight while we were asleep to the possibilities of God. Like the birth of a Baby, the sight of the Master walking on water in the midst of the storm, the appearance of One raised from the dead standing in our midst, we can only squeal and gape wide-eyed with childlike wonder and praise.

King David the Musician, Tov

Furthermore, Brueggemann asserts that the Psalms portray these seasons of life, these contexts of faith, in a dynamic manner. That is, we are always moving from one state to the other. The two primary movements involve:

  • going from the state of settled orientation into a season of disorientation, and
  • moving from distorientation into a new orientation by God’s gracious intervention.

These movements provide the drama which characterizes the Psalms and our lives. They are also easily seen in the great events of Scripture.

  • The story of Israel moves through regular cycles of blessing, exile, and restoration.
  • The story of Jesus moves from glory at his Father’s side to self-emptying that culminates in death on a cross, to resurrection and exaltation (Phil 2:5-11).
  • This is all portrayed in the sacramental act that marks us as Christians — graced with the gift of life we die, buried with Christ in baptism into death, raised to walk in newness of life.

This pattern also explains the movements of the Church Year in its cruciform shape. At this time of year, we participate in Advent activities, which invite us to experience the depths of our disorientation because of sin and brokenness. Advent also calls us to anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, when God will break through the darkness and visit us with the light of salvation. In Christmastide, we will celebrate wholeheartedly our newborn King and the gifts he brings.

Such a grid in two movements reveals an understanding of life that is alien to our culture. The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss. The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as loss. And our culture is organized to prevent the experience of both.

This means that when we practice either move — into disorientation or into new orientation — we engage in a countercultural activity, which by some will be perceived as subversive. Perhaps that is why the complaint psalms have nearly dropped out of usage. Where the worshiping community seriously articulates these two moves, it affirms an understanding of reality that knows that if we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and that when lost for the gospel we will be given life (Mark 8:35). Such a practice of the Psalms cannot be taken for granted in our culture, but will be done only if there is resolved intentionality to live life in a more excellent way.

– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms

* * *

Not only in reading the Psalms, but also in practicing the Church Year, remembering our baptism each day, and living out of a theology of the Cross rather than the theology of glory in all our thinking, acting, and ministering, will we find our lives shaped to be like Christ in the Biblical pattern of his life, death, and resurrection.

22 thoughts on “The Contexts of Faith

  1. Nice post Jason good insights. Let us know when you find that honest church so I can join and make it corrupt.


  2. In the post-evangelical wilderness, I just started to scratch the depth of the Psalms. I know of no evangelical preacher that can preach a 40 minute sermon that can do a Psalm justice.


  3. Time to come out of the shadows where I’ve lurked for over a year. I discovered this website just weeks before Michael’s diagnosis and have followed the conversation with great interest. I find that the posts often speak to the particular situation or day I’m having. This is another one of those times. I am currently reading Gerhard Forde’s reflections on the Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, “On Being a Theologian of the Cross.” Wonderful insights and a clear explanation of the difference between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. Highly recommended, along with this website!


  4. Great post Jason-
    It is not en vogue to talk about our sinful natures in Church. It is en vogue to talk about what Christians are to do, to act, to “live the life” etc. It creates a sinner who believes they have moved beyond the cross to progressive sanctification. I gave up on that lie.

    I found a church that calls me a sinner every week, calls Christ the savior, brings Christ’s forgiveness to me through means, tells me I’m forgiven because of Christ’s cross, and does not let me confuse who I am (the forgiven sinner) and who Christ is (the righteous savior). I’ve found that this particular type of church talks mostly about Christ and less about the Christian. Christ came to die. Matthew 21-23. This type of preaching does not fill seats very well.


  5. “I am in the midst of re-building my life after several major losses within months. Disorientation describes it perfectly in this post. It has been scarey to re-examine my beliefs and yet so tremendously freeing. After such a time you realize you simply cannot go back…forward is the only way and it is frightening and exhilarating.”

    I understand completely


  6. It’s a weight off my shoulders to think of a season of disorientation as, in fact, a necessary and “good” part of moving forward, rather than a sign that “Something is wrong! I did something wrong, I thought something wrong, I didn’t do something right!”. Indeed a relief.


  7. The theology of the cross is a beautiful secrete that Lutherans need to share with others. It is not an easy read but the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 is one of Luthers best works.


  8. Thank you Ray, I’m quite sure that I had nothing to do with that post: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Grace and peace to you as well.


  9. Wow. This post has been a light of understanding in what has been for me a day (actually, a season) of despair and, yes, disorientation. This isn’t the first time this blog has done something like this for me. Thank you.


  10. Jason,

    You, my friend, have a gift for communicating. In particular the descriptions of “hypocrisy vs. glory to glory” and “an embrace folded back on itself” were very well done. And they rung true.

    Grace and Peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ, Jason. And love from this brother in Christ and fellow sinner, whose list of sins is just as long.


  11. I have said for a while now that, in my experience of Churchianity (!), I have marveled at the propensity toward what you have termed in this article ‘the theology of glory’. That has been one of the principle reasons for my exit off of stage left. My experience of Christian theater, rooted as it is in the non-reality of going from ‘glory to glory’, using this convoluted notion as a metric of determining true Christians from those who are just pretending, left me with just an awful taste in my mouth. It did not comport to my reality. It did not comport to my very real and ongoing struggles; maybe it’s just me and maybe my life is more *@^&ed up than everyone else’s, (see, I curse – and for those who are counting, I smoke cigarettes too and sometimes look at porn), but endeavor as I did to acquiesce to this notion, I just never could say that ‘glory to glory’ was ever a part of my experience in my walk with Christ. And as I read men like Brueggemann and Merton I was comforted and heard God clearly: I am flawed and broken, given to sin while in this flesh on this side of heaven, yet nevertheless loved and worthy. Sure, I would and still do try and be a more genuine and authentic version of myself, and maybe I can cross off a sin from my list, but when I look up again I see that there are approximately 924,746 more to go. While in this flesh on this side of heaven I will continually be shedding skin and replacing that skin with new. More and more as I accept that my sin nature is here to stay in this life, I begin to see the theater for what it is. I begin to accept that:

    “MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain where it will end.
    Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
    But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
    And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
    I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
    And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
    Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
    I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

    — Thomas Merton

    More and more, despite my efforts to NOT see it, I would sit in service and become overwhelmed with the awareness that, ‘this is absurd; there is no way that this is what Christ had in mind. This is not what a worldwide/universal revolution of love looks.’ How can my personal quest to be beyond reproach translate into the indiscriminate, non-violent enemy love that Christ calls us to? I would arrive and sit there yearning for a word from God, and out of the corner of my eye I would see someone walking about with a clipboard counting everyone, and I would think, ‘All week long I am just a number and involved in the numbers game of work. It should be different here; this shouldn’t be a business. It should not be a numbers game.’ And as I would share this with fellow believers I would invariably hear the same response of: ‘Well, they do have bills and what-not to manage so you can’t be upset by that. They are just being good stewards of what God has entrusted to them. You know, you should just start your own church because you’ll never be happy. The Church is full of hypocrites so stop it. You’ll never find a perfect church.’ Really!? I know that. I know that I will never find a perfect Church. How about just an honest one? Is this too much to ask? I guess what I was/am looking for is a Church that admits it’s own hypocrisy and as a result is open to the subsequent correction/criticism that being a hypocrite brings with it, not a Church who plays the hypocrisy card in order to silence its congregation. So, in effect, I determined that the Church as institution maintains for itself the license to be hypocritical, but week in and week out it does not extend that same license to its congregation. No. From its congregation it demands and outlines a theology and a praxis of ‘glory to glory, perfection to perfeection.’ I would sit there and be beaten down with messages of how I was not measuring up, not doing enough, not ‘pressing in’ enough. At that time I was going to 3 different churches, involved in several ministries and small groups, and was even hosting a Bible study at my house on Tuesday nights. I would hear about how I need to accept nothing less than going from ‘glory to glory, from perfection to perfection’!? I would be made to feel as a result of this message that I was oppressed (never possessed, because God would never allow a true believer to be possessed, so I was told) by demonic forces that were drawing my attention away from the things of God toward things that were not God’s own concerns. Yet I would read in my Bible, 21“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.” (Amos 5:21) and it seemed to fit. I would read this and other such similar notions throughout Scripture, and I would see how the local Church seems to be insularly espousing not the Gospel of radical, indiscriminate and non-violent enemy love, but more so the Gospel of it’s own reflection. The Church is, in effect, offering to the world an embrace that folds back in upon itself. It is not an embrace which seeks to actually and truly embrace the individual in order to comfort and love, but it is rather an embrace in love with itself and all that it “does” for Christ. It just wants to hug itself for a job well done, and uses people as numbers as a way to say, ‘See, our numbers are growing. See, we are profitable. Surely we are doing the the work of God and concerning ourselves with the things of God.’ Would any self-respecting Christian argue with my next point: No one was more concerned with the things of God than Christ; no one actually lived out the will of God more perfectly than Christ. With that in mind, I ask, where did that get Him? Did Jesus’ numbers grow exponentially? No, ultimately He was abandoned and executed.

    66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

    67“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

    The principle hurdle before the Church in the 21st century, in my opinion, is this: Do we have the courage to follow Jesus as he leaves the building? Do we have the courage to say, ‘I don’t think Jesus was actually ever in the building to begin with.’


  12. Act NOW and get Pastor M’s ORIENTATION ELIXER…… yes, of course it’s from the Jordan River.. offer good this week only…


  13. Great post, CM. And you hit the nail on the head, Adrienne…”forward is the only way and it is frightening and exhilarating.” Moving into a new orientation can be scary, and the tendency is to long for the shore we just sailed from. But that’s just not how the Christian life is supposed to be. Eugene Peterson writes that we are to be a people who move forward with anxious anticipation, with “What’s next, papa?” on our lips and in our hearts. We’re a part of a great story God is writing, and sometimes, we must allow Him to turn the page so we can move onto the next adventure He has in store for us.


  14. Oh boy, I can see it now: “7 Easy Steps through Disorientation and Back to Life You Really Want to Have and Deserve.” The title is too long, but you know what I mean.


  15. Today’s post is breathtaking for me. I am in the midst of re-building my life after several major losses within months. Disorientation describes it perfectly in this post. It has been scarey to re-examine my beliefs and yet so tremendously freeing. After such a time you realize you simply cannot go back…forward is the only way and it is frightening and exhilarating. Having said all that I just want to thank you for this website and ALL that I have learned. I found it at just the right time in my life and it is like oxygen to be able to think, examine, discard, be stretched and so on. This post describes so exactly the seasons of life. Why is American Christianity so incredibly shallow?? Thank you Chaplain Mike.


  16. Thanks for this meaning-full post. The Psalms are gems adorning the reality of the spiritual life. Brueggemann’s book is a treasure of wisdom and insight, not merely for reading the Psalms, but for living them. And finding our lives through a theology of the cross, as you have put it so well, “shaped to be like Christ in the Biblical pattern of his life, death, and resurrection,” is a marvel.


  17. I love this idea of an orientation/disorientation/new orientation pattern in the Psalms, in Jesus’ life, in our lives, Chaplain Mike. I particulary liked Brueggemann’s, “The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as loss. And our culture is organized to prevent the experience of both.” And your, “living out of a theology of the Cross rather than the theology of glory” is excellent.


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