Another Look: The Contexts of Faith

Approaching Storm. Photo by pblarson
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.

• • •

Photo by pblarson at Flickr. Creative Commons License

9 thoughts on “Another Look: The Contexts of Faith

  1. Goodness, Burro

    that is an interesting adaptation of the pattern to G of T

    when I got to ‘The Mad King and his senseless tearing of the social fabric’, I bet you can guess what really modern situation I thought of . . . . yes, that one 🙂

    like they say in real life, concerning the present story of our own ‘Mad King’:
    ‘ you can’t make this stuff up ‘


  2. It is interesting to see this even in A Game Of Thrones, supposedly a more “modern” fantasy:

    ORIENT: Westeros under the Targaryens. Not a Paradise, but at least well-ruled, orderly, place where the common folk could peaceably live out their lives

    DISORIENT: The Mad King and his senseless tearing of the social fabric, followed by the usurpation of Robert Baratheon, his violent end abd the chaos that folowed

    REORIENTATION: It will be interesting to see how George RR Martin resolves this. Im talking of the book series here, not the TV show. the TV show looks like its going to end with John Snow and Danaerys ruling

    Some things you can’t together, but we will have to wait and see. George RR Martin says he has a different ending planned.

    I don’t think George RR Martin has any particular religious faith. He may be a lapsed Catholic. But some things you can’t alter if you want to tell a story people want to listen to.


  3. Actually, Headless, it might be that Tolkien’s Catholic orientation found expression in his Rings trilogy.
    ( Catholics are heavily into the Psalms, especially for prayers and liturgy. )


  4. psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.

    This also echoes the pattern of adventure fantasy narrative:

    ORIENTATION — Introduction showing the order of the world. (In the movie adaptation of LOTR, Bilbo’s prologue “Concerning Hobbits” and the Shire.)

    DISORIENTATION — Disorder is introduced which threatens to destroy that order; this provides the conflict which must be fought. (The One Ring surfaces in The Shire, causing all hell to break loose starting with the Ringwraiths riding out from Minas Morgul.)

    NEW ORIENTATION — After a long hard struggle which forms the main narrative, the Disorder is defeated and order is once more restored to the world. Maybe not the same order as at the beginning, but order nonetheless. (The Ring is melted in Mount Doom, Sauron is destroyed, and order is restored in Middle-Earth under the reign of Aragorn Elessar.)


  5. Good post. I think I mentioned this book several months ago, but Scott Daniels’ “Embracing Exile” talks about some of these concepts, too.


  6. I designed our summer sermon series on Psalms, using the orientation-disorientation-new orientation scheme. In a cultural context (central PA) where people neither do high-highs nor low-lows very well, I think (hope) it was helpful.


  7. Very interesting. Brueggeman’s orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (orient, ‘to face east’) almost perfectly match St. Maximus’ arché (source), tropos (lit. ‘movement’) and telos (‘end’ or ‘completion’). There is a very subtle difference, but I wonder if Breuggeman has read St. Maximos.


  8. My church doesn’t use the Lectionary, but I have been using it for my own devotions. I am really appreciating the Psalms, which are used as a focus for the daily readings. Two Psalms per week, repeated over 3 or 4 days each.

    For those who are happy using an electronic device for such purposes, I recommend the Daily Lectio app. It’s free, and beautifully simple.


  9. “But the hope is rooted precisely in the midst of loss and darkness, where God is surprisingly present.”
    Yes. This.

    ‘How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” (Psalm 137)
    Leonard Cohen’s ‘cold’ and ‘broken’ Hallelujah comes to mind.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: