Imagine a Jesus Who Prayed the Psalms: A Review of Praying the Psalms of Jesus
(James W. Sire, Formatio/InterVarsity Press, 2007)


Heather Walker Peterson, September 30, 2007

A recent habit of my coffeehouse chats is bemoaning the lack of ministry resources that synthesize the analytical and the experiential, bridging the widening dichotomy between so-called “modern” and “postmodern” churches discussed in contemporary Evangelicalism. James W. Sire’s Praying the Psalms of Jesus could be one pylon in the bridge. Like his Learning to Pray Through the Psalms, he devotes each chapter to one psalm. He pairs accessible scholarship on literary structure and the biblical-historical contexts of recitation with liturgical, devotional practice for individuals and groups. 

Evangelicals will find all that they have loved about Sire in his worldview texts: an explicit thesis, precise definitions, apologetics here and there, and upfront theology, even a mild and unnecessary bashing of the Lord’s Supper as “merely” symbolic in non-sacramental churches, which he calls “nonliturgical.” Mostly this theology is not so much taught as conveyed through liturgical responses. Although this is a timely model for sermon-oriented worship, a few of Sire’s responsive readings could raise issues for his variety of readers. For Psalm 2, I was uncomfortable confessing, “For my part, I have not been quick to take up my share of the role you have given my Christian community to work for the coming of your kingdom,” not because of the kingdom theology, but because I’m learning to say no to numerous opportunities within my church community, a reflection of the mind-numbing activity of our society as a whole. I cringed when I responsively read of God laughing “as secular intellectuals declare that they can live life as fulfilled atheists”—a very Sire-ish concern for political influence but likely not as anxiety-raising for others.

Despite these few teeth-gritters, Christians who are liturgical or post-Evangelical will appreciate Sire’s affirmation of the imagination. After providing the second verse of Psalm 110, in which Yahweh stands before his enemies with a scepter, he directs the readers to “pause in silence to let this vision sink in. Don’t try to make a theology out of this picture.  Just let it persist as an image” (italics his). Delightful—the Emergent and Contemplative Movements don’t have a corner on imagination or silence. Careful to use the word “speculation,” Sire often invites us to envision Jesus’ reciting of a psalm.  His premise is that the young Jesus came to some knowledge of his own identity through Hebrew liturgy. With a nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a shake of his head to C. S. Lewis, Sire tells us that the imprecatory psalms contributed to Jesus’--therefore to our--understanding of human nature and the desire for justice. 

Praying the Psalms of Jesus would be a helpful resource for Christians who feel as if one foot is planted in propositional truth and the other foot is wiggling its toes in the mystery and tradition of pre-Enlightenment faith. For those Evangelical churches who are navigating this era by following Jesus as Rabbi, it would be a handy guide to his path of internalizing Hebrew Scriptures.

Heather Walker Peterson is a Ph.D. candidate studying the ways in which religious reading and writing shape identity in an immigrant congregation.




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