Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: Deeper Places

Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms. Matthew Jacoby. 2013. Baker Books. 183 pages. [Source: Bought]

From the introduction:
“I feel nothing.” That is how many Christians would honestly respond when asked how they really feel about God. Beyond brief moments of inspiration and a basic underlying conviction, most people struggle to attain anything more than a remote and abstract idea about God. It is a symptom of a faith focused on concepts and propositions rather than real, personal encounter. We are children of our scientific culture, a culture obsessed with information about things. So we find our minds crammed with ideas about God, with concepts and facts about who God is and what he has done, but too often the reality of God is as remote to us as the reality of black holes and supernovas. It is little wonder, then, that we have no emotional connection with these facts. They are as abstract as a mathematical equation. It is true that three plus two equals five, but I cannot summon up any passion for that truth. I cannot love an idea. I can only love a person with whom I have some experience.
I found Deeper Places to be a thought-provoking book--for better or worse. That is even when I didn't agree with every point or detail, I have to admit that it had me fully engaged and thinking.

The focus of Deeper Places is on relationships. Particularly on the relationship, personal relationship, between an individual and God. He asks throughout the book, What does authentic spirituality look like?! He writes:
In one sense, our relationship with God is never entirely what it should be, as indeed is the case with all our relationships. For all our good intentions, we enter our relationships with a deeply corrupted nature. We are naturally selfish, defensive, and competitive. We inherited these inclinations from generations of our human ancestors who, following the first human beings, rejected God and tried to be gods unto themselves. What does a healthy relationship with God look like? It looks like honest communication. It even looks like constructive conflict. We must take the idealistic boundaries out of our communication with God and allow for a range of expression that is congruent with the complexities of life.
Jacoby explores the book of Psalms in this one; he explores the themes and emotions of Psalms. Psalms is a book of highs and lows and EVERYTHING in between. If it can be felt, chances are, it was expressed in a psalm. Jacoby wants his readers to FEEL and be honest with themselves, with God, with others, about how they feel. He wants his readers to stop pretending and actually engage with God. (One of his points: They have tried to normalize their failure to engage with God.) He writes:
The psalms were written not to dictate religious habits or to achieve certain ends. They are expressions of the heart written to cultivate in us the very heart that they themselves express. They are given to us to shape our innermost desires and thereby to open up our capacity to live in relationship with God.
The wonderful thing about the psalms is that they show us how to begin where we are. We are not expected to begin with some heightened state of spiritual ecstasy. We can and must begin where we are. What we need is not a heavenly spirituality but an earthly spirituality that captures the present tension between what we have already and what remains unfulfilled. This is precisely what we have in the psalms.
I have come to love, love, love the Psalms. It is the one book of the Bible that I am always currently reading. Rather I am reading five a day, ten a day, or a book a day (book one, book two, book three, book four, book five), I am always in the book of Psalms. I finish it only to start it again. So I wanted to love this book about the psalms. And, in places, I did love it. There were definitely statements that I agreed with wholeheartedly. But there were also places that bothered me. Statements that I felt needed a little scriptural backing up.

I questioned his exploration of "the sadness of God." I questioned some of the phrases and descriptions that the author uses. Words like "inconsolable" and "immense" and "inconceivably terrible" and "in anguish", for example. He writes, "if it is true that God is deeply grieved, and according to the Bible it is, then the cause of this grief must of necessity become our primary concern." If he's going to include the phrase "according to the Bible it is" I wish he would have taken the time, even in a foot note, to show his work, to show the references he's thinking about particularly in order to reach his strong conclusion. It is a main point in the book, after all. I do agree with the statement, by the way, and "the cause of this grief" is SIN, SIN, SIN. God hates sin. He HATES it. Sin is not a petty grievance, it is a severe offense. God has every reason to be angry; God's wrath is just and holy and righteous. God is not overreacting to our sin problem. He's not. And I do think readers need the message. If the author had used the words anger or wrath in addition to sadness or grief, I think I would have not gotten stuck on this issue. He makes God sound melancholy and depressed, and dependent on us to cheer him up. Sin doesn't just make God sad. Sin makes God angry. That anger was fully on display at the cross when Jesus bore our sins and took our punishment.

The meaning of any part of Scripture is found when we discover what God is doing by having the text say what it is saying. The Psalter is the most practical book of the Bible. It was not compiled just as a book to be read but as a tool to be used. For most of its history—since its final compilation somewhere after 500 BC—the contents of the book were not read by people or even read to people. Rather, the psalms were sung and prayed. This, I believe, is how the psalms yield their meaning.
Music is the language of the heart, and it was for this language that the psalms were written. They were written not just to tell us about God but to draw us into an encounter with God. In this sense, the psalms both exemplify and potentially impart the very thing that the rest of the Bible directs us toward as the ultimate goal of human existence: a love relationship with God in which we glorify and enjoy God forever.
The idea of spiritual health is not particularly helpful because it makes it sound as though we can make ourselves spiritually healthy by doing certain things and bypassing relationship. But spiritual health cannot be divorced from healthy relationships—most crucially, a healthy relationship with God. The question is not “Are you spiritually healthy?” but “Do you have a healthy relationship with God and healthy relationships with other people?” We cannot create a healthy relationship just by doing the right things. A relationship is not a task or an exercise. Relationship is a mode of life in which we choose to open ourselves to another person to be known and to know. It is therefore also a choice to become vulnerable to another person and to become, in a sense, dependent upon that person.
God gave us the psalms for the same reason he gave us every other book of the Bible: to show us what he wants. The difference with the psalms is that, whereas other parts of the Bible may prescribe what God wants, the psalms demonstrate what God wants. He wants relationship. God wants to love and be loved. This is the summation of what the Bible tells us about God’s will (Mark 12:28–31). As I said at the outset, relationships are complex, and the more personal they become, the more complex they become. We should embrace this complexity, which in turn means embracing honesty, which in turn means embracing diversity of expression.
In order to connect with God, we have to emerge from our defensive cocoon and allow reality to dawn on us. We have to face the truth about ourselves and our human situation before we can embrace the truth of God. We cannot selectively embrace reality. Either we are willing to know the whole truth or we remain in delusion… Before the joy of reconciliation with God is the pain of reconciliation with reality. Our unwillingness to expose ourselves to the latter is what barricades us against the former.
To be embraced by God is to be shattered by the revelation of all that grieves God in our lives.
In the psalms, joy is always connected with salvation. The backdrop for the psalms is the same backdrop for the entire narrative of the Bible, and it is within this narrative that the psalms must be read. That backdrop is the universal human tragedy: the alienation of humans from God, the spread of evil, and the corruption of the natural world. If the psalms are sad, it is because they were written by people who were in touch with this reality. The pain of this reality, however, appears to be the very thing that amplified the joy of their salvation. The greater sensitivity we have toward a problem, the greater our joy in the solution. And so it is with every jubilant psalm. They are grounded in an acute awareness of the tragedy of the human situation.
True prayer demonstrates and intensifies faith. Faith is the willingness to entrust ourselves to God based on the conviction that God is faithful. When we make a case for why God should answer us, based on his self-revelation in Scripture, we demonstrate our conviction regarding God’s faithfulness and also our willingness to trust him.
The more we seek God, the more our desire for God will grow. And if we keep on seeking God, if we refuse to give up until we have found God and even then keep seeking a deeper knowledge of God, if we stubbornly persist in seeking God in the face of all doubt and discouragement, then our desire for God will gradually outgrow our other desires. By seeking God, we exercise our desire for God, and as we exercise our desire for God, it grows. And when our desire for God grows to a place of supremacy in our hearts, then God is truly the God of our hearts. Seeking, therefore, creates within us the capacity to know God as God. It is by seeking that we are able to find God because seeking enables our hearts to receive God. If we don’t desire God above all things, then we are still blind to God. God cannot be known and depreciated. To know God is to know his supreme worthiness. To know God is to desire him above all. The more we cultivate a desire for God, the more our hearts are able to know him for who he is.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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