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Reflections on N.T. Wright’s Visit

N.T. Wright speaks about the Psalms to more than 1,600 people in Royal Brougham Pavilion on the SPU Campus on Thursday evening, November 13.

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By Megan Wildhood, Seminary Student

What a delight to have Bishop N.T Wright bless SPU twice on November 13 — first with a discussion on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and then later at 7 p.m. in Royal Brougham Pavilion, open to the wider community, on his new book, A Case for the Psalms.

The evening’s lecture opened with Rev. Celeste Cranston, director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education, reading from the Psalms and a few words of prayer. Then SPU President Dr. Dan Martin welcomed the large gathering and Dean of the School of Theology and Seattle Pacific Seminary Dr. Doug Strong offered a commendation to Bishop Wright by reading from A Case for the Psalms. To paraphrase: “Horrendous misery, tender sensitivity, powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of Christian hope, anyone who wants a light into the corners of the human soul should react to the Psalms like they haven’t had a good meal in a week or two.”

Wright explained that the prayers, songs, and cries in the Psalter that run the gamut of human experience are the very songs Jesus grew up singing. “What you learn as a child pretty much stays with you for life; you have to work very hard to forget it,” he asserted, as the majority of the crowd nodded in wistful agreement. The collection of Psalms “have Jesus’ name on the fly leaf,” Wright continued, and in the Gospels, you can see the ways Jesus made them His own. “These are the songs Jesus sang and He wants us to sing with them,” was Wright’s refrain throughout the evening. For nearly 2,000 years, this biblical prayer book was indeed the backbone of Christian worship.

So it makes sense that Wright is puzzled by the apparent abandonment (on both sides of the Atlantic) of the Psalms in contemporary worship settings. Sure, they may not fit well inside current musical forms and patterns, which are largely fragmentary inheritances from Jacques Derrida and his deconstructionist cohort. “This is fine for a while,” Wright said, “but don’t expect to live on it.” Wright argues that we should allow the Psalms to form and shape our worship music and he looks forward to a worship culture that is more Psalm-shaped, spearheaded by contemporary Christian musicians.

The Psalms are not just important because Jesus used them and the church for generations after used them. The Psalms are essential because we need them now – today. And not just the little buoyant bits that many churches read to the exclusion of the cries of agony in the dark. The Psalter contains a wild celebration of the goodness, abundance, and extravagance of creation. And as Wright put it, “A good God made a good world and it is good that we are in it.” The Psalms challenge our concepts of time (from a linear model, to one where both future and past are caught up in the present); space (from the Epicurean notion that heaven and God are a long way away and to get to know God, you must leave this world to one where God is in our midst); and matter (from mere “resources” to be consumed to the ultimate transformation of all creation into new creation). But the Psalms are particularly important because when we are going out into the world, we have no idea what will come at us. As Wright urged, “Don’t wait until you are qualified or until you have more time — you need them now.”

When it came to practical advice for how to infuse more Psalms into life, Wright referenced Billy Graham who said: “I read five Psalms a day to help me get along with God and I read a proverb a day to help me get along with man.” The point for Wright is not merely more rules to follow, but to get Scripture’s prayers and songs into our heads the way they were for Jesus.

As a final thought, let me recount my favorite moment from the evening: Wright’s response to a question I’ll summarize as being about universalism versus hell. As Wright noted, the Psalms do not address this head on, but rather, they give us a framework to use and look at this issue. The Psalms, as well as the New Testament, seem to indicate that there will be certain people who stubbornly refuse God’s love no matter what, and the Psalms call them “the wicked.” But then, changing his tone, Wright said (to paraphrase), “In all the countries I’ve spoken in and visited, yours asks about hell most often. Why?” Wright held out his hands to the audience and shrugged. “Scripture is not focused on heaven and hell.  It is focused on heaven and earth.” That thought continues to resonate with me, and I would encourage you to let those words resonate with you.  

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