Moore: A good place to start is to inquire what motivated an author to write their book. Let’s begin there with you.
Taylor: I wrote it because I wanted people to fall in love with the prayer book of Jesus and the book that Christians have been praying for over 2,000 years. The sad fact is that Christians in the modern era fell out of a regular habit of psalms-reading, and I think our prayer lives, both individually and corporately, have suffered because of it. What’s happened in practice is that many of us have ended up reading only our favorite bits of the Psalter and ignored the rest—to our detriment. But when we choose to read it all, we discover an extraordinary “medicine chest of the heart,” as Tim Keller once put it, capable of both naming and curing every malady of the heart. I also wanted to offer readers a “meaty but accessible” introduction to the world of the psalms: to themes of honesty and community, poetry and history, sadness and anger, enemies and justice, death and life, nations and creation, joy and love.
Moore: Throughout Open and Unafraid you share some of your own struggles. A temptation is to overdo this sort of thing, but I think you strike a good balance in being vulnerable, but not overwhelming the reader. How did you navigate between what was appropriate to share and what is better left out?
Taylor: The book’s not a memoir, so there was only so much room for telling a personal story. But because the psalms include so many instances of honesty about the human condition, I felt that it’d be disingenuous of me to ask the reader to be wholly honest with God and with others, but to avoid it myself. I had to be willing to lead by example. I am also fortunate to have a good wife who was willing to read drafts of my chapters and to tell me when I’d crossed the line into TMI [too much information] or when I was hiding in fear from the reader.
Moore: There are many good books on the Psalms. What propelled you forward in adding another to the many options?
Taylor: After the documentary came out with Bono and Eugene Peterson, I found myself presented with a number of opportunities to speak to churches about the psalms. Invariably, someone would ask me for a book recommendation—one book they could read on the psalms. Usually I’d mention Eugene’s book, Answering God, or one of Walter Brueggemann’s many wonderful books. I had plenty of scholarly and devotional books on my bookshelf but hardly any books that offered readers a substantial introduction to the world of the psalms that also was practical—that would in fact help people to become deeply formed by the psalms, not just compelled to study them. This is why I include a list of discussion questions and suggested exercises at the end of each chapter. I want readers to be changed, not just informed, by the psalms.
Moore: You wisely remind us that we need honesty and community to be properly formed by the Psalms. How would you distinguish between godly honesty and fleshly authenticity? Authenticity, of course, can be cruel. In one of your epigraphs you helpfully add something from Ellen Davis. Davis says we must be honest and wise. Also, how would you encourage us to find true community rather than being satisfied with what Robert Bellah and his colleagues dubbed as lifestyle enclaves?
Taylor: At one level, I think authenticity is an unavoidably contextual thing. What counts as an appropriate expression of authenticity may differ from personality to personality, and from culture to culture, whether ethnic or ecclesial or otherwise. In the main, though, I think the psalms offer us a helpful model for authenticity. A faithful reading of the psalms, as I argue in the book, doesn’t result in self-absorption, through a self-indulgent and obsessive cross-examination of our heart and mind. Nor does it result in self-hatred because we feel that our sin has the last and most definitive word on our life (grace does). Nor, for that matter, does it allow us to hide or to run away from our faults and failures, which is the chief effect of our primordial sin.
What the psalms offer us rather is permission—and help—to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity. And all of it is set within a communal context.
Moore: There is much faux individualism and faux community in our world. In the Psalms we can see the elevation of the person, but not at the diminishment of the community. And vice versa. Unpack this some for us.
Taylor: The psalms protect us from two related dangers: an impersonal collectivism and a self-absorbed individualism. Far from denying the importance of first-person prayer, the Psalter sets such prayers within a communal context. Theologian David Ford explains it this way: “A vast array of stories, situations, sufferings, blessings, joys, and deaths have been read and prayed into the Psalms by those who have identified with their first person. It amounts to an extraordinarily capacious and hospitable ‘I’.”
The psalmist avoids many of the idiosyncratic details of an individual’s experience, even while working with very concrete imagery, such as we find in Psalm 51. In doing so, the psalmist shows us what a hospitable first-person prayer looks like: prayer that is deeply personal but not autonomously oriented. The psalms likewise model for us communal prayers that make ample space for the individual, where a person can find him- or herself represented.
Moore: Many Christians who avoid reading and meditating on other books of the Bible will still go to the Psalms for comfort. It makes sense because the Psalms deal so well with the full range of human emotions. What is a bit perplexing about this is that the Psalmist regularly cries out about the silence of God. As you well know, it permeates the Psalms, yet this big theme does not seem to inform the expectations and practices of many Christians. Why do you think that is?
Taylor: I offer a partial answer to your question in an essay I wrote for Christianity Today, but suffice it to say here that the silence of God makes many of us profoundly uncomfortable, myself included, and we’d rather drown it out with our own voices—even our own theological explanations for God’s silence, which may simply be another way to fill the air with noise.
As I argue in the book, the psalms train us in a grammar of prayer, teaching us how to listen to God and how to talk to God. Left to our own devices, we will only pray “lesser” prayers: half prayers, defective prayers, misdirected prayers. But with the help of the psalms, we will pray all that is necessary for “life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). This means plunging more deeply into the silence of God, rather than denying it.
As I tell my theology students, this is how the psalms resolve the issue of theodicy: by sitting in the silence, and waiting, however long it takes, at times alone, at times with others, trusting that in the silence there is a fullness, not, as we may often suppose, only an emptiness.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers gain from Open and Unafraid?
Taylor: I would love for readers, in taking up the habit of reading, singing and praying the psalms, to find themselves at home with God, from whom no secrets are hidden. My hope is that they would find themselves walking alongside saints and sinners—with all their ups and downs, all their untidy and ugly parts—all of them marked by the steadfast love of God. My hope is that they would understand that they are never alone in their sorrows, doubts, joys, thanksgivings, or questions about life and death. My hope, finally, is that they would become excited to embrace a “prayer book” that has been deeply influential not just for Jesus and the apostles, but for Christians throughout the ages: from Saint Augustine to Johann Sebastian Bach, from C. S. Lewis to Charles Wesley, and to all the persecuted church around the globe.
David George Moore is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Leafwood/Abilene Christian University Press). Some of Dave’s teaching videos and contact information can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.