In a culture that thinks highly of originality and authentic self-expression, the idea of praying using the Psalms seems to be more an act of plagiarism than piety. Surely prayer should be a spontaneous expression of the heart, not the vain repetition of someone else’s words. The Psalms may serve some didactic use, or be valuable for their poetry, but are more for example than use. This was certainly my view until a few years ago, until being persuaded otherwise by the writings of Eugene Peterson and (in a more indirect and unlikely manner) Roger Scruton.
Beauty vs Kitsch
In the first essay of Confessions of a Heretic, Roger Scruton explains what he sees as the differences between real and fake art, that which is truly beautiful, and that which is merely kitsch. Kitsch, according to Scruton, is a redirection of emotion from the object to the subject, ‘so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it.’ (p. 8). Art moves you to feel true emotion, kitsch makes you pleased at how emotional you are. Art points you away from yourself, kitsch points you back into yourself.
What is required for true art? Scruton answers in three words: beauty, form, and redemption. Beauty ‘tells you to stop thinking about yourself and to wake up to the world of others… We reach beauty through setting our interests aside and letting the world dawn on us.’ (p. 13) Formal perfection requires ‘knowledge, discipline, and attention to detail’ (p. 15) for the sake of reaching beauty through hard work, and that beauty is a redemptive presence in the world and in our lives. This is the difference between real and fake art: ‘Real art is a work of love; fake art is a work of deception.’ (p. 17)
What does this have to do with praying the Psalms? Much in every way. It is vital to our prayer lives that we retain an outward focus to keep our prayers from moving from ‘art’ to ‘kitsch’. This is not to say that we’re aiming for artistry or aesthetically pleasing prayers — that makes no difference, and the well-meaning phrase ‘he/she is a good prayer’ is usually based on the wrong criteria — but rather to say that it is vital that our prayers are a response to encounter with God as he is, and not an attempt to pat ourselves on the back for our own oh-so-authentic spirituality. The Psalms keep the focus of our prayers external to us, moving us away from navel-gazing to worship, while still giving us a means of vocalising and expressing our innermost thoughts and feelings. We all, in fact, know this listening to other pieces of music. Surely we have all heard some turn of phrase in a song by a real master lyricist and thought, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s what I always wanted to say, but never had the words for.’
This does this come at the expense of spontaneous or original prayer — formal perfection requires knowledge, disciple, and attention to detail. As the Psalms train us in prayer, they give us a far better ability to pray spontaneously and originally than we would have otherwise. Surely we have all heard (and I have prayed) prayers that were simply repetitions and clichés punctuated by the words ‘Father,’ ‘Lord,’ and ‘just’. The Psalms give us more to work with. We may think we could play free jazz without learning a major scale first. How hard can it be? But as all great musicians know, to be able to improvise well, you first have to learn discipline and scales. Praying the Psalms is that training in the scales of Christian communication with God. We learn to play in major and minor keys and in all manner of rhythms and tempos. And we are drawn away from ourselves to consider the beauty of the Lord, and remember and encounter that redemptive presence in the world and in our lives.
Of course none of this is to say that there are no alternatives, and I don’t wish to judge the prayers of any others. It is a pretty perverse habit to rank people’s prayers when all of them need Jesus’ mediation to be acceptable in the first place. But Scruton’s comments on art have been helpful for me as I’ve thought how to pray in a way that tends more towards self-forgetfulness than self-indulgence, and savours true beauty, rather than contenting myself with kitsch.
If you fancy reading anything else:
— The above quotes are from the 2016 Notting Hill Editions publication of Confessions of a Heretic, by Roger Scruton.
— Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson is one of the best books on prayer that I’ve come across, and one of the books I recommend to pretty much everyone. This was almost a blog on Scruton and Peterson, but I find it very hard to stop talking/writing when I start on Eugene Peterson.
— Carl Trueman’s short essay ‘What Can Miserable Christians Sing?’ from The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism is a worthy read on singing the Psalms, and is available online here: https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/what-can-miserable-christians-sing-by-carl-r-trueman/ with a follow up article here: https://www.9marks.org/article/journalreflections-what-can-miserable-christians-sing/
— My sermon on Psalm 113 offers a few (brief, incomplete) thoughts on praying the Psalms, authenticity, etc., and is available here: https://stag.org/Articles/545945/Praise_the_LORD.aspx