So, what? Unearthing a Defiant Faith

Added about 4 months ago by Sacristy Press

“It’s hard not to commend a work of theology that namechecks both Leonard Cohen and the Boar’s Head (Aberystwyth)”. Michael Lewis, former Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, reflects on John Holdsworth’s recent book, Hidden in Plain Sight: Unearthing and Earthing the Psalms.

A combative, indeed defiant, motto that the practical and pastoral theologian John Holdsworth might care to own would be “So, what?” Not a dismissive “So what” but So, comma, what? – meaning, above all of Scripture, “So, what’s that to us here and now? So, what is this passage and that book saying – to me and us? So, how shall we recognize it as speaking to us, how shall we be shaped and inspired by it, how shall we put it to use?”

In his latest book Dr Holdsworth, now Canon Theologian of St Paul’s Cathedral, Nicosia in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, sets out his conviction that the Psalms of the Old Testament, seemingly familiar in Christian worship to the point sometimes of banality, are hidden in plain sight: their nature, meanings, and implications need to be unearthed to reveal what they truly are, and then earthed, or perhaps re-earthed, in the life of the Church and of Christians.

He argues that in the Psalms we see a persistence of faith that is miraculous, considering what experience has thrown at the faithful, and that, so understood, they should resonate richly and with deep honesty with the lives of believers in similar case today. Compiled in the troubled and often humiliating centuries long after the return from Exile, from material of various stages in the history of the people of Israel from the time of King David onwards, the Psalms are, he shows, dynamic, community-building, identity-asserting, adversity-defying songs or chants or poems or mini-liturgies that express the honest, sometimes apparently contradictory faith in God of ordinary believers, who are therefore ordinary theologians. He contrasts their theology with some of the official narratives of religious authority found elsewhere in the Old Testament. He invites us to reflect on how true that might be of the situation of the Church and its members today.

In six chapters he explores, using copious material from Psalms of all types, what I might summarize as the essentially defiant nature of the ordinary religion and faith that they express; the interplay between the anxiety of living and God as rock and refuge, with an exploration of chaos versus creation; the apparent absence of God from much lived experience, leading to scoffing at the faithful by unbelievers; fault, blame, theodicy (“if God’s so great and so omnipotent and so good, can God be vindicated as such when terrible things happen?”), and the proper place for confession and the acknowledgement of sin; society, Covenant, and the vocation of small yet persistently trusting remnants in times of great disillusion, cynicism, and despair; and finally the concept of Zion and Jerusalem, and the nature of the Kingdom of God. Throughout, he sees close parallels between the context of the compilation and use of the Book of Psalms and contexts familiar to many, perhaps most, Christian believers, as well as others, in the world today. 

If you have read Dr Holdsworth’s very powerful and personal Honest Sadness: Lament in a Pandemic Age (Sacristy Press, 2021) you will see once again his commitment to the grieving and to “the poor of the land”, understood both literally and metaphorically. Indeed he asserts that “the whole structure of Psalms assumes a default mode of lament. Mature worship grows from a base of despair.” (p25). Increasingly in his writing this passionate practical theologian offers us glimpses or hints of himself and of his own lived experience, and we surely recognize the authenticity of a fellow member of the remnant who is also a pastor and priest, “passing on the stories about the nature of God … so that they [will] not disappear or be lost from the communal memory” (p132).

Hidden in Plain Sight, which benefits from striking, thought-provoking, and highly original reflective personal prayers or Conversations with God at the end of each chapter, is profoundly serious and at the same time easily accessible. It’s hard not to commend a work of theology that namechecks both Leonard Cohen and the Boar’s Head (Aberystwyth).

Michael Lewis
Former Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf

Hidden in Plain Sight: Unearthing and Earthing the Psalms by John Holdsworth is published by Sacristy Press and available now as a paperback and e-book.


Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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