(Further reflections on ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’)
And now let the weak say, “I am strong”,
Let the poor say, “I am rich”,
Because of what the Lord has done for us…
We sang these words during a worship session at a retreat in Nepal. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and most of us had been working there for a few years. The person leading the retreat had come into the country on a visit and was perhaps experiencing a bit of culture shock. His first words after the worship session were, “What do those words mean? How can you sing ‘Let the poor say I am rich’ when surrounded by such poverty?”
Someone with a different perspective effectively debunked our superficial spiritualising of sentiments expressed in the Psalms. With one comment he used the words of the text to undermine our casual acceptance of what we thought it meant. It was a particularly effective example of ‘deconstruction’, which is such a feature of postmodernism.
Deconstruction is about uncovering the hidden assumptions and understandings in a text using the words of the text itself. Things that are supressed or hidden are brought to the surface. Questions are raised where once there was certainty. This is the postmodern condition.
Another feature of the postmodern condition is a scepticism towards people or groups who claim to have truth, or who claim a vision for world history. Postmodernism has shown how such truth claims and ‘meta-narratives’ are assertions of power and are often used by the powerful to oppress the weak.
Together these aspects of postmodernism have led to a widespread scepticism about the promises and claims made by political and religious leaders.
And I am part of this culture. I generally like the idea of deconstructing texts to uncover hidden assumptions and to ask questions. I agree that claims of truth are inextricably linked to issues of power and that people are often oppressed by those claiming truth. And great harm has been done by people convinced that their metanarrative gives them the right (even duty) to impose their vision on everyone else.
So, I am suspicious of texts that cannot be questioned, confident claims to truth, grand pictures of how the world should be and attempts to coerce others to accept all these. But as a Christian exile in this culture I experience a tension, for I have a text that claims to be inspired, a claim of ultimate truth and an over-arching story of the world from creation to consummation.
It was particularly unsettling when I realised that my scepticism was also being directed towards God. Statements like, ‘You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain’ and ‘Hallowed by thy name’ seem to be setting God beyond all question and critique. In any other aspect of life my postmodern self would say this is a dangerous assertion of power.
Like the exiles in the Old Testament I am forced to ask, ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Worship does not fit in a sceptical worldview.
I used to find it easier to simply say that God was in a different category to everything and everyone else. Critiquing power structures was appropriate for political, and even religious, structures, but God was beyond such critique.
Over the years I must confess that it doesn’t seem that simple any more. If feels like my faith has gone through a process of deconstruction. Uncomfortable questions, such as the one about ‘let the poor say I am rich’, have got beneath the surface of what I have believed and accepted. As I look honestly and realistically at the world and the suffering in it spiritual platitudes simply are not adequate. Even as I read the Bible I find things about God that I find uncomfortable.
I am far from unique in struggling with the question of suffering, or with the problem of violence in the Old Testament. But that doesn’t matter; it is now me who is wrestling with these issues in a way that I didn’t when my faith was more black and white. There was a time when the thought of questioning God would have been worrying for me; now the thought of not being able to question is worrying.
So, I come back to the question of worship. Does worship require me to abandon enquiry? Does worship mean that God is above all critique and question?
Walter Brueggemann, one of the most significant Old Testament scholars of recent years, shows that there is a core testimony in the Old Testament about God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. But there is also a counter-testimony that asks the questions: ‘How long?’ when life seems unbearable; ‘Why?’ in the face of senseless suffering; and, ‘Where?’ when God seems to have abandoned his people. Brueggemann argues that faith requires living with the tension between these two ‘postures of faith’, and that at different times one or other will be more suited to our situation. 
Peter Rollins, who could be described as a postmodern Christian, states that there are two common ways of dealing with the problem passages in the Old Testament. The first seeks to defend the Bible as true and then attempts to explain the problems away. The second is to reject the idea that the Bible is in any way inspired. But, Rollins asks,
What if we can affirm these conflicts at one and the same moment that we affirm the idea of this text being deeply branded by the white-hot presence of God?”
So, it seems that facing up to difficult questions posed by experience of life, or even within the text of the Bible, are not to be avoided. Instead they are a true expression of faith and force us to engage with a God who will simply not fit in any box that we create; be that a box of evangelicalism or postmodern scepticism.
It reminds me of the story of some rabbis in Auschwitz who put God on trial for oppressing his people. Elie Wiesel reports,
It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.
 Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. p 319-320
 Rollins, Peter. The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. Paraclete Press, 2008. p 40