Open and Unafraid:
The Psalms as a Guide to Life
W. David O. Taylor
Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
The Psalms represent the most impressive mixtape in human history. Every note we know and every hum we perceive sounds somewhere within these 150 songs.
Reading the Psalms in all their magnitude and detail, you can’t help but hear the strains of each musical style we carry with us. Some evoke the cinematic colors of Explosions in the Sky. Others sound like a rusty, dusty Delta blues played by Robert Johnson in full view of the devil. At their most triumphant, the Psalms resemble anthems amplified to whip stadiums into frenzy; at their most persistently hopeful, they sound like an adorned gospel choir reciting Kendrick Lamar: “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright.”
Turning to the Psalms, David Taylor finds not just the physical middle of the Bible, but its beating heart. In Open and Unafraid, the Fuller Seminary professor and arts ambassador soulfully explores Psalms’ sufficiency to tell the story of God. While far from the totality of revelation, they express the entire range of human emotion—and reveal the fullness of a God who is present wherever we are.
Taylor never calls for the Psalms to crowd out other segments of Scripture. But on nearly every page, he displays the book’s centrality—to individual Christians and the church across time and place.
“I’ve written this book so that readers would become excited to embrace a prayer book that has been deeply influential, not just for Jesus and the apostles, and for monastic and cathedral practices of prayer, but also for the hymns of the Reformation, the spirituals of African American slaves, and the songs of the global church,” he writes (xvii).
Taylor first realized the Psalms’ sweep while studying under the late Eugene Peterson (who wrote the foreword; Bono contributes the afterword) nearly 25 years ago. At the close of a rather transcendental course, Taylor asked Peterson for a few tidbits of practical theology.
“Tomorrow, David, read Psalm 1. The next day, read Psalm 2. The day after, read Psalm 3. When you get to the end, start over,” Taylor recalls. “Thank you, and good night” (xvi).
The student becomes the teacher in Open and Unafraid, as Taylor encourages readers to tattoo the Psalms’ fine print across their hearts’ chambers. As much as the Psalms reveal the abundance of our human lives, he calls us to see their ultimate aim—to draw us up into the life of God.
Taylor shepherds readers through 14 topics, revealing how the Psalms uniquely account for elemental realities such as anger and joy, poetry and justice. He begins with honesty, and rightly so. Our original and instinctual sins keep us on the run. We guard our hearts from others, are disingenuous with ourselves about ourselves and foolishly attempt to hide from a God who sees and knows fully.
“What the psalms offer us is a formative aid to un-hide,” he writes. “… The psalms invite us, thus, to stand in the light, to see ourselves truly and to receive the reformative work of God through the formative words of the psalmist, so that we might be rehumanized in Christ”
Honesty demands and honesty rewards. The practice of vulnerability the Psalms inspires happens before the face of God and the faces of others. For better or worse, we are never alone in any direction—vertically or horizontally.
Drawing deep from Peterson’s wells, Taylor reminds us that these songs were intended for corporate worship (18). Imagine walking into church some Sunday and hearing the band set your deepest hopes and fears to a G-D-Em-C progression. This was reality for David and his cohorts.
“This is the terrifyingly good news of the psalms: the community sees it all; it gets to see it all,” Taylor writes (17).
Often we fear what we need the most. And this inability to hide, to live faceless and nameless at the edges of deep Christian community, is for our joy. In the Psalms, and in Psalm-shaped churches, there is room for “people who find themselves lonely, living on the margins of community, hiding, feeling shame, misunderstood, or suffering fear and rejection” (23).
“We are not the first to feel the sadness of loss, the anger of injustice, the confusion and disorientation of doubt, or the I’m-so-happy-I-could-pop joy of rescue and redemption,” Taylor adds (206).
Taylor does some of his best work on the twin topics of prayer and lament. We rarely give ourselves to either pursuit—not fully. We fear what we might find: a God who has something to say to us, or who stays silent. The Psalms, Taylor contends, reveal a God who is not only there, but in whose presence we become most alive.
Reading the Psalms, we eavesdrop on prayers to “a very particular God, not a generic deity”; these cries grant us courage to topple gods of our own making (45-46). As our lips form prayers, and our heart is formed by them, “the psalms provide us with an edited poetic language to give expression to our unedited emotions. Their structure frees us to ‘let it all out’ in faithful ways” (51).
We need not fear where this free speech leads. Lament is not a road to ruin, but a pathway to wholeness. “When nothing makes sense, the lament psalms give coherence to the incoherence of our world” (84).
And as Taylor makes plain throughout, whether we exhale lament or praise, cry with longing or bellow complaints of injustice, our words come in relationship with a God that, on some level, we believe hears and talks back.
The more our lives reflect the Psalms, the more poetic they become. And, contrary to popular perception, this poetry roots us in the stuff of earth—in real feelings, real concerns, real motion toward Christlikeness. We grow in our awareness of God and all his good gifts. “This is because poets, like God, love the details of life” (64).
“At its best, good poetry makes the familiar, strange, and the strange, familiar,” Taylor writes. “As a work of poetry, the psalms make what is familiar to us about God, life, faith, and prayer strange again, reminding us that these things cannot be domesticated or absolutely mastered. But they also make the things that are strange to us—like God, life, faith, prayer—familiar again, reminding us that these are things we can know and do” (70).
Taylor weaves strands of church history through the text, illustrating how the church insisted on justice and chased beauty when it walked closely with the Psalmists. Taylor fears we’ve lost our sense of the thickness of these songs. Open and Unafraid asks what kinds of Christians we might be, and how the hope of the church could be unleashed in the world, if we let the Psalms lead us once again.
“Thus it is, in the end, that the psalms might form us in the love of God if we would let them,” he writes. “… In love, we would see what has been there all along but been overlooked in haste or indifference. In love, we would see that what has been distorted by selfishness can be seen truthfully, carefully. In love, all opportunities for intimacy would no longer appear as blurred threats on our alleged autonomy but rather become blessed invitations to know and to be deeply known” (205).
Taylor asks us to lose—and find—ourselves again in work songs, punk bruisers and pocket symphonies. When we hear our favorite songs in the Psalms, there we’ll find harmony with God.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and entertainment editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune and an instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine. His work has been published in Image Journal, Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture and more.