A study of meditative engagement with selected psalms amongst Edinburgh students
Author: Fergus Macdonald
Published by: University of Edinburgh

"...the creative engagement between respondents and text results from respondents discovering that the psalms resonate with their idealism and basic human needs in ways that facilitate their ongoing spiritual quest for meaning and enlightenment, as well as providing an opportunity to confront God with complaints and dilemmas."

This study is the account of an empirical research programme in practical theology exploring the potential of the Book of Psalms to facilitate the spiritual journey of a sample of University of Edinburgh students aged between twenty and thirty who are on or beyond the fringes of the churches. Drawing upon some insights of the Bible Society movement regarding ‘scripture engagement,’ and in the wider context of increasing interest in spirituality and decreasing confidence in the churches among many westernised young adults, the project seeks to answer two research questions.

First, how far does creative engagement with specific psalm texts in the form of a semi-structured three-week meditative spiritual journey facilitate the quest of contemporary young adults for personal meaning and spiritual enlightenment? Second, what does this study contribute to the current debate among the Bible Societies and other Bible agencies concerning the nature of Scripture engagement?

In the first part of the thesis I review the debate on Scripture engagement, exploring the contemporary sacred landscape, and elucidating why the Book of Psalms was chosen for this exercise. Additionally, I develop the theological-cultural framework employed in interpreting the data.

In the second part I describe respondents’ meditative engagement with six psalms and identify six main findings. These findings are: that ‘subjective-life’ and ‘likeas’ modes of spirituality coexist in some respondents and that the subjectivism of the psalms provides a bridge between them; that the cursing psalms, although considered by many respondents to be unacceptable, have potential to foster non-violence in conflict situations; that a desire to resolve suffering is a feature of the self-identity of many respondents; that meditating on the psalms fosters faith commonly as a generic process and particularly as theological trust; that interacting with psalmic texts helps to resolve the disorientation often experienced when facing confusing lifestyle choices; that meditating on the psalms provides space in which to reflect on the moral ambiguities of life.

In the third part I evaluate the findings, concluding that the creative engagement between respondents and text results from respondents discovering that the psalms resonate with their idealism and basic human needs in ways that facilitate their ongoing spiritual quest for meaning and enlightenment, as well as providing an opportunity to confront God with complaints and dilemmas. I question some of the prevailing thinking on Scripture engagement for being too exclusively outcomes oriented, and suggest that meditative engagement with psalms could become a gateway to interacting with other biblical texts. My subsidiary findings are: that respondents believe audio texts enhance their use of print, appreciate the perspective psalm meditation provides on contemporary events and trends, are fascinated by psalmic metaphor, and find some readers’ helps more useful than others. I indicate areas where further research would be useful and outline some future directions that the Bible agencies might fruitfully follow in developing Scripture engagement resources for the churches.

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