Psalmtweets (Summer 2015): Psalms 71-80

Here are some psalmtweets from a few weeks ago. I post these in the hope that others might have a go. I still find that tweeting one a day is a fruitful spiritual discipline. The act of capturing something of a psalm in 140 characters is both challenging and rewarding. Sometimes they succeed and echo some central dynamic of a psalm, on other occasions they perhaps do not work so well. The act of doing it, however, is always rewarding.

Psalm 71:
Yahweh, my refuge, I am safe in you. Lord, my rock, I can build a life on you. God, my shield, you are before me. #psalmtweets

Psalm 72:
The Psalter has a structure. This psalm marks, in a sense, the end of David’s reign; Solomon and others now follow. #psalmtweets

Psalm 73:
Asking Yahweh challenging and difficult questions is both normal and allowable, from a stance of faith and trust. #psalmtweets

Psalm 74:
The fall of Jerusalem is a key event which gave rise to psalms and shaped the Psalter. #psalmtweets

Psalm 75:
The Psalms speak of reversal. One day the power of God’s opposition will be shown to be an illusion. #psalmtweets

Psalm 76:
The Psalms speak of both Yahweh’s transcendence and His imminence. He is holy warrior and yet He is approachable. #psalmtweets

Psalm 77:
The Psalms record the dialogue of the tempestuous relationship between Yahweh and Israel. #psalmtweets

Psalm 78:
The Psalter reminds us of the fruitfulness of re telling their story, which is our story and also His story. #psalmtweets

Psalm 79:
Theology, atrocity & emotion. Religion, pain & a cry for vengeance. Lord, how long? Lord, grant us love and peace. #psalmtweets

Psalm 80:
O Yahweh, shine on us that we, your vine, might bear fruit worthy of you, the living creator God. #psalmtweets

The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture

Human beings have, since prehistory, attempted to explain life as a journey. In a physical sense life is a journey from the helplessness we display at birth to the lifelessness of death. The physical nature of ‘the end’ is all too tangible. Science can probe it and concludes it is indeed journey’s end. Many world religions claim that this is not a final end, but there is something beyond our earthly voyage. The proposals vary from a hope of paradise to ideas of reincarnation. Orthodox Christianity testifies to an afterlife in terms of two poles: (i) bodily resurrection, and (ii) the New Heaven and New Earth.

The common experience of being frail beings together with diverse religious claims, contribute to a pervasive theme in culture, what I refer to here as the Journey Motif. It is found in a huge variety of cultural expressions such as novels, poems, cinema, everyday idioms and poetry. The examples I will use below will undoubtedly be culturally bound and limited by my experience and likes. Nevertheless, this will I trust be a helpful journey about journeys. Our destination is the Psalms and the blessing they are on the Life of Faith.

Everyday Idioms
There are numerous idioms and sayings in the English language which make use of a journey motif. I am not suggesting that these phrases are thoroughgoing metaphysical reflections or conscious nods to religious expectation. The point is simply that our language is riddled with such turns of phrase which collectively hint at the bigger picture of the journey of life. On a daily basis we understand such language without any effort. This is the case even when it relates to a context which is not a journey. For example:

  • “The business venture was going nowhere” means that the enterprise concerned is not successful, it is self-evident that it would not be expected to physically move.
  • “Her career was really going places” might be true even if the career was based in the same physical location. The same person might be said to have a successful career path.
  • “After years of study it was finally the home stretch”. Again the person concerned might have sat in lecture rooms, a library and their study but the idea of a journey ‘works’.
  • “Despite having it all he had itchy feet”. We know that this is not some fungal infection but that someone is thinking about changing their circumstances. This might, or might not, be an actual journey.
  • In times of crisis people often choose places to stay or new relationships that might otherwise be undesirable and we sagely note that they have settled for “any port in a storm”.
  • Someone making hasty life choices might soon discover that the “wheels fall off”.
  • Those who are more successful are often said to be ‘way ahead’ or ‘leading the way’.

Popular Music
George Harrsion’s Any Road, is a conscious reflection on the journey motif. In the song he has fun with the very idea that life as a journey is purposeful: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there’. Other popular songs portray relationships in the language of a journey. One example, among many, is Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time:

Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow –
I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds

Some popular music goes further with the journey motif by means of the concept album. In a concept album a narrative unfolds. Sometimes the story can be difficult to discern with the artist/s storytelling in a manner which leads the listener unsure of the details. In other examples the story is portrayed with sustained intentionality and clarity. Such a narrative is told in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There the entire life of the protagonist Pink is unfolded, from birth to death and then beyond. This work is a self-conscious reflection on the potential reality that lies behind the journey that is our lives. One of Pink Floyd’s latest works, The Endless River, reflects on the journey motif using mostly instrumental music. Rather poignantly the album which was released in 2014 uses work recorded prior to the death of band member Richard Wright in 2008, and it seems to consciously reflect on his absence. The album cover and the album title work to this end before the music is even encountered. It is almost as if they hope that there is an endless river but have little confidence in the possibility of life beyond death.

Many of the novels of the nineteenth century were also explorations of the journey of their hero or antihero through a large part of their life. The journey for Dickens is often one through social standing in Victorian society, such as Pip in Great Expectations and the eponymous and hapless hero of Oliver Twist. Such works typically see the end of the journey as settled existence in a place of social standing. Looking beyond life’s physical journey was the preserve of other types of art and later novels.

Some works of literature capture a journey motif very literally. The two best known works of J. R. R. Tolkien do this. The Hobbit which tells of the adventures of the Halfling Bilbo Baggins is even subtitled There and Back Again. Bilbo is fortunate enough to benefit from his adventurous journey and arrive home, changed for the better. In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo’s adopted nephew Frodo departs on his own dramatic adventures and eventually returns home. For Frodo, however, things are not better back home. Frodo has to leave his life in his homeland of The Shire and journey over the sea prematurely to the blessed lands.

Tolkien’s work is rich with the journey motif often with a poignant depth behind it, redolent with transcendent mystery. See my earlier post on Tolkien’s poem The Road Goes Ever On which is found in both of his Hobbit-centred works. The same motif, with the same haunting depth, is found in a poem, Bilbo’s Last Song, which Tolkien gave to his secretary, Joy Hill, in 1966. This is beautifully captured in the BBCs 1981 radio adaption of The Lord of the Rings, in which the now ancient Bilbo sings the song as he and Frodo depart Middle-Earth with a number of other key protagonists from the War of the Ring. Here is the middle of three verses:

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Such language undoubtedly echoes Tolkien’s Catholic faith. This is one of the reasons why his writing has a mythical authenticity so often absent from work of the same Fantasy genre. Much post-Tolkien Fantasy literature has a central story which is defined, like Tolkien’s famous works, around a journey motif. Very often these fail to live up to anything like Tolkien because there is no conscious depth behind the motif.

Epic poetry from the ancient world was very often themed around journeys. In many cases reality was explored as gods enter the story or mysterious objects are collected from uncharted parts of the world. More modest modern poetry also makes significant use of the journey motif. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken. Here is just one verse:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Interestingly Frost’s poem is often misunderstood with readers making more of it than Frost ever intended. Frost wrote the poem to suggest that indecision in life was undesirable. So ingrained, however, is the journey motif that this poem has been invested with religious and metaphysical freight by many readers.
The journey motif has arguably proven even more dominant in cinema than in literature. There is a whole genre of film known as the Road Movie. There are numerous examples, Thelma and Louise is arguably one of the most well-known. A Road Movie of this type is typically one where the protagonists go on a journey which removes them from their ordinary life. There is an expectation that if they survive they will return to life as changed people.

There are other films in which the journey motif takes on greater scale because the journey is central to understanding something bigger than the protagonists’ lives. Such films have been produced for years but there has been a recent spate, for example: The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), The Maze Runner (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

All these examples are what can be termed post-apocalyptic in that we see the aftermath of a disaster which has destroyed the world and human society as we know it. The story generally revolves around understanding some aspect of the disaster or how humankind can respond in some new dynamic way.

The Way
The Bible is full of examples of what I have called the journey motif. The most important is the reference in both testaments to ‘the way’. Proverbs captures it so:

I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
Proverbs 4:11

There are other similar references in the Wisdom books and many Psalms (see below) which have a wisdom theme. In the New Testament ‘the Way’ takes on new depth of meaning. In the gospels, first as Jesus is anticipated to be part of its redefinition and then because he goes even further and redefines it around himself:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’
Mark 1:3

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

In the book of Acts we find that the Jewish renewal movement that became Christianity is frequently labelled as ‘the Way’. For example:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
Acts 19:23

The Bible takes the pervasive journey motif and makes some very clear claims as to how the idea coheres with the reality centred on the God of Israel and the Risen Christ. In short ‘the Way’ is what we call a faithful life lived before God. In the Hebrew Bible this way is followed in obedience to the Torah; a wise response to Yahweh’s instruction. In this manner those following the way are the righteousness. In the New Testament these ideas remain but are transfigured as a result of the self-revelation of Yahweh as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalms
The overall biblical testimony is that this life that we experience now is a journey; what is helpfully termed the Life of Faith. Its actual goal lies beyond what we can see, or test, here and now. The journey continues after death with the resurrection of God’s people. Those found in Christ will be given new bodies and made whole. Their dwelling will be with God in the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Psalms are no exception to this overarching metanarrative. As they are part way through the trajectory of understanding of the Way it is anachronistic to read the New Testament back into them to hastily. So, for example, Zion is the language of dwelling with God and the destination beyond physical death, but we should be slow to eclipse its broader significance and role as a key aspect of First Testament faith.

The importance of the language of journey is central to the Psalter. It is there at the very outset in a verse which rounds off a series of rich metaphors describing the ‘two ways’:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1:6

It is mentioned again in Psalm 2:12 as a reminder that at the outset of the Psalter following ‘the way’ is a key theme. The Way, and other journey language, occur frequently throughout the Psalter, so for example:

  1. The idea of a way, or the ways, is found in 5:8; 10:5; 17:4; 18:21,30,32; 25:4; 25:9,12; 27:11; 32:8; 35:6; 36:4; 37:5,7,23,34 and 39:1 in Book I alone.
  2. The idea of a journey along a path is seen in 1:1; 16:11; 17:5; 23:2; 25:4; 25:10 and 27:11 in Book I. It appears essentially as a synonym for the idea of a way or ways.

In some cases the idea seems to be part of intentional design of the Psalms. Psalm 25, for example, brings together a number of questions and themes raised earlier in the Psalms (see 15:1,2 and 24:3,4):

Who are they that fear the Lord?
    He will teach them the way that they should choose.
Psalm 25:12

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to the journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words (in NRSV) in the Table below.

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage. Most obviously psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimage to the Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals. The Psalms of Ascents are explored in a couple of previous posts.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was very often no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith. Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating the journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way. As the psalmist knows from the outset of the journey we should be delighting in this instruction and meditating on these words (1:2). The result of this practice is that our life’s journey will crystallise into a remarkably static blessing:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Psalm 1:3

T. S. Eliot and Reading the Psalms

I recently stumbled across an essay on Literary Criticism by T. S. Eliot.[1] A number of issues that Eliot explores in the paper resonate with how we might read the Psalms appropriately. I hope that looking at Eliot’s essay will bear fruit for our use of the Psalms today. I need to be clear from the outset that Eliot was specifically addressing Literary Criticism. In particular his eye was on poetry, which of course coheres with our interest in the Psalms. I think the parallel with our reading the Psalms today is fair, as Literary Criticism for Eliot essentially means reading correctly.

Eliot helpfully distinguishes between two aspects of literary criticism: enjoyment and understanding.[2] For Eliot both are essential for a legitimate reading of poem. Much of his essay revolves around how one, at the expense of the other is problematic. For example, this comes to the fore in his comments about life experiences that influence the poet. Eliot refers to some debate over the influence of Wordsworth’s love interests on the quality of his poetry. This includes the scholarly conjecture regarding how this might have impacted Wordsworth’s poetic output. Eliot is not convinced that such factors are an aid to engaging with Wordsworth’ work:

For myself, I can only say that a knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it.[3]

This is an example where understanding has been pursued, and attention has drifted from the poem to the poem’s life setting. This, in Eliot’s view, has a negative impact on enjoying the poem as a poem. This point seems to be echoed all too often in the twentieth century project of Form Criticism as applied to the Psalms. The endless identification of competing hypothetical Sitz im Leben tends to undermine a psalm’s, i.e. a poem’s, power as poetry rather than illuminating it.

Elsewhere in his essay, Eliot points to other ways in which understanding can eclipse enjoyment. One of these is the dissection of a text by examining its sources, so he argues that:

The explanation of poetry by examination of the process of its sources is not the method of all contemporary criticism by any means; but it is a method which responds to the desire of a good many readers that poetry should be explained to them in terms of something else.[4]

This point also resonates with another problem with Form Criticism. Eliot discusses a book of literary criticism which examines some well-known major poems, where the poems were analysed line by line with no reference to the author or their other work. He captures the negative impact this has on enjoying the poems:

For nearly all the poems in the volume were poems that I had known and loved for many years; and after reading the analyses, I found I was slow to recover my previous feeling about the poems. It was as if someone had taken a machine to pieces and it left me with the task of reassembling the parts. I suspect, in fact, that a good deal of the value of an interpretation is—that it should be my own interpretation.[5]

The point that we need to create our own interpretation is a vital one when it comes to the Psalms and indeed all Scripture. Scripture cannot be fed upon second hand—any more than poetry. However good they might be, a sermon, a blog or a commentary can only ever lead us to Scripture. If we only hear the three points, or the propositional truths of the passage, or tense and grammar, we have not experienced, or as Eliot would put it, enjoyed Scripture.

Elsewhere in his essay Eliot warns us of the potential danger of all types of critical reading:

For the tendency is so general, to believe that we understand a poem when we have identified its origins and traced the process to which the poet submitted his materials, that we may easily believe the converse—that any explanation of the poem is also an account of how it was written.[6]

Such an exploration of cause and effect is an inevitable part of understanding a poem, but only a part of the process. There is a real danger that the aspect of enjoyment which gives a poem its vitality is either forgotten or undermined. There is a danger that the attempt at understanding a poem can do violence to what a poem actually is. When the poems are the biblical Psalms what they are is poems, with all that normally means, and they also have a potential to transform. Enjoyment of the Psalms means seeing them poetically – marvelling at the language and metaphor, awakening to what they reveal and conceal about God, meditating on what they reveal about us. It also means being open to their work as Scripture which is entirely coherent and cogent with their poetic nature.

We conclude with some words of Eliot which encourage us about the vital connection we can have with the Psalms:

What matters is the experience which is the same for all human beings of different centuries and languages capable of enjoying poetry, the spark which can leap across 2,500 years.[7]

[1] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, a 1956 lecture pp.111-31 in T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, New York: Farrars, Straus and Giroux (1957).
[2] Passim, p.128.
[3] Passim p. 124.
[4] Passim, p.125.
[5] Passim, p.127.
[6] Passim, p.126.
[7] Passim, p.131.

Psalmtweets: Psalms 61-70

This post continues the summary of recent psalmtweets. These psalmtweets are part of a set attempting to say something simultaneously about a specific psalm and the whole Psalter. This is working out with varying degrees of success.

Psalm 61:
The picture of eternal life in the Psalms is one of dwelling with Yahweh and worshiping Him.

Psalm 62:
The Psalms teach us that our frailty and our dependence on God are both quite normal.

Psalm 63:
We would do well to cultivate an imagination of faith which perceives God in his sanctuary.

Psalm 64:
Like the Psalter this is a journey from a place of threat and trembling to a new place of refuge and rejoicing.

Psalm 65:
Creation is full of immense bounty. Thank Yahweh.

Psalm 66:
Creation and Redemption celebrated together.

Psalm 67:
Like Jacob we can ask for Yahweh’s blessing.
Shine Yahweh shine!

Psalm 68:
As Christians we read the Psalms with new glasses;
Re-reading with 20/20 vision in Christ.

Psalm 69:
In the Psalms there are verses that yield fitting words for the nation of Israel in judgement and/or for Jesus Christ in ministry.

Psalm 70:
The Psalms instruct my prayer for those who delight in my harm.
Come Yahweh. Hasten Lord Jesus.


The Unexpected Voice of God?

Sometimes strange things happen and we are left wondering if God is speaking to us in the most peculiar of ways. Something like this happened to me this morning. I was walking to work, a 35-40 minute stroll through parts of North Guildford. This is something I have taken to doing for just over a year now. I fill the time with a mixture of prayer, thinking through general issues in life and reviewing what the day ahead holds. This morning I was praying about three specific things, these were:

  1. Some challenges in my job. In particular a number of things that are important to me where I keep encountering a roadblock, usually other people slowing down something that I am trying to achieve.
  2. A book I am writing on the Psalms that has come together clearly in my mind, but I am frustrated with the difficulty I am having with my style of writing and the challenge of pitching it consistently for a specific readership.
  3. Thinking about how God speaks through the ordinary in a sacramental fashion – something that I am trying to work through theologically (Yes it is a little odd I know). This connects with 2.

I was praying about all three issues with the same basic question: Should I carry on tackling the roadblocks at work? Should I persist with something I want to do, where I feel inadequate for the task? How do I open my eyes to God speaking through the ordinary?

All three of these things received an answer in the most peculiar of ways. Having prayed and thought about these things for around 20 minutes, I realised I was walking faster than the person on the path ahead. I was unsure whether they had earphones (a common problem these days) and they were squarely in the middle of path such that I could not get past easily. As the path ahead went under a railway bridge, I could see that the wider path was perfect for passing by. As I overtook the woman, without turning her head she uttered the words: “Yeah, you carry right on” in a highly aggressive, almost threatening tone, that implied I had no option but to comply. The command, as I took it to be, was articulated with such menace, angst and anger that I had a sudden insight into the pain and bad experiences that had led to this response to a passing stranger.

Three strides later, I saw that the words uttered by this person, if taken as an answer in a very different tone, had the most peculiar resonance with my 20 minutes of questions. The voice of faith tells me to run with this answer, the muttering of reason tells me I have an overactive imagination. Whichever voice wins the debate, I can testify to the fact that today I have had three dramatic encouragements regarding prayer 1 (above) and an email that has promised direct help from an expert with prayer 2. Perhaps all this together, answer prayer 3?

Musing About ‘The Road Goes Ever On’

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents a song, The Road Goes Ever On, which is said to have been written by Bilbo Baggins. It occurs once in The Hobbit and three times in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an active churchgoing Roman Catholic and I suspect that there is something of the journey of faith lying behind this song. I have known the song since I was around eleven years old, firstly from reading Tolkien’s work and shortly after from hearing the song in the BBC’s 1981 adaption of The Lord of Rings. From that time onwards, I have found the words to be haunting and almost indefinably poignant; they seem to hint at something transcendent, mysterious and rather important. This is despite the simplicity of their literal claims. There is of course a very serious possibility that I am reading my own perspective into them. I have found this song helpful in reflecting on the Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Here is the first version of the The Road Goes Ever On, from The Lord of the Rings. It is sung by Bilbo as he leaves the Shire, right at the outset of the book. He is in an emotional state of new orientation, motivated by the potential for adventure:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

You, as reader, must make an initial judgement about how poignant, sentimental, or otherwise, you find this song. Interestingly the second time this song appears, this time uttered by Frodo who is setting out to dispose of the ring of power, one word is changed. Frodo’s reluctance, and I suspect disorientation, means he substitutes ‘eager feet’ for ‘weary feet’.

The third rendition of the song is spoken once again by Bilbo, as he is about to leave Middle-Earth. This final version has eschatological overtones as Bilbo anticipates the end of his days:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

The eschatological dynamic is made more concrete by the fact that Bilbo is joining the last of the elves to travel across the sea to Tol Eressëa. For Tolkien the lonely isle was ripe with heavenly blissful overtones. We have already encountered the idea that the Psalms essentially are companions on a journey, what we have termed the life of faith. Those familiar with the Psalms and/or this blog will know that the Psalter is a journey; it has a structure that tells a story. This connection, perhaps somewhat tenuous, is a reminder that the Psalms are themselves poetry and other poetry can help us imbibe them; they are meant to be nourishing.

To conclude here is my adaption of The Road Goes Ever On:

The Psalter cycles on and on
From the Hebrew Scriptures where it began.
The Life of Faith ahead extends,
And I must follow as best I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
I journey with my God, Yahweh.
Many challenges and trials I will meet,
But I am accompanied along the Way.

Psalms for People under Pressure

Jonathan Aitken, Psalms for People under Pressure, London: Continuum (2004).

This book is difficult to classify. In part this is because of the fame of the author. It is part commentary, part introduction to praying the psalms and part biographical. Many readers, i.e. those who know something of Jonathan Aitken’s ‘fall from grace’, will read it with biographical interest. Of course this volume is not a biography, but the biographical elements are interesting. No doubt Jonathan Aitken had some difficult choices as to how to handle these aspects of the book. In my view he has made good judgement, in that there is enough biographical reflection to answer the curiosity of some readers. The biographical elements are, however, never distracting, but rather they are helpful in illustrating the relevance of what Aitken refers to as psalms for people under pressure.

It is for this latter reason that the book is I think helpful. Like a number of popular books over the last decade, or so, this book raises the profile of the large number of psalms that are concerned with the difficulties of life. That Aitken has this objective is clear from the book’s title, but unlike many who write about the Psalms, Aitken has clearly had to deal with immense personal challenges. Does the book succeed as a commentary on the selected psalms? Does it function helpfully as a facilitator to prayer?

Each of the twenty seven, or so, psalms covered are presented in the NIV. The text of each psalm is followed by sections titled: reflection, additional notes and personal comment. Each is finally followed by a short prayer. The first of these sections is what we might term a devotional commentary and the second gives concise background commentary. I found the reflections to be helpful in showing how the ancient text can ‘work’ today. In most cases I found that the additional notes to be ill-placed. In my view, the notes might have functioned better as a prelude to the more applied reflections. Of course anyone reading can choose to do this, or perhaps omit the additional notes. The personal comments are interesting; not only in the obvious biographical sense, but also in showing how readily Aitken’s experiences as a new convert resonate with the reader’s experience. This can encourage the reader in seeing the Bible’s potential for transformation. The short prayers, whether prayed or simply read, are a helpful reminder that the Psalms are meant to inspire us to pray rather than to ‘do theology’.

In summary, this book is ideal for someone who has an interest in Jonathan Aitken or wants some encouragement and direction in how to pray the Psalms. The reader who has an interest in both will find that there is a helpful synergy between these two concerns.


Psalmtweets: Psalms 51-60

This is a continuation of my latest series of psalmtweets which is an attempt to see how each psalm contributes to the whole. This is part of a broader experiment in using psalmtweets as a daily spiritual discipline.

Psalm 51:
The Psalms speak of the need for a broken spirit and a willing spirit, all enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 52:
Sticking to the Way ensures we flourish like a healthy sapling.
The detours threaten our very roots.

Psalm 53:
The Psalter presents a sobering picture of humanity’s inability to pursue justice, truth, community and well-being.

Psalm 54:
The Psalms show a single-minded confidence in Yahweh;
a God who has acted, is acting and will act.

Psalm 55:
There is nothing new about discord among God’s people.
Though flight is tempting, we instead need to run to Yahweh.

Psalm 56:
Trust defines the life of faith.
Dependence on Yahweh is key on the path.

Psalm 57:
The eyes of faith perceive a God of loving-kindness amidst the pain of the journey.

Psalm 58:
The Psalms help us pray against false Gods, whether ancient near-eastern deities or the trappings of Western culture.

Psalm 59:
The Psalms have an organic relationship with the Law, the Prophets and the other Writings.

Psalm 60:
The journey of communities of faith is oft times touched by pain and trial.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 8

The Necessity of Diversity within the Canon
Perhaps the strongest argument against the legitimacy of some inner canons used in a strong normative sense is that this does violence to a key aspect of the Bible. Though it is a truism of much modern biblical scholarship that dogmatic theology has no place in setting its agenda, some who challenge this creatively see a necessary diversity within the Bible, for example:

  1. Brueggemann argues that some parts of the Old Testament, particularly elements of the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, provide a countertestimony to the core testimony found within the bulk of the Old Testament narrative.[1] This is a constructive analysis of otherwise contradictory voices in the Old Testament.
  2. Wall urges a mutual criticism of texts rather than a bland mediated position between competing voices.[2]
  3. Watson identifies what he terms ‘conflict of interpretation’ in Paul and this is fruitful.[3]

Such approaches recognise implicitly the danger of capitulating to an inner canon and are a recognition of the text on its own terms. This prevents illegitimate skewing of texts or the marginalisation of uncomfortable texts contra Luther’s analogia scripturae.

Our exploration of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon has highlighted that the notion is not a singular one, but rather a family of notions. The diversity of both form and function implied by different scholars makes the term ultimately unfruitful. The value in the idea of an inner canon is how it points to a yet more fundamental issue, that of the presuppositions of the interpreter. Despite the long standing recognition of the role of presuppositions many controversial issues need to be considered and special attention paid to presuppositions. In such debates the use of the term inner canon is all too often just an unhelpfully veiled denial of another’s presuppositions.

Throughout this essay the author’s presupposition of the necessity of faith in interpretation will have been obvious. Such a stance is, I would suggest, a vital one and yet prone to misuse. For, as an ‘unthinking’ presupposition it can simply lead to a Biblicism which does violence to the Bible. Abraham judges that the Church has, for fifteen centuries, been in a downward spiral in seeing the Bible as epistemic norm rather than as a means of grace.[4] He arguably goes too far in counteracting a correctly diagnosed problem, but his message is a useful reminder that the canon is not just about acting as a rule. When we are open to the canon as both rule and means of grace then we are open to the diversity of its message. We need to have a hermeneutic of trust in recognising the canon as Holy Scripture and a hermeneutic of suspicion to all theologies that systematise its voice, especially those that employ an inner canon that is dictated by our own agendas.

Dunn’s identification of Jesus Christ as a canon-through-the canon seems to offer a fruitful theological insight.[5] The gracious gift of Christ from the Father implies a necessarily implicit trust in Scripture. At the same time there remains a suspicion that we cannot master the self-revelation of God himself. Might it not be the case that a presupposition of faith be the way to ensure that the Bible is not left broken by the interpretative process?

[1] See Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.317-332.
[2] Wall, Scripture, p.539.
[3] Watson, Paul, pp.24-29.
[4] Abraham, Canon, p.1.
[5] Dunn, Canon, p.572.

Full Bibliography
Abraham, William J., Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Barr, James, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Barr, James, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament perspective, London: SCM press, 1999.
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator: G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975 [original 1932].
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970 [original 1939].
Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.
Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Bultmann, Rudolph, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, pp.289-315 in Existence and Faith: Shorter writings of Rudolph Bultmann, translator: S. M. Ogden, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960.
Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
Childs, Brevard S., Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, London: SCM Press, 1979.

Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as Canon: An introduction, London: SCM Press, 1984.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological reflection on the Christian Bible, London: SCM Press, 1992.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology: A proposal, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Dunn, James D. G., Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An inquiry into the character of earliest Christianity, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1990.
Dunn, James D. G., ‘Has the Canon a Continuing Function’, pp.558-579 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Funk, Robert W., ‘The Once and Future New Testament’, pp.541-557 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004.
Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Jeremias, Joachim, New Testament Theology, London: SCM Press, 1971.
Koyama, Kosuke, Water Buffalo Theology, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999 [original 1974].
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [first edition 1962].
Metzger, Bruce M., The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Ng, Esther Yue L., Reconstructing Christian Origins? The Feminist Theology of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: An evaluation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.
Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A comparison of patterns of religion, London: SCM Press, 1977.
Schüssler Fiorenzia, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her: Feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1996 [original first edition 1984].
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wall, Robert W., ‘The Significance of a Canonical Perspective of the Church’s Scripture’, pp.528-540 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Watson, Francis, Text, Church and World: Biblical interpretation in theological perspective, London: T&T Clark, 1994.
Watson, Francis, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Wright, D. F., ‘Creed, Confessional Forms’, pp.255-260 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (editors), Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK, 1992.
Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God, London: SPCK, 1996.
Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh perspectives, London: SPCK, 2005.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 7

The Inevitability of Presuppositions
From the outset of these posts, it has been noted that the terms canon-within-the-canon and inner canon carry a large variety of meanings. Because of the high probability of misunderstanding in the short hand use of these terms it is suggested that neither is a very useful term. Rather more helpfully, all the multiplicity of issues can be sensibly subsumed into the bigger question of presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Whilst the idea of presuppositions is an even bigger issue than that of an inner canon, it is suggested that this plurality of meaning is more generally recognised by those who use this term.

There is an additional reason for being cautious about the concept of an inner canon. Some use the term in a much more serious sense than others, to the point where the canon is itself being questioned. If the term inner canon has a continued function it should perhaps be reserved for those who wish to organise a theological framework by giving knowing priority to a book, text or principle. Even this usage might well be questioned simply on semantic grounds as the very notion of an inner canon questions the very essence of what is meant by the canon.[1] More useful, because it is both semantically coherent and illustrative of a real interpretative choice, is the term a stepped canon which Barr uses in the light of the role of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament.[2]

In an earlier post, we argued that historical criticism can give rise to the operation of an inner canon. At a more fundamental level however modern criticism itself becomes a canon against which the Bible itself is measured.[3] This brings us to Bultmann’s question: Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible? Vanhoozer points out that the wide contemporary consensus, which follows Bultmann’s negative answer, is about the only point of current agreement in modern hermeneutics.[4] Of course such an insight was hardly novel, for example, Barth cites Ritschl as formulating such a view.[5]

The Positive use of PresuppositionsPresuppositions tend to lead to an identification of a particular form or identity of text which meets the requirements of the set agenda. So, for example:

  1. The use of Romans and justification by faith to counter a church context in which grace had been cheapened by a works righteousness which justified indulgences.
  2. The adoption by some Feminist interpreters of an inner canon of texts like Ruth or Galatians 3:28.
  3. The selection of texts in which Jesus’ ethical teaching is prevalent as an inner canon in the heyday of the Enlightenment’s impact on the academy.

It is suggested that honesty and awareness of presuppositions does not exclude the use of what might be termed an inner canon but rather makes this an open decision. Additionally, it makes possible a more thoughtful decision as to the nature and function of an inner canon. For, if inner canons are inevitable then their value, or otherwise, needs to account for both their form/identity and function.

In what sense can we hope to be informed, let alone transformed by a text, if it is such a subjective process? In the last twenty years or so a methodology known as critical realism has emerged which, it is suggested, provides a sensible way forward. Critical realism represents a middle ground between what might be termed naïve or positivistic readings on the one hand and sceptical and suspicious readings on the other.

Critical realism is honest about the fact that the interpreter has presuppositions and that these are an inevitable part of the starting point of any interpretive process. The idea is that the interpretive process does enable challenges to be made to presuppositions by the interpretive processes’ engagement with the text. Such a dynamic allows, for not only the information dynamic of the interpretive process, but a transformative role as well. This fits well with the testimony of Church History to the Bible’s transforming as well as informing role within the Church.  Such a dynamic prevents an unhelpful focus on the Bible’s epistemic value at the expense of its gift as a means of grace.  The next post will complete our look at this topic.

[1] Barr, Holy Scripture, pp.72-73 makes just this point.
[2] Barr, Holy Scripture, p.72.
[3] So Brueggemann, Old Testament, p.17 who sees Barth’s “epistemological manoeuvre” as arising from this concern.
[4] Vanhoozer, Doctrine, p.157.
[5] Barth, CD I.2 p.727.