Psalm Structures Old and New Part 1

Part one of his three-part exploration reflects on the challenge of discerning structure within the Psalter. It then explores the spiritual significance of two very different structures that have been found within the Psalms.

For much of Church history various scholars, lay people, clergy, religious, and theologians have been obsessed with the structure of Psalter and/or the grouping of the psalms. Recent scholarship has followed a particular variation on this since work by Brevard Childs (late 1970s) and Gerald Wilson (early 1980s). In short, Wilson argued that the Psalter had more than just a structure. He found an overall story arc concerning King David. This proposed metanarrative become a focus of what is sometimes termed the canonical approach to Psalms interpretation. This idea has been refined at every level as scholars have (a) continued to search for links between adjacent psalms (microstructure), (b) sought to establish the connections between collected psalms such as the Psalms of Ascents (mesostructure) and (c) discern variations on the David metanarrative (macrostructure).

Those who pray the Psalter in canonical order have readily discerned hints of structure—most readily microstructure—on the journey through the Psalms. The canonical approach formalises, even crystallise, some aspects of this structure. In doing so this recent scholarship sometimes focuses on the final collection of the Psalms. This is as a synchronic approach with a literary emphasis on the final form of the Psalter. Other scholars give much attention to the formation of the collection with a diachronic method that goes beyond literary concerns. Some see value in considering form and formation as two sides of the interpretive endeavour.

I have found there to be value in discerning the structure of the Psalter. There are undoubtedly features of the Psalter at the microstructural level where neighbouring palms often connect or complement each other in terms of motifs, key words, mood, voice, and heading. At the mesostructural level some collections are readily delineated by their distinct features and more tentatively their function. Again, the Psalms of Ascents come to mind. At the macrostructural—overarching story—level the various proposals have merit as a lens with which to read the Psalms. Nevertheless, there are important caveats to the value of the canonical endeavour.

Critical scholarship has, over some two centuries or so, provided much insight into the biblical text by using an immensely diverse array of methods. Its weaknesses also loom just as large. Both the gains and problems of critical scholarship have been rehearsed many times, and with immense insight. I have found Hans Frei [1], Francis Watson [2] and Michael Legaspi [3] to be stimulating in this regard. One immense problem is the provisionality of critical scholarship which does not sit comfortably with the notion of Scripture. Of course, some would argue that I am muddling chalk and cheese in making such a claim. A second issue is that scholarship is subject to faddism. I suggest that this is found in extremis with the Psalms. In Psalms’ scholarship three paradigms have dominated the last 100 years as scholars have attempted to understand formation, form and nature of the Psalter. Firstly, there was form criticism with twin foci on literary genre and their use in specific situations. This gave rise to new questions about ancient Israelite psalm use. Cult criticism arose partly in response to these questions. Then came canonical criticism, mentioned above, partly in response to the inability of the former method to explain many literary features of the Psalter.

Each of the three methods has been found problematic when developed to the exclusion of other methods. Each raises related yet distinct issues of how these paradigms might relate to contemporary psalm use by the community of faith. All three, however, offer valuable insight when tempered by an openness to other parallel paradigms. The canonical approach has reached, in my view, the end of the road in that ongoing proposals are either (i) such minute variations on a plethora of existing proposals as to add little or no further insight, or (ii) in seeking additional insight are often so speculative as to provide untestable hypotheses rather than fresh data.

The next two post are more positive as we turn now to two valuable structures within the Psalter. The first is demonstrably part of the Psalter’s fabric and the second a later construct. I will argue that both have abiding spiritual value as they enable fruitful faithful engagement with Scripture, albeit in two rather distinct ways.

1. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, Yale University Press, 1974.
2. Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective, Continuum, 1994.
3. Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Peace in Our Time

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6, NIV

Before we get to the Prince of Peace. I want to share a mystery with you. I have often been puzzled by the rail bridge that lies between junctions 16 and 17 on the M25 near Uxbridge. It carries the Chiltern Main Line Railway over the M25 motorway. And the mystery is that it bears the immortal line “Give Peas a Chance”.

Who does these things? Why would you risk life and limb to hang off the side of a bridge over the M25 to paint, in a reasonably interesting font, “Give Peas a Chance”?

I guess it’s a play on the song “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. It has no doubt raised a wry smile from hundreds of thousands of motorists, because it is funny when we swap peace with peas.

As a child I had tonsillitis and blocked ears every winter. I remember being confused at Infant School, at a Christmas assembly, when I heard that Jesus was the Prince of Peas. I was less than impressed because peas in the 1970s, at least in my home, were a very singular variety, known as tinned.

It clearly makes little sense to view Jesus as Prince of Peas. But when we look at the world today, we might question what it means that Jesus is Prince of Peace. His first arrival around 2,000 years ago did not usher in a time of peace. Jesus himself did not expect that either; whatever Isaiah had said. When speaking of his return he pointed out that war, rather than peace, would continue. Jesus said this:

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Matthew 24:6, NIV

So, what does it mean that the promised child, according to the Prophet Isaiah, will be Prince of Peace? Is Isaiah guilty of over promising? Or did Isaiah get it plain wrong?

Part of the answer is the need to understand what Isaiah meant by peace. The word he used is shalom. This word can refer to the absence of war, corresponding to our English word peace. But it means more than this, as we will see in just a moment.

But to be fair to Isaiah, elsewhere in the Bible, the absence of war brought about by Jesus—Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—is promised and explained further. The question is ‘when will there be peace?’, rather than if there will be peace.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s sentiment is a wonderful ideal:

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will bring an end to war, but only after his return—in what we might call the beginning of the age to come. Whilst in faith we should be grateful, in our impatience and horror at the reality of war we want this now. Who does not want an end to war right here, right now?

Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—Jesus born in a manager—can bring peace of a different sort, both here and now.

Shalom is a rich word and the foundation of the Bible’s good news. It is about wholeness, about healthiness, about happy relationships and most fundamentally of all it is about peace with God. This latter meaning—peace with God—is a possibility here and now through Jesus our Prince of Peace.

Jesus was sent to this tiny, and otherwise unremarkable planet, by God his Father to make peace with men, women, and children. The brokenness we see that haunts this world is explained in the Bible in the story of how paradise was lost in the garden of Eden. This accounts for our lack of peace, our broken relationship with God.

Whatever we might make of a primeval garden, the broken relationships it describes are self-evident all around us. Humanity in taming the Earth has created untold damage. Men and women struggle to live in harmony under the same roof. Inequality is worked out in our daily choices and can feel hard-baked into reality.

Evidence of all this brokenness, frailty, and that old fashioned idea called sin, is self-evident truth. It is broadcast in the news. Written large in newspapers. Worked out in social media. Is not every person, community, and neighbourhood on this planet blighted by weakness, frailty, bad choices, and that old fashioned addiction called selfishness?

A broken world, and the frail people who broke it, need a peacemaker. Someone who can bring humanity and God to the table to speak of peace. Until that relationship knows peace, shalom in all its other forms cannot begin. Peace with God is what Jesus brought with him in his journey from heaven to earth that first Christmas, and worked out in his life and ministry, and finally in his cross and resurrection.

That the Christmas child is the Prince of Peace is a remarkable claim. It took me eleven years from hearing that Jesus was Prince of Peas to knowing his peace personally. Why not take some time this Christmas to reflect on the possibility that peace with God might be a genuine possibility? You might just find the only present that goes beyond the advertising.

Many Christmas adverts seem to promise that this Christmas will be paradise on earth. But I’m not convinced that Tesco or Waitrose supermarkets, Chanel or Paco Rabane perfumes, Baileys Irish Cream or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey can give us ‘heaven on earth’ or bring ‘peace on earth’. But through Jesus Christ I believe we really can have peace in our time.

Everyone saw the big clock tickin’, nobody knew the time: Habakkuk 2

Habakkuk’s Watch
I am not one for dinner parties, but I often wonder who the famous or infamous people are I’d enjoy meeting over a meal. People who could share something of their passion, wisdom, or expertise. My list frequently changes but there is one constant and that’s David Attenborough. I have been watching David Attenborough’s TV output for many years—way before he became the national treasure and world champion for environmental issues he is today. I remember the 1979 TV series Life on Earth when so enchanted I wanted the book for Christmas. But even before that, David Attenborough was teaching me about fossils in a 1975 children’s programme called Fabulous Animals.

I admire him as he is so focused, passionate, single-minded and tireless in his passion for creation. You might say he is a prophet. Behind his programmes there lie same patient and equally tireless people. People who wait for weeks, even months, to get 30 seconds of footage. What sort of patience and singlemindedness must you need to watch day-after-day for that perfect shot? What single-mindedness must you need to be David Attenborough? Watching not just the world but noticing first-hand the warning signs that things are not right.

Habakkuk was single-minded like this. He watched, as we see at the start of Habakkuk 2. He sought God’s answer to his prayers. He was a true prophet. False prophets ignore the signs and celebrate a happy status quo in the face of the impending judgement. Prophets read the time properly, false prophets are in a different time zone. As the singer Sting recognised of Jeremiah’s time:

It was midnight, midnight at noon
Everyone talked in rhyme
Everyone saw the big clock tickin’,
Nobody knew, nobody knew the time.

Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, in late 7th century Jerusalem, was watching, seeking, and hearing. As true prophets they saw the big clock was ticking. At the start of Chapter 2 we read:

I will stand at my watch
    and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
    and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
Habakkuk 2:1, NIV

Habakkuk’s watching is poignant because the very ramparts of Jerusalem where he stands as prophet will be destroyed by the Babylonians.

Yahweh’s Five Alarm Bells
Habakkuk is given five woes by Yahweh. Every prophet hopes to have some blessings to bestow, but here Habakkuk only gets woes that ring in his ear like the shrillest of alarm bells. Some 600 years later, Jesus would also have the job of imparting similar woes in Matthew 23. The five timely woes that Habakkuk hears belong together. There is a disturbing repeating refrain that unites them:

For you have shed human blood;
    you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.
Habakkuk 2:8b and 2:17b, NIV

The judgement in these alarm bells is aimed fair and square at the Babylonians, the very nation that Yahweh has raised up to judge his people and Jerusalem. Yet they also act as a warning for anyone who promotes such injustice.

Woe 1 is for those who are made wealthy by extortion and violence. Alarm bell 2 is about feathering your nest at others expense. Taking things, even from the poorest, so as to become wealthy to the point of heedless excess. Woe 3 is for those who show indifference for right and wrong. The ability to serve one’s own needs without recourse to a higher authority of justice or fear of the living God. Woe 4 seems to be concerned with leading the nations astray, seducing them to their detriment. This is Babylon at its most insidious—breaking nations as a voyeur not caring for their being stripped bare of their assets of wealth, culture and even people. The fifth and final alarm bell is that most insidious problem of nations and people: idolatry. The stupidity of swapping fear of the living God for a deaf stick or a blind stone.

Babylon-the-arrogant will sweep in and so will judge injustice. But she like Judah, will know judgement.

The Metronome of Faith
Whilst woes dominate this passage in terms of length, for us on the brighter side of Easter, verse 4 dominates in terms of theological weight:

“See, the enemy is puffed up;
    his desires are not upright—
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Habakkuk 2:4, NIV

The desires of Babylon make it God’s instrument of judgement for seven decades, but those same desires make it a passing ‘failed state’ like countless other regimes whose fate is as certain as their injustice. It is the second half of this verse that lies at the heart of Paul’s account of the Good News of Jesus as he quotes Habakkuk:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:17, NIV

It was this same part-verse that lay at the heart of Martin Luther’s bombshell in the Reformation. His 95 theses had words written through them like those in a stick of rock. Those words were The righteous will live by faith.

For Luther, as for Paul, it is not the Church, not any commandment, no practice, no works, and certainly no money that can buy new life. This is purchased solely by Christ on the cross. Only faith in the Son of God’s person and actions is necessary for salvation.

In a time of darkness Martin Luther recovered the metronome of faith that was there all along. God’s mercy is made effective via our faith. An Old Covenant truth made firm through Jesus Christ as Paul explains in Romans. The metronome of God’s heart beating as God’s grace is worked out through his people who live by faith.

Telling the Time Today
We are all prophets. We might not share Habakkuk’s, Jeremiah’s, or Martin Luther’s fame. But we are called like them to tell the time. We are to wait and watch for the living God:

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NIV

Waiting means discipline in this age of distraction. Waiting requires patience. It requires the singlemindedness of faith. It is prayer rightly understood as persistence.

The Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.
Habakkuk 2:20, NIV

This verse invites the action of faithfulness. Faith is imbibing God’s word. Faithfulness is living it. Faithfulness is bringing God’s word to people desperately in need of life and love. It is bringing Good News. Not the shallow good news ‘There, there, all will be fine’ but the richer news that amidst darkness we await the dawn of a day ‘when all will be well’. Not the sickly sweet, good news that people want to hear, but the savoury wholesome good news that sin and injustice will be judged and dealt with once and for all in Christ.

The Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.

 

Babel: Genesis 11

1. Babbling in Babylon
Superheroes were important in my childhood. As a child I first learnt to read for myself with Spiderman comics and the weekly adventures of the Fantastic Four. There’s a tradition with superheroes that they have an origin story. With Spiderman, part of his origin story is that he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment. With the Fantastic Four their origin story involved a freak burst of cosmic radiation whilst they were on a space mission.

There are usually some features of an origin story that have a legacy for a superhero. The account of the Tower of Babel is an origin story, and it has a far-reaching legacy. It is presented as the origin story for the immense variety of languages we find in the world. There are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. This does not include dialects and extinct languages.

In Genesis we see God frustrating a building project—a massive city with its crowning glory, a tower that could reach the heavens. The people wanted fame and they wanted to avoid being scattered across the world. They got infamy but ended up being scattered.

The word Babel is fitting, as it sounds like the Hebrew for mix, as in mixing up. Babel also literally means ‘God’s Gate’—perhaps pointing to the interface of earth and heaven as the goal of the tower. This origin story has been received into popular culture. It is where the English word babble originates. But perhaps the most well-known example for us is the Babel Fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A fictional fish that undoes Babel by translating any language if you are happy to stick one in your ear! As soon as we have different languages the problem of communication goes beyond words to culture. The Babel Fish is an illustration of this, known to many English speakers but probably not part of most other world cultures.

Douglas Adams is playing on medieval theology’s proofs for the existence of God (if you are not familiar with his version clicking here). What he failed to appreciate is that medieval proofs are not proofs in the modern sense. Rather they are an invitation into a worldview with not only an origin story but a wonderful goal in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Douglas Adams like many atheists refutes a God who is the construct of secular modernism rather than the creator revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. As Christians we find that the Bible’s world makes sense of the world in which we live, of ourselves and of the God who lies behind both creation and salvation.

2. Scheming on Shinar
What were those people trying to do on Shinar plain? It seems to be a building project of a magnitude greater even than the efforts that created modern Dubai or Doha. What lies behind God’s concern? Why did God choose to confound them? This is the theological origin story. The first attempt to reach heaven, to overthrow God. From a pre-modern understanding this is a literal attempt to reach God’s dwelling place—God’s Gate.

What would have happened if the whole of humanity devoted themselves with singlemindedness to building this city and tower? What would have happened if they could have fulfilled the fullest extent of their desire for fame? What else would they have gone on to achieve?

Our modern world is a place of division between peoples, nations, and language groups. We might imagine that a common language would be a blessing, bringing people together, preventing wars, enabling solutions to world problems such as global warming. And yet the Bible says differently. It takes our sin, and fundamental inability to have good relationships, seriously. This would indicate that for all the failings and brokenness in our world it would be even worse if all humanity were not divided by language barriers. Unlimited building, unlimited science, unlimited cultural expression might just equate to unlimited sin. Genesis, and the wider Old Testament, tell God’s story of limiting sin as his first step to dealing it the decisive blow in Jesus Christ.

The scattering of the schemers at Shinar is both judgement and mercy. God’s actions of judgement and mercy belong together in story after story in the Bible—perhaps they are always two sides of the same coin. In the future, this currency of judgement and mercy will be the basis for the re-creation of heaven and earth. A future when we will be able to join all humanity with one voice in praise of God, in the heavenly city.

3. Building at Babel
The early chapters of Genesis detail, among other things, the gifts and capabilities that God gave humanity. The problem is that humanity has the ongoing ability to use them for both good and ill.

The beginning of agricultural technology in Genesis, via Jabal, can be for good or ill. We need efficient and effective agriculture to produce food. Without it the world’s population is unsustainable. And yet the environment and wildlife pay the price for careless use technology. Biodiversity is diminished. Toxic chemicals go into our bodies and the environment. Soil is vulnerable to being washed away. The list goes on.

The beginning of music technology with Jubal is also for good and ill. Music can be a source of great delight and is emotionally therapeutic. Music can also lie at the heart of darker cultural expressions.

Engineering and my own area of materials technology is no exception to this choice:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Genesis 11:3, NIV

At Babel the possibility of taller buildings and a quicker building technology was founded on bricks and tar. In my view they could have done better than tar, but that’s not key right now. Today we do unnecessary violence to our planet by over-engineering with concrete and steel. In many cases bamboo might suffice.

The bottom line is that broken humanity cannot decisively solve its problems—this is counter to the world’s narrative, despite the overwhelming evidence. This should not lead to fatalism. Acknowledging the problem of sin still offers the possibility of real progress in undoing its pervasiveness and consequences, from a more realistic stance.

4. Kingdom Construction
That said, we eagerly await the heavenly city of peace where we will know unlimited life and joy rather than Babel’s unlimited sin and death.

God has the most remarkable alternative to Babel. Out of the nations, peoples and language groups he calls men, women and children to a subversive activity.

He calls us to gather and worship him, in and through his son Jesus Christ. It is subversive because the call is to serve him before all other things. Our commitment to Christ, to his Church, to the Kingdom of God comes ahead of our commitment to our nation, our ethnic history, our culture.

It is also remarkable because we are the body of Jesus Christ as we gather.

It is subversive because we believe that all humanity is called to join with us. Pentecost’s gift of interpreting languages is the first fruit of the undoing of Babel. The sign of the age to come which is the undoing of the sin that lay behind the scheming, building and babbling of Babel. As John the Elder saw:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10, NIV

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

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.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms

Generative Possibility
Nick Cave’s album, Seven Psalms, was released on the 17th June 2022. I discovered this collection because of the title’s likely nod to the Penitential, or Seven, Psalms. This post is a review of Cave’s short album, but one with a difference. By considering seven features—or signs—of the biblical psalms I address the question of how this recent work relates to the ancient Psalter. Whatever else might be said of the Book of Psalms, its generative potential cannot be denied. And however near, or far, Cave’s lyrics might be from ancient Israel it is psalmody that lies behind them. The simple cover of the work in question provides further insight into the way in which the Psalter has worked here. For a small simple cross is the singular graphic feature. These songs are to be understood as a Christian reception of the Psalms. When we hear the address ‘Lord’, it is presumably both Yahweh and Christ that are in mind. Doubtless like the biblical psalmists, Cave’s own context also supplies generative direction. From what I know of Nick Cave’s recent life he has experienced pain as acute as that known by the ancient poets. This is not, however, the place for biography as the goal here is not explanation. I aim to point, with Cave’s creation, to the Psalms and thence to the one whose breath generated them.

Poetic Nature
Cave’s album comprises seven short psalms or responses to the Psalms. In addition, an eighth much longer track—some eleven minutes, or so—captures the music and refrains of the seven but omits Cave’s poetic voiceovers. Probably inadvertently this one-plus-eight form alludes to the tension between psalms as single entities and the Psalter as a whole. More certain is that Cave’s words are to be seen as poems. Much modern music is poetry, with Dylan and Cohen providing ample evidence for such a claim. Here, Cave has made poetic intent unambiguous by using spoken word, rather than lyrics, along with the music. A key feature of Cave’s Seven Psalms is the centrality of figurative language. Much of the metaphor and imagery is biblical and connects with its source organically. Some is deliberately in tension with its origin. For example, whereas Psalm 84 celebrates that:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3, NIV

By contrast, in Cave’s sixth psalm—Such Things Should Never Happen—the baby sparrow dies, and the swallow only finds a nest after experiencing grief. Troubling yes, but an honest nod to the perplexities of theodicy and death amid the life of faith.

A third group of metaphors and images beg the question of whether Cave tries too hard with his figurative language. I will leave the listener to judge for themselves, but I found that after some initial jars these softened with repetition and reflection.

Terseness
The terseness of Hebrew poetry is generally acknowledged as part of its very nature. Translators have had to wrestle for some two thousand years with the degree to which this can and should be preserved. All seven songs here are terse and have a form like the songs to which to which they point. More specifically each of them can be broken into two or three strophes, each comprising four lines. They also can be understood as following another common feature of biblical poetry in that each strophe comprises two bicola with the second cola (B) furthering the first (A) in a diversity of ways. Here is an example from I Have Trembled My Way Deep:

A:    I have trembled my way deep into surrender.
B:    I have stretched my aching body across the world.

Note how the second cola enriches and furthers the first and the two together are more than the sum of the two parts. In this specific example we also see how poetic terseness provides openness and polyvalence. This bicola, like so much biblical psalmody, asks us ‘who is saying these words?’. The first psalm of this cycle—How Long Have I Waited—asks another perennial question from the psalms, ‘how long?’. Such repetitive motifs are actualised by their terseness and intertextuality. They are in a sense world-defining—tangibly demonstrating Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the biblical text is the word that redescribes the world.

Prayerful reflection
Another frequent refrain of the Psalter is the cry ‘have mercy on me?’. And this is the title of Cave’s second psalm. This confession of sin is either hyperbole on Cave’s lips or he is writing of the sins of a nation or a dictator. Or perhaps the words reflect our common guilt as fallen humanity. Here a mirror is held up to Psalm 137 as the psalmist confesses that they have ‘dashed the new-born upon the rocks’. In this confession, and throughout, Cave is continually and prayerfully reflective which is surely the raison d’être of the Psalter. The beauty of psalm-based reflection is for all the clarity there is also a huge measure of open intertextual allusion and word play.

Faithful Questioning
Of course, questioning the apparent injustice of the created order does not make songs into psalms nor an album into a Psalter. The stance of the psalmist is also key. These seven songs make this extra step in that the questioning apparently arises from faith and trust. We have already noted that the one addressed is Lord. There is also an underlying assumption that the questioned Lord will answer, if not now at some later date. These songs are a cry from the depths like Psalm 130. This is no pitiful unanswered cry of someone drowning but rather a call to one whose saving hand has been glimpsed reaching out. Psalm 42’s ‘deep calls to deep’ in I Come Alone to You and the prayer, ‘pierce me deep’ in I Have Trembled My Way Deep reveal a rich relationship in a play of words where the problem is transmuted into a solution as is so often experienced in earnest prayer.

Pilgrim Songs
Like the ancient Psalter these songs provide overall a firm, but at times an inchoate, glimpse into the journey of faith. These songs are rich with the motifs of pilgrimage. The words ‘way’ and ‘wandered’ are found in the titles of two of the songs. This is someone who knows they have yet to find their home:

I have wandered all my unending days.
Shuttered your shining aspect in the stars.
Hidden alleys and tramp broken highways.
With little in my pockets but my prayers.
Nick Cave, I Have Wandered All My Unending Days

Perhaps here the pocketed prayers are the biblical psalms? Like the richness of the Psalms, we should note that Cave’s responses are not only words of lament and introspection, but they are also songs of praise like the Pilgrim Psalms of the Psalter:

Splendour, Lord, oh glorious splendour.
The world explodes amazing at your hand.
Oh glory, Lord, oh splendouring wonder.
March together across this loud and wild land.
Nick Cave, Splendour, Glorious Splendour

Expectancy
Throughout the seven songs there is the attitude of the biblical psalmist, a faith seeking understanding. Questioning is normal, or even required, as we make our way through the life of faith. Whilst the journey is important it can only make sense when the goal is something understood. This comes across in Cave’s collection most clearly in the refrain to I Have Wandered All My Unending Days: ‘There is a mansion in the sky’. This might be an intentional reference to the song by The Brian Jamestown Massacre of the same name. Both Cave’s work and that of The Brain Jamestown Massacre refer to the Johannine Jesus’ claim that:

My Father’s house has many rooms . . .
John 14:2a, NIV

This goal of our pilgrim wandering helps cultivate the psalmist’s expectation which turns to an attitude of trust. Such a way of reading the life of faith helps us pray the psalms aright, as well as generate our own echoes of this school of prayer. I hope I have heard the Seven Psalms aright and Cave and I share the same road.

My Booklet on the Penitential Psalms

I am pleased to say that my Grove Book on the penitential psalms was published this week. It’s titled The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 and is available from Grove by clicking on this title. The booklet was written for the simple reason that after researching the penitential psalms for 3 years, or so, for a much larger project on the Psalms it became apparent that no modern short introduction to these seven psalms was in print. The closest I could find were fifty year old books, mentioned earlier on my blog: S is for the Sixties. The absence of a modern introduction to these psalms was all the more surprising given their immense important in Church history. Some of this puzzle is laid out in the book. This booklet is a great place to start to gain an appreciation of these seven psalms and their fascinating history, so as if to make use of them today. A number of previous posts here examine some specific aspects of these psalms in a rather more ad hoc manner. These can be found by clicking on the key phrase Penitential Psalms.

If you find the booklet interesting it would be helpful if you could let me know via the comments below. If you’d like to know more about these psalms or arrange a talk or retreat on them please get in touch via the ‘Who Am I?’ page.

Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

The Scorpion: Jesus in the Wilderness

This post is inspired by The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series. Here the painting is not a replacement for the Bible but rather a means to a fresh perspective on some aspects of Jesus preparing for his ministry. Given recent world events we don’t need to work hard to remember that all that we have here and now is always prone to becoming a wilderness. The riches of the gospel and our relationship with the living God are immense but the fullness of what Christ has done awaits the age to come.

The Scorpion is in some ways the most difficult of Spencer’s series as it prefigures the disturbing trajectory of the rest of Jesus’ life. For here we perceive a wilderness experience that starts in the literal wilderness and continues through a remarkable, yet short, ministry to Gethsemane and then the Cross.

The Scorpion points to a small number of biblical texts. In Luke 10:18–19 we read:

He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Luke 10:18–19, NIVUK

Spencer’s painting portrays a stark and empty place, but it is nevertheless a place where God’s creation can be found. Here creation is experienced as a scorpion rather than the more prosaic daisies in Consider the Lilies (another of the unfinished series of eight paintings).

The people of Jesus’ day already knew all too well that the wilderness was a place of scorpions and snakes. As it says in Deuteronomy:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
Deuteronomy 8:15, NIVUK

Scorpions are only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Both times by Luke. But they are mentioned occasionally outside the gospels. Sometimes they are literal and sometimes metaphorical. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, they are a metaphor for God’s rebellious people:

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.
Ezekiel 2:6, NIVUK

In Ezekiel the scorpions are first the people of God who would not listen to the prophet. The verse can also be understood as a prelude to Jesus, the Son of Man who came to minister to all mankind. Jesus holds the rebellious peoples of this world in hands just as certainly as he holds a scorpion in this painting.

Jesus in the quiet wilderness escapes people as he focuses for 40 days on his future ministry. He has taken leave of the figurative scorpions but finds the literal ones that nip and sting so painfully. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is bitter-sweet. Here he finds a closeness to his Father but a revelation of a difficult path yet to be trod. He encounters creation, from the sweetness of the flowers of the field to the bitterness of the stinging scorpion.

Jesus’ ministry would also be bitter-sweet—a ministry to the sick, the demon possessed, the lost and yet rejection by a rebellious people. Jesus came into a world that is a perpetual night despite the sun’s best efforts. He came into the world because it is the night.

The second of two gospel passages that mention scorpions is also found in Luke just one chapter on from the first:

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Luke 11:11–13, NIVUK

Surely a rhetorical question if ever there was one? Jesus’ point in Luke is that God will not give us something bad when we ask for something good. At first sight literal food seems to be the focus and it does follow on from the Lord’s prayer with its talk of daily bread. But then fish versus snake, and egg versus scorpion, dissolve into a promise of the gift of Holy Spirit.

In Luke 11 there can only be one answer as to whether God will give us an egg or a scorpion. But this is perhaps not the case in Jesus’ wilderness experience. There he is, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he has been sent not one but two scorpions. Perhaps he has even been stung? His hands look swollen.

Why would God the Father give Jesus a scorpion in his hour, or 960 hours, of need? Well, whatever actually happened in the desert is perhaps not Spencer’s only concern here. He probably has an eye on Gethsemane and the night when Jesus was betrayed. In that Garden Jesus knew that the ministry that had been discerned three years earlier in the wilderness was coming to its painful conclusion. His prayer crystallises the bittersweetness of the Son of Man’s actions for us:

‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
Luke 22:42, NIVUK

It is probably no coincidence that Jesus’ hands are cupped in the same manner that many receive communion wafers to this day—this is exactly how Stanley Spencer would have received it in his early years, in the army in Macedonia and in his later life in his beloved Cookham. For Christ in the painting, and the faithful communicant, this is a gesture of utter dependence on God. This is an expectant surrender and waiting for His gift of grace. Yet, Jesus received a scorpion that we might receive his body.

Whether or not Jesus’ hands are swollen by a scorpion’s sting—a foretaste of the literal pains of ministry to come—they look distinctive. It’s not that Spencer can’t paint hands it’s that he is making a point. Perhaps they are meant to look like a loaf of challah bread. Challah bread is a type of offering bread. Perhaps Spencer is reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life. Our cry to God gives us Jesus the bread of life who bore a scorpion for us.

For Spencer Jesus is going through the acutest form of the Dark Night of the Soul, a term for spiritual angst coined by St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish mystic. We—that is me and most readers of this blog—are more likely to experience a milder form amidst all our numbing distractions, something that Douglas Adams referred to as The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. Douglas Adams is ridiculing serious spirituality and yet there’s a sting in the tail when we remember what Jesus experienced for us and what some Christians elsewhere on the world experience for the sake of the gospel.

The experience of a scorpion and the sting of death was always going to be where Jesus’ ministry led. He probably discerned this as he prepared in those forty days. He certainly knew the time was close in Gethsemane. How else can the night brought on by humanity’s rebellion be dealt with? Jesus would know darkness that we might know light. Jesus would taste the sting of death that we might have life.

Darkness and night are, of course, a constant feature of the Passion. Just after Judas leaves the Last Supper we read:

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:30, NIVUK

Jesus’ trial was undertaken at night. In the crucifixion itself we have night intruding into the day:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
Mark 15:33-34

Finally at the resurrection the darkness and the night end:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John 20:1, NIVUK

 Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus on the cross, in accepting a scorpion, points to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another twentieth century work of art can help us perceive this remarkable gift. Here are the last verses of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem Station Isaland XI:

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

Further Reflection

Stephen Cottrell (2012), Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting On The Paintings By Stanley Spencer, SPCK Publishing.

A Review: Rachel Mann’s ‘Spectres of God’

Rachel Mann, Spectres of God: Theological Notes for an Age of Ghosts, My Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021

Rachel Mann writes as poet-priest in a short book which is one of fifteen in the new ‘My Theology’ series. These books can be read in a single sitting but might be better imbibed more slowly. Each of the fifteen authors presents their distinctive Christian journey and theological priorities. It might be tempting to pick the one from the fifteen closest to our own experience and church tradition. For me this would, I suspect, be Alister McGrath’s contribution which I have yet to read. I hoped to be stretched by Mann’s contribution.

Readers who know Mann will anticipate a complex journey providing fresh perspectives on the well-trodden path of the Great Tradition. They will also expect poetic and literary verve. Such readers will not be disappointed.

This reader was initially uncomfortable with the opening metaphor of spectres of God. This image pervades—dare I say haunts—every page of the book. My discomfort was rapidly dispelled, and it was soon clear that the metaphor provides an array of fresh vantage points. In short, Mann successfully illuminates our contemporary intellectual zeitgeist along with its attendant theological and cultural baggage.

Spectres of God has at its centre three chapters: 1. The Spectre of the Body, 2. The Spectre of Love and 3. The Spectre of Time. These are helpfully framed by a shorter Introduction and a Postscript. An Appendix points to numerous literary and theological companions that Mann has encountered on her journey.

The first spectre is the idealised body. This is unpacked and explained in a dialogical manner which the whole book employs. Mann explores how various types of idealised body are eclipsed by the mystery of Christ’s body. Central to this mystery is the resurrected perfect body par excellence that still bears the traumatic punctures of crucifixion.

The spectre of Love—deliberately capitalised—is that ideal love which is tantalisingly ever before us in this life. Again we have a pointer to mystery. The second chapter ends with love and body intertwined preparing us for the third of Mann’s ghostly transcendentals, time. The future is sketched as ‘layers of hauntology’. What Mann designates as the Third Day provides the teleological goal which can make sense of the experiences of living life in a perpetual night.

The spirit of these three chapters reminded me of a poetic vision from a very different perspective. Seamus Heaney in his Station Island XI grapples with his own spectres of God:

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Because it is the night, we should welcome Mann’s pointer to the mystery of how in an apparently disenchanted culture the spectres of God are all around us.