Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Reel Spirituality: My Top 10 ‘Theological’ Films

Top 10 lists can be rather self indulgent. And if you find them so you might want to skip this post! I am hoping, however, that this post might have some value in celebrating the role that good cinema can have on our personal spirituality. I am hoping that this post will inspire some dialogue—please comment below, politely please!

The films below are not ‘Christian films’—although a small number are meant to be religious, or spiritual, to some extent. They are films that have been made by people at the top of the cinematic game who want to shed light on the big issues of life, as well as no doubt having other motives too. Such films when viewed through our vision of Christ, and imagination informed by faith, have the potential to enrich our minds and hearts. Films can also be a tool for sharing our faith.

This is not a film review and I want to avoid spoilers, but some elements might be given away so please don’t read the supporting text if you are a purist and have not seen one of the films.

Number 10 on my list is The Thin Red Line. This film seems like a typical, albeit very good, war film at the start of viewing. It is towards the end of the film that events and words work to achieve a special depth and profundity. The film’s conclusion also makes sense of other earlier elements in the film. Even if you normally don’t watch war films why not give this one a go? Like many of the films below it does have some gritty aspects—these help root the film appropriately in the full horror that is war. I would recommend you check all of the film’s below in terms of their rating/classification before watching—I know not all Christians approve of various adult themes in cinema.

The next film, Of Gods and Men, is closely based an a true story. This adds to a sense of growing concern for the monks, who are centre stage, as you watch this film. It becomes increasingly apparent that there won’t be a classic happy ending. This film, like a number of others here, raises questions about the value of life and to what extent we stick with the calling that God makes on us in the face of extreme hostility.

Number eight on my list is a film that I find to be as beautiful as it is at times harrowing. It shows the gospel and the Church being worked out in South America. To my mind, it simultaneously celebrates the gospel whilst casting an immense shadow on some aspects of the Church as institution. The film also has one of the most remarkable portrayals of conversion to Christianity that I have ever seen on screen. Like all the films here it contains tears. In each film the tears are shed in different contexts. Here the tears are shed as awareness of sin comes home to someone who has trafficked uncountable people, and even killed his own half-brother.

Number 7 on the list, Silence, takes place at a similar time to The Mission. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away. What I can say, is that it is difficult to watch the terrible experiences that so many converts to Christianity experienced in Japan’s early years of engagement with Europeans. It raises profound questions about how to respond to religious persecution in its most life-threatening forms.

Signs is an unusual film. And it is one where it is important to play close attention to what’s going on right from the outset, otherwise the deeper aspects of the film will be missed. In particular the opening minute, or so, reveals key information about the main protagonist, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson.

Next, at five, on my list is Life is Beautiful. This film tackles the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century. Some viewers might find its handling of the subject matter of the horrors of the holocaust have overstepped a line. It is certainly vital to note that from the outset it claims to be ‘a parable’. Never has a film had a more bittersweet conclusion.

Less controversial is the next film on my list, Bladerunner. This film has become a cult film and I won’t get into the issues surrounding the existence of multiple versions of the film. I will however recommend the Director’s Cut for those who need to make a choice without wanting to investigate further. Like other films on this list the real (reel?) revelation occurs in the closing minutes. These closing minutes contain some of the most amazing dialogue in any science fiction film, as well as some less than subtle imagery. The philosophical questions explored in this film are also central to this film’s wonderful sequel, Bladerunner 2049.

Number 3, Gran Torino, is another film which seems to be something different at the outset than what it is later revealed to be. The film does have a lot of bad language, because of the realistic portrayal of one of the sub-cultures that it a key part of the film. The film has, in my view, one of the profoundest ends to any Hollywood film. When I watched this with one of my teenage son, last year, the closing credits felt like a religious experience.

I struggled to choose between the next two films and I’m having second thoughts even as I type. But a ‘joint first’ seemed inappropriate. Terrence Malick is the only director to appear twice on this list and I know he does not appeal to everyone. But please give this film a go if you haven’t seen it. It is a truly amazing film and is undeniably unique. It’s weakness, for some, is that the plot is difficult to piece together on the first viewing. Once the plot is pieced together it reveals an amazing and rich journey of faith. A faith journey as messy, complex, yet full of grace, as many of us in the audience can testify to.

A dialogue spoken at the beginning of the film is a vital lens through which to see the whole film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

My top choice proves to be a difficult film for some. It is certainly long, but not overly so for me. It has Tom Cruise playing a ill-spoken misogynist who make me cringe. Yet, this film is nothing less than biblical in some ways. Most obviously, all of the film’s many characters are united by an event straight from the Book of Exodus. Even the title is a deliberate play on the Latin term magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God—a reference to the God of Israel’s deeds in the exodus of his people from captivity in Egypt. At a more subtle level, the lives of the characters, like those of the Patriarchs, have repeating patterns. The film can be understood as a reflection on Providence, but of course its probably not quite what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind. Like number two on this list, The Tree of Life, this film is meant to be seen through the lens of an opening dialogue, After the portrayal of some remarkably unbelievable stories the narrator concludes:

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things”. . . This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. . . These strange things happen all the time . . .

In faith, of course, such words connect with us with the central faith and hope we have in Christ.

Please feel free to disagree and offer your own suggestions below.

Already I’m concerned that I’ve found no place for A Hidden Life . . .

Beautiful Lord: An Advent Reflection on Revelation 1:12‒18

What is Beauty?

Beauty tends to be something that is peripheral to Western society and culture today. At least that is my view. When things are marginal there is a danger that they are neglected. Worse still, in an age of soundbites we might define important things by a short saying or an aphorism.

In the past Beauty was a central concept within Christian Theology. It was joined by Goodness and Truth. Some theologians organised their whole theology around these three. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called urgently for a need to reclaim beauty in our theology and thinking. His stark claim that instigated a multi-decade project is worth a lengthy quotation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form

I want to speak positively about Beauty. But this positivity is in the context of the danger posed by Western culture. The values of our culture in practice are:

  • Post-goodness—morality based on any absolutes is under attack. Only a shallow concept of rights exists.
  • Post-truth—politics has become so cynical that plain untruths are said and the electorate are, either powerless to change this or collude with it.
  • Post-beauty—advertising tells us what is beautiful.

When it comes to beauty there is no shortage of sayings that spring to mind. Two in particular pervade Western culture:

  1. Beauty is only skin deep. Sir Thomas Overbury is the first person known to have used this in print, in his poem A Wife (1613). She was probably less than impressed.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has been used in many forms and its origin is obscure. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford first used in this form in her novel Molly Bawn (1878).

Whilst both have some value, the latter’s potential to deny absolute beauty is problematic for a Christian Theology of beauty.

The Bible and Beauty

A typical English translation of the Bible does not have many Hebrew and Greek words translated as beauty. For example, the New International Version has 71 occurrences of Beautiful and 33 of Beauty. Most of these uses of the two words refer to physical human beauty. The first usage in the Bible has this meaning:

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)

Around 20% of the uses of beauty and beautiful occur in the erotic love poem Song of Songs and relate to physical beauty. But this in itself tells as something further about God. Song of Songs is an erotic love poem but its place in the Bible has as much to do with how it tells of God’s love for his people and the love of his people for him.

We are meant to find God beautiful just as he recognises the beauty of his people perfected in Christ.

Some uses of the words beauty and beautiful refer to the importance of an inner beauty, picking up on beauty being ‘only skin deep’. In Ezekiel 16 we find almost 10% of all Bible uses of the words beauty and beautiful. It is imagery about the beauty of God’s people and how as God’s beloved they looked for another lover. The inference is that their beauty should have been more than skin deep—the beauty of God’s people lies in who they are in God.

Some of these words from Ezekiel use imagery which is coherent with what God has done for us in Christ:

“‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewellery: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel 16:914 (NIV)

In the New Testament, Peter, being a fisherman points out the relationship between inner and outer beauty more succinctly:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:34 (NIV)

I am reminded of the words of the humble hobbit gardener, Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings:

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Very few, if any, of the occurrences of beauty and beautiful (in most English Bible translations) refer to creation. In an exception, Ezekiel 31:9 one of the trees of Eden is referred to as beautiful, surpassing all the other trees. So exceptional is this usage that it proves the rule. A few uses of these two words refer to God, for example:

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

Psalm 50:2‒3 (NIV)

Glory

So how can beauty be a central biblical concept if when reading Scripture we find the semantic range refers largely to physical appearance with only an occasional acknowledgement that inner beauty is more important?

What of the beauty of God?

What of the beauty of creation?

We have a different word in English that overlaps with beauty. A word that translates the Hebrew word, kavod. This word captures the idea of being heavy—of having serious substance or great importance. It is often translated heart—literally liver in Hebrew, the liver being the heaviest and therefore most important organ—as the most important part of somebody.

Glory, comes into its own as the tangible importance and greatness of God; it goes beyond the visibility of beauty into beautiful presence and beautiful physicality. My favourite example is Psalm 24 where it is intertwined with Yahweh’s kingship, strength and might:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24: 710 (NIV)

The Beauty of God

In the Book of Revelation John the Elder, describes his encounter with Christ. Like all of this remarkable book it is written in the symbolic language of apocalyptic—a rich poetic way to describe things beyond the everyday. His description of Christ can sound reminiscent of the unhelpful ‘old man on a cloud’ view of God, for example, hair like white wool, but when understood as imagery it becomes much richer.

One day we too will each encounter the living Christ as he judges all of creation ahead of the renewal of heaven and earth. Unlike John’s vision ours will be a full encounter with the beautiful resurrected Christ.

Isaiah described the suffering servant in this way:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

The risen Jesus is not just beautiful he is full of majesty and glory. Perhaps like John our encounter with Jesus will make us fall to the ground as though dead.

The vision of John portrays Jesus Christ among his Church, the seven lamp stands. He is living and active in our midst when we gather.

His clothes are those of a priest. The ultimate priest who enables us to come before the living God. A priest, who as a sacrifice without beauty, makes us beautiful before the Father.

For this beautiful figure is not just the risen Jesus. He is the Christ. Not just Son of Man, but one like a Son of Man. Now shown to be God himself in resurrection glory. Lest we be in any doubt, we see his hair, white like wool, white like snow—this is the ancient of days, the God of Israel.

Through the cross and resurrection his purity and holiness have been found perfect—we can see this as his feet glow like bronze in a furnace.

Like his Father before him his spoken word is like the sound of rushing water—a sound so loud that it silences everything else. His spoken word is inflected by a tongue like a double-edged sword.

In this way he judges all. Those made clean by his priestly sacrifice will withstand this judgement, being found pure like him. His beauty and glory given to them as a free and gracious gift. And because of this his people can stand before him bathed in the light shining from his face; illuminated not blinded, warmed not consumed.

One day we will know the very touch of the living Christ. He will declare to us that we need not fear, he has led the way into God’s beautiful presence. He was First, there with God in the beginning. He is Last, in that he has restored the creation broken by the sin of Adam. In a sense he became Adam but he did not stray. In resurrection he makes an end to Adam’s sin. He is the Living One—not just the resurrected Jesus but the Living God Yahweh. God of Israel and God of all the redeemed of mankind.

He was dead just as we will die, but he is alive, just as we too shall be made alive in him. He holds the keys of both death and Hades. As his followers we have no need to fear death or Hades.

Please see Malcolm Guite’s O Rex Gentium which provides an appropriate reflective prayer.