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.

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.

 

 

Book Review: ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church’ by Richard S. Briggs

Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church, Touchstone Texts, Baker Academic, 2001.

At the outset of this review, I am pleased to say that this is an engaging and delightfully readable book. Like all good guides Briggs ensures his company know precisely where they are at all times. Indeed, the whole enterprise is itself an echo of Psalm 23 as the reader is shepherded safely through Hebrew philology, metaphor, reception history, and theology.

Psalm 23 is arguably the Psalm of Psalms in the contemporary Western Church. Even to the unchurched its six verses are familiar from contexts as diverse as funeral liturgy to Howard Goodall’s setting of it as the theme tune for The Vicar of Dibley. As I was writing this review, it even had a round of its own in a seasonal episode of University Challenge! Such familiarity makes this psalm a fitting focus for this book which launches a new series examining touchstone biblical texts.

The generative nature of both Psalm 23 and its imagery is not only a central reason for its popularity it is also something of a problem for the guide—how can the journey be broken down into manageable steps? This challenge, and the way it is addressed, are explained in Chapter 1. Introduction: On Attending to Psalm 23. Much of the book comprises three longer central chapters which each examine one of three different, but intricately interconnected worlds: ‘behind’, ‘in’ and ‘in front of’ Psalm 23. This structure enables attention to the interpretive task without all the issues being brought to the fore at the same time. The subheadings of these three major chapters also reveal the logic of taking matters a step at a time as matters of background, exegesis and ministry are each explored in turn. This structure provides a sure path that avoids any risk of confusing detours.

In Chapter 2. The World behind Psalm 23 Briggs considers (i) what we can know about the author, (ii) who is speaking in the psalm, (iii) the relevance of shepherd imagery, and (iv) the significance of Psalm 23’s location in the Psalter. Briggs ably shows what we can know, and just as importantly what we cannot know, as he honestly establishes provisional answers. Chapter 3. The World in Psalm 23 is a verse-by-verse examination of the Hebrew text. Here Briggs is attentive to the full spectrum of his readers’ likely ability, and eagerness, to engage with the original language. By providing some optional sections and a short appendix there are effectively three ways to be guided through the psalm’s six verses depending on inclination and prior knowledge.

In Chapter 4. The World in Front of Psalm 23 Briggs moves to what he terms ministry—just how can this psalm can make a difference in the Church today? Having laid the necessary foundations in Chapters 2 and 3 this chapter examines four areas. As the connection of Psalm 23 to themes of rest, death, enemies and hope is examined, some key interlocuters contribute to what is a rich theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann, Jerome Creach, William Holladay, C. S. Lewis and Erich Zenger, for example, all help enliven the close of the journey. Indeed, so rich a table is prepared here that the reader is left in a quandary as to which overflowing cup might be taken to the congregation or small group. In fact, whilst Briggs does not specifically suggest it, I think this chapter—with support from elsewhere in the book— provides an excellent launch point for a four sermon series or fourfold set of teaching material.

The book closes with a wonderfully honest reflection on Hearing and Preaching Psalm 23 Today in the form of its fifth, and final, short chapter. This personal account somewhat paradoxically serves, as Briggs intends, to point firmally to this text in expectant anticipation that it can speak afresh today. The call—should we choose to accept it—is to do enough hard work that we can ‘get out of the way’ and enable others to hear the greatest shepherd of them all.

Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.