Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.

IMG_3958

After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

O is for Old Testament

A few posts ago the term Hebrew Bible was explored with a view to appreciating why the label is more than just an alternative to the Christian term of ‘Old Testament’. In this post the idea that the existence of the Old Testament can be understood as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible is considered. In order to appreciate this idea two other points need to be introduced:

  1. The relationship between a community and its authoritative texts will be outlined.
  2. The idea of re-reading will be considered and shown to have been part of the Hebrew Bible before there ever was an Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible was not handed down from heaven although the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were written by God, according to Deuteronomy 5:22.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible is the result of selecting texts and by corollary not choosing others.

In recent times, scholars have given a lot of attention to how a religious community arrives at an authoritative set of texts that they know as Scripture. With the Hebrew Bible there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the texts of the Hebrew Bible grew gradually over time. This is not just about adding books one-by-one, but even some of the books went through a process of addition and editing. Critical scholarship has attempted to discern the earlier literary units of biblical texts (source criticism) and the work of those who combined sources and edited them (redaction criticism). Much of these efforts are today viewed with some scepticism. This is not to suggest that such things did not happen, but rather the hope of unpicking such a complex literary history with any certainty is unrealistic. Even if earlier texts could be recovered and later additions identified, it is far from clear what a Jewish or Christian believer would do with such information. Whilst, such scholarship is of interest for historical, religious and cultural reasons, those who believe these texts have abiding religious significance look to the texts in their final form. In the last two decades, scholarship has also tended to focus on the received text too.

Despite this focus on the final form of such texts, it is still necessary to see how the text could have been read differently over time. This change in understanding and significance of a text can be termed re-reading. Psalm 2 provides an interesting example. It can be quite instructive to imagine an enthronement ceremony in which the various sections of this psalm were read by different people as part of a ritual act. That such a use was the origin of this psalm is especially clear in sentences like these:

“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”  
(verse 6)

And

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
(verse 7)

When we consider that this psalm was collected and preserved as part of a collection of praises, i.e. songs used in wider contexts of worship, it can be appreciated that its original reading cannot have been fossilised. A sobering way to reflect on this is to imagine what singing this as a song would have meant in a time after the Fall of Jerusalem when there was no king at all, let alone one with the full power and majesty of God behind him. In this way the collection and later use of Psalms, and other texts too, means that they are read in a new context. It can be argued that it is likely that texts that can be re-read are more likely to be preserved as their current value is more evident.

This idea means that the jump from Hebrew Bible to Old Testament is nothing like the giant leap that might otherwise be imagined. Psalm 2 is again a case in point as four stages in re-reading can be discerned, from the perspective of Christian faith:

  • Living liturgy for the coronation of a new king.
  • Historical liturgy remembering God’s promises of old.
  • Prophetic word regarding a messiah (anointed one) who will come from the line of David to restore the nation.
  • Christological statement fulfilled in part by Christ’s incarnation and to be completed at his second coming.

In this way a Christian reading of Psalm 2 is a continuation of a trajectory begun during its selection, editing and inclusion in the Psalter. This can be a useful perspective in understanding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

Psalmtweets 21-30

The third of the new psalmtweets posts. These tweets are part of a set of 150 which aim to define the Psalter with a contribution from each psalm.

Psalm 21:
The Psalms often speak of the King.
These words have taken on new significance in Christ.

Psalm 22:
The Psalms show how desperate need should be turned into desperate prayer.

Psalm 23:
The Psalms are elastic; their words become Word in diverse situations.

Psalm 24:
The Psalms are a prequel to the Gospel; let Jesus the King of glory in.

Psalm 25:
The Psalms tell us that though we walk with God we also have to wait on Him.

Psalm 26:
The Psalms show us the centrality of gathered community worship in the life of faith.

Psalm 27:
The Psalms emphasise that we can dwell with the living God, our sanctuary.

Psalm 28:
The Psalms reveal that Yahweh is a rock, but that He is not silent.
#PsalmMetaphors

Psalm 29:
The Psalms instruct us about God’s word and its power.

Psalm 30:
The Psalms show us that continual thankfulness is a central plank of the life of faith.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 3

In this 3rd post we examine the first of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

Is Gutiérrez’s Biblical Interpretation Legitimate?

As Vanhoozer reminds us: ‘Perhaps no twentieth-century philosophers have done more on behalf of hermeneutics than Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur’.[1] Both are inextricably linked to the modern paradigm of the hermeneutical circle. Gutiérrez like many liberation theologians accepts the central premise of the hermeneutical circle.[2] For Gutiérrez, as for Gadamer and Ricoeur, the interpretation of the Bible is not a neutral or objective process. Throughout his work Gutiérrez not only acknowledges that we inevitably read from a place of preunderstanding but he argues that there is a need to actively cultivate the correct preunderstanding. Gutiérrez, as we have seen, privileges the experience of the poor for this task.[3]

Segundo is perhaps the most prominent Latin American proponent of the hermeneutical circle and he gives a fuller treatment of it than most other contextual theologians.[4] The hermeneutical circle is however commonly explicit, and always implicit, in all contextual and materialist theologies.[5] Having noted this use of the hermeneutical circle we can usefully enquire how critically it is used. Interestingly, Gutiérrez and others who employ the idea of the hermeneutical circle do so, I would suggest, in an ideological sense. What I mean by this is that they note that the starting point of a commitment to the poor is confirmed when the Bible is read in this light. They argue correctly that when reading from this commitment many biblical passages take on new depth and even fundamentally different meanings. That this is true is readily apparent but this does not offer proof of the legitimate hegemony of such readings. It is clearly the case that liberation theology in general, and Gutiérrez’s specifically, gives rise to readings that are at odds to those starting from other stances. That this is the case can be seen from the hostility between some Latin American theologians and the Vatican.[6]

This is not to say that the hermeneutical circle is not a valuable tool in evaluating the legitimacy of a reading of a scriptural text. Rather I am suggesting that it must be used in an open and self-critical way. Used in this way the hermeneutical circle can question initial presuppositions. Gadamer who made a large contribution to the modern understanding of the hermeneutical circle as involving the fusing of horizons is frequently misunderstood on this point.[7] What Gadamer was not advocating was the hasty identification of parallels between text and modern context, though that this frequently happens is of course true. That this happens in the sorts of contexts that Gutiérrez ministers in is also true. The sort of biblical interpretation that takes place in the base ecclesial communities often represents a premature fusing of horizons as any initial parallels between text and context are seized upon.[8]

For Gadamer, understanding (rather than preunderstanding restated) takes place when horizons are fused which had previously been appreciated as distinct from one another.[9] An example would be the Exodus story. Someone who was part of an oppressed community, effectively enslaved to a privileged ruling class who reads of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, might naturally and uncritically make a hasty fusion of horizons. This would be what we might call a naïve reading, i.e. a level of identification such that an expectation of the immanent intervention of God miraculously to liberate looks like the corollary of the Exodus story. A more critical examination of the story will raise other themes which don’t connect so obviously with the reader’s context. Questions like how does this fit into Yahweh’s relationship with his chosen nation? Why did Israel experience a distinct lack of liberation for such lengthy periods of biblical history? It can be noted just as appositely that a Western, middle-class, evangelical reading is all too likely to yield an understanding (in fact a reflected preunderstanding) consistent with the story being typological and speaking only about salvation of the soul.

The point is that there is always a very serious danger of a hasty fusion of horizons which gives back the preunderstanding that was put in. What can be absent from both liberation theology and some Western readings is two aspects of what Barth called the Sache of Scripture.[10] There are two serious dangers that face the reader of Scripture, both of which violate the very notion that the Bible is Scripture:

  1. By placing something in front of it, whether this is an ideological commitment (however apparently laudable), a key text or doctrine, i.e. a canon-within-the-canon[11] we get the same thing reflected back. We read something of our context in Scripture rather than allowing it to read us.[12]
  2. A prior commitment perceives an order to Scripture which is just not there. There is every danger that we constrain Scripture so that it is no longer the strange world that Barth refers to.[13] This complexity and dialogical nature of scripture is seen in much contemporary scholarship.[14] If we miss this reality of Scripture we hear it only selectively.

[1] Vanhoozer, Meaning, p.106.

[2] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology, p.26

[3] So, for example, in Gutiérrez, Task, pp.25-27, Gutiérrez, Wells, pp.30-32 and Gutiérrez, Power, pp.156-160.

[4] See Segundo, Theology, pp.7-38.

[5] Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man is a good example, see Myers, Binding, pp.4-5.

[6] See Hebblethwaite, Catholic, p.186.

[7] So Thiselton, New, p.412 and his strong criticism of Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.22.

[8] See, for example, Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.14.

[9] Gadamer, Method, p.305.

[10] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-84.

[11] See Goldingay, Authority, pp.122-127 on the concept of a canon-within-the-canon.

[12] On the idea of Scripture reading us see Vanhoozer, Meaning, pp.405ff. and Thiselton, Hermeneutics, pp.8ff. on active texts.

[13] Barth, Word, pp.28-50.

[14] For example this is seen in two major contributions to Old Testament theology. Brueggemann, Theology, pp.xv-xvii argues for a dialogical approach to the Old Testament.

 

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 2

In this second post we identify and explore 4 key principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality.

Principle One: The Use of Key Biblical Texts as Paradigmatic for Socio-Political Liberation

Escobar’s observation is surely correct, although somewhat polemical: ‘the Vatican II Council brought to Roman Catholicism the novelty of placing Scripture back at the heart of the theological task; the new theologies added the novelty of placing Scripture “from the underside”’.[1] In this way the agenda of Vatican II gave Latin American theologians the impetus to shape a movement. This impetus came from a new openness to socio-political issues as a context in which the Bible was being read by those who judged they were on the bad side of the socio-economic divide. Thus liberation theology has famously taken biblical texts and read them in ways that challenge traditional Western readings.

The Exodus narrative is arguably the most important text in this enterprise of reading ‘from below’. This is evident throughout Gutiérrez’s work and nowhere more so than in his A Theology of Liberation where it is central to his argument that liberation and salvation are intimately related to one another.[2] Gutiérrez’s biblical interpretation is not just concerned with an understanding of how God intervenes in history but with broader principles such as how we can speak about God. This theme is handled in a book which is a self-consistent and stimulating rereading of the book of Job.[3]

Principle Two: Solidarity with the Poor

We shall see that, for Gutiérrez, (re)reading Scripture relates very closely with this second key principle. The key hermeneutical underpinning of the readings of both Gutiérrez and the wider liberation theology movement is seeing the Bible from the perspective of the poor. The idea of solidarity with the poor is the key point of departure in Gutiérrez’s work;[4] it consistently pervades almost every page of his writings. It is also at the very centre of his book on spirituality, We Drink From Our Own Wells, whose title is a quote from Bernard of Clairvaux’s De consideratione. For Gutiérrez, the well from which we need to drink is the experience of the poor.[5] In Gutiérrez’s own words a practice of solidarity with the poor is ‘a profound and demanding spiritual experience and serves as the point of departure for following Jesus and for reflection on his words and deeds’.[6]

We note at this point that a hermeneutical principle has  power to both illuminate, and potentially constrain, our reflection on both the Bible and the world.

Principle Three: The Use of Socio-Critical Tools for Critical Thinking

Liberation Theology has consistently been accused of being synonymous with Marxism. Perhaps in some quarters such a simple equation would be fair. For Gutiérrez, however, as for the majority of Liberation Theologians, the indebtedness to Marx is strong but nuanced. We shall see that it is the socio-critical tools that Marx popularised and their use in what Gutiérrez terms critical thinking[7] that we need to assess and evaluate carefully. Gutiérrez makes use of other thinkers, in addition to Marx, who are sometimes considered to promote ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, including, for example Bloch and Freud.[8] We will need to consider whether such advocates of suspicion can also be self-critical.

Principle Four: A Realised View of Eschatology

The fourth and final principle is that of a realised view of eschatology. This connects with and, I suggest, develops Gutiérrez’s use socio-critical tools. Gutiérrez makes much of Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach especially the element cited at the beginning of Part 1 (previous post).[9] Thus for Gutiérrez there is a sense in which this age, is an age in which the kingdom can be grown by the effort of God’s people, what he calls ‘a favourable time, a kairos’.[10] Gutiérrez goes even further in arguing that Western theology has let down the poor by upholding a status quo in which heaven is awaited rather than socio-political change sought now.

The next post (part 3) will begin the task of examining and critiquing each of these four principles in turn.

[1] Escobar, Liberation, p.454.

[2] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.151-158.

[3] Gutiérrez, Job, passim.

[4] For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.1, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.1 and Gutiérrez, Job, p.xiv.

[5] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.5.

[6] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.38.

[7] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.47-59.

[8] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology pp.201-202 and pp.69-70 respectively.

[9] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.68,201-205.

[10] Gutiérrez, Wells, p.20.

Musing on Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation

Over the next few weeks I will be posting a short article each week on hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. My interest in the Psalms is part of a broader interest in hermeneutics, so it is not a radical departure from what has gone before. But why a focus on hermeneutics? There are so many issues facing the Church today that require wise principles of biblical interpretation. If we want to understand Scripture for today, and to understand why we don’t always understand it to mean the same as other Christians, we need to be intentional in understanding our own hermeneutics and the interpretive principles of others.

My musings will in no way be a course in hermeneutics, nor will they look systematic in any sense. They will however, I hope, make a small contribution to helping those who read them be more intentional in reading Scripture.

The first handful of posts will reflect on the spirituality of a well-known Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Having read his major works, and some of the other work of Liberation Theologians, I did not become a Liberation Theologian myself. What did happen instead was that my eyes were opened to how theology and doctrine can be shaped by culture. Reading from a whole new perspective or world-view, challenges how much of our own beliefs, attitudes and hermeneutics are shaped not by Scripture but by history, culture and short-shortsightedness. Liberation Theology is no longer fashionable but its advocates are a wonderful resource in avoiding the very worst of modern heresies, gospels of prosperity. Among new movements and established denominations alike, these rivals to the true gospel of cross-carrying discipleship are often lurking. Sometimes they are all too visible. This is the case in different ways in South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

If the project unfolds as I imagine, we will end up back at the Psalter with new insights into its efficacy and vitality as transformative Scripture.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 2: David

In part 1 of this post we explored the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs. We noted that this threefold identity had more to do with their function than their context. Although it was clear that using the psalms as poems, prayers and songs requires some answers to the question of the context/s in which they were originally used. In this second part we turn more explicitly to the question of context. We will look firstly at David as a lens, or context, for understanding and interpreting the Psalms.

The Psalms of David
There can be no denial that the Psalms are in some sense Davidic. Quite what we mean by this is much more complex and potentially a matter over which Christians might differ. Some 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are headed as being ‘of David’. This is enough to make the importance of David clear. The precise significance of the designation, ‘of David’ is, however, far from clear. The Hebrew preposition so often translated ‘of’ can mean anything along the lines of: ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘referring to’, ‘belonging to’ as well as ‘of’. It has often been taken to simply imply that David was the author of these specific psalms, but the term need not imply authorship. It might be that they are in some sense dedicated to him, perhaps because of authorship by a particular school of authors. Many Christians of a more conservative background seem keen to hold onto Davidic authorship of the Psalms. Even if we see these 73 psalms as being authored by David, we must face the fact that many of the other psalms have other attributions (and thus possibly authorship) and some have none. Psalms ascribed in some sense to others are:

The Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
Asaph: 50 and 73-83.
Solomon: 72 and 127.
Heman the Ezrahite: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite: 89.
Moses: 90.

Psalm 88 is unusual in having a dual attribution to the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite.

We can also see that many psalms date from much later than the time of David, in terms of both their language and the events which are referred to or implied. Most notable is the shadow cast over the Psalter by the exile, and thus the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Nevertheless David plays a unique and central role in that some of the psalms are specifically tied to events in his life by the use of biographical details, for example psalms 3, 7, 18, etc. Many scholars have argued, however, that such ascriptions are the later additions of editors. Without attempting to establish too precise a demarcation of the meaning of ‘of David’ or deciding upon whether and how many canonical psalms David authored, there are two key points which I think are not controversial.

Point 1: The Psalter is in a very real sense Davidic in its canonical form.
Many psalms take on a whole new life when they are read as if David is either the author or the person saying the psalm. Many of the psalms of lament focused on an individual make sense through this lens. We need get no further than psalm 3:1 to see this, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me’. The so-called Royal Psalms reflect on David and the Davidic line. In short the Psalter can make no sense without David.

Point 2: Seeing David as author cannot make full sense of the Psalter.
There are many reasons why seeing the Psalter through David as a ‘context’, or lens, cannot be all-encompassing. Not least of these is the post-Easter perspective through which Christians understand the Psalms. Using Jesus as an interpretive lens is examined in part 3. There we shall see that, whilst such a lens was alien to the original Jewish Psalter, Jesus the Messiah is naturally coherent with the Davidic lens we have just explored.

On Singing New Songs

Anyone who spends time reading the Psalms will notice the common refrain to sing a new song to the Lord. There are six occurrences of this exhortation in six individual psalms. In all but one case (psalm 144) it either opens the psalm or is a central part of the psalm’s opening. All six occurrences are reproduced, from the ESV, below:

Psalm 33:1-3
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 40:1-3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 96:1-3
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

Psalm 98:1-2
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 144:9-10
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
who gives victory to kings,
who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.

Psalm 149:1-3
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

Psalm 33 is often classified as a hymn. It is a straightforward call to praise Yahweh for both who he is and what he has done. It is, in Brueggemann’s terms, very much a psalm of orientation-the psalmist is in a place of equilibrium where all is well in the life of the psalmist and in their relationship with God. Psalm 40 is a more complex psalm. The opening reflects on an occasion when the psalmist found a new place of orientation from a place of disorientation (the miry bog). So already from these two uses of ‘new songs’ we see that it is appropriate in the context of the steady life of faith or in moments of more extreme experience where life has been transformed.

Psalm 96, like psalm 33, is a hymn, a call to celebrate Yahweh’s person and deeds from a place of communal certainty in the truths being proclaimed. Similarly, psalm 98 is also a hymn focusing on Yahweh’s salvation of Israel and his future righteous judgement of the world. Psalm 144 and 149 are also both hymns, although the former is perhaps not fully a song of orientation as it seems to look forward to singing a new song at a later date, rather than actually doing so (see verse 11).

Many readers, singers and scholars of the Psalms will simply see these references to new songs as a poetic way for the author to refer to his action in writing a psalm. The reason behind the need for a new song has variously been connected with a festival or military victory. Psalms 144 and 149 especially seem to have something of this militaristic feel about them. Either or both of these occasional needs might well be the inspiration for a new song. However, I want to suggest we might be missing the point if we assume that a new song is primarily a matter of novelty within the psalm itself. Many of us live in a culture where new songs appear weekly and even in popular Western Christian culture there is an industry of musical innovation. Perhaps some of those in this industry might even claim a biblical mandate of promoting new songs! I want to suggest that this is not what singing a new song is about. Rather singing a new song is more about the act of being in a new place before God. Whether it is about military victory for a king or the nation, an individual’s recovery from illness (the miry bog?) or recognition of God doing some other new work, this is the focus not the novel words of praise and song that follow.

How do I come to this view? The first piece of information supporting this view is something peculiar about psalm 96. After reading its threefold exhortation to sing a new song to Yahweh, the reader (or perhaps more aptly, the singer) expects something fresh and innovative. What else might a new song be? Psalm 96 is remarkable for the way in which it is anything but a new song. It is a hodgepodge of verses and ideas from other psalms. As Robert Alter puts it:
‘In point of fact, it is a weaving together of phrases and whole lines that appear elsewhere.’

This lack of originality or innovation is not a failure, rather it is precisely the point of a new song – it is newly composed, but informed by what has been there all along.

This alone is rather minimal evidence. In addition to this reuse or recycling (or in more scholarly terms, Midrash), the Psalter contains some other examples of psalm reuse. The two most obvious and extensive cases are:

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical to each other.
2. Psalm 108 combines large parts of psalms 57 and 60 (verses 2-6 strongly parallel 57:8-12 and verses 7-14 are virtually identical to 60:6-14).

These canonised examples of reuse encourage us to do the same. On the basis of Psalm 96 being anything but a new song in terms of originality and the two examples above, I suggest that the Psalter encourages us to sing and pray new songs; songs and prayers reflecting newness before God, whose words are informed by the Psalms themselves. I am not suggesting that all songs and prayers will simply be a mishmash of psalm verses. Rather I am hoping that we can see that the canon itself demonstrates that the Psalter is a vocabulary and resource for our prayers and worship, not a rigid ruleset. In this way the Psalter is instructional as psalm 1 indicates. Importantly this vocabulary goes beyond just the words to the experiences of the life of faith that underpin them. We are not meant to construct new songs which are just a one-dimensional pastiche of the bits of the Psalter we like. Let’s sing new songs which reflect the movements of the life of faith as we experience all of its offerings of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Robert Alter (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton.

From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, editor: Brent A. Strawn, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

This book is Brueggemann at his very best. Earlier this year I was disappointed with his long-awaited commentary on the Psalms, but this tome surpassed expectation. What makes this book so exciting is that it manages to be scholarly as well as approachable, engaging and lively. This makes for such a potent combination that the book defies easy classification in terms of its audience. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think through what the Psalms are, and how they should be used holistically in worshipping communities. It is the latter concern that is at the forefront of Brueggemann’s thinking and passion.

Arguably, Walter Brueggemann’s most significant contribution to Psalms scholarship is his famous essay: The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A suggested Typology of Function. This essay is helpfully reproduced in an appendix. Readers new to Brueggemann on the Psalms might profitably start here. Although they should note that the rest of the book is a less demanding read in terms of the necessary scholarly background.

Whilst every chapter of the book is engagingly written and profitable in understanding various facets of the Psalter, the first two chapters are especially insightful. Both of these opening chapters covers a lot of ground. Chapter 1 is an Introduction to the Book of Psalms. The chapter opens with a masterful definition of the Book of Psalms, which the chapter first unpacks and then explores. I quote the definition here, to wet the appetite:

‘The book of Psalms, complex in its formation and pluralistic in its content, is Israel’s highly stylised, normative script for dialogical covenantalism, designed for many “reperformances”‘.

In this opening chapter, the emotional extremes of lament and praise are explored. Brueggemann argues that these two extremities of emotion, which are affirmed by the Psalms, ensure that faith cannot become either ‘rigorously moralistic, on the one hand’ or narcissistic on the other. This conviction of the Psalms’ transformative capacity typifies Brueggemann’s conviction as to their ongoing efficacy.

The second, and longer chapter, echoes the claims of Karl Barth and his ‘Strange New World of the Bible’. Brueggemann argues that the Psalms provide a counter-world to the world that others present to us. He works this out by suggesting seven underlying tenets of our ‘closely held world’. Those familiar with Brueggeman’s work will not be surprised at the issues highlighted here or the inherent critique of what might be termed Western values (my phrase). The second half of the chapter presents seven claims of the Psalms, which are variously a counter, antidote and denial of the seven worldly myths. The existence of this counter-world is reason enough to make time for the Psalms in their entirety.

The other fourteen chapters are an eclectic mix, and yet despite the fact that this is an edited collection it has cohesiveness in style and content. Throughout the whole collection, the same passion for hearing all the Psalms, and embracing their challenge and complexity is displayed. Although Brueggemann rarely refers directly to his orientation, disorientation and reorientation paradigm, of the Appendix, its consequences are there throughout.

Particular highlights include:

1. How Brueggemann brings the Enthronement Psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98 and 99) to life, something which traditional form criticism often fails to do.
2. An honest assessment of both the ‘glad’ and the ‘sad’ psalms on Jerusalem, showing that an appreciation of these competing dynamics prevents any naivety concerning modern Jerusalem.
3. An exciting proposal to reclaim psalm 137 for use in worship in a chapter on the Rhetoric of Violence.

I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who who wants to engage with the Psalms seriously with a view to using all of them in worship. The book does assume some familiarity with theological ideas and terminology but is less technical than Brueggemann’s previous collection of Essays on the Psalms (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller). Whether you read this book, or not, do make sure you enter the counter-world of the Psalms.