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

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

B is for Bones

Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV

The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.

Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV

In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV

The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV

What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.

Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.

George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems to lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate that already found in the two testaments.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Herbert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalm-like trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it is redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and his place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

The Gospel of Eve: A Novel by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of The Gospel of Eve. It is set in Littlemore Theological College, a fictional Anglican seminary just outside Oxford. The story takes place in the late 1990s, but it is narrated by Catherine Bolton in the present. Kitty, as she is known by her friends, joined Littlemore after completing a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Lancaster. The story concerns the first few months of Kitty’s time at the college and her relationship with five fellow ordinands, including the almost titular Evie. The apparent suicide of Evie is revealed in the first line of the prologue. Right from the outset the reader knows that her death not only drives the narrative but that this terrible event has ongoing consequences for Kitty.

This review will not give away anything further concerning the plot—this is vital, as one of the delights of this novel is that as it unfolds the reader must continually adjust their assessment of where the narrative will take them. The Gospel of Eve is beautifully written. College life and the broader context of Oxford are both captured with engaging effortlessness. It is a small detail—and difficult to explain—but Mann has a real gift for naming characters, contributing to the ease with which the minor players crystallise in their respective roles. The main characters are thoroughly three-dimensional in their complexity. There is not so much character development, as a chapter-by-chapter revelation of who they are. All of this works to make the central, and it must be said remarkable, plot development credible.

So much for the form, what of the content? Whilst this is certainly a novel that can just be read as an engaging page-turner it offers rather more than this. Barely below the surface lie the serious challenges posed by human frailty, all brought to life in what can only be described as a rich intertextuality. There are literary connections to theology, Church history, famous literary Oxfordians, and Dostoevsky. The religious literature of the Middle Ages occupies pride of place, and it functions on a number of levels. The three parts of the book each open with a short quote from medieval literature, and we soon realise that the frequent mention of the likes of Piers Plowman, Margery Kempe and Chaucer are not just incidental details of Kitty’s life. The love of literature is felt profoundly throughout, only to intensify in the story’s denouement. The most impressive aspect of this prevalent intertextuality is that there is no artifice only effortless flowing prose.

If the intertextual insights cast light it is all too often on the darkness of human aspiration and desire. All the characters in the story have embarked on laudable quests. For Kitty and her friends this is the wish to become closer to God and to minister to others. Indeed, at times, they come across as set apart from the rest of the college in their priestly calling. In the case of Professor Albertus Loewe, a donnish key influence on the six ordinands, his task is the formation of the next generation of clergy which includes the inculcation of a love of religious literature. Yet, we find that these positive pursuits are all, without exception, tainted in very different ways by the hardening of virtue with human obsession. This novel offers no simple answers to the human condition. What good novel does? Instead the reader has to decide for themselves what to make of the rich interplay between the story of the first Eve, the fate of Evie, and the lives of so many other Eves.

 

Children and Heirs of God

A reflection on Psalm 148, Luke 2:36–40 and Galatians 4:4–7.

Anna the daughter of Phanuel makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, in what we call the Christmas story. Only here in Luke’s gospel do we meet her and get the briefest insight into who she is. One of the remarkable things we find out, in this small window on the life of a widow, is that she lived in lockdown.

For us lockdown has mostly, perhaps entirely, negative connotations. Being stuck largely within the confines of a single building with all the freedoms we normally taken for granted removed is painfully restrictive. Unlike us, Anna chose lockdown. Perhaps her humble circumstances as a widow helped her make the choice. Perhaps she just wanted a life of devotion to the living God of Israel.

Her confines were larger than ours—the parts of the temple complex she was allowed in were a lot bigger than a typical modern house and garden. Nevertheless, choosing such confinement seems odd to us. In church history others have followed Anna’s lead. There have been countless individuals and communities who have renounced normality, if there is such a thing. Many have chosen lockdown, or confinement in one place.

Julian of Norwich is possibly the most famous example. She lived in a single room within a Parish church (now St. Julian’s Church) for more than 20 years, until her death around 1416. She was what is known as an anchorite —someone so anchored to Christ that they choose to anchor themselves to a single place as an act of extreme devotion. So serious was this act of confinement in the Middle Ages that Julian had the last rites read for her before being ‘locked down’—she was literally dead to her old life. Like Anna her experience was not total self-isolation, for both Julian and Anna were judged prophets—they had a ministry to others.

After nine months of the Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey) of lockdowns—national and local—we probably don’t have the metal bandwidth to consider such confinement as a choice. But for Anna, and Julian, this was the exact point of their lockdown. It was not just a life choice but was the way they felt best able to honour the living God. We perhaps dismiss the likes of Anna, before giving serious thought to their singular commitment to recognise the worship of God in Christ as a priority that eclipses all others.

Many Christian confessions describe the purpose of humanity as the unceasing praise of the living God through Christ. For example, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with the assertion that:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This sits well with the singular abandoned praise of Psalm 148. It chimes with the choice of Anna to live in the Temple grounds. It fits with the brave decision of countless men and women who have renounced everything for Christ.

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This is certainly where things started in Eden and where they end in the Book of Revelation. In living in between, most of us don’t adopt the singlemindedness of Anna. She gave up distractions, whereas we have more than ever. And clearly this cannot be the normal call for all of us who know Jesus as saviour and lord. We would, however, do well to be inspired by Anna’s commitment and we should head the remarkable insight she is given about Jesus as the basis for the redemption of Jerusalem. Her insight might at first sound parochial—the redemption of the city, the place of her lockdown—but she perceived the bigger picture. For this child opens the way to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth. This will be a place for day and night worship for all. Where there will be no more distraction from our primary calling.

Anna understood that the fullness of time had come. She understood that the child, Jesus, born of a woman and under the law was a gateway to redemption. Paul, writing from the other side of cross and resurrection explains this further: We are, in Christ, made children of God. Of course, we were originally made as God’s children, but we need to be adopted once again because of our waywardness and distraction. In the new relationship found through Jesus Christ we are restored to our original relationship with the Father. Our Father can once again look upon us with delight, as our opposition to him, that comes all too easily, is taken from us in Christ.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Abba is not Aramaic for Daddy. The word is far richer than this. It has all the intimacy of Daddy but at the same time the recognition of absolute Fatherly authority. This richer meaning of the word Abba is the heart of the gospel. It is the four-letter appellation for God that captures the mystery of the creator God in all his majesty and glory who has nevertheless adopted us in a father-child relationship.

We don’t tend to enjoy having authorities over us. We might well feel we are slaves to our government’s laws, restrictions, and guidance, to the point where for the first time we think consciously on a daily basis about such matters.

Such slavery, if that’s what it is, pales into insignificance before the slavery that is the human condition. Without Jesus Christ, and our newfound adoption, we would be slaves to sin and slaves to death. Whilst we still sin, and we will die, we are now slaves to neither. Neither sin nor death bars us from an eternity with Abba Father. We know Christ crucified, who put an end to the slavery of both sin and death. We have seen Christ resurrected as the promise of this reality.

As Galatians 4:7 says:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [NRSV]

What did Anna inherit? What did Julian of Norwich inherit? What have we inherited? The same things as one another! Namely the steadfast hope of an eternity with our Father. We should rejoice here and now. We should avoid being distracted from both worshipping him and acknowledging his lordship. And yet our present reality pales before that day of glory when the one born of a woman, and born under the law, returns in splendour. God’s firstborn enables us all to be children and heirs.